Kordian is a Polish classic written in 1833 by Juliusz Słowacki and features an amalgam of revolutionary spirit, tradition, modernist bravado and suffering–topics navigated by a young Romantic protagonist after whom the play is named. Within the canon of Polish literature Kordian offers pivotal insight into the development of Poland’s Romantic movement (her literary golden age), and Polish literature as a whole. The Green Lantern Press is pleased to publish the play’s first English translation by Gerard T. Kapolka. Illustrations by Lilli Carré and silk screen covers by Aay Preston-Myint. This book was published in an edition of 500.
Cover art by: Aay Preston-Myint
Aay Preston-Myint is a printmaker, sculptor, spacemaker, DJ, teacher: more at dirtrainbow.net
Design by: Dakota Brown
I recently had the opportunity to ask Kordian translator, Gerry Kapolka, about some of the choices he made with Juliusz Słowacki’s work. As someone who has only ever translated for school assignments, (and really, never very well), I think it’s interesting to talk about how the mechanics of a text work. When you’re entrenched in someone else’s voice, thinking through their intentions eclipses your own — which is nevertheless impossible.
CP:What made you inclined to translate everything into iambic pentameter? Was that a rhythm that became natural for you as you made your way through the project? What do you feel is inherent to Polish that cannot be translated into English? How do you compensate for that?
GK: As far as translations go, your questions are exactly the right ones to ask, and I think I will take them in reverse order to get the easy ones out of the way first. The entire play is written in rhyme. But Polish is easier to rhyme than English, so I have found that rhyming translations can get very sing-song if you are not careful. On the other hand, Polish tends not to be syllabatonic in its meter, but rather syllabic, like French. The fixed accent of Polish limits you too much if you use an iambic line, for example. I chose blank verse for most of the translation because Slowacki was a great fan of Shakespeare. It seemed to give the appropriate stature to the verse without sounding sing-song. I rhymed the Preparations section because I wanted it to stand out more; I wanted it to emphasize the supernatural quality. Once again, I took inspiration from Shakespeare, who rhymed the witches scenes in Macbeth. I rhymed the Insane Asylum section as well because of the devil’s presence. Likewise the Imagination and Terror section. I rhymed the Fable about the guy who sews boots for dogs for a different reason. The sing song aspect of that, I think, is a good thing, like Mother Goose.
CP: For some reason I feel like I’ve encountered a number of translators lately, and it seems like everyone has their own philosophy about what the translator’s role should be. Some people feel the translator ought to be invisible, others seem to feel such invisibility is impossible and therefore take huge creative license, embracing the result as a second, auxiliary work. Those are two extremes, of course, but I was wondering if you had your own philosophy and whether it was specific to a project or more general?
GK: As far as my philosophy of translation, I could spend hours, but I will try to encapsulate it: there will always be something “lost in translation,” but I try, as a translator, to keep as much as possible of the original while still making sure that the translation reads like a good work of literature in English. Overly literal translations can lose the grace of the original totally. Frost said that poetry is what is lost in translation, and he may be right, but it is the job of the translator to try to put it back in. It is always a delicate balance. I don’t believe in totally changing the original, but there are times when certain substitutions need to be made. I try to stay on the conservative side. Translating is a bit like puzzle solving: trying to find the best solution to how to express the original in English, thinking about style as well as meaning.
CP: Lastly, when Basia staged a reading of the play, I found myself regularly laughing at Kordian’s maudlin air. It sort of felt like he was poking fun at Hamlet. We actually had a discussion afterwards about whether or not that was a dramatic interpretation or if JS was not only critiquing the Polish martyr-hero-archetype, but also the suffering-angsty-youth. I was wondering what you thought about it, whether you think of Kordian as a sometimes humorous, self-aware text?
GK: This is an excellent question for discussion. As I say in the introduction, Kordian is an answer character to Konrad in Mickiewicz’s Forefathers’ Eve. Konrad takes himself very seriously, but the question remains open whether Slowacki is trying to create a character like Konrad and then show why such a character would be ineffective, or trying to create a hero that is unlike Konrad and who would be effective. Romanticism can go both ways. Pushkin and Lermontov both created anti-heroes (in Eugene Onegin and A Hero of Our Time, respectively) who clearly take themselves too seriously. I think Slowacki has much more of a sense of humor than Mickiewicz. He wrote a digressive epic patterned on Byron’s Don Juan, which is quite humorous. But Slowacki is also capable of taking himself very seriously. The Pope and the parrot scene in Kordian shows just how humorous Slowacki can be, but it would be wrong to dismiss his work as farce. I do think it is an important subject for discussion.
About the Authors
Gerard T. Kapolka received his Ph.D. in Polish Literature from the University of Chicago in 1981. He has taught at Rhode Island College, St. Mary's College in Orchard Lake, Michigan, Wagner College, and Rutgers University. Since 1995 he has been teaching at Santa Catalina School in Monterey, California ,where he is currently the Dean of Academics. His other translations include Stanislaw Wyspianski's The Wedding (Ardis, 1990) and Ignacy Krasicki's Polish Fables (Hippocrene, 1998).