Reviewed by Christine Pawlowski
Reprinted from SlavFile
Each year at the American Translators Association Annual Conference, the Susana Greiss lecture brings an eminent guest lecturer to speak upon some aspect of translation/interpretation related to the Slavic languages. ATA’s Polonists owe a debt of gratitude to Nora Favorov, who initially reached out to Madeline Levine, the 2016 speaker. Dr. Levine’s address, “In the Shadow of Russian: Forty Years of Translating Polish Literature,” proved a seminal event: Dr. Levine became the first speaker in the nineteen-year history of the Greiss lecture to address a Polish subject.
Graduates of Slavic Studies programs in the United States have often encountered the tendency to categorize the various Slavic literatures as “major” or “minor,” with Russian at the top. In 1963, Dr. Levine, a Russian specialist at Harvard, chose to study Polish as her secondary literature requirement. It turned out to be a serendipitous decision; the need for scholarly attention to and good literary translation of Polish was extreme. In fact, an American colleague of Dr. Levine’s once greeted her with the question, “Is there really such a thing as Polish literature?” Learning “at breakneck speed” to read Polish, Dr. Levine began a lifelong career translating this “minor” literature.
Dr. Levine’s early work was made more difficult by the lack of critical resources available. (She singled out Kridl’s “stupefyingly dull,” blue-covered, pictureless survey.) This situation was radically transformed by the publication of Miłosz’s 1969 work, The History of Polish Literature, which helped to provide a cultural and historical context for Polish literature in a “readable, even exciting” way. As I pulled out my 40-year-old copy of this book, heavily annotated in the early ‘70s, I found myself in wholehearted agreement. Miłosz’s work, with its determination to “avoid… scholarly dryness” and “preserve… a trace of a smile” must have created something of a Lazarus experience when it first appeared—Polish literature was alive after all.
Among other groundbreaking efforts for Polish literature in English, Dr. Levine explored the “labors of love” undertaken by Celina Wieniewska and Barbara Vedder. These pioneering women translated the works of Bruno Schulz and Tadeusz Borowski, two unknown writers whose influence now reaches worldwide. Dr. Levine has produced new translations of these works, and her translation of Bruno Schulz’s prose fiction is soon to be published by Northwestern University Press.
A primary focus of Dr. Levine’s work has been Jewish-themed literature in the Polish language. In translating works about the Holocaust and in her work as a university professor, she has delved into the question: “How is it possible that such horror can be captured and transformed into works of artistic beauty?” She has also taken on another wartime subject: her re-translation of Białoszewski’s Memoir of the Warsaw Uprising was released by the New York Review of Books in their Classics series.
Dr. Levine has had her share of good fortune: at a very young age, she obtained her first position as Assistant Professor at the City University of New York “sight unseen” after a phone interview. She enjoyed the stability of her position in the University of North Carolina’s Slavic Languages and Literatures Department (now Germanic & Slavic Languages and Literatures). However, she has also experienced the vicissitudes of the publishing industry and, as a result, seems to have developed the patience of a saint! After 40 years of sharing an unknown literary culture with readers and students, Dr. Levine leaves her audience with the firm conviction that she has only just begun. When I asked her at our communal lunch: “So what still needs to be translated?” She responded: “Everything!”
I encourage you to read excerpts from Dr. Levine’s talk on the next page to learn more about the fascinating and, at times, frustrating professional journey of a “student-teacher-scholar-translator.”
Christine Pawlowski is a freelance Polish and Russian translator with an M.A. in Slavic Languages and Literatures from Indiana University, “Tsvetograd.” She is retired from teaching elementary music and enjoys being called “Busia” by her 10 grandchildren. She is ATA certified (Polish-English). She may be reached at email@example.com.
This article first appeared in the Spring 2017 issue of SlavFile. We invite you to check out the full publication for the excerpts from Dr. Levine’s talk referenced in the review, as well as a follow-up by Nora Favorov, “The List,” about the list of pre-1945 works in various Slavic languages that still need to be translated.
Going to this year’s ATA conference in Washington, DC? Then we encourage you to attend this year’s Susana Greiss lecture! “The Long and Winding Road to Becoming a Presidential Interpreter,” presented by Nikolai Sorokin, will take place on Thursday, October 26, at 3:30 PM. Nikolai Sorokin will also present a session on interpreting on Friday, October 27, at 10:00 AM, titled “Wow! How Am I Going to Interpret That?”. We hope to see you there!