On translating Parnicki

Highly inflected grammar creates alluring degrees of freedom. Consider case agreement. This is the grammatical rule per which the noun and all adjectives which modify it must be in the same case. Here are two examples from Polish:

odważny wielorybnik (brave whaler)

białego kaszalota (white killer-whale)

It may not be immediately apparent to you that białego and kaszalota agree, but trust me, they do. Any speaker of Polish can immediately tell that białego is white in singular, masculine, and accusative; which is also what kaszalota is – killer-whale -- masculine, singular, accusative; and that therefore the two words go together.

On the other hand it is immediately apparent that odważny (brave, singular, masculine, nominative) agrees with wielorybnik (whaler, singular, masculine, nominative) and that these two go together.

Therefore, a sentence like

Odważny wielorybnik zabił białego kaszalota
(Brave whaler killed white killer-whale)

May be scrambled as

Białego zabił odważny wielorybnik kaszalota
(White killed brave whaler killer-whale)
Odważny zabił białego kaszalota wielorybnik
(Brave killed white killer-whale whaler)
etc. without loss of meaning or clarity.

Really. In Polish, unlike English (or Chinese) sentence order is immaterial to meaning. This means that a sentence of five words can appear in 5! = 120 possible permutations and yet in everyone of them mean the same thing.

But the point is not the permutations; the point is that an adjective-noun group can be broken up by other material and yet remain legible; this intruding material can be of great length, perhaps being a subordinate clause; or even several. This allows Polish sentences to go on and on and on and yet remain transparent long after an English sentence of the same length would become completely and hopelessly incomprehensible.

Such capacity for complexity invites intelligent men (it is almost always men -- it's a form of sexual display) to try their hand at it; and to show off their grammatical prowess by piling these things on.


Parnicki’s prose does this in spades. It’s easily the most complex, convoluted, long-winded prose I have ever read. I am dazed by it.

Often as I read I feel at the very limit of my cognitive powers, the meaning of the sentence overflowing my memory buffer, various dangling bits of the sentence slipping beyond the spotlight of my attention and receding into forgetfulness. The sentences appear to fall apart. I have to back up and start again. It is like working my way through a thorny thicket. There is a sense of dislocation but also – adventure. I love it.

Translating is even more difficult: most sentences I have to write and rewrite several times before they make sense in English; often I am stuck in the middle of one, realizing that trying to keep the two – the Polish original and the growing, transforming English -- has exhausted my powers of cognition and the two sentences appear to run in different directions, become two different sentences. I must then go back and start from scratch.

And sometimes I discover Polish sentences which I do not understand. Perhaps they are too long for my brain and perhaps their author had intentionally run them this long in order to make them unclear to me; or perhaps they exhausted Parnicki’s own powers of cerebration and defeated him: perhaps he did not understand them himself.

When reading a Parnicki novel I can usually persuade myself that I have somehow caught the drift of such sentences; but when I am obliged to put them into English, and therefore to make explicit that meaning which I thought I had divined in them, I discover that actually, no, the meaning which I had thought I had spotted in it is not there; that a different meaning appears to reside in it.

The style has its enemies. More than one critic accused Parnicki of hypergraphia, possibly not without good raison: I wonder myself sometimes. But, whether Parnicki had consciously chosen this style for the job, or whether he simply cannot help himself, being unable to write any other sort of prose, is not as important as the fact that the prose seems to suit the novels whose theme is almost invariably very bright men lost in the thicket of their own thoughts. No one can screw up his life as successfully as an intelligent person; and Parnicki’s novels illustrate how that mechanism works. The style of the novels puts the reader right in the middle of all these complicated, hopelessly entwined thoughts; and takes him right to their disastrous ends where they lose themselves in the shadows of meaninglessness.

(The potential complexity of thought is possibly infinite; it is certainly far greater than the smartest brain can handle. The key to successful cerebration is simplification: the cognitive equivalent of the Gordian knot solution; simplifying without over-simplifying, of course, so as not to lose all subtlety, so as not to primitivize life; but simplifying all the same; estimating, ball-parking, rule-of-thumbing; not sweating out the detail whose meaning falls in the parts per million).

I have no hope of rendering Parnicki’s style in English well; or of creating anything but the faintest intimation of the kind of impression it makes on the Polish reader. I certainly have no illusion of its commercial potential: the most successful of his novels was published in an imprint of 10,009 copies. But translating him seems the natural next step to my life-time engagement with his work: it offers a new, active way of engaging him and his prose. And, as frustrating as it is, it is also tremendous fun.


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