Read The World 2024: Talking Translation with Christopher Adam Zakrzewski

ASP is pleased to present the below interview with Christopher Adam Zakrzewski, translator of Adam Mickiewicz’s Pan Tadeusz, or the Last Foray in Lithuania: A Tale of the Polish Nobility in the Years 1811 and 1812 in Twelve Books—forthcoming Fall 2024—for #ReadTheWorld, an online bookfair celebrating translation organized by the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA). In honor of Read The World, use the code READTHEWORLD at checkout until 11:59 pm EDT on May 31, 2024 for 30% off our entire catalog.

Talking Translation with Christopher Adam Zakrzewski

Q: How do you stay updated on linguistic and literary trends in both your source and target languages?

A: Here I must use the past tense, since I retired from formal academic involvement several years ago. Beginning my scholarly career as I did, in a pre-digital age, I kept abreast of the trends in my domain by the only means then available to me: close interaction with academic colleagues, university libraries, the inter-library loan system, hard-copy scholarly journals, conferences, colloquiums, and a good bit of academic travel. All this, of course, became much easier with the advent of computers and the Internet. Now I can do most of these things from my place of splendid isolation in Ontario’s backwoods, far from urban centers, which is where I like to be.

Q: Are there any cultural nuances or references that are difficult to translate into another language? How do you handle these situations?

A: The English translator of Polish literature is faced with more than his fair share of such difficulties. In the case of Pan Tadeusz,these difficulties begin with the very title of the work. Tadeusz is a very common Christian name in Poland even today. Apart from the eponymous hero, four “Thaddeuses” are introduced in the very first pages of the poem! How is the translator to deal with this cultural peculiarity? Englishing the name would introduce an element of strangeness that does not exist in Polish. Preserve the original name despite its apparently awkward spelling and pronunciation? I decided that little was to be gained and more lost by englishing the poem’s title, this in the hope—vain hope perhaps!—that when the Polish classic becomes better known, the Anglosphere will find a way of absorbing the original title into common parlance, much as it has done with Cervantes’ Don Quixote.

The perennial “irritant” of Polish personal and place names is all the more to be reckoned with given the fact that Pan Tadeusz is fundamentally an epic poem. It shares epic poetry’s fondness for genealogies and catalogues of personal and place names. Pan Tadeusz is rife with passages that converted into English metrical form cannot avoid stirring a veritable hornet’s nest of dissonances. Metric verse, be it rhymed, near-rhymed or blank, criesqua poetry—to be read aloud, and can only draw further untoward attention to the aural-visual dissonance of the myriad foreign names that obtrude themselves upon any translation of the Polish masterpiece. The fact of the poem’s being written in a language with a phonology so foreign to that of English was a significant factor in my decision to translate the work into prose rather than verse. The medium of prose, which is not normally read aloud, is better able to absorb passages loaded with polysyllabic names following strange orthographic rules, with less distraction afforded to the non-native reader.

Clearly, the sheer number of historical and cultural references contained in an epic poem running to some ten-thousand lines requires a robust editorial apparatus. In this, reading Pan Tadeusz in translationis no more daunting than reading renderings of The Iliad, The Aeneid, or The Divine Comedy. All such works require and are regularly supplied with batteries of endnotes, explications and glossaries. But then the reader who perseveres with Pan Tadeusz will discover that the Polish world portrayed in it is not as foreign as might appear at first blush. Despite its unique and poorly known history and culture, despite its traditional dress which the Germans, the French, and the English did not wear, despite the traditional Polish dishes whose taste and very names remain untranslatable, it is essentially the same world in which everyone in the West has always lived.

Q: How do you maintain the author’s voice and style while translating their work into a different language? 

A: Maintaining the author’s voice and style is a delicate balancing act, requiring two seemingly distinct compartments of the brain and a lot of intuition mediating between the two. Certainly, it requires a native, or near-native, familiarity with both source and target languages, a profound understanding of the concepts of style and the poetic utterance, and an infinite amount of patience coupled with a nagging sense of “divine discontent” with the results. Ultimately, the translator of a great work of literature never finishes his “meta-poem”; he abandons it. Spanning over half a lifetime, my involvement with Pan Tadeusz has been such that the very timbre of the author’s “voice” fairly rings in my ears. This voice has been the gold standard which I endeavored, mutatis mutandis, to render into English. Mickiewicz’s genius consists in his bringing to perfection a sublime Classical poetic style of utter simplicity. With his Russian contemporary and friend Alexander Pushkin he shared that unique ability of packing powerful sentiment into the smallest compass. We immediately recognize the same austere habit of mind, the same economy of expression and unerring sense of the native strength of the word. And yet here we have two distinct species of simplicity. If Pushkin’s art achieves an effect of Mozartian ‘lightness’ and centrifugal ‘amplitude’ (Nikolai Gogol referred to the effect as an “abyss of space”), Mickiewicz’s achieves the very opposite effect: a taut vigor and centripetal gravitas of the kind we find not in Mozart but in Beethoven and Tolstoy.

About Pan Tadeusz, or the Last Foray in Lithuania

Arguably the most authoritative English translation of Poland’s great national poem.  

Sometimes called the “last epos in world literature,” Pan Tadeusz (first published in Paris in 1834) is a classic tale of romance, mystery, war, and patriotism set in the turbulent Napoleonic era. The old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth lies dismembered and erased from the political map of Europe by the great powers of Russia, Prussia, and Austria. A brief ray of hope rekindles national aspirations when Napoleon Bonaparte establishes the Grand Duchy of Warsaw by the terms of the Treaty of Tilsit (1807) and sets the stage for his invasion of Russia.

Advance Praise

“Truly a masterpiece! Christopher Zakrzewski has accomplished the impossible: he has rendered in prose what seemed conveyable only in poetry. Poland’s great epic poem can now be read as a delightful historical tale replete with Romantic irony. Zakrzewski’s mastery of the English language is remarkable.”

— Ewa Thompson, Rice University

“In this extraordinarily fine prose rendering, Christopher Zakrzewski brings his own prodigious gifts as a poet and translator to one of the great classics of world literature. The fruit of Zakrzewski’s decades-long labors, this book is a treasure of immeasurable value.

— Michael D. O’Brien, novelist, painter

“Perfectly smooth, highly expressive, subtly nuanced, Christopher Zakrzewski’s translation does full justice to this brightest jewel in the crown of Polish literature.”

— Kazimierz Braun, Polish author, scholar, theater artist

“Christopher Zakrzewski’s English prose is marvelously, not to say magically consonant with the poetical richness of Mickiewicz’s great Polish national saga.”

— Dr. Olga Glagoleva, Senior Associate, Centre for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies, Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy at the University of Toronto

Pan Tadeusz is a masterpiece of Romantic literature and a key to the heart, mind, and soul of the Polish people and nation. This new edition will, I hope, make a challenging text far more accessible to the broad audience that Adam Mickiewicz deserves.”

— Professor George Weigel, Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies, Ethics and Public Policy Center

Christopher Adam Zakrzewski is a literary translator, teacher, and scholar. Born in 1948 and raised in the UK and Ontario, Canada, he pursued his doctorate in Russian and Polish literature at the University of British Columbia. Zakrzewski served as a professor of languages and literature at Our Lady Seat of Wisdom College in Barry’s Bay, Ontario. Now retired, he resides with his wife Wendy in the village of Wilno, Ontario. They have five children and nine grandchildren.

His translation of Pan Tadeusz, or the Last Foray in Lithuania, coming Fall 2024, is available for preorder from Academic Studies Press or wherever books are sold.