Translating between languages tends to be a highly ethical practice, or at the least one that stimulates frequent conversation about ethics. This is especially true in the present day, when international discourse places high value on respecting other cultures. An ethical breach can take many forms, from misguided translation choices to intentional efforts to redefine a work of literature in a different and distortional manner. This series explores some of the ethical challenges translators face, either due to the challenge of the translation itself or willingly, while reflecting on the continuing debates between translators, translation scholars and others about what constitutes an ethical breach.
The Ethics of Cultural Translation 101 will be mainly divided into the following chapters of content:
3. The Ethics of Cultural Translation 101: Tinkering With Canons
4. The Ethics of Cultural Translation 101: Cross-Language Plagiarism
5. The Ethics of Cultural Translation 101: Shortcuts Between Distances
6. The Ethics of Cultural Translation 101: Translating Geography
7. The Ethics of Cultural Translation 101: From Language To Motion Picture
8. The Ethics of Cultural Translation 101: Ideology
Translation is valuable for innumerable reasons. But what makes it especially precious – and, of course, practical – is that it makes that which is most opaque about humanity translucent at the least, transparent at the most. On one hand, it is why the Italians have the phrase “traduttore, traditore” – or “the translator is a traitor.” (The GSAL Journal, 2020). Words whose shared etymological origin says much about how the ancients felt about telling other cultures the secrets of their ways. In the New World there is the case of chingar, a vulgar sexual term in Mexico that indirectly references La Malinche, Hernando Cortes’ mistress. Incidentally, La Malinche was also Cortes’ interpreter (Diaz Del Castillo, 1963).
On the other hand, translation has made it possible for cultural ideas to be disseminated throughout other cultures. While lingua francas have tended to be effective mediums, as indicated by the previous status of Latin and the current status of English, ideas that emerged in other languages are not always conveyable in lingua francas. English, despite its assimilative properties, is little different. Nor are lingua francas sufficient. As the quote attributed to George Steiner goes: “without translation we would be living in provinces bordering on silence” (Wynne, 2018).
In addition to silence, this author is also inclined to add “pitch darkness” to the list of applicable synonyms. For without translation, ideas that define other cultures are completely inaccessible unless one speaks the language to a certain degree of fluency. Monolinguals living in the North American Anglosphere close to French-speaking Quebec may have no doubt wondered: ‘what ideas are informing that culture that aren’t informing mine? What different concepts influence their perception of the world that differ from mine? And how radically different are they?’ Without either translation or French language skills, one is completely in the dark.
Obstacles In The Darkness
As any Pole will tell any American, Briton or other Westerner, Poland has been just as fundamentally a part of the West as any other Western culture. As historian Norman Davies explains: “Geographically, Poland belongs and always has belonged to the East. In every other sense, its strongest links have been with the West” (Davies, 2001b, p. 301). But however true that is, general knowledge of Polish history and culture is largely nonexistent outside Poland itself. The reasons for this are largely based on historical circumstances, including Poland’s location in the East. But it is a fact that ignorance of Poland and the story of the Polish people is widespread in the Anglosphere, as Davies explains, "The history of wartime Poland is not a simple subject. Yet it is frequently oversimplified and misunderstood... If British and Americans think of it at all, they think of a country which Hitler turned into the central laboratory of Nazi Germany's Lebensraum..."(Davies, 2001a, p. ix).
Once the enormity of German crimes came to light and the unique nature of the form of genocide that defined the Holocaust was understood, the emergence of a literary genre was inevitable. The earliest Holocaust literature includes works written by Poles themselves, such as Zofia Nałkowska’s Medallions (1946), Władysław Szpilman’s memoir The Pianist (1946) and Tadeusz Borowski’s short stories, published in English under the title This Way For The Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen (1946). None would be translated into English for many years: for while the extermination camps were built in occupied Poland, its removal from the map during the war as well as its perceived incompetence in the 1939 Invasion of Poland by many in the Anglosphere – followed by its subsequent incorporation into the Soviet Eastern bloc – made the land upon which Auschwitz was built no less invisible than it had been before the war. This topic will be returned to in the later article about translation and ideology.
As mentioned in previous articles, translated literature is frequently domesticated by filtering its cultural otherness, a process Lawrence Venuti refers to as domestic inscription (Venuti, 2000, pg. 468). The translation of Holocaust literature – or even the publication of it, for that matter – is uniquely curious in that its authors not only experienced hardships that represent one of the most extreme manifestations of “otherness” to be found in literature; some authors became world famous, such as Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel and Anne Frank – respective authors of If This Was A Man (1947, trans. 1959), Night (1960) and Diary of a Young Girl (1947, trans. 1952). The gravity of the atrocities that happened also meant that unlike “peacetime” literature, there was little will or desire to filter out “otherness.” Communicating the horror as directly as language could convey was of great importance to these authors. As Primo Levi recollected: “I did not trust my German publisher… I insisted that he send me the manuscript of the translation in batches…I wanted to check on not merely its lexical but also its inner faithfulness” (Gordon, 2007, p. 157).
While the best-known Holocaust literature from Poland was not translated into English until after the collapse of the Communist dictatorship, Borowski did make it into English in 1959, right at the time Holocaust literature was becoming popular. While This Way For The Gas gained some prominence in the genre due to later promotion on the part of Philip Roth in the 60’s and 70’s, (Cooper, 1996, p. 163) it remained an exception until The Pianist was adapted into an Academy-Award-winning film by Roman Polanski. Why it was not able to join the top canon of Holocaust literature, when it was a popular phenomenon, is a matter of potential debate. But it wasn’t a surprise that when a Holocaust author did emerge with Polish origins, he, unlike the others, skipped the translation process altogether.
The Case of Jerzy Kosiński
When reflecting upon the most famous works of fiction pertaining to the Holocaust, it is inevitable that The Painted Bird, by Jerzy Kosiński, will come to mind.
Published in English in 1965, The Painted Bird was a phenomenon in its day. Like the Game of Thrones TV series in recent times, Kosiński’s novel had a reputation for sociologically portraying the landscape of wartime Poland with exceptional gruesomeness. While the next few novels Kosiński wrote also sold well, his career took a hit to the stomach, so to say, when in 1982 an article emerged accusing Kosiński not only of using a series of assistants, including translators, to create The Painted Bird in his non-native language, but of plagiary (Nast, 2017, para. 4). In particular, he lifted sections from various Polish fiction and nonfiction sources and passed them off as his own in English. Accusations of this sort have, for good reason, been taken with a grain of salt in the past due to other occasions when Jewish authors had plagiarism accusations leveled at them by Communist dictatorships – Yugoslav author Danilo Kiš was another who got into trouble in his home country for his fiction work A Tomb For Boris Davidovich. In Kosiński’s case, however, the accusations, as far as this author can tell, remain unrefuted and did not come from a Communist dictatorship.
The two authors Kosiński reportedly plagiarized are Henryk Biegeleisen, a prominent and important Polish historian of the interwar age; and The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma by Tadeusz Dołęga-Mostowicz, a very popular novel in Poland in the same era (Adamczyk-Grabowska, 2002, p. 137). According to Jewish literature scholar Monika Adamczyk-Grabowska, the Polish critics recognized the section that came from Nicodemus Dyzma immediately (Adamczyk-Grabowska, 2002, p. 137). During Kosiński’s life, none of these authors were available in English translation; Nicodemus Dyzma, in fact, was only published in English translation in 2020, 88 years after it was first published. Kosiński, for good reason, would have had little reason to suspect that anybody in Britain or America would be knowledgeable enough about Polish culture to discover his fraud. He was right, even when he was found out.
While it is safe to conclude that fraudsters like Kosiński are exceptions rather than the rule, it is a discomfiting truth to the ethics of cultural representation that translators deal with; for while Kosiński denied using collaborators and translators (Nast, 2017), Kosiński's artistry was not authorial but translation, making him a translator. And a translator, even more than an author, possesses a representative responsibility akin to that of a diplomat. In The Painted Bird, the story is more about Poland than the Holocaust, to the point where English professor D.G. Myers, while reviewing a biography of Kosiński, wrote: “Strictly speaking, [The Painted Bird] is not a Holocaust novel” (Myers, 1996, para. 13). He later elaborates how Kosiński “aims to exhibit the cruelty and backwardness of the Polish peasants among whom his six-year-old narrator, who is indifferently Jewish or Gypsy, must hide” (Myers, 1996, para. 13).
The utilization of negative stereotypes of dumb, bloodthirsty Poles is not unprecedented in Western depictions of wartime Poland, a defamatory cultural phenomenon that would take a separate article to elaborate upon. What makes The Painted Bird a needlessly damaging “translation” as well as a fraud is its radical departure from Kosiński’s own experiences. While he no doubt must have encountered many hardships during the war, he only survived to tell his tale due to the Polish peasants he so negatively depicts (Sloan, 1996). Whatever additional artistic merit The Painted Bird may have, in this light it is also an attack on the people whose actions allowed Kosiński to write The Painted Bird in the first place.
Kosiński’s productions as a translator may have been unique. But his perspective as a translator is not. While it would be difficult to find a translator who doesn’t admire the job they do in linguistic and artistic terms, their perspectives toward the cultures they translate from, are not always positive, nor are their intentions always conducive towards positive cross-cultural relations. Exposure to other cultures should not, it is true, be limited to solely positive literature, for in that case there is always the risk of translating something propagandistic. But emphasizing the translation of literature that consistently promotes negative depictions of other cultures is not only a kind of defamation; it’s extra research readers who are equally interested in both the positives and negatives of other cultures have to do. The best solution, like most phenomena in this world, is balance.
Adamczyk-Grabowska, M. (2002). The Role of Polish Language and Literature in Bashevis’s Fiction. In S. Wolitz (Ed.), The Hidden Isaac Bashevis Singer (pp. 134–147). University of Texas Press.
Cooper, A. (1996). Philip Roth and the Jews. State University Of New York Press.
Davies, N. (2001a). Foreword. In Forgotten Holocaust: The Poles Under German Occupation 1939-1944 (pp. ix–xi). Hippocrene Books.
Davies, N. (2001b). Heart of Europe : the past in Poland’s present. Oxford University Press.
Diaz Del Castillo, B. (1963). The Conquest of New Spain (J. M. Cohen, Trans.). Penguin Books.
Gordon, R. S. C. (2007). The Cambridge Companion to Primo Levi. Cambridge University Press.
Myers, D. G. (1996). A Life Beyond Repair [Review of A Life Beyond Repair, by J. P. Sloan]. First Things. https://web.archive.org/web/20220127172644/https://www.leaderu.com/Ftissues/Ft9610/Myers.html
Nast, C. (2017, March 20). Jerzy Kosinski’s Traumas, Real and Invented. The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/03/27/jerzy-kosinskis-traumas-real-and-invented
Sloan, J. P. (1996). Jerzy Kosinski: A Biography. E P Dutton.
The GSAL Journal. (2020, July 1). “Traduttore, traditore”- “The translator is a traitor.” The GSAL Journal. https://thegsaljournal.com/2020/07/01/traduttore-traditore-the-translator-is-a-traitor/
Venuti, L. (2000). Translation, Community, Utopia. In L. Venuti (Ed.), The Translation Studies Reader (pp. 468–488). Routledge.
Wynne, F. (2018). Found in Translation. Head of Zeus Ltd.
Figure 1: Alfredo Ramos Martínez, La Malinche (Young Girl of Yalala, Oaxaca), 1940. (Media from Wix)
Figure 2: Karsten Winegeart. (n.d). As well as being built in Poland, Auschwitz was also the setting for Tadeusz Borowski's short stories. (Media from Wix)
Figure 3: Brittanica. (n.d.). Yiddish Alphabet. In Brittanica. Retrieved November 16, 2022, from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Yiddish-language
Figure 4: Wikipedia. (n.d.). Jerzy Kosiński (1973). In Wikipedia. Retrieved November 13, 2022, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jerzy_Kosi%C5%84ski
Figure 5: Amazon. (n.d.). The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma. In Amazon.co.uk. Retrieved November 13, 2022, from https://www.amazon.co.uk/Career-Nicodemus-Dyzma-Malachowska-Pasek-trans/dp/0810142872/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2ITZN8JKJ8RD0&keywords=career+nicodemus+dyzma&qid=1668296608&sprefix=career+nicodemus+dyzm%2Caps%2C165&sr=8-1
Figure 6: Beach, L. (n.d.). The Painted Bird. In The New York Times. Retrieved November 16, 2022, from https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/23/books/the-horror-of-the-painted-bird-visualized.html