This is an interview with Michal Rusinek, poet and translator, Assistant Professor at the Department of Polish Language and Literature of the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, and a personal secretary to the distinguished Polish poet and the laureate of the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature, Wislawa Szymborska who died on February 1, 2012.
The interview was conducted in June 2007 by Polish journalist Bozena U. Zaremba. This is the first time it is appearing in English. The translation is by Ms. Zaremba:
Rhetoric, Limerick, Winnie the Pooh and Nobel Too
By Bozena U. Zaremba
Bozena U. Zaremba: Although you are commonly perceived as a humorist, I wanted to open our conversation on a more serious note, that is, your academic interests. The main field of your research is rhetoric, a fascinating area on the borderline of linguistics, psychology, and philosophy or even ethics. Why did you decide to engage in this discipline?
Michal Rusinek: I have always been attracted to marginal and overlapping areas. I think I would probably drown if I were to take up some mainstream current. However, I am not interested in all the subjects that you have mentioned, least in psychology, probably. I see rhetoric studies as a meeting ground for literary studies and linguistics, which for some time now have visibly gone apart.
You are trying to attract wider audiences to this subject, mainly through television and radio; together with Aneta Zalazinska you have also written a book on rhetoric for ordinary people, if you will.
That is true. At some point I realized that my Ph.D. thesis, which had been published a few years before, could be understood by very few people, just like most doctoral theses these days. I am not trying to brag here. These days, academic research on the whole is suffering from enormous specialization. Rhetoric, on the other hand, is not only a subject of theoretical studies, but also an inherent part of our everyday life. I was trying to translate some of my theoretical ideas (and those of my co-author, who is a linguist) into a simpler language and to write sort of a course book.
Is rhetoric teachable?
Not in a traditional sense, I think, but you can sensitize people to some language issues. You can teach them how to become more conscious of what is useful in their own language and what is not, as well as how to overcome those linguistic obstacles that hinder communication.
What are the most important guidelines for using rhetoric effectively?
Most of all, you need to listen to other people and to watch how they react to what you say. Some people believe that the most important thing is to learn how to speak fluently for a long time, like in a monologue. False. It is the dialogue that constitutes the principal form of communication. While kids in America start to learn how to speak effectively in pre-school, in Poland it’s still unheard of.
Who are the students participating in the rhetoric graduate courses that you teach at the Jagiellonian University?
Half of them are Catholic priests, who get a chance to widen the homiletics, which they study in seminaries, with “secular” communication. Next, we have spokesmen, who want to learn how to conduct meetings and how to take a stand in public debates. From time to time, we get an interesting case, like that nurse who worked at a hospice and wanted to learn how to talk about death, to the patients and their close ones. She said she wanted to distance herself from her words and from her emotions. It was a great challenge for us.
You have recently translated two collections of poems about Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin, When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six into Polish. Why Milne?
It was partly coincidence, partly impudence [laughs]. I was offered this translation and eventually thrown into deep water. I do have some ease in rhyming and I love playing with rhymes, but these are not just rhymes, but literary classics! In the process, I faced two prior translations into Polish: on the one hand that by Antoni Marianowicz and Irena Tuwim, and on the other hand, by Zofia Kierszys, and thus found myself between a not-so-true but beautiful translation and a true but more prosaic one. And this is where I eventually tried to stay – in the middle.
It’s fascinating that these poems can be equally appreciated by adults.
Absolutely. They can be read at least on two levels. They are for children in the same way as they are about children. They show us that childhood is not some idyllic time at all. Just the opposite – a child is simply a little man who finds himself lonely in the world of adults. Christopher Milne, who was the addressee of these poems and had a somewhat difficult relationship with his father, said that it was only after he had read these poems – he was already grown-up at that time – that he started to appreciate how much his father actually understood him.
What is your key to a good translation?
I try not to be too theoretical about it; I do it intuitively to a great extent. But my fundamental belief is that there is no such thing as “kids’ language.” Kids speak the language of their parents first, then the language of their peers. So I try not to make it childlike – or childish, if you will – at any cost. While I was working on Peter Pan, for example, I noticed that the language of the original was somewhat old-fashioned, so I made up a non-existent language – imaginary, wishful language for intelligent kids. I did the same with Charles Schulz’s Peanuts.
Let’s stay within the English literary tradition and talk about limericks. They seem to be experiencing a real renaissance on the Polish literary scene, especially in Krakow. There is even a Limerick Lodge, of which you are Great Master. Is it art or just literary fun?
I think it is an ill-posted question (with all due respect.) If we look at the etymology of the word “art” we find its origin in techne, which in Greek means craft. In Poland especially, we think of poetry as something that aspires to the higher, the farther, and the deeper. Poles envision a poet as a Romantic figure who is leaning over his hand with a longing look on his face, but it is often forgotten that a poet, besides mere inspiration, must possess craft. And it is the craft that is crucial in the literature of nonsense. This genre had not been treated seriously in Poland for a long time. When the a5 Publishing Company published the anthology of pure nonsense and absurd literature entitled The Purple Cow, translated and edited by Stanislaw Baranczak*, it did not sell very well. But this is a fantastic book, a milestone in the Polish literary tradition! It was only when Wislawa Szymborska openly admitted to writing such poems, did the general public change their attitude. Thanks to limericks people realized the existence of aristocratic and city humor. Limericks have the elegance – at least in its form – on the one hand and on the other hand the frivolousness, but in white gloves.
What about epitaphs and their twisted humor?
This is also deeply rooted in English tradition, because in Poland, you must be very serious about death matters; you are not supposed to laugh at death. When we published The Epitaphs for the In- and Outsiders of the New Province** with epitaphs for our living friends and acquaintances, the newspapers raved about it, and people realized that this could be very entertaining. And mind you, such an attitude does not correspond to the Romantic paradigm of poetry.
Some say that it was your sense of humor that got you the job of Wislawa Szymborska’s secretary.
That is quite probable, because she would not be able to bear with anybody who lacked sense of humor.
I know you are often nagged about her so I hope you don’t mind talking about her just a little bit?
Absolutely not. I owe a great deal to Mrs. Szymborska. I believe it is thanks to her that I dared to publish my own work. She often looks at my writing and makes comments. Besides, she is “contagious” – she is so playful with words, also in everyday life. This proves that she treats language very seriously.
What is “Wislawa Szymborska’s Bureau”?
Oh, this is just my cell phone and a laptop [laughs]. She does not need a secretary as an institution. This official name exists only to keep her private address… well, private.
She is a very private person – she is notorious for her shyness; she avoids the media; she does not give interviews. Is it partly because whatever she wants to tell the world she tells in her poems?
Yes, I think so.
Is it hard to be a „shield” for a Nobel Laureate?
It is, sometimes, or especially when, in my mind, the offer she gets seems to create a terrific opportunity. But on the other hand, when I sense that afterwards it might cause her suffering, I withdraw, and truly, I never insist on anything. If she says “no” I do not discuss the matter any further.
Do you mind when people perceive you first of all as Wislawa Szymborska’s secretary?
I don’t think it is bad when I am introduced in the media as her secretary, because it is true, and it is an honor. What I don’t like is when it is inadequate or sensational. It also makes me laugh when some journalists, under the pretext of promoting my new book, ask about her and only that part is left in the published interview.
Are there any other literary areas that you would still like to pursue?
I would not necessary like to, but somehow do. There are not many “rhyming” translators in Poland and I have been showered with translations of musicals. I have just finished Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies. These are fabulous songs from the thirties and the biggest challenge is this swinging rhythm, so difficult to convey in the lengthy Polish language. Also recently, I have translated songs for another musical Jekyll and Hyde, which premiered last fall.
Is there a common ground for all the things that you do?
Yes, definitely. It is the language itself. I work with it, I play with it, and I reflect upon it.
Thank you very much.
The interview was originally conducted in Polish and then translated into English by the author. It was first published in Przeglad Polski, a cultural weekly (now monthly) for Nowy Dziennik (Polish Daily News) in New York.
*Renowned Polish poet, translator, literary critic, and Professor of Slavic Languages and Literature at the Harvard University.
**Trendy cafe in the Old Town district of Krakow, place for informal gatherings of artists and for literary promotions; occasionally operates as a publishing house.