Revising Anna Swirszczynska: The Shifting Stance of Czeslaw Milosz's English Translations

By Rosenthal, Mira | Canadian Slavonic Papers, March 1, 2010 | Go to article overview

Revising Anna Swirszczynska: The Shifting Stance of Czeslaw Milosz's English Translations


Rosenthal, Mira, Canadian Slavonic Papers


With the "cultural turn" in translation studies at the end of the twentieth century, which saw an explosion of descriptive research into the ideological forces at work in the process of translation, we can no longer ignore the inherent inevitability of manipulation or questions of power. The translator in some way or other, whether consciously or not, inevitably acts upon the foreign text, wielding "enormous power in constructing representations of foreign cultures"1 and either "maintaining or revising the hierarchy of values in the translating language."2 The translator's hand is often "invisible" in the translated text; however, this depiction is not meant to be a negative critique of translation. Theorists and practitioners now take as a matter of course that translation involves some interpretation and necessarily shifts, and that the translation itself will never be entirely homologous to the original. Taking this as a given, in this paper I argue that the poetry translations done by Polish Nobel laureate Czeslaw Milosz wield power not only because of his fame as a writer living in political exile in the United States but also because of their importance in preserving and promoting a Polish literature under attack in Communist Poland. The question then becomes, does a specific translation initiate, maintain, or oppose power structures, be they cultural, political, social, or otherwise? And what can such investigations tell us about the manipulation of power in the context of translation in general? To answer these questions, I reconstruct Milosz's multiple translations into English, done between 1983 and 2002, of the Polish poet Anna Swirszczynska as a case study demonstrating Milosz's shifting stance toward the manipulation of power both prior to 1989 in the United States and in Poland after his work was free to cross and recross between the two countries.

In the last decade, the focus on power has become so well established as a central strain in the study of translation that some theorists have declared that "the 'cultural turn' in translation studies has become the 'power turn'."3 In keeping with this "power turn," the editors of the 1995 survey Translators Through History devote an entire chapter to "Translators and the Reins of Power," stating at the outset that they are interested in examining "the history of translation in the Western world" in terms of "the diverse ways in which translators are connected with centres of power."4 Their case studies include the implementation of religious regulations to restrict translations that are considered subversive and the use of seditious translation practices under totalitarian regimes. Both of these examples pertain to power within the receiving culture and how, in one way or another, the source culture goes through a "process of domestication, an exchange of source-language intelligibilities for target-language ones."5 Later in the survey, when discussing the transmission of cultural values through translation, the editors state:

Translators do not simply import values, carrying out a unilateral transfer from a socalled source language or culture to a so-called target language or culture [...] Their work includes and induces transformations and manipulations. Beyond the prerogatives of patrons, clients and editors, beyond the materiality of texts, beyond the cost of their labour, translators cross and blur the lines between foreign cultural values and those of their own society. Boundaries, after all, are more fluid and less circumscribed than they are thought to be.6 [emphasis mine]

Domestication does not necessarily mean assimilation; rather, translation can often be a tool for changing power structures in the receiving culture by importing (i.e., crossing or blurring boundaries with) a foreign culture.

I add the emphasis in the passage above to highlight the assumption that the translator necessarily belongs to the target culture and is acting as mediator or manipulator on behalf of "their own society. …

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