Repository of Polish Translations of Shakespeare’s Plays in the 19th Century: Resources, Approaches, Reception

About the Project

The website Shakespeare in Polish by UW – 19th Century Module was created as part of the Repository of Polish Translations of Shakespeare’s Plays in the 19th Century: Resources, Approaches, Reception (UMO-2015/17/B/HS2/01784), a project financed by the National Science Centre and completed between 2016 and 2019 at the Faculty of Modern Languages at Warsaw University.

The aim of the project was to establish a collection that, on the one hand, would offer electronic access to 19th-century Polish translations of Shakespeare, and on the other would enable readers to reconstruct the contexts and reception histories of those translations. Broadly speaking, at the heart of our interests were the processes of assimilation with respect to foreign literature in translation, in all their complexity and volatility, encompassing changing fashions, conventions, literary tastes and demands of the stage. Materials under this heading are available on the website Shakespeare in Polish by UW – 19th Century Module and also in the form of a two-volume electronic publication.

There is no doubt that assembling these resources is only the first step towards broader interdisciplinary research into 19th-century Polish translations of Shakespeare and, furthermore, into the specifics of the reception history of drama in translation, and above all (alongside the work in progress on the second part of the repository – 20th and 21st Centuries Module) into the long-term reception history of the literary canon and questions of retranslation bound up with it. The development of the project brought with it a deep conviction that our understanding of the phenomena that dominated the first 100 years of the reception of Shakespeare in translation has significant gaps. The work of accurately filling them in will need to take as a starting point a scrupulous examination of the source materials, and will involve identifying the course taken by the complex processes that form the background to this difficult and tempestuous period.

This project takes as its point of departure reflection on translation, particularly the tradition of descriptive translation studies. In terms of methodology the emphasis was placed on the relationships between the translation and the target culture, and, hand in hand with that, the consciousness of changes, however fleeting, in the critical judgements based on changing translation norms concerning the reality and expectation of an ideal translation of Shakespeare. These same premises informed our interest in how those developments were conditioned by history and geography, two factors which to a great extent shaped the reception, suppression or rejection of translation projects. The characteristic discontinuities of literary processes and the dispersal of cultural centres (which was brought about by the partitioning of Poland, military uprisings and waves of repression) produced a loose division between translators in the Eastern borderlands (the Kresy), in Warsaw and émigré writers. The relative peripheral status of some translation projects pushed them beyond the scope of the interests of literary historians, and thereby into a kind of non-existence.

The Polish corpus of Shakespeare in translation from the 19th century is a large and diverse body of work. Not counting theatrical versions, partial translations and those remaining in manuscript, there are more than 100 complete translations from the original published in book form or in literary journals, mainly Kłosy and Biblioteka Warszawska. Establishing the chronology and places of publication for these texts is no simple matter. Typically, the translations were not undertaken in the places they were published, and in many instances a translation was completed many years before it appeared in print. The speed at which translators worked varied greatly: some dedicated several months or a couple of years to Shakespeare, others continued to refine their work over a lifetime. Among the 27 translators who feature in the repository, 14 produced a single play, typically only published once. A further six translated no more than three plays, and only a handful of translators worked on more: Ignacy Hołowiński – six; Stanisław Egbert Koźmian – seven; Jan Komierowski – ten; Józef Paszkowski – thirteen; and the record-holder, Leon Ulrich – all thirty-seven plays taken at the time to be Shakespeare’s complete dramatic works. However, the number of plays translated does not always reflect the significance of the translation: some single translations ignited huge critical debate, while some texts that sit outside the mainstream of reception history enjoyed surprising success on the stage.

Shakespeare in Polish by UW gives access to all of the complete 19th-century published translations of Shakespeare from the original, and features detailed research into the translation practice of the 27 translators whose versions appeared in the 19th century or – as a continuation of earlier work – at the beginning of the 20th century.

The translations are available as pdf files (the translations alone or translations with the accompanying paratexts). The collection can be searched by title, name of translator, date and place of publication, and also two further categories relating to the translation history – the place and time the translation was completed. The relatively large number of search possibilities reflects the historical and topographic logic of the events and processes, which are also the subject of individual studies (published or in progress) that take a synthetic approach to look beyond the period in question, and adopt a methodology outside the remit of a short-term research grant.

The translator pages include concise descriptions of each translator’s work. A more detailed study of each practitioner (available to download as a pdf from the same webpages) includes information about his or her biography, approach to translation and the reception history.

The reconstruction of the individual translation enterprises brings to light a good deal of previously unknown information about the sociological and psychological aspects of the translators’ work. Translating the plays of Shakespeare usually took place alongside other literary endeavours, or as a counterpoint to other vocations (Ignacy Hołowiński and Placyd Jankowski were clergymen, Władysław Matlakowski a doctor). For some of the translators Shakespeare was a response to real-life drama. After a difficult battle with illness (usually tuberculosis), Adam Pajgert, Józef Paszkowski, Józef Szujski, Władysław Matlakowski, Apollo Korzeniowski and Julian Korsak all lost their lives prematurely. A number of displaced translators reached for Shakespeare: this included exiles deported to far-flung corners of the Russian Empire, such as Apollo Korzeniowski, Antoni Pietkiewicz and Gustaw Ehrenberg; and émigrés in Europe, in the instances of Stanisław Egbert Koźmian, Leon Ulrich and Krystyn Ostrowski. Common obstacles in the path of translators included financial difficulties, social isolation and sometimes the pressures of publication. None of the 19th-century translators declared that they had reached their intended goal.

The subsections dedicated to the biographical outlines of the translators include the basic facts of their lives, paying particular attention to their education, knowledge of foreign languages and literature.

The description of their professional careers serves above all to reveal the connections with their translation projects. The engagement of a translator with other literary endeavours is also taken into account, whether their own literary productions, translations of other authors or from other languages, theatre work, scholarly pursuits or literary criticism. A range of contemporary views on each translator are cited, particularly in the context of an interest in Shakespeare’s works. In the instance of a figure widely discussed in bibliographical studies or individual monographs, relevant bibliographical information is provided without going into an extended analysis of the surviving material. In the case of less well-known translators or figures whose translation work has never been the subject of research, the subsections include detailed references, and sometimes also extensive citations from all the source materials in manuscript and print uncovered in the course of research which have not yet been the subject of academic study.

The subsections that deal with the approach taken by a particular translator draw on two kinds of sources: statements made by the translators and analyses of the translations.

This means that the views of these translators on a strategy for translating Shakespeare are discussed, but so are their opinions on other translations, and reflections on their own productions, in relation, broadly speaking, to their motivations, their experience of working on the text, reactions to criticism and reception on the stage, material contexts, and also possible reasons for halting or abandoning translation efforts. Findings related to the place, date and chronology of the emergence of these translations are also presented. The translations themselves are a second kind of source, described as they are with special attention to their handling of metre, translation techniques, modifications of approach and decisions to annotate editions with explanatory material. The translations are also identified as belonging to one of three categories elucidated in the course of the research: initial translations (the first translation, written on a clean slate in terms of reception, with the ambition to become part of the canon), polemical translations (competing with initial translations for a place in the canon) and retranslations (appearing after a canonical version has been established, motivated by a desire to update the language and literary conventions).

The subsections covering reception history include as far as possible all opinions on the translation, formulated over different phases of the text’s existence, paying particular attention to the first responses to the plays on the page or the stage.

Gathering together responses allows for the identification of changes in the critical fortunes of a text, conditioned by contingent aesthetic and methodological preferences, and often also by personal and political motivations. These subsections give the details of later editions, changes in the texts (also with respect to excerpts published earlier), and comment concisely on the play’s reception on the stage as well. In this last instance, details are given about the first performances to make use of a particular translation, as well as compilations, surviving theatrical scripts, and opinions on the translations recorded in reviews of performances. We also include a bibliography of translations, taking in all 19th-century editions and also earlier publications of translated excerpts.

In rounding out the picture of these enterprises in translation we made use of existing biographical and bibliographical studies, carefully investigating all the Shakespearean threads that run through a great variety of sources, published and in manuscript form, held in state archives and private collections, and also wherever possible adding information about publications, reviews and polemics in the press. We trust that the information we have gathered will encourage work on related research projects in other disciplines, and the development of the digital humanities will significantly contribute to the comprehensive study of the enormous corpus of 19th-century press by providing access to widely dispersed archive materials. We particularly hope to alert historians and literary experts to the sadly overlooked and forgotten figure of Jan Komierowski, once known as the publisher of the poet Andrzej Morsztyn, whose three-volume collection of translations from Shakespeare had been attributed to someone else..

Shakespeare in Polish by UW brings up to date our knowledge of the Polish reception of Shakespeare in translation in the 19th century, and also enables comparative analysis of translations, in synchronic and diachronic perspectives, while choosing to withhold any value judgements on the material.

In fact, studying perceptions of these same works in translation over the course of years, decades, even centuries teaches restraint. Examined closely, descriptions of the people and the translation projects take on fresh complexities, revealing the influence of opposing literary currents, the instability of critical judgements, the density of the historical record and the force of feverish emotions. Gathered in one place in a digital format, the literary periods and styles in this trove of translations become compressed, benefitting from the egalitarian nature of online resources: irrespective of their individual histories, the number of extant copies or the kindness (or otherwise) of reviews, each text can be summoned with equal ease by a few key presses. This digital afterlife given to the archives ascribes a new meaning to the work of the translators, whose productions hold up a unique mirror to their times and circumstances.

Anna Cetera-Włodarczyk

Electronic publications

Anna Cetera-Włodarczyk, Alicja Kosim, Polskie przekłady Shakespeare’a w XIX wieku. Część 1. Zasoby, strategie, recepcja, Warszawa: Wydawnictwa Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego 2019

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Anna Cetera-Włodarczyk, Alicja Kosim, Polskie przekłady Shakespeare’a w XIX wieku. Część 2. Wybór tekstów, Warszawa: Wydawnictwa Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego 2019

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