Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Three Available English Translations of WITH FIRE AND SWORD

WITH FIRE AND SWORD saw its first English translation in 1890, less than a decade after it was published in the original Polish. The translator, Jeremiah Curtin, rendered his work with fidelity but a literalness that was, at times, too strict. For instance, the old Polish greeting of "czolem" was literally translated as "with the forehead," much to the future merriment or annoyance of a Polish-speaking American-based intelligentsia who felt that Curtin, through what they considered faulty and awkward translations, had handicapped the appreciation of Sienkiewicz in academic circles in the United States. This judgment was made with little actual study of Curtin's translations, however, and not much appreciation for the fact that Curtin was responsible in making Sienkiewicz's works so popular at the turn of the 20th century and beyond. When the dust of the Curtin debate settles, it should be evident that Curtin is the major figure in presenting Sienkiewicz to the English-speaking world. His importance is invaluable.

Samuel A. Binion, the second translator of WITH FIRE AND SWORD, came onto the scene at a time (1897) when Sienkiewicz had already become a phenomenon due to the surprising popularity of QUO VADIS (first translated into English by Curtin, who by this time had become Sienkiewicz's foremost translator). Binion's translation is commendable, but he too made mistakes. He also deleted the entire epilogue of the original. While Curtin translated most of Sienkiewicz's work, including the entire Trilogy, Binion tackled only four works: WITH FIRE AND SWORD, PAN MICHAEL, KNIGHTS OF THE CROSS, and QUO VADIS (the later, his first Sienkiewicz translation, with the assistance of S. Malevsky.)

In 1991, W.S. Kuniczak, a talented author in his own right, rendered a controversial "modern translation." This translation altered Sienkiewicz's text by adding words and sentences never written by Sienkiewicz, while removing others that Sienkiewicz wrote. Like Binion, Kuniczak expunged the original's entire important epilogue. Stylistically, the Kuniczak translation is far removed from Sienkiewicz's Romantic pacing and poetry. He set the writing style in a late 1900s tone and made his characters sound as if they stepped out of the latter part of 20th Century America rather than 17th Century Poland. Apparently, Sienkiewicz's work had to be made palpable to a contemporary American audience, or else Kuniczak felt the need to inject himself and his own artistic ethos into the century-old work. (Both reasons are probably true.) Nevertheless, Kuniczak's modern translation, propelled by a laudatory front page review in the New York Times' Book Review section, swept up many who had never read Sienkiewicz in the English language and initiated renewed interest in Sienkiewicz in America, though on a far smaller scale than what had occurred a century earlier with Curtin's efforts. At the same time, it must be noted, Kuniczak's version perturbed and even angered those familiar with the original who considered any tampering or "modernization" sacrilegious.

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