Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese. Photo by Peter Leese
Translanguaging: A conversation with Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese
This month I’m really excited to have the opportunity to talk to Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese, who is a multilingual poet, literary translator, editor, cognitive linguist, scholar, artist, and so much more! Elżbieta combines her experience of living and working with/in languages with a multitude of advice to writers, which will help us all to explore our one and only tool – language.
Elżbieta, how did you get into translating? Did you train as a translator or did it happen by default?
I’m 11, in Poland; my mum buys me Anne of Green Gables and I fall in love with the book. I know I’m reading a Polish translation; that’s why I decide to translate the book back into English, so that one day, when I can buy the original, I will be able to compare the two English versions. In case you wondered: I translated only a couple of pages, defeated by the plant names my dictionary didn’t list, but I did buy the original, many years later, in Prince Edward Island.
I’d say that my passion for reading (which I hope the opening anecdote illustrates) and my literature studies have prepared me for being a translator, though I didn’t attend a Translation Studies programme. There wasn’t such an option at the time when I went to the university in Kraków, Poland, but I chose to read English. I lived in the UK and USA; I taught literary translation at the Jagiellonian University; I cooperated with the British Council, Literature Across Frontiers, Scottish Poetry Library, European Literature Network, Modern Poetry in Translation and Poetry Wales; I organized poetry-in-translation readings and seminars, commissioned translations and reviewed translated poetry books. All these activities have supported me as a poetry translator – they’ve allowed me to engage with writers and readers to whom translation is equally important.
I often think that I had to become a translator in order to make sense of my own multiliterate biography. I was growing up in Poland, but English is my home language. In 2009 I moved to Denmark, which is practically bilingual. Here I can contemplate the global reach of not only English, but also Danish, the ‘dominant’ language of Scandinavia. Speaking of the presence of literary translation in my life: as a newcomer, I was learning Danish via English translations of, for instance, the poet Inger Christensen, to counteract the boredom of my Danish language classes that relied heavily on so-called grammar translation. Since I had four years of Latin in my secondary school, which I truly enjoyed, I could – rationally – appreciate the method, but I wasn’t persuaded by the grammar drills as the main form of engaging with the language I hoped to inhabit.
I love the fact that one of my favourite childhood books kickstarted you on this rich trajectory! What do you enjoy about the process of translation?
I could spend hours enumerating the joys, and frustrations, of translation. But let me limit my answer to three aspects that matter now: co-existence, in-between-ness and freedom to trespass. Translation allows cognitive simultaneity, a very comfortable mental positioning for a person like me who finds decision-making difficult. It’s so much more attractive to contemplate multiple options and to learn being comfortable with uncertainty.
This process can be compared to drafting, of course: entertaining alternatives, before we commit ourselves to one version. In translation, though, multiple versions of one original can co-exist in publication – I’m interested in such variants, published records of particular readings, which reveal the interpretative richness of the original text.
This wealth is amplified by the in-between-ness of the text and its translator: the privileged positioning between cultures, traditions, languages, registers, which sometimes may seem too unsettling, but this hybridity often proves tantalisingly fertile. It encourages us to cross borders: linguistic, cognitive, emotional, physical. As a translator, I hope that I myself contribute to this richness, which accrues not through fidelity, but through experimentation and trespassing.
I’ve always wondered how you choose texts to translate? Are you approached by publishers or poets themselves?
I choose to translate living poets, since I enjoy conversations about writing. To name a few of my interlocutors: Krystyna Miłobędzka, Wojciech Bonowicz, Małgorzata Lebda, Julia Szychowiak, Bronka Nowicka, Marcin Świetlicki. Usually it’s me approaching a poet whose work seems intriguing, moving, linguistically captivating. Importantly, such work must be not available in English widely.
I need to explain: I don’t earn my living as a translator and I’m not keen on breaking publication records. That’s why I can be choosey and spend as much time with a poet as I fancy. But I also get commissions: I’m asked to translate for festivals, websites, institutions that promote contemporary poetry. I’ve also been approached by poets – sometimes I say ‘no’, as I don’t feel I can do justice to the poetry or I’m simply not interested.
When I ‘find’ the poets I’m compelled to translate, I try first to understand how and why they use language in their particular manner. I read and re-read their poems; I read interviews with them. Then I experiment with ‘my’ English, hoping that it can learn from Polish as well. I believe that the Polish of the original and my own Polish ghost the new English text – they ghost-write it.
A fascinating answer: I love the idea of ghost-writing in this context! Your translation of Night truck driver by Marcin Świetlicki (Zephyr Press) has been longlisted for the 2021 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation, which is really exciting. Do you think the poetry world is becoming more interested in translated works?
Thank you for mentioning the longlist – I’m thrilled that this book has been noticed. I guess your question reflects how we as readers perceive publishing, reviewing and awarding ‘industries’. I’d say the visibility of translated poetry is much greater now than when I started publishing in the late 1990s (e.g. Night truck driver spans two decades of my translations), but I wish there were even more opportunities to share poetry translated into English. However, we shouldn’t forget that poets have always been interested in poetry written in other languages; they have always been translating, adapting, versioning the poems they admire. It’s enough to think of Roman poets learning from Greek poets, Renaissance poets borrowing from Roman, Greek or French traditions, and so on up to the present times. I’m using only European examples, but of course there’re so many more, across continents and languages! Another invigorating aspect of writing poetry is translanguaging – so many multiliterate poets, who shuttle between languages and registers, are publishing and reaching their readers.
You write poetry in English. Has this always been your poetic choice or have you written in other languages?
As I’ve mentioned, English is my home language, though I was born into Polish. I’ve written a few poems in Polish, but I haven’t submitted them for publication. (I think I’ve published only a couple as part of a multilingual poetry project, ‘Metropoetica: Women Writing Cities’, which presented 7 languages.) When I moved into Danish, I started playing verbal games: looking for homonyms across my three languages, searching for false friends – and writing poems that explored such a linguistic unhinging as a means of settling into a new language and self-translation. That’s when I started to investigate translanguaging as a cognitive process typical of multiliterate writers.
I know you are a very probing and curious linguist, weighing each word. This is so evident in your precise and polished poetry. Do you think that elements of the translator’s work inform your poetic processes?
In addition to my comments about the role of translation in my life as a multilingual person and poet, I would say that translation teaches us a very disciplined, acute reading – and of course good reading makes us better writers, also because of our closeness to others who write. We never write in isolation: we write in exchanges with authors whom we admire, who encourage us to demand more from our own texts. In translation, I may try on other voices, I may try out other formal solutions, and see whether my own texts could experiment with similar strategies.
For example, I was writing a lineated poem that didn’t seem to work. I decided to check if a prose poem would work better, but this block of text was also not convincing. At the time I was translating Małgorzata Lebda’s prose poems, which finished with sentence fragments separated from the rest of the text. This visual layout conveyed my own thought much more adequately.
I have read collections where the translator is not a poet, but an academic or linguist. I have also read collections where the translation is mediated by an English-speaking poet who works with the non-native speaker poet and the translator to create a new vision of the work. How do you see these different pathways to poetry in translation?
The more pathways taken, the wider territory traversed. I’m all for flexibility, experimentation, variety of approaches. I remember how, at the beginning of my career, I was being told that translation should be done only into one’s native tongue. Except, I kept asking, which tongue would it be for multilingual speakers? What counts is the poem composed: is it good? to whom does it seem good and why? What matters is the joy of ‘co-writing’ with the original author, alive or dead.
You are a poetry tutor and co-curator of the very popular Transreading courses at the Poetry School in the UK. Could you tell us how the idea of Transreading came about and how it has evolved?
When I moved to Denmark, I had to re-invent the ways to engage in poetry conversations. I took the only Poetry School online course that had no live chat, as I was in a different time zone. However, I was keen not only to exchange poems for feedback, but also to swap ideas and readings. I asked the Poetry School if they might be interested in a course on translated poetry, run with no live chats, addressed to international participants like me.
I borrowed the term ‘transreading’ from William H. Gass’s discussion of his own translations of Rilke and designed ‘Transreading Central Europe’. The concept proved so successful that the Poetry School asked me to co-curate the whole strand devoted to transreading, that is, responding in writing to our readings of ‘poems brought to English by translation, English-language poems inhabiting other cultures and multilingual poems whose English hosts other tongues’ (I quote from the early description).
Since then we have run courses that transread regions (e.g. the Baltics or Scandinavia), countries (e.g. China, Russia, France, Italy, Spain), epochs (antiquity), literary works (The Odyssey, Divine Comedy), authors (John Berger, Rebecca Solnit, Nan Shepherd, Shakespeare), anthologies (non-British poets in the UK, migrant women, queer writing, endangered languages) and genres (nonfiction, cinema, visual arts, archives). It’s a joy to see how the original idea of transreading has been transforming, versioning itself, creating generic, linguistic and cultural hybrids, which insist on multiliteracies, so essential to our being in the world.
You are an artist as well as a poet and your artwork seems to have the same deep interest in process that your poetry and translation involve. What are you working on at the moment (poetically/artistically)?
As a multilingual craftsperson, I’m interested in words as signs and objects, the semantic and typographic meaning/image making, hence my forays into book art and expressive calligraphy as practised, for example, by Monica Dengo or Denise Lach. In my writing, which is often research-based, I’ve been exploring coastlines of Denmark and Greenland for quite some time now. Last year, inspired by Meghann Rippenhoff and Susan Derges, I started experimenting with cyanotypes to document the liminal work of (sea) water and (sun)light in the North I inhabit. I overexpose the prints and don’t rinse them to fix their colour, so the elements that have brought them to life keep transforming such pieces of paper or fabric. This cameraless photographic process assists my investigations of the Neolithic stone structures on Møn, a small island in southern Denmark. I’ve been writing texts I hope to combine with the art pieces in a conceptual project which could converse with such artists I admire as Susan Hiller, Tacita Dean and Sophie Callé.
This has been a wonderful conversation, Elżbieta, and very thought-provoking. Speaking from this experience, what would be your three main writing tips for poets?
First, perhaps not surprisingly, I would invite us to read more poetry in translation to contemplate ways of text-making that can be radically different from the type of writing that comes to us (perhaps too comfortably at times?). Even if we don’t know the language of the original poet, let’s find bilingual editions and see what happens on the corresponding pages. I’m sure that, sooner or later, we’ll think that we can read some of the foreign signs. It doesn’t really matter if we get their meaning right – what matters is that we are in the company of words that can also seed our own writing.
And here comes my second invitation: let’s work with dictionaries more frequently than we think we need to. I remember one letter I read in the Elizabeth Bishop archives: she exclaimed at the joy of finally having all the volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary on her shelf. I share this elation every time I open my digital version of the OED (or any other voluminous dictionary) to look up the etymology or the quotes illustrating some word use. Invariably, these searches find their way into my texts. The important qualification, which I’ve learnt as a translator: we tend to check words we don’t know that well, but we should be also looking up words we think we know well enough. The surprises that wait for us!
Finally, let’s collect multiple variants of the poems we enjoy: say, two or three translations of the same original; a published poem and its drafts, which are sometimes reproduced in scholarly editions or Norton anthologies; variants of a poem in its re-editions. Such texts can teach us a lot about writing as re-writing – we all accept this understanding of writing, but often it’s hidden from us in the publication that features only the ‘final’, ‘polished’, variant. It’s instructive and reassuring, especially when we’re struggling towards greater clarity in our own drafts, to see the re-writing recorded in someone else’s texts.
To end our conversation: I think you have news of a forthcoming publication! Could you tell us more?
I’m happy to say that Alec Newman at The Knives Forks and Spoons Press, the UK independent publisher of experimental writing, has accepted my collection provisionally entitled Thirst in Three Directions. My book consists of three sequences, a coda and notes. Part 1, ‘thirst in three directions’, examines cultural transreadings and (self-)translation as vital to our migrations and home-making. Here the poems play with linguistic false friends, etymologies, multilingualism. Part 2, ‘distorted projections’, engages in factual and fictive cartographing, which resorts not only to marine charts or lighthouse blueprints but also to scientific research on, for example, Greenland’s river deltas or ice sheet. Part 3, ‘triple exposure’, investigates belonging and our relationship to the land we choose to inhabit as settlers, colonizers, migrants or researchers. Importantly, it also evokes Scoresbysund (Ittoqqortoormiit in East Greenlandic), the Danish colonial settlement in Northeast Greenland, as it’s recorded by Pia Arke, the Greenlandic-Danish visual artist, who built a camera obscura the size of her body to become one with the places she chose to photograph. The book is scheduled for 2022 and I look forward to working on it so that my poems can reach interested readers.
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Elżbieta Wójcik-Leese writes with/in English, Polish and Danish. Thirst in Three Directions is forthcoming from The Knives Forks and Spoons Press in 2022. Her multilingual texts have appeared in Wretched Strangers: Borders, Movement, Homes (2018), Other Countries: Contemporary Poets Rewiring History (2014), Metropoetica. Poetry and Urban Space: Women Writing Cities (2013) and such journals as Cordite Poetry Review, Long Poem Magazine, Modern Poetry in Translation, Poetry Salzburg Review, Shearsman and Tears in the Fence. Nothing More (Arc, 2013), which samples Krystyna Miłobędzka, was shortlisted for the 2015 Popescu European Poetry Translation Prize. Night Truck Driver (Zephyr Press, 2020), her selection from Marcin Świetlicki, was longlisted for the 2021 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation. Cognitive Poetic Readings in Elizabeth Bishop: Portrait of a Mind Thinking (2010) is based on her research as a Fulbright scholar at the Elizabeth Bishop archives. She co-curates ‘Transreading’ courses on transnational and hybrid poetries for the Poetry School in London. She lives in Copenhagen.