Aleksander Wat's Theory of Translation

Gwido Zlatkes, Brandeis University

Polish poet Aleksander Wat (1900-1967) was an accomplished translator from English, French, German, and Russian. His translations include some 40 books, among them: Dostoevskij's The Brothers Karamazov, novels, stories and plays by A. Chexov, M. Gor'kij, I. Erenburg and A. Gajdar; Bernanos's The Star of Satan, Genet's The Maids; novels by H. Mann and J. Roth; stories by O. Henry, as well as numerous poems.

In March 1967 Wat was invited to participate in a promotional conference for three anthologies of Polish poetry published simultaneously in French (edited by K. Jelen•ski), English (Cz. MiŠosz) and German (K. Dedecius). Because of poor health he was unable to come; instead he submitted a short essay, "On the Translatability of Poetic Works," which was read by his son Andrzej Wat. In his essay Wat distinguishes between poems which meanings are primarily built on the phonetic qualities of language, andpoems relying on the semantic content of words. The latter are much more easily translatable than the former. Another distinction is determined by the poem's "universalism" versus "provincialism" i.e., its rooting in a particular culture, history and tradition. These determinants are more important in translation than those resulting from the opposition of fixed literary forms vs. free verse. Wat also links poetic means with physiological phenomena like breath and pulse.

Wat's approach to translation is "liberal." He approves of non-rhymed or prose translations of poetry, or even departures from literal meaning for the sake of rhyme on the "phonetic" end of the spectrum. He also conditionally accepts the use of "prompts" by translators who do not know the language of the original (providing that they work with a native speaker who can explain the contexts). However, he firmly demands that the translator should be a native speaker of the target language. Most important is the relation of this ostensibly pragmatic essay to Wat's mystical notion of language. Several times he points to the sacred or liturgical essence of poetry, and "pre-ordained harmony" between rhyme and "the world of things and meanings." For Wat, language was more than a means of communication; it ws a powerful tool for creating reality. Stalinism was a purposefully misnamed universe, a fantastic linguistic fiction imposed on people. Wat's remarks on language are present throughout his works, most prominently in his essay, "Nine Remarks Towards a Portrait of Joseph Stalin." They form a comprehensive linguistic theory of which the essay on translation is the most "technical" part.

Along with the presentation of Wat's views on translation my paper will also discuss the difficulties in translating his essay into English (the text will be provided).