Translators Reflections – Barbara Bogoczek
Mother Departs is an extremely personal autobiographical work by one of the greatest writers of our time, set against the epic conflicts of the 20th century. It combines many genres – poetry, jokes, intimate diaries written through tears, ethnographic snapshots of peasant life, and a dreamlike stream of consciousness – and it speaks in several different voices. I mean that literally: Tadeusz Różewicz brought together writings from close members of his family, including his mother and brothers. It flashes between the 1900s and the 1990s, back and forth, with one tragic moment in the Second World War at its heart.
To say that it was a challenge to translate it would be an understatement.
But when Stork Press suggested Mother Departs as a project I immediately said yes, because having the privilege of a close friendship with the author, I knew he really cared about publishing this book in English. Besides I’d had twenty years experience of translating his work (poetry, drama and prose), and I knew I could count on the help of Tony Howard, with whom I’d go through an intense editing process (endless rows and illuminations!) at the end of which, yes, we would come up with something.
In the course of the work we took a break and went to the mountains, where we stayed for a while cut off from the internet. Looking back on it, we cleared our minds by immersing ourselves in the rarefied atmosphere of the place and worked on the sections of the book that required most creativity (Różewicz’s poems).
It was crucial for me to convey those different family voices, and – odd as it sounds – to do this I had to suspend my own thoughts and voice. This is what actually happens to me when I translate. Apart from the intellectual transfer of the discourse, there’s a powerful emotional involvement, an identification with the original characters there in the text, who ask – need – to be transported into another reality – a new language.
Perhaps this is why I couldn’t work on the chapters in the order they appear in the book. Tadeusz’s poems beckoned me with their familiarity. Very different indeed was a long piece by Stefania Różewicz about the village she grew up in fifty years earlier. I had to research the locale and its idioms – medical practices, superstitions, customs, food – until I began to find a vocabulary that might bring alive a world that history crushed and left behind. At first sight Stefania’s piece isn’t personal – it’s a description of the world she observed – but she makes herself very real through what she recounts, and how she does it.
Oh, and which bit almost translated itself? – a piece by her youngest son, the film director Stanisław, which is a wonderfully cinematic and uplifting rounding-up of the family’s story.
Translating this book made me feel like a member of the Różewicz family – I hope that reading it may give the English audience a similar sensation.