Interview with Tadeusz Pioro (Re Tadeusz Borowski's Selected Poems)

Article excerpt

Tadeusz Borowski's poetry is virtually unknown in Britain and America, despite the fact that the Polish writer was a poet long before he wrote his controversial stories about his experiences in Auschwitz-Birkenau and Dachau. These stories, a selection of which appear in Penguin's This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, (1) ensured his canonical status in twentieth-century European literature. Yet only three Borowski poems are readily available in English translations: 'Night over Birkenau', 'The Sun of Auschwitz' and 'Farewell to Maria' are printed in Hilda Schiff's anthology Holocaust Poetry. (2) A few more appear in the English translation of Adam Zych's anthology The Auschwitz Poems, (3) but this edition is currently out of print. In 1990, the poet and translator Tadeusz Pioro produced Borowski's Selected Poems, (4) published by hit & run press in California. This selection is important for a variety of reasons. Some of the poems bear comparison with the 'classics' of Holocaust poetry, such as Paul Celan's 'Todesfugue' and Primo Levi's 'Shema': 'October Sky', for example--which was written in Birkenau--comprises a dialectical anti-lyric which struggles with images of atrocity in the context of European aesthetic traditions, anticipating Theodor Adorno's concerns in 1949 with 'barbaric' poetry. In contrast, the journalistic poems that Borowski wrote in Dachau--and during his internment in a former SS barracks after the liberation--betray his worry that the post-Holocaust lyric is unavoidably bound up with what the British poet Keith Douglas termed 'Bullshit' poetics(5): a process of avoidance strategies, and, more controversially, complicity. Borowski's journalistic poetics are al so symptomatic of an overlooked genre in Holocaust studies: the testimonial poem. Just as importantly, less prosaic poems such as 'October Sky' illustrate that the genre of poetry itself can function as a form of testimony, which (in this case) demonstrates a link between the lyric form and complicity. Borowski's measured, testimonial poetics also indicate an alternative way in which to discuss how trauma is potentially inscribed in testimony. Whereas Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub focus on the 'scope of the accident' in Holocaust literature (the ways in which diagnostic, traumatic criteria are registered in the texts), (6) Borowski's shockingly unperterbed narratives resist this teleology of trauma. I asked Tadeusz Pioro about some of these issues when I interviewed him at Sekret, Warsaw, in March 2007.

When did you first start translating literature into English?

I think it was the Tadeusz Borowski translations, although I might have attempted something earlier, I'll tell you the story. I had contacted the Slavic department at the University of Warsaw because they had a teaching job, a graduate studentship teaching Polish, and I didn't know if they'd give me a job in the English department. The Slavic department had my name down, and just then someone contacted the department looking for someone to do a literal translation of Borowski's poems: that was Larry Rafferty from hit & run press, who was very interested in Borowski, and his wife, Meryl Natchez. So the Slavic department put me in touch with them, and they hired me to do literal translations of Borowski. As it happened, the translations I did were more than just literals. They were already almost poetic translations, and Larry and Meryl joined in the work to make them into poems in English. However, this work was to a large extent done by me, as I thought that I could do better than just literal translations. This was a long process: we worked from time to rime, at our leisure, over several years and then when the thing was ready we asked Stanislaw Baranczak to write an introduction, which he gladly did. Then we almost had the thing published by Northwestern University Press, but there was some kind of conflict and personnel change, and it didn't work out. …