Translators Reflections – Anna Hyde
Who doesn’t like a good crime novel? I, for one, spent many a sleepless night absorbed in a captivating whodunit. And Mariusz Czubaj’s 21:37 is definitely a good piece of crime fiction, with all its expected unexpectedness, a good sprinkle of suspense, many misleading tracks, swift language, colourful characters etc. etc. What makes it stand out from the crowd is its ‘Polishness’ and the way the author plays with it. The story is a potentially explosive mix of typically Polish stereotypes, with the biggest one of them at the fore: the proverbial Polish Catholicism.
The book starts with the dead bodies of two young students of a religious seminary in Warsaw. The eponymous numbers ‘21’ and ‘37’ written on the plastic bags they were asphyxiated with refer (supposedly) to the time of death of John Paul II, the Polish Pope. We also get some militant (both literally and metaphorically speaking) Christians (ah, the right wing politics of the recent years), as well as a new take on the church embodied by career-oriented or even show-business oriented men of the cloth. Yes, Czubaj uses those stereotypes, points at them, often turns them inside out, but at the same time provides us with a rare chance to have a glimpse into the side of the Catholic church in Poland that is not so well known, for example the life and rules of a religious seminary. And other stereotypes that Czubaj plays with? Ever present on the pages of the book is Poland’s communist past. As is Polish nationalism and recently fervently discussed attitude to gay people in this very conservative, traditional and religious society.
All that Polishness presented me with quite a challenge. How do you translate certain cultural, political or historical references into another language? For a Pole of a certain age (let’s just say – one born before 1990) the term popiełuszka will not require any explanation. It means a car trunk. As shocking as it may sound, it refers to Father Jerzy Popiełuszko, murdered by three agents of the Polish internal intelligence agency for his political activity, his links with Solidarity and Radio Free Europe. First the agents have tried setting up a car accident to kill Father Popiełuszko, but he managed to escape unscathed. Then they have kidnapped him, put him in a car trunk, beaten him to death and thrown in the river. Since then a car trunk is called popiełuszka in police jargon. But how to explain all those reference to an English reader? And how to do it in a concise way, avoiding a boring history lesson, but also without disturbing the rhythm of the story itself? Add footnotes? Explain the reference within the main text? Get rid of it altogether? The last seems to be the easiest option, also the least demanding to the reader. But that would be obviously and glaringly unfair, both to the author and to the reader who would be served a completely transparent story, which could take place absolutely anywhere in the world. That would mean losing all of those little special quirks, all local tinge. In one word – the book would be butchered, washed out of any flavour, texture and colour.
Well, let’s just say that it wasn’t an easy job for me. I had to use various techniques to stay as faithful as possible to the nature and flow of the story with all of its ‘untranslatable’ elements. What techniques? It is all in the book…