Interview with Agnieszka Pokojska

Foto: © Achiro P. Olwoch

On her flight from Gdańsk to Stockholm she read a guidebook. One Swedish word, familiar because of the title of an Ingmar Bergman film, caught her attention: Smultronstället.
– I learnt that ”where wild strawberries grow” is only the surface meaning and in fact the word means a place with personal sentimental value. It’s been my favorite Swedish word so far, says the Polish literary translator Agnieszka Pokojska.

We are sitting in the library on the second floor of the Baltic Centre for Writers and Translators in Visby. The sound of the church bells and the sunshine of this September morning are streaming in to us from the open window. Agnieszka Pokojska, born in Gdańsk in Poland, is a freelance translator and editor. She teaches literary translation at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, where she lives. Her list of translations, both fiction and non-fiction, includes around thirty publications, most recently by such authors as W.H. Auden, Alice Munro and Colin Barrett.

This is her first visit to Visby. During her stay at the Baltic Centre for Writers and Translators she is working on the translation of Nowa kolonia (New Colony) by Grzegorz Wróblewski, a Polish poet and artist living in Copenhagen, from Polish into English.
– I had read about Visby and I knew that it was a medieval city, but when I arrived here in the middle of the medieval week, without knowing anything about it, I saw so many people in medieval costume, I thought: this is taking it too far! she says, laughing.

She immediately felt at home in Visby in terms of the climate.
– It feels much more like Gdańsk than Kraków ever does, because of the sea and the wind. I really miss the wind and the smell of the sea in Kraków.

One day she went for a day-trip to the island of Fĺrö together with three other translators from the Centre. They rented a car and followed in the footsteps of the world-famous Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman.
– We watched a Bergman movie here at the Centre the night before the trip. Everyone on Gotland kept talking about Bergman and he was everywhere, even on the two hundred kronor banknote. We felt obliged to get in a Bergman mood, she says with a smile.

The film was Face to Face (1976), featuring Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson.
– It was chosen by a Swedish poet who had known a lot of his films already. As it was her last night at the Centre, we told her she had to be the one to make the choice, says Agnieszka.

Another excursion she went on during her stay was an Art Safari on the southern part of Gotland, an event during Gotland Art Week in August.  
– It was very impressive on many levels. Apart from seeing a number of vastly different works in all kinds of visual arts, I got to meet the artists and visit their studios. Also, it was probably one of the very few days in my life when I understood nothing what people said around me, she says, adding:
– Swedish is so foreign. I love the sound of it, when I watch Swedish films, for example. It sounds beautiful to me, but I can´t understand it yet.

 

A dream solution
Agnieszka Pokojska has been a great reader since she was very young, but her interest in books went further.
– I used to help at the school library. I liked making books as well, not just writing a story about a rabbit or something, which I did as well, but also cutting the pages and binding them together. I have always been interested in books, even as physical objects, she says.

As a teenager she started reading bilingual editions of poetry, with the English text and the Polish translation side by side, with the translator´s commentary.
– This was the best thing that could happen to me. I felt that this was what I wanted to do. I wanted to write, but I knew I probably would never be a writer, because it´s not in my nature to create new worlds or to disclose myself too much.

Becoming a translator was a dream solution in her case, as she is good at languages and has a deep and heartfelt interest in literature. She usually translates from English into Polish, with one exception: Grzegorz Wróblewski, whose work she translates from Polish into English. It started as a project when she was still a student and attended a poetry reading class with a teacher who was passionate about the subject.
– She read everything and she always knew the best new Scottish, Irish and British poets. She was very inspiring. At one point she told us that she had been contacted by an American publisher who wanted to compile an anthology of contemporary Polish poetry and she was one of the editors. She suggested that we could try to translate a few poems each for our class as an exercise.

Agnieszka had never read Wróblewski before and she picked him only because, like her, he was born in Gdańsk.   
– As soon as I read him, however, I found his work, and his dark sense of humour in particular, very appealing. Even after all these years I still think he is an extraordinarily original artist, she says.

Wróblewski’s poetry in her translation comprises two US-published books and a selection in an anthology, as well as numerous publications in literary journals. The book she is currently translating, Nowa kolonia, is an experimental absurdist-existentialist novel in the form of drama.

One of her favourite translations from English into Polish in her career as a translator is the collection of essays by Zadie Smith, Changing My Mind. Another is The Moons of Jupiter by the Nobel prize-winning Canadian writer Alice Munro. Last year she worked on a translation of Young Skins, a debut book of short stories by the young Irish writer Colin Barrett. Agnieszka encountered his writing first when she read a short story called ”Diamonds” in ”The Guardian” online.
– I was struck at once by how talented he was and I’m very happy that I got to work on his book. All I did last summer was to sit in my apartment with the air conditioning on, my laptop on, and the stories by Colin Barrett.

Earlier this year her translation of Young Skins was shortlisted for a literary prize in Poland.
– You can see a happy translator before you. I have the sense of reaping rewards of all that I have been doing for the past years, she says, radiating happiness.


Foto: © Achiro P. Olwoch

Making friends at the Baltic Centre
One day she visited a high school in Visby. A teacher – a chance acquaintance who quickly became a friend – had invited her to an English class with children with special needs, saying she would like them to experience how useful the language is in getting to know the world. She had told them Agnieszka is a translator and the students had prepared questions for her. – We talked about ourselves and our interests, they also asked a lot about my work and about Poland. I think we all really enjoyed that lesson, she says.

A week later the teacher came to the Baltic Centre for a meeting with the director Lena Pasternak, to speak about potential visits of writers and translators at the school in the future.
– She brought me letters from the students, Agnieszka says. They were so sweet! I replied immediately. We are talking of meeting again, maybe next September.

She speaks warmly about the atmosphere of the Baltic Centre in Visby and it is the social part of her stay that she appreciates most.
– I have probably never spent so many evenings in a row out, away from my desk or a book, as here. I felt that, after all, the books were always going to be there, but these people are only here for me now. It´s mindblowing how we immediately connected, not as a family or a team of people who work together, but as friends, she says and continues:

– I discovered that as writers and translators we had so much in common that, compared to the similarities, the differences turned out to be almost insignificant. We all have read widely from an early age, we value literature so highly that we decided to devote our lives to it, we have more or less the same world view, even if we come from different countries and continents.

She found out that what she really wanted most from her stay was to get to know the other residents, to talk about their countries, and families, and interests, about what they read, what they are working on and what their future projects are.
– One of the greatest things about this place is that it makes you feel free to spend your time exactly as you wish. You are trusted, by the people who founded the Centre and those who run it now, that you will make the best possible use of your stay, as a professional and as a human being. To me this trust and this freedom have felt like a wonderful gift, she says, smiling.

Text: Maria Molin
Photo: Achiro P. Olwoch

 

 
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