Queer History Behind the Iron Curtain

Queer History Behind the Iron Curtain: Remigiusz Ryziński’s Foucault in Warsaw

Tara Wanda Merrigan interviews translator Sean Gasper Bye

Ryziński, Remigiusz. Foucault in Warsaw, translated from the Polish by Sean Gasper Bye. Open Letter, 2021, $15.95, 220 pages. ISBN: 978-1-948830-36-2.

I was in Warsaw finishing translating The King of Warsaw just before I started this book and I  went through the list at the back with all of the locations mentioned. I wrote them all down in a notebook and tracked them down on a map. I did, like Ryziński does in the book, a walking tour of the city to see these places in person and get a sense of how they are, really, just around the corner or up the block from one another…

Foucault in Warsaw, translated from the Polish by Sean Gasper Bye, investigates the year Michel Foucault spent in Warsaw, where the young Foucault was working as a cultural attache for the French government and finishing his dissertation, but was expelled under mysterious circumstances in 1959. Starting from a cryptic reference in the History of Madness — “in the stubborn, bright sun of Polish liberty” — author Remigiusz Ryziński pieces together what happened to Foucault during his stay in the Polish People’s Republic and the company he enjoyed there.

In tracking down the details of Foucault’s underexamined year in Poland, the book offers a vivid, panoramic portrait of gay life in the Polish capital in the late 1950s: the cafes, clubs, and public spaces that anchored midcentury queer social life. Also notable is the relative freedom Foucault’s Warsaw contemporaries report: “[P]ractically everyone knew what was really going on here,” says Lulla, an old-guard drag queen, of one of the premiere public bathrooms for cruising. “It was the city’s open secret. But no one found it strange, no one made a fuss. People not only considered it normal, it was obvious and ordinary.”

I spoke with Sean about the book’s tender depiction of midcentury Warsaw and the queer social scene that welcomed Foucault. Our conversation took place in Philadelphia on a July morning, about a month after Open Letter published his translation of Foucault in Warsaw and about a month before Sean would take up a translation residency at Princeton University. There he will be teaching translation workshops and translating a book about Rita Gorgonowa, an infamous Polish woman who was convicted of murder but was released from prison shortly after the German invasion in 1939.

Tara Wanda Merrigan: How did you get your start translating Polish literature?

Sean Gasper Bye: My family has Polish background, and that got me interested. I didn’t really know anything about Poland or Polish, but decided to study it in college. I was required to take Polish literature and just really loved it. I knew the names. I knew Szymborska and I knew Miłosz, but I had never really read it before that course. We started with Anna Świrszczyńska and worked our way backwards because language-wise, her poems are very short and very simple so they’re good for beginners. But the content is heavy duty — Polish post-war feminism. So I discovered this whole new world of Polish literature, and I really fell in love.

My plan all along had been that I was going to work for the State Department so I studied as many languages as I could, mainly Polish, but I also speak French and did some German and Russian.

I went to school in the UK in London and then moved to DC to try to break into the State Department. But I didn’t like DC, didn’t like what I was hearing about the State Department and had this visa window where I could get back into the UK and so I was like, well, I’m gonna go back to London and figure something out. There I got introduced to Antonia Lloyd-Jones who ended up taking me under her wing as her mentee. We did that informally for a bit and then we got proper funding to do a mentorship through the British Centre for Literary Translation. That was in 2013, and that was the start of my translation work. I did translation on the side of full-time day jobs up until about three years ago, and I’ve been translating full-time since then.

TWM: I’m curious about your affinity for Polish nonfiction. It’s not as commonly translated into English as Polish fiction and poetry. Do you translate nonfiction because of your affection for the genre? To right that imbalance?

SGB: This was one of the things that Antonia and I bonded over. She’s basically the main translator of Polish reportage. We both think it’s in some ways a uniquely Polish genre, an independent Polish tradition that arose specifically in Poland and that, as far as I can tell from my research, doesn’t come from a broader European tradition.

I remember reading Ryszard Kapuściński in school and just being captivated by his style. Also, my academic orientation was more politics and history than literature, so I think that’s one of the reasons that reportage appealed to me. Polish reportage offers a kind of nonfiction that I think Americans enjoy but are not very used to, so I like kind of bringing people something new. I often compare these books to reading an episode of This American Life. It’s nonfiction clearly but it’s also clearly crafted, it’s literarized in a very conscious way. It’s humanistic, character-driven, and not strictly narrative.

I love the research that goes along with translating nonfiction. I love learning about these places and these histories. I never really planned for it to be the main thing that I focus on but it has become a focus because I read so much of it, there are not a lot of translators who work on it, and it feels nice to keep working closely with Antonia.

TWM: Regarding the research you undertake for translation projects, I read in a previous Q&A you gave for your recent translation of Ellis Island: A People’s History by Małgorzata Szejnert that you had to track down the English originals of primary source materials from Ellis Island that Szejnert had translated into Polish for her book. That sounds like quite a task!

SGB: It was months of work. I had an NEA fellowship to do that book, and the reason I applied for it and I think the reason I got it was basically to cover the research costs. Luckily I was still living in New York at the time, and the Ellis Island archive is divided between the New York Public Library and the Ellis Island Library. I spent almost every day for two months in the genealogy division of the New York Public Library tracking all this stuff down. And then I did two trips to the island to find original materials. Szejnert was quoting from unpublished manuscripts, diaries, from transcripts of oral histories that have been collected at the island, some of which were online and some of which weren’t. It was really interesting going to the island because that book had come out ten years before in Polish and the author had done all of her research in the library there, and the librarians remembered her. One of them had made very good friends with Szejnert, so we bonded over that.

Also because Szejnert had translated all of those source materials into Polish herself, the extracts and quotations had her incredibly elegant, crystalline style. The Polish book had a stylistic uniformity. Translating the book into English and using the originals, though, there are all these different-sounding voices. But I really liked how the book turned out in English. I don’t see this as a translation problem. I see it as a translation bonus. It’s what happens when a book crosses over a cultural threshold and ends up just living differently in a different language.

TWM: Was Foucault in Warsaw similarly research-intensive?

SGB: For this book I had to do the same thing, but on a smaller scale. I had to track down the existing translations of Foucault, but it was tricky because by then I was working on the book in lockdown. So I was very dependent on what I could find online or what my librarian friends could send me.

Generally with third-language source material, I don’t want to do an indirect translation from Polish if I can avoid it, so I end up having to go and hunt down existing English translations. For this book, I had to track down the English translations for the epigrams quoting Foucault (which had been translated into Polish) and also for the chapter that’s an overview of Foucault’s work.

TWM: What drew you to Remigiusz Ryziński’s book? How did you decide to translate Foucault in Warsaw?

SGB: I picked up Foucault w Warszawie at a bookstore when I was on a trip over to Poland. The book had an amazing cover: it’s a rainbow-tinted image of a male torso with a little tattoo of Foucault right in the middle of the chest. I saw it on the shelf at a bookstore and had to buy it. It was also a nominee for the Nike prize, which is the biggest literary prize in Poland, so it had been on my radar. More generally, I’m interested in queer Polish literature so I keep an eye on new work. I started reading and was fascinated by the book.

Before I went full-time freelance, I was working at the Polish Cultural Institute New York, running their literary programming. One of the things we did every year was organize a publishers’ trip to Poland. We would go over with a group of between two and six American publishers and introduce them to authors and to agents, take them around the bookstores, and give them a concrete sense of contemporary Polish literature. Chad Post from Open Letter was on the last trip I did. He knew about Polish reportage and was interested in publishing more of that work, so on the trip we germinated the idea of Open Letter doing a reportage series.

Antonia and I were showing Chad different titles that had recently come out and we landed on Foucault in Warsaw. It’s the first in a series of translated reportage books from Open Letter.

TWM: One of the things I loved most about this translation is how rich and atmospheric it is. I felt like I had been placed into mid-century Polish gay culture.

SGB: Prior to translating this book, I hadn’t read Foucault. I knew him by reputation. So for me Foucault was really just the entry point for the book. What really appealed to me was its window into queer culture.

It’s also such a beautiful portrait of Warsaw at a really interesting time in the city’s history. Warsaw has such a wild history. And it’s a place that’s really coming into its own now in a way that it’s never had the opportunity to before. I was excited to be translating this book partly as a way of just shining a spotlight on Warsaw. I love the way that Ryziński uses quotes from contemporary newspapers and magazines to peek into the windows of cafes and restaurants.

I was in Warsaw finishing translating The King of Warsaw just before I started this book and I went through the list at the back with all of the locations mentioned. I wrote them all down in a notebook and tracked them down on a map. I did, like Ryziński does in the book, a walking tour of the city to see these places in person and get a sense of how they are, really, just around the corner or up the block from one another. You can imagine people running back and forth between all these different clubs and bars and cafes.

TWM: Thinking about the Warsaw atmosphere, one of the things I appreciated was the comparative history between communist Warsaw versus Western European liberal cities. I was struck by the book’s stories about people who had gone to Paris, been caught in bathrooms and then were not able to go back to Paris. Whereas Warsaw, despite being communist, did not place as many constraints on gay life because homosexuality per se was not illegal in Poland. It almost seemed utopic, which is an interesting way to portray communist Poland.

SGB: Yeah, it’s funny. The people interviewed in the book are like, “Oh, it was great in the ’50s. You could pick up whoever you wanted and you didn’t have to bother with social acceptability or any of that.”

TWM: The cruising stories were great, especially the ones about queer men buying dinner for soldiers in order to have sex with them.

SGB: Absolutely, it was very fun to translate. One of my pitches for translating this book into English was that I’m not aware of other books in English about queer history behind the Iron Curtain. Communist Poland’s relative tolerance of gay culture — it wasn’t criminalized — is something of an exception in the communist world. In the Soviet Union, for instance, homosexuality was banned under Stalin and remained illegal for decades. It was legalized in 1993 after the end of communism. From what I understand that meant queer culture in the Soviet Union was much more underground.

Also, the late ’50s is a period of the so-called “Thaw,” the “odwilż.” Stalin dies in ’53 and Khrushchev opens everything up again and starts de-Stalinization in ’56. In Poland Władysław Gomułka, who had been a dissident within the communist party and even in prison, takes over the party. So suddenly it’s this period of openness and optimism. The reconstruction of Warsaw after the war has made progress and the former cosmopolitan atmosphere — the old Warsaw that was nicknamed the Paris of the East — is returning. All of this together combines to make it a very dynamic period. You can understand why people look back on that and are like, “That was a pretty cool time to be alive.” Warsaw was literally leveled to the ground in ’44. Poland, as with the whole Eastern Bloc, was prohibited from participating in the Marshall Plan, so the reconstruction took a long time.

TWM: Did the current political situation in Poland, the anti-LGBT rhetoric from the ruling far-right party and the creation of “LGBT free zones” (strefy wolne od LGBT), play a role in your decision to translate this book?

SGB: I couldn’t say that there was a one-to-one correlation. The situation for gay people in Poland is bad and is getting worse, and I definitely feel like one of the things that we can do as translators is to highlight queer stories from Poland.

TWM: While translating Foucault in Warsaw, what kind of translation decisions did you have to make? What were some of the challenges you faced?

SGB: There were two separate sets of translation challenges. The first related to Ryziński’s prose style. He’s an academic and this is his first popular nonfiction book, and I could see some of the tension between those two styles in his writing. So I had to think hard about how to strike that balance in English.

The other challenge was dealing with the source material. There are these long monologues by people he interviewed, and the range of voices was really, really broad. Some spoke in this very old-fashioned, very campy Polish queer slang that I hadn’t encountered much before. I had sometimes heard some of that slang before but rarely in context, in a natural way. Bill Martin had translated Michał Witkowski’s novel Lovetown into English about ten years ago. It’s also set in the mid-twentieth century, about Polish queer life. He had a similar challenge where the book was written in that same kind of old-fashioned queer Polish slang. Bill, who’s a good friend of mine, had to basically invent a new kind of English. I had his work as an example, but I also wanted to come up with my own solutions.

I also felt a little constrained by the fact that this book was nonfiction. In The King of Warsaw, where I was dealing with 1930s gangster slang, I felt like I had a certain freedom because it was a novel. When I reached a dead-end in what I could do between the Polish and English, I had the liberty to do something quite different in English, as long as it was consistent with characters and the atmosphere and it worked in English.

With Foucault in Warsaw, I wanted it to sound like real English, so I did a lot of reading of American queer texts from the late ’50s and early ’60s. A big influence was City of Night by John Rechy which is about, among other things, hustling in New York in that period. Boys in the Band was something else that I read. I was looking to see how people were talking at that time in English and then I did a lot of research on the Polish. I had to think about how to use this slang effectively. Informal language is always very rooted in a particular time and place, and I felt like there were dynamics going on in American queer mid-century slang that weren’t present in Poland in the same time period. I had to do this very odd kind of deracination. There’s this whole dynamic, for instance, in American queer slang of new expressions being invented in queer communities of color and then being borrowed or appropriated by white queer communities. That wasn’t happening in Poland in the ’50s and ’60s. I had the really strange problem of needing to have all the same cultural cues but without the same cultural background. So much of camp is also about intonation or affect, which doesn’t show on the page. One of the things I found in my research was that a signal for camp speech in English was using a Frenchified language or fancy words for simple things. That wasn’t in the Polish particularly, but it was something that I put in in the English because it helped create the right tone.

I think I did arrive at a consistent and effective voice for these characters but in big-picture terms there are always questions about whether something is the right translation choice. I don’t know that what I did was the “right choice” in quotation marks. I think it’s a good example of something every translator would have done differently.

TWM: I’m curious about your decision to maintain certain Polish terms in their original, like homophobic slurs such as “pedał.” How did you decide which words to keep in Polish?

SGB: There were a couple of places that referenced specific words in Polish. Ryziński writes something like “Foucault only knew these like three or four words in Polish” and then lists the words. I thought okay, that’s a good reason to keep those in Polish. But I found myself wondering if people are going to know how to pronounce this word? Or is it just going to look like a train crash of consonants, like Polish often does to Americans? “Pedał” seemed like it would be legible to a certain degree to somebody who doesn’t know Polish, and it’s such a particular word. It has a vehemence. I felt like it communicated a lot.

On the one hand, those are eternal translation problems, but on the other hand, I think it’s a good illustration of why sometimes you want to keep the reader grounded in what’s actually happening in the Polish to the extent that that’s possible.

Sean Gasper Bye is a translator of Polish literature, most recently Foucault in Warsaw by Remigiusz Ryziński, Ellis Island: A People’s History by Małgorzata Szejnert, for which he received an NEA Translation Fellowship, and The King of Warsaw by Szczepan Twardoch, which was awarded the EBRD Literary Prize. A native of Bucks County, he studied at the University of London and worked for five years at the Polish Cultural Institute New York. He now lives in Philadelphia and translates full-time.

Tara Wanda Merrigan is a writer and translator. Her essays have appeared online in various literary outlets. She translates from Polish, Church Slavonic, and Latin. She is a graduate student at Central European University and a board member of the National Book Critics Circle.

Originally published on Hopscotch Translation
Tuesday, August 31, 2021

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