February 5, 2017

A translation experiment

I’m participating in an ambitious project right now that has mobilized me to translate samples of text from my books into English. It didn’t take me long to decide that ultimately, I want to translate my standalone novel Olga i osty in entirety – all 73,131 words of it. The market appeal of this book to a Western audience would probably be low: literary-ish magic realism set in Poland, the characters have Polish names... but hell, why not? 

Translating literature from Polish to English is a laborious task, as these two languages differ significantly. I’m not a linguist, so I can’t get into details here, but basically, Polish grammar is way more complicated (the declension of our nouns and adjectives, in particular, is a nightmare for non-Slavic foreigners). Polish is also more concise than English (you need fewer words in Polish to say the same thing... but you still need the right ones), uses pronouns much less frequently, doesn't rely as heavily on word order in sentence construction, and has a less extensive vocabulary.

Importantly (more than one amateur translator has been brought to grief by this!), many sentence structures cannot be translated readily from Polish to English. It’s easy to end up with text that is grammatically more or less correct, but has "awkward newbie translation by someone who thinks in Polish" written all over it. The translator has to utilize lots of creative thinking and rephrasing to make the sentences flow smoothly. Worse still, subtle nuances of meaning are often difficult or impossible to convey well (I'm undoubtedly less flexible in my command of English because it’s not the language I use in speech on a daily basis, but I think even the best translator in the world would still have problems). When translating my own prose, I have the option to omit certain troublesome phrases and maybe write something else in their place. There’s a price to pay, though: the translation reads more smoothly, but a little bit of the “feel” of the original text gets lost.

Bear in mind that over the past seven years, I’ve translated dozens of scientific articles into English, as well as stuff such as webpages and advertising material. Literature is different, and definitely less forgiving!

Anyway, if anyone is curious, below is a sample of the rough translation of the first pages of Olga i osty (the working title of the translation is The Thistle Queen).

Comments and suggestions are always welcome!

* * *

A dream within a dream

The old house stands on the outskirts of the city. It’s empty, abandoned long ago. Boarded-up windows, a dilapidated mesh fence, a yard overgrown with weeds. It’s supposed to be torn down sometime in the future, but for now, no one shows any interest in the place. The local homeless prefer to camp out elsewhere. Nobody comes here; even the kids stay away. Which is just as well, since I don’t want company.
I’ve been living here alone ever since the witch died. I manage somehow, though it’s not easy, and won’t get any easier when winter comes. But there’s no sense in worrying about the winter. I don’t think I’ll live that long. More and more greys are showing up in the city. Sooner or later they’ll realize I’m their enemy.
For now, though, nobody comes here to disturb me.
Who knows, maybe the witch’s spells are keeping intruders away. She used to whisper them in seven languages every night, barely audible words trickling like sand from a broken hourglass. Or maybe it’s the January talisman I wear around my neck.
I remember what it is, even though I can’t recall who I am. I could swear, however, that my name isn’t really Piotr. In the Otherworld I knew someone with a similar name, someone to whom my January talisman once used to belong. It seems that in the Otherworld I had a different identity and so did the witch, but we were banished here, and after passing the border we both lost our memories. I remember nothing else.
It was the witch’s idea to call me ‘Piotr’. I suppose she chose this name for a reason, though she never explained why. I don’t mind. ‘Piotr’ sounds as good as any other name.
The witch also gave me the January talisman.
Now I live here like a castaway on an island, all alone, not counting the rats, which don’t bother me much. They have no trouble finding food in the vicinity. There are litter bins along the nearby bike path, and the anglers who spend their afternoons by the river always leave behind bits of bait, half-empty beer cans and sandwich wrappers with crumbs inside.
I try to enter and exit the house only under cover of darkness. I don’t want anyone to notice that I live here. You can never be too careful.
I get water from the river. The kitchen has been stripped of all appliances except an old four-legged iron stove. During the day, I gather anything that can be used as fuel: dry branches, pieces of old furniture, even wastepaper. The days are getting shorter, the weeds already turning brown, withering stalks of goldenrod shedding the last of their fluffy seeds. At night, the cold creeps into the old house, slipping weasel-like through every chink and crevice.
The witch didn’t leave many possessions behind. Some shabby clothes, a chipped mug and an old blanket sewn together from knitted woollen squares: pink, green, blue and violet. One of its corners is badly scorched, charred in places. When I asked her how this happened, the old woman was unable to answer. She just stammered and shook her thin hands helplessly, the words sticking in her throat.
Now every evening I light the candle and unravel another bit of her blanket. Afterwards, I use the yarn to make four-coloured bracelets. Amulets.
I spend my days on the streets of the city. I approach people and try to sell my little works. An amulet cannot be given away for free; it must be bought, otherwise it won’t do its job. When I say this, people usually react with a forced smile of embarrassment or pity. Some of them dig around in their pockets for loose change, and when I give them an amulet, they say ‘thank you’ with a slightly pained expression, trying to be nice. Others just avert their eyes, clench their lips and walk away hastily.
Now and then someone will offer to buy me something. A sandwich, perhaps? Or hot coffee? It doesn’t happen often, though.
Of course, I don’t even try to approach the people who have become hosts for greys. Luckily, they’re fairly easy to recognize. Their faces are pale, devoid of expression, their eyes colourless and dull. Their backs are always hunched; they wear wrinkled clothes, and hiss hatefully whenever they catch a glimpse of my bracelets. They don’t dare to attack me, though. For now, they’re afraid. Afraid of the January talisman. It won’t last long, though, because more and more greys are appearing in the city, while I’m getting weaker every day. Whenever I walk through the streets, I can feel the greys’ icy thoughts circling around me and biting, biting, biting like mosquitoes; and my life slowly, slowly, slowly trickles out through all those tiny holes. My warmth, my colours, my sadness and laughter, everything that makes Piotr the person he is. Everything is seeping out.
When a grey becomes rooted in its human host, it starts feeding, sucking like a parasite, like a dodder or mistletoe. It sucks out feelings, thoughts, wishes, and it grows, until there’s nothing left for it to feed on, only a walking shell full of grey smoke. The body still breathes, eats and excretes, the eyes see, the mouth talks, but the whole thing isn’t human anymore.
Whenever I wander through the streets and see pale, motionless faces with dull eyes, whenever I feel the cold emanating from these animated puppets, I find myself thinking that nothing will stop the epidemic, that I’m as pathetic with my colourful yarn bracelets as the people who sold posies during plague epidemics, claiming that the scent of these small bouquets wards away disease. But the witch insisted that I have to keep making my amulets and selling them as long as I can find the strength. So I make them and I sell them every day, always taking the trouble to explain what they’re for, even though people never really listen. They nod and slip the bracelets into their pockets, and for all I know, most of my amulets land in the nearest litter bin as soon as the buyer is out of sight. I often see people do the same with the advertisement flyers that get handed out on street corners, the ones that invite you to register for a language course or visit a new sushi bar.
All the money I earn gets spent on food. Bread, instant noodles, margarine, onions, kefir, the cheapest cheese. I only worry about my own meals now, but until recently I had to buy provisions for the witch as well. In return, she spun yarn for my bracelets. Her shaky, arthritic fingers somehow still managed to deftly use a spindle. In the evenings, right after sundown, she’d briefly go outside and then return with an apron full of iridescent fibers, finer and silkier than the fluff of dandelions and goldenrod. I could never twist the stuff into thread, but the witch managed it somehow. At night, she’d spin by the light of a single candle, singing softly about warm summer days and woodland paths, about raspberries and thistles. The yarn she made was smooth and not too thick, in four colours.  Blue, violet, green and pink.
And now I can only unravel her blanket, bit by bit.
Every day resembles the previous ones. Each morning I wake up a little weaker. My eyes are suppurating; I always keep a bottle of clean water and a packet of tissues next to my bed, because my eyelids are usually gummed shut when I wake up.
River water retains its unpleasant smell even after boiling, but I’ve been drinking it for months and I’m still alive. I don’t want to waste money on bottled water.
I have no lice and I try not to stink, even though this means I have to bathe in the river at night and wash my clothes there. I’ve been selling more amulets ever since I started wearing better clothes, the ones Father Daniel gave me. That’s how he introduced himself: ‘I’m Father Daniel.’ I met him a while ago; in June, I think. It was a hot, sunny day. I sat down to rest in the shade by the door of the Dominican church and after a minute or so, a white-haired monk emerged, dressed in a habit. He asked if I’m all right, and offered me water. Then he asked whether I’m hungry, and whether I have a place to stay. Finally, he told me to wait a minute, went inside and soon came back with a triumphant smile, carrying a shopping bag full of used clothes. I took the stuff because I figured it would be impolite to refuse.
When I came back home and told the witch what had happened, she grimaced, but allowed me to take a look at the bag’s contents. It contained oversized jeans, two sweatshirts, two T-shirts, some socks and underwear. There was also a towel, a bottle of cheap shampoo and a Bible, wrapped carefully in a plastic bag.
The witch allowed me to keep the clothes, but told me to get rid of the Bible, so that evening I went out and buried it under a tree. After several days, out of curiosity, I came back and tried to dig the Bible up, but couldn’t find it anymore. It was gone. I only found fat, wriggling white grubs, like the ones used by anglers as bait.
All summer long my companion stayed in good health. I stole fruit for her from people’s gardens; cherries, plums, sour apples and the hard little pears nobody picks nowadays, because you can get sweet, juicy ones in every supermarket. The witch always bit into them eagerly (her teeth were yellowed but strong, like a mouse’s) and smiled at me.
‘Good boy,’ she’d say with a glint in her dark eyes, and then wink at me as if those words contained a joke. If they did, though, it was a joke only she understood.
Then she became ill. I think the greys must have caused it, though I never spotted them in the vicinity of our home. One morning I woke up and saw that, instead of bustling around the stove as usual (every morning she used to drink a mug of cheap coffee with two teaspoons of sugar: a small indulgence we could afford), the witch lay curled up under the covers, shivering.
‘I’m cold,’ she complained through chattering teeth.
I laid a hand on her forehead. She had a burning fever.
‘Who are you?’ she asked, squinting, obviously disoriented. ‘Where’s Aroldo?’
I had no idea who she was talking about. Luckily, a second later the witch seemed to have forgotten her question. I lit a fire in the stove and brewed some tea, but the old woman refused to drink it.
Soon afterwards she became delirious. She started muttering about the greys, about thistles and swamplands, and about two sisters, one of whom lives above the ground while the other one dwells below. Listening to her gave me the shivers. I knew this was no ordinary delirium; the fever was making her remember fragments of the past, shreds of the memories she’d lost when we were banished from the Otherworld. But I had forgotten more than she had, I had forgotten almost everything. I could see nothing extraordinary or unusual in the thistles that grew all around our new home.
Finally the witch fell silent. She lay motionless, silently moving her lips and watching the raindrops that trickled down the dirty windowpane. Hours passed.
Suddenly I flinched when a cat jumped up on the windowsill on the other side and pressed its face up to the glass, looking at us. I could’ve sworn the creature had an ear missing. For some reason, the sight of it terrified me. But it frightened the witch even more.
She sprang up from her bed. I tried to stop her, but she pushed me aside and ran outdoors, barefoot, in her shabby nightgown, with only a blanket around her shoulders.
‘Felicity! Olga!’ she screamed. ‘Olga! Felicity!’
I ran after her, trying in vain to calm her down, telling her I had never heard either of those names. She kept shouting until she ran out of breath and grew hoarse. Finally she collapsed onto the wet grass and began to cry. I stood there helplessly, holding a broken umbrella over her, while the rain beat down all around us. Finally the witch calmed down and let me lead her back into the house. Once inside, I grimly helped her dry off and change. Pneumonia seemed more than likely at this point.
The cat had long since disappeared. I wasn’t even sure anymore if we had really seen it.
That evening, time seemed to pass slowly, like the rainwater seeping from tiny holes in the rusty old barrel in the yard. The witch lay on her makeshift bed, wrapped in a grubby old comforter and the blanket sewn from coloured squares. She kept mumbling incoherently, repeating names which meant nothing to me, while I heated kettle after kettle of water and brewed tea for her, because I had no idea what else to do. I had some coins in my pocket; I could have gone out to buy some aspirin, but I was afraid to leave the ailing witch alone. I hung the January talisman around her neck, but it didn’t help. Meanwhile, the rain continued to fall, trickling down from broken gutters and dripping through the leaky roof.
In the early morning hours the witch finally fell asleep. Her breath sounded raspy, rattling in her lungs. I sat by her side, my eyelids growing heavier and heavier, the rain beating on the roof, until suddenly I realized I was walking down a path through a dark forest. Water dripped from branches overhead, and bushes snagged at my clothing. I heard an owl hoot, so I raised my eyes, and then I saw her.
The witch was sitting on the bough of an old tree. Her flesh and unkempt hair were now as white as snow, and her eyes had turned to milky orbs. She was clutching a handful of my yarn bracelets.
‘Keep making amulets,’ she whispered hoarsely. ‘Protect the city against the greys. And bury my bones under the threshold...’
I screamed and began to run, but I tripped over a root and fell into the swamp. Cold water closed over my head.
And when I woke up, the old woman was gone. Several dry sticks lay on her bed, along with a handful of dark powder and a couple of bones, old and decayed, covered with greenish mould.
I buried the witch’s remains under the threshold, just as she wanted. Obeying her last wish, I persevere in making amulets and selling them, even though I know my efforts are fruitless, because the number of greys in the city increases every day. At night, when silence reigns around the old house, I can hear the faraway echoes of their cold, cold thoughts.

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