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 youare commonly perceived as a humorist, I wanted to open our conversation on amore serious note, that is, your academic interests. The main field of yourresearch is rhetoric, a fascinating area on the borderline of linguistics,psychology, and philosophy or even ethics. Why did you decide to engage in thisdiscipline?
Michal Rusinek: I have always been attracted to marginal and overlappingareas. I think I would probably drown if I were to take up some mainstreamcurrent. However, I am not interested in all the subjects that you havementioned, least in psychology, probably. I see rhetoric studies as a meetingground for literary studies and linguistics, which for some time now havevisibly gone apart.
You are trying to attract wideraudiences to this subject, mainly through television and radio; together withAneta 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 hadbeen published a few years before, could be understood by very few people, justlike 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, butalso an inherent part of our everyday life. I was trying to translate some of my theoretical ideas (and those of myco-author, who is a linguist) into a simpler language and to write sort of acourse book.
Is rhetoric teachable?
Not in a traditional sense, I think, but youcan sensitize people to some language issues. You can teach them how to becomemore conscious of what is useful in their own language and what is not, as wellas how to overcome those linguistic obstacles that hinder communication.
What are the most importantguidelines for using rhetoric effectively?
Most of all, you need to listen to otherpeople and to watch how they react to what you say. Some people believe thatthe 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 principalform of communication. While kids in America start to learn how to speakeffectively in pre-school, in Poland it’s still unheard of.
Who are the studentsparticipating in the rhetoric graduate courses that you teach at theJagiellonian University?
Half of them are Catholic priests, who get a chance to widen thehomiletics, which they study in seminaries, with “secular” communication. Next,we have spokesmen, who want to learn how to conduct meetings and how to take astand in public debates. From time to time, we get an interesting case, likethat 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 herselffrom her words and from her emotions. It was a great challenge for us.
You have recently translated twocollections of poems about Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin, When WeWere Very Young and Now We Are Six into Polish. Why Milne?
It was partly coincidence, partly impudence [laughs]. I was offered this translationand eventually thrown into deep water. I do have some ease in rhyming and Ilove 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 thatby Antoni Marianowicz and Irena Tuwim, and on the other hand, by ZofiaKierszys, and thus found myself between a not-so-true but beautiful translationand a true but more prosaic one. And this is where I eventually tried to stay –in the middle.
It’s fascinating that these poemscan be equally appreciated by adults.
Absolutely. They can be read at least on two levels. They are forchildren in the same way as they are about children. They show us thatchildhood is not some idyllic time at all. Just the opposite – a child issimply a little man who finds himself lonely in the world of adults.Christopher Milne, who was the addressee of these poems and had a somewhatdifficult relationship with his father, said that it was only after he had readthese poems – he was already grown-up at that time – that he started toappreciate how much his father actually understood him.
What is your key to a goodtranslation?
I try not to be too theoretical about it; I do it intuitively to a greatextent. 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 oftheir peers. So I try not to make it childlike – or childish, if you will – atany cost. While I was working on PeterPan, 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 forintelligent kids. I did the same with Charles Schulz’s Peanuts.
Let’s stay within the Englishliterary tradition and talk about limericks. They seem to be experiencing a realrenaissance on the Polish literary scene, especially in Krakow. There is even aLimerick 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 lookat the etymology of the word “art” we find its origin in techne, whichin Greek means craft. In Poland especially, we think of poetry as somethingthat aspires to the higher, the farther, and the deeper. Poles envision a poetas a Romantic figure who is leaning over his hand with a longing look on hisface, but it is often forgotten that a poet, besides mere inspiration, mustpossess craft. And it is the craft that is crucial in the literature ofnonsense. This genre had not been treated seriously in Poland for a long time.When the a5 Publishing Company published the anthology of pure nonsense andabsurd literature entitled The Purple Cow,translated and edited by Stanislaw Baranczak*, it did not sell very well. Butthis is a fantastic book, a milestone in the Polish literary tradition! It wasonly when Wislawa Szymborska openly admitted to writing such poems, did thegeneral public change their attitude. Thanks to limericks people realized theexistence of aristocratic and city humor. Limericks have the elegance – atleast in its form – on the one hand and on the other hand the frivolousness,but in white gloves.
What about epitaphs and theirtwisted humor?
This is also deeply rooted in English tradition, because in Poland, youmust be very serious about death matters; you are not supposed to laugh atdeath. When we published The Epitaphs forthe In- and Outsiders of the New Province** with epitaphs for our livingfriends and acquaintances, the newspapers raved about it, and people realizedthat this could be very entertaining. And mind you, such an attitude does notcorrespond to the Romantic paradigm of poetry.
Some say that it was your senseof humor that got you the job of Wislawa Szymborska’s secretary.
That is quite probable, because she would not be able to bear withanybody who lacked sense of humor.
I know you are often nagged abouther 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 isthanks to her that I dared to publish my own work. She often looks at mywriting and makes comments. Besides, she is “contagious” – she is so playfulwith words, also in everyday life. This proves that she treats language veryseriously.
What is “Wislawa Szymborska’sBureau”?
Oh, this is just my cell phone and a laptop [laughs]. She doesnot need a secretary as an institution. This official name exists only to keepher private address… well, private.
She is a very privateperson – she is notorious for her shyness; she avoids the media; she does notgive interviews. Is it partly because whatever she wants to tell the world shetells in her poems?
Yes, I think so.
Is it hard to be a „shield” for aNobel Laureate?
It is, sometimes, or especially when, in my mind, the offer she getsseems to create a terrific opportunity. But on the other hand, when I sense thatafterwards it might cause her suffering, I withdraw, and truly, I never insiston anything. If she says “no” I do not discuss the matter any further.
Do you mind when people perceiveyou first of all as Wislawa Szymborska’s secretary?
I don’t think it is bad when I am introduced in the media as hersecretary, because it is true, and it is an honor. What I don’t like is when itis 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 isleft in the published interview.
Are there any other literaryareas 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 ofmusicals. I have just finished Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies. These are fabulous songs from the thirtiesand the biggest challenge is this swinging rhythm, so difficult to convey inthe lengthy Polish language. Also recently, I have translated songs for anothermusical Jekyll and Hyde, whichpremiered 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 withit, and I reflect upon it.
Thank you very much.
The interviewwas originally conducted in Polish and then translated into English by theauthor.
*Renowned Polish poet,translator, literary critic, and Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatureat the Harvard University.
**Trendy cafe in the OldTown district of Krakow, place for informal gatherings of artists and forliterary promotions; occasionally operates as a publishing house.