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
– 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
– 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
– 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.
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
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.
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.
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
Foto: © Achiro P. Olwoch
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