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Basia Howard: Translating Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska

3rd July 2017


Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska

Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska (1891-1945) is a legendary figure in Polish literature, a woman who threw herself into experiences that fuelled her creativity. After a bohemian life, she found herself a war refugee in Britain, where she remained for five years, writing till she died.

How did I become her translator? I arrived in England from behind the Iron Curtain in the mid-eighties, with the experience under my belt of motherhood, marriage, martial law, a brief spell in academia, and a nervous breakdown. I was also carrying a work in progress, which was a translation into Polish of John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. It was a project I was doing in collaboration with a friend, Dorota Głowacka, to help us escape the insanity of the early eighties in Poland.

After arrival in England I was blessed with new friends and people helping me navigate through such institutional labyrinths as finding a school for my little daughter and dealing with the immigration system. Even so I found myself feeling homesick and utterly stripped of identity, which led to discovering the world of traditional Chinese medicine. This fountain of knowledge unveiled a totally new – though incredibly old – cosmology and system of beliefs, which opened a window of exploration into what mattered to me most: health, philosophy, the poetry of living... I trained to become an acupuncturist and in the process built up a network of wonderfully crazy, like-minded people, whose common denominator was multiculturalism. Most of us had originated from other countries – Ireland, China, Israel, Spain, South Africa – and found a home in London at the end of long and winding roads. I suppose we were all wounded and yearned for healing, which the vibrant city was able to provide. The birth of my second child felt like being reborn in another land – helped me grow roots, see the country through the eyes of the baby – this was a time of blossom and growth.

Throughout all this I never stopped working in literature and began to translate into English, in collaboration with Tony Howard. Before the fall of the Berlin Wall there was a lot of interest in writing from Eastern Europe, and I was very lucky to become involved with the major Polish authors Tadeusz Różewicz (1921-2014) and Ewa Lipska (b.1945), publishing over the years several volumes of their respective works in English. Then I was asked to translate some writings of Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska for a play at the New End Theatre in Hampstead, commemorating the 50th anniversary of her death in Manchester.

For me the practice of literary translation confirmed its ability to bring cultures and people closer together. But translating old masters who are no longer with us is more than that: it’s also an act of remembering and rediscovering. On the personal level, living away from your country of origin makes you turn language into homeland, and the process of translating allows you to cross the borders freely and reconcile the different worlds. 


When Poland joined the EU in 2004, language opportunities ensued with a new market opening up. I observed a huge influx of Polish workers, who were initially perceived as enhancing the British economy, but not so after the 2008 banking crash. It was painful to watch the steady anti-immigration sentiment growing in the popular media, which was increasingly supported by the official rhetoric. But to me it was even more shocking when the government - made out of millionaires and broadly unopposed - started pointing their finger at those British citizens who were unemployed, sick or poor. So they too were the ‘scroungers’ to blame for all the ills of the economy...

Several years of reckless driving down the country and populist scaremongering preceded the Brexit referendum. Jo Cox MP was killed a week before it was due. No-one stopped the clocks. Or the referendum. This was Brexit - from the world as we knew it into the fast approaching World According to Trump. New walls with barbed wire are being erected against the refugees, symbolising the indifference and hostility we in the West are displaying towards the ‘migrants’. The lack of political will to even try to address this enormous issue is bound to come back to haunt us in unexpected ways. Many British citizens are looking for ways to obtain European passports, a curious reversal of history. As I leaf through the pages of Maria Pawlikowska-Jasnorzewska in search of some guidance, I come across these lines from “The Magicians of Paris”, which she wrote in 1930:

         “Remember perpetual motion. No one here gives a thought for you.
          Everything moves in the waves of a storm. Love the wave alone.”

I find it strangely comforting.

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