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This item is taken from PN Review 133, Volume 26 Number 5, May - June 2000.

Letter from David Rodway
Poles Further Apart


Ian Firla's review of translations from the Polish (PNR 132) is likely to provoke many more 'cringes and tut-tuts' on its own account than the books it claims to be reviewing. Its somewhat superior tone might lead one to expect that Firla will provide us with a set of insights into the processes of translation, and give us some grounds for trusting his judgement rather than, say, that of the established and recognised translators he patronises ('Heaney was perhaps unaware that this is a rhetorical technique' is very fine in this respect). However, Firla does neither. For one thing his own versions are unconvincing and perhaps misconceived, and in one respect frankly erroneous: he takes Heaney and Baranczak to task for mistranslating the first stanza of Kochanowski 'Lament 18' but he himself completely misunderstands the translations he quotes. In the line 'He soon forgets you and heeds not your voice' the he refers to the 'wilful child' of the first line, and not to God as Firla believes. This renders his own translation a simple misreading, and suggests that instead of criticising Baranczak for not knowing his native language, Firla might want to consider his own command of English grammar, and follow syntax over line ends.

This makes Firla's unearned pedantry grating, and as for the bizarre allusions to theological correctness, and the suggestive comparison of Szymborska and C.H. Sisson, perhaps one of PNR's exegetes could explain the frame of reference in which he is working. Firla's decision to quote one of his friends' off the cuff comments in a book review is both pompous and out of place, and I cannot imagine that Patrick McGuinness will appreciate his newfound fame as theologian. One could go on.

These are important points, and I hope that PNR bears them in mind. Frequent complaints surface in PNR editorials about the poverty of the contemporary reviewing culture, and yet the magazine's back pages persist in producing reviews written by people who manifestly do not know what they are talking about. Carcanet and PNR are the best of their kind, and one of their major contributions has been to disseminate creative translations. PNR and Carcanet more than any other publishers and journals of their kind know that translation is an art, a discipline and an invigorating cultural force. There is no evidence that Firla is aware of the complexity of translation, of its fascinating history, or even of its cultural necessity. Let us be clear that PNR and Carcanet are.

Do we really want to return to the culture that damned Pound's Cathay and Homage to Sextus Propertius? As the blurb to Fenollosa's Chinese Written Character exhorts: 'Let the pedants rave'. But not in PNR; or if they must, then let them rave accurately.


This item is taken from PN Review 133, Volume 26 Number 5, May - June 2000.

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