Untranslatable elements in "Ferdydurke"


FerdydurkeFerdydurke was considered to be an untranslatable work in the 50s and 60s, just like other works of Gombrowicz. The author himself was to blame for this fact as the specific range of vocabulary, long, complicated sentences and the strange word order made the book rather difficult in reading and understanding some of its parts, let alone translating it.

[ – First published in 2006 – ]

Nevertheless, there was a growing interest in the polish author in the world and thus his books needed any translation badly. That is why, the same fact of it being translated in 1961 by Eric Mosbacher was sufficient. Nobody really pondered over this translation, which was a pity, because as it was not translated directly from Polish into English, but from French, and with lots of fragments missing, the version seemed to be really poor and not giving justice to Gombrowicz’s masterpiece. Gombrowicz, however, did not know any English and thus was not able to criticize the translation.

Gombrowicz wrote of his novel that it is not „… a satire on some social class, nor a nihilistic attack on culture… He said: ‘We live in an era of violent changes, of accelerated development, in which settled forms are breaking under life’s pressure… The need to find a form for what is yet immature, uncrystalized and underdeveloped, as well as the groan at the impossibility of such a postulate — this is the chief excitement of my book.”[1]

‘As much as anything, the book is a rich celebration of language, full of neologisms, pastiche and linguistic playfulness. This makes it difficult to translate, and anglophone readers have not been helped by the fact that early translations of the text were indirect, done from the French.

Danuta Borchardt has completed a direct translation of the novel, published in 2000, that deftly captures Gombrowicz’s idiosyncratic style, allowing English speakers to fully experience the text’[2]. Moreover, her translation was preceded by an introduction, which cleared the way for it through the demanding and difficult American reading market.

Krystyna Lipińska-Iłłakowicz in her article “Gombrowicz in America”[3] wrote she had been ‘haunted for many years by a literary nightmare. The nightmare was a fragmented, cut into pieces Ferdydurke in the English version by Eric Mosbacher, which from 1961 had been the only available, translation of the masterpiece’. She noticed that other difficult works like Ullisses or Alice in Wonderland were perfectly translated into Polish, while Gombrowicz or Leśmian had always been labeled either as untranslatable or they underwent the process, which can be undoubtedly called ‘castration’. Lipińska was very pleased when in 2000 Yale University Press published the new translation of Ferdydurke by Danuta Borchard. According to Lipińska, it was the only, genuine translation of Ferdydurke and it was all thanks to Danuta.

Not only Krystyna Lipińska-Iłłakowicz praised the translation, but also many other critics and literary experts. An American essayist, short story writer, and novelist, a leading commentator on modern culture – Susan Sontag ‘ushers this new translation into print with a strong and useful foreword, calling Gombrowicz’s tale „extravagant, brilliant, disturbing, brave, funny… wonderful. And it is”.’[4]

A professor of literature, Eva Hoffman, said: „[The translation] is faithful to the substance of the original and gives the reader a good, zesty flavor of Gombrowicz’s inspired idiosyncrasy. . . . It remains a genuinely astonishing masterwork that is bound to last. „[5]

A poet, translator, literary critic, essayist, scholar, editor and lecturer, Stanisław Barańczak also gave his opinion on the work of Danuta Borchard: “This promises to be, at last, the English translation of Ferdydurke that we have all been waiting for.”[6]

 It is a book about a 30-year-old man, who finds himself imprisoned in the world of schoolboys by a professor who wishes to reduce him to childishness. It was originally published in Poland in 1937 and it became an immediate sensation and made the young author famous. ‘Deemed scandalous and subversive by Nazis, Stalinists and the Polish Communist regime in turn, the novel was officially banned in Poland for decades but remains one of the most influential works of 20th century European literature’.[7]

In fact, the work on the text of Ferdydurke is like a translation from two languages simultaneously, from Polish and from Gombrowicz’s at the same time. The change of environment, ways of behaving and thinking in the work takes place by the process of defamiliarization. Gombrowicz himself said of it that it was a difficult text which invited the reader into complicated ideas of his style.

In my work I am going to present some of the problems and ideas that Danuta Borchardt faced while translating some ‘untranslatable’ elements of Ferdydurke as well as my comments on her translation.

Danuta Borchardt during her lecture given at Boston University (April 28th, 2000)[8] noticed that other translations of the masterpiece read like ponderous paraphrases, with omissions of the most beautiful and complex fragments.

There are two main metaphors in Gombrowicz’s work. One of them is ‘pupa’ and the other one ‘gęba’. ‘Gęba’ is a metaphor for a kind of disguise, a form that one should not disregard, and is translated as a ‘mug’. ‘Pupa’ is the symbol of childishness and in English it can be translated as buttocks, backside, bum or rump. It was quite a great problem because nobody really knew what would suit the context best. However, Danuta Borchardt finally decided to leave ‘pupa’ as it was and not to translate it. It could have been a good idea, if there wasn’t any such word in English. Nevertheless, as it appears in English, but with a completely different meaning, the association may be certainly not with buttocks. It is a pity, to some extend, because one may have an impression that something has been taken away from the original. Every time a Polish reader encounters the word ‘pupa’ it brings to him/ her very specific associations, which are with something infantile, connected very often with childishness and immaturity. English does not have such counterpart, nevertheless, leaving the word not translated bring some other associations, completely not connected with the part of the body. Thus, to choose the lesser evil, she probably should have left one of the English terms for ‘pupa’.

As Gombrowicz’s language is very complicated, but at the same time rich, he usually, while describing a certain thing or a process, uses synonyms or words imposing difficult to imagine images which also caused problems during translation, because in the English language they simply do not function.  For example ‘wewnętrzne rozdarcie, rozproszenie i rozproszkowanie’, she had to translate in a bit descriptive way ‘disintegration when all would be blown to pieces and scattered to the winds’. It proved to be a very good way out in some cases, as, when reading the translated text, it all runs smoothly and naturally, without unnecessary complications.

Gombrowicz’s idiosyncratic style largely depends on his long and complicated sentences, which convey lots of ideas. English is the language that prefers short, not very complex sentences, which proved to be quite a challenge for Danuta to preserve the author’s almost labyrinthine ways of describing things with making it readable for the English audience. The fact is that she did not resign from leaving very long sentences as they were, but at some points, when it stopped being understandable in English, she had to cut them shorter. The point is that she did it with such skill, that it seems not quite natural, but still readable and in this respect the translation is similar to the original.

The situation is similar when we take into consideration the Polish language. In Polish we have the possibility to add to some words prefixes or/and suffixes to create new words, new categories of words or simply neologisms, as Gombrowicz did in Ferdydurke quite frequently. Such words, then, cannot be reflected by English equivalents, because they do not exist. As an example I will give the polish phrase: ‘przyczesać się i uporządkować’ when referred to the person. In English it must be translated in a descriptive way as: ‘to run a comb through my hair and tidy up my affairs’. Although it is not as simple and straightforward as in the Polish language, it must stay as it is because of the lack of English equivalent. There is also a number of neologisms used by Gombrowicz that are considered untranslatable, because no such word or even similar can be created in English. To such words we can add ‘upupić’, which was changed from the noun into the verb.

Another important issue is that of a ‘flavour’ of a word. Sometimes when we use a word, we have the feeling of it being awkward, old-fashioned or simply not used in the language, a neologism. When translating such word, it has to be taken into consideration that it is impossible in most cases to preserve its character.  Certainly, it can be done with other words, just to keep the same style. Nevertheless, such ‘difficult’ words include Polish exclamations like: ‘Jakże!’ It was translated by Danuta as ‘Oh, sure’, which is somehow more popular in usage than the Polish word. The same problem is with the word ‘chłystek’, which Danuta Borchardt translated as ‘a juvenile’. ‘Babiny’ is translated as ‘hens’, ‘onegdaj’ as ‘once’ and ‘trzewik’ as ‘shoe’. In all cases, the words translated do not bring the same connotations and in English they seem more modern than Polish old-fashioned ‘equivalents’. Nevertheless, they had to be translated in such a way as there was no other option.

Another problem was the Polish prefix ‘niedo’, for example ‘niedoświatek ludzi niedoludzkich’ and many other similar words. As ‘niedo’ in English means ‘not quite’, Danuta Borchardt translated every ‘niedo’ (and there was lots of them) with not-quite, using hyphens. Therefore, she translated the phrase as ‘the little not-quite world of the not-quite humans’. Here, another difficulty appears. ‘Światek’ is not ‘świat’ or ‘world’ in English, as it gives us the concept of it being smaller than ‘świat’. Danuta Borchardt admitted that:

The use of diminutives is very prevalent in Polish. It is at times an annoying habit, and gives an air of affectation. Gombrowicz used them in the service of the ridiculous.

She said: ‘I dealt with it by using the word ‘little’, or by inserting another adjective ‘cute little head’ to make it sound more natural, or by adding an ‘ie’ as in sweetie’. Therefore, in the sentence ‘noga stała się nóżką, ręka – rączką, istota – stotką, dzieło – dziełkiem, ciało – ciałkiem’, we have got: ‘my leg became a little leg, my hand – a little hand, my persona – a little persona, my being – a little being, my oeuvre – a little oeuvre’. And so, it did work, as it reads smoothly and does not sound awkward.

The translation is done in American English, as she claims it suited better to Gombrowicz’s informal style. Also, as Danuta Borchardt noticed:

Gombrowicz used several types of idiomatic Polish-colloquial, literary, and the language of Polish peasants. To convey the flavour of the peasant language, that, as such, does not exist in American English, I have relied on the forms used by the uneducated, for example by dropping the terminal ‘g’ as in startin’ instead of ‘starting’, and by using double negatives.

Moreover, where inversion in Polish appears or the deliberate change of style is introduced, only to put an emphasis on some word or phrase, Danuta Borchardt tries to follow it and does so in English, of course on condition that it does not disturb its logic. As an example, I will give:  ‘Słowacki wielkim poetą był’. Danuta, in order to make it more similar to the Polish original, translated it as: ‘Because Słowacki – oh, what a great poet he was’.

            The last but one thing that was really difficult to translate, or seemed even untranslatable, was not the names of the characters, because Danuta did it very well, but one title of the chapter. It was ‘Filidor dzieckiem podszyty’. It caused many problems, because in English, the exact translation would be: ‘Filidor lined with the child’, which does not make much sense in English. Eric Mosbacher translated it as: ‘Filidor honeycombed with childishness’, however, it still lacked something. Finally, Danuta Borchardt came to the conclusion that she would translate it as: ‘the child runs deep in Filidor’ and such translation, although differing from the Polish version, fully gives the content of the title and sounds very well.

            It is no wonder that Danuta Borchardt was given a National Translation Award by American Literary Translator Association for the best translation of the year. For her, there seemed to be no ‘untranslatable part in Ferdydurke’.

            The last thing that I am going to comment on is the final fragment of Ferdydurke.

Eric Mosbacher omitted ‘koniec i bomba, kto czytał ten trąba’ as it proved to be very difficult to translate. However, it deprived the text the metafictional significance which is questioning the credibility of the text by the text itself. Danuta Borchardt, on the other hand, dealt with it very successfully, translating it into:

“It’s the end, what a gas,

And who’s read it is an ass!”


[1] Borchardt Danuta, Exquisite Corpse – A Journal of Letters & Life, ‘Translating Witold Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke’,  <http://corpse.org/issue_5/critical_urgencies/borchar.htm>, April 28th, 2000.

[2] Wikipedia, <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ferdydurke>,2 April 2006

[3] Krystyna lipieńska- Iłłakowicz, Przegląd Polski (9 listopada 2001), ‘Gombrowicz w Ameryce’ (cz I)

[4] Yale University Press, <http://yalepress.yale.edu/yupbooks/reviews.asp?isbn=0300082401>, ‘Ferdydurke’, April 2006.

[5] Yale University Press, <http://yalepress.yale.edu/yupbooks/reviews.asp?isbn=0300082401>, ‘Ferdydurke’, 3 April 2006.

[6] Yale University Press, <http://yalepress.yale.edu/yupbooks/reviews.asp?isbn=0300082401>, ‘Ferdydurke’, 3 April 2006.

[7] Marion Boyars Publishers, <http://www.marionboyars.co.uk/Amy%20individual%20book%20info/Ferdydurke.html>, ‘Ferdydurke, Witold Gombrowicz’, 16 February 2006.

[8] Borchardt Danuta, Exquisite Corpse – A Journal of Letters & Life, ‘Translating Witold Gombrowicz’s Ferdydurke’,  <http://corpse.org/issue_5/critical_urgencies/borchar.htm>, April 28th, 2000.

(All references from Danuta Borchardt’s lecture will be to this website.)


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