The Art of Translation with Ursula Phillips
Illustration by Marcel Olczyński

The Art of Translation with Ursula Phillips

The Valdemar Questionnaire
Ernest Valdemar
time 5 minutes

In the Valdemar Questionnaire, we give voice to translators who reflect on their work and role as intermediaries between languages and cultures. In this instalment of our series, Valdemar takes on Ursula Phillips, the translator and indefatigable promoter of Polish women’s literature.

You can read Ursula’s translation of Piotr Paziński’s “Izaak Feldwurm’s Manuscript” here.

How did you become a translator of Polish?

By default. I never planned a career as a translator. I came from Russian and German studies, worked for many years as a Slavic librarian. When I started to learn Polish in this context in the early 1980s, something (a spirit from Beyond?) prompted me to start translating. My training has been entirely practical, based on experience.


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Why do you translate from Polish?

It is now the language I feel I know best. There are many unknown Polish works I would like to make available in English, although the choice made by translators is not the only factor in achieving this: publishers have to be convinced that there is a potential audience and therefore market.

What part of your job do you like most?

Freedom, being my own boss, not being tied to set working hours, although it is essential to be disciplined. Also, being able to spend all day working with literary texts. 

What part do you hate most?

That I am never totally satisfied with the finished product, that I constantly want to change things, improve things. A long time has to elapse before I can bear to read again any of my published translations; I am bound to come across something I know I could have done better, differently. A translation is always a compromise, only one of many possible versions; one day’s decision may not be tomorrow’s.

Why did you decide to translate “Izaak Feldwurm’s Manuscript”?

I fell in love with the atmosphere and tone of this story and the others that make up the whole collection Ptasie ulice (Bird Streets). I was learning Yiddish at the time, and was fascinated by the way in which the former life and culture of the streets lies just below the surface of present-day Polish reality, there to be seen and felt if you open your mind.

In the book, the dead Feldwurm is described as an uninvited guest, who pesters the living. Who or what is the ghost that pesters the translator? (Valdemar wants to know…)

Well, is Feldwurm dead? We never know for sure. I often sense the spirit of my former teacher of Polish, he prods and encourages, but can also be as critical as he was in life.

What was the most difficult moment in translating this book?

Definitely capturing its mood. It is nostalgic and sometimes poignant, but never sentimental, also gently humorous – getting this balance is difficult in the transfer into English.

What one word will you remember from the book?

Hochsztapler: an ‘imposter’. A useful word in the context of mediums…

What is your favourite sentence in “Izaak Feldwurm’s Manuscript”?

“If he regretted anything, then it was the rejected pages, as if with every screwed-up piece of paper there perished not only a slice of Warsaw, but also someone’s name, and along with the name, also the person.”

What is the most difficult thing in translating from Polish?

I would say the syntax and the fact that Polish is an inflected language, which means that elements can be moved around in a sentence for emphasis or poetic effect; the nature of English grammar and word order means that such possibilities are restricted and therefore present a fundamental challenge to the translator’s inventiveness.

Do you sometimes feel like a medium? (Valdemar wants to know)

I would say a ‘mediator’ (between languages) rather than a ‘medium’. I hesitate to totally dismiss them (you never know, perhaps not all are imposters?) but I stay well clear of spiritualist mediums! The spirits of the dead should be left in peace.

What does a good translation sound like?

For me it has to sound natural, convincing – even if this is a deliberate deception on the part of the translator, by which I mean language can be inventive, foreign elements can be retained, the stylistic possibilities of English can be expanded, provided the new text flows naturally, without awkward formulations.

Is everything translatable?

Yes and no. In terms of ‘sense’ or ‘content’, yes, most things can be translated. When it comes however to an author’s original use of language, based for example on grammatical structures specific to Polish, or to culturally and/or geographically exclusive concepts and vocabulary, then translation can only be an approximation, and some things will inevitably be lost. A translation can never be a carbon copy of the original.

What is the book you would like to translate most?

I am planning to translate Pola Gojawiczyńska’s Dziewczęta z Nowolipek [The Girls from Nowolipki], published in 1935. Set immediately before the outbreak of the First World War, the group of working-class Polish and Jewish young women inhabit the very same part of Warsaw as the protagonists of Piotr Paziński’s Bird Streets.

What is your favourite occupation (translation excluded)?

Playing the piano. It completely takes my mind off translating. I need to switch off in order to recharge the batteries…

What is your idea of a translator’s perfect happiness?

The moment when a publisher responds positively to the translator’s pitch and agrees to sign and fund a translation.

What is the quality you most like in a translation?

Fluency, concision and energy (that’s at least two).

What do you consider the most overrated virtue in translation?

The idea that a translation should read as if it had originally been written in English.

Is there any author you are afraid of translating (Valdemar wants to know)?

Well, I’m rather wary of those Romantic poets. I have wrestled, I am not sure if successfully, with Mickiewicz – but Słowacki, Krasiński, I sense they are rather too far Beyond my spiritual range.

If you were to die and come back as a person (but not a translator) or a thing, what would it be? (Valdemar wants to know…)

I have often wished I could be reborn as an opera diva – music reaches parts words cannot reach, and its emotional impact does not have to be translated, although it too has to be somehow communicated by a performer.


Ursula Phillips:

A translator from Polish and a scholar of Polish feminist literature. Her translational output includes: Narcyza Żmichowska’s The Heathen, Maria Wirtemberska’s Malvina, Wiesław Myśliwski’s The Palace, as well as several books by Agnieszka Taborska. Phillips’ translation of Zofia Nałkowska’s Choucas was awarded the Found in Translation Award in 2015.


Also read:

Izaak Feldwurm’s Manuscript
Ulica Gęsia (Goose Street) in Warsaw, around 1908. Photo from public domain

Izaak Feldwurm’s Manuscript

Piotr Paziński

Post-war Warsaw, April. A group of people meets next to the Monument to the Ghetto Heroes to hear yet again the story of Izaak Feldwurm. Their narrator is the elderly Pan Abram, who knew Feldwurm from before the war and who even thinks that he once saw his legendary manuscript. But what was this legendary work all about and was it ever finished? Did it, as some claim, survive the war hidden in a tin receptacle under the rubble? Or was it rather destroyed by the author? And did Feldwurm himself survive? How else would he be pestering the living today – so many years later? Why would he not let himself be forgotten? Questions abound as the narrator of the story sets out in search of the manuscript and its legendary author…

He longed to be a writer. A great and famous writer like Yitskhok Leybush Peretz or Stefan Żeromski. When his office was closed, and so on Saturdays and feast-days, when he neither attended the promotional evenings of other authors nor visited the Hasidim, Izaak Feldwurm would write up the notes to his own book. He had been writing for years and was unable to finish it. According to friends, who referred to Feldwurm’s own confessions but had never seen the manuscript, it was a vast and vitally important novel about the city of Warsaw and its inhabitants. The action was to embrace several, if not fourteen generations. As to the main protagonists, Feldwurm had thought up over two dozen himself. They were merchants, clerks, staid middle-class townsfolk, rabbis and wonder-workers, but also representatives of Warsaw’s proletariat. Their stories were subtly interwoven; businesses passed from father to son; troubles with which grandmothers had wrestled affected granddaughters and great granddaughters. Some inherited servants, others poverty—as if in Feldwurm’s novelistic world no one was privileged to free themselves from their destiny, defined here once and for all, to some extent in harmony with the author’s fatalistic view of the deficiencies of earthly justice. 

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