Ewa Malachowska-Pasek, Ladislav Matějka Collegiate Lecturer in the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, published a translation of The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma by Tadeusz Dołęga-Mostowicz in June 2020 with Megan Thomas. We recently spoke with Malachowska-Pasek, a member of the Copernicus Steering Committee, about the novel and her experiences in translation work.

Why did you decide to translate this work?

The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma has been a cult novel in Poland since it was first published in the early thirties of the past century. The “Dyzma figure” became so embedded in Polish culture that even people who haven’t read the novel are familiar with what it represents: a deeply incompetent and arrogant man whom society allows to climb to the very top of the social and political ladder. The author of the novel, Tadeusz Dołęga-Mostowicz, was a masterful storyteller, and we hoped his satirical novel would add a distinctive, humorous dimension to the canon of Polish literature in English translation. Also, [Megan Thomas and I] both read Kosiński’s novel Being There, claimed by many critics as a plagiarism of The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma. We were curious to what extent this claim was justified. Indeed, not only did Kosiński structure his novel similarly to Dołęga-Mostowicz’s, but some parts of both novels are strikingly similar.

What relevance does The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma have for today?

The novel is almost disturbingly relevant. It captures the mechanisms of power, corruption, cronyism, pettiness; even the dialogues resemble the language and speeches of powerful political figures in contemporary Europe and the United States.

What are the main barriers in translation work?

I would rather use the term challenges, and not barriers. The main challenge in every translation is not the language itself, but the culture that is under “investigation.” While translating, we translate from culture to culture, and the more the two cultures differ, the more challenging is the translator’s work. Translating names, names of places, titles, rendering jokes, references to cultural events and items that bear cultural significance, and choosing a consistent idiolect or a proper socio-dialect are all parts of the translation process. The translator constantly makes choices, and has to take responsibility for his or her decisions. Sometimes this responsibility feels like a burden that is hard to carry. Once the work is translated, it has its own life, with all the choices made by the translator. Those choices are irreversible.

You and Megan Thomas translated The Romance of Teresa Hennert by Zofia Nałkowska and now The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma by Tadeusz Dołęga-Mostowicz. Can you compare your work on these two books?

These novels, though both written in the interwar period and focused on social issues, are very different. Nałkowska’s prose, rooted in a modernist psychological tradition, is highly intertextual. It required the same intertextual approach to translation. Large parts of the novel engage in a dialogue with early twentieth-century psychological and social theories. Translation involved not only the plot and Nałkowska’s personal thoughts and theories, but also a deep level of familiarity with the terms used during this period in social sciences in Europe. The novel was full of ambiguities, which was intended by the author. These ambiguities were very hard to render without compromising the purposeful lack of clarity.

The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma posed different challenges. The novel is a sharp satire, written in colloquial language, saturated with language humor, puns and situational jokes, and full of homonyms that are very different in Polish and English. The most joyous moments were those when we both felt that the Polish and English parts were equally amusing.

Could you describe the process of actual work? How did you divide work between two of you?

Perhaps this is the best moment to emphasize how grateful I am to be able to work with Megan. It is Megan’s brilliant sense of humor, her elegant command of language, and her ability to capture and apply language nuances that make the novels jewels in the field of translation.

We approached work on both novels differently. The Romance of Teresa Hennert was a back and forth process. I drafted the first version, then Megan added another layer, working closely with my draft and the Polish text; then I read Megan’s version, and we discussed the most challenging passages. The last, final touch was done by Megan. She read the entire novel out loud to make sure it reads smoothly.

While translating The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma, we divided our work differently. Megan translated odd and I translated even chapters, and then in multiple steps we made sure that the text faithfully rendered the original. And again, Megan read the entire manuscript out loud to master it and fine-tune the final text for an English reader’s ear.

I would also like to thank Professor Benjamin Paloff, a colleague and friend of ours, for his invaluable suggestions to improve both translations, and for being actively involved in the entire endeavor. He penned an insightful foreword to the translation of Nałkowska’s novel and an introduction to Dołęga-Mostowicz’s book, familiarizing the readers with the historical and literary context of both works.

What do you hope that readers will take away from these books?

The Romance of Teresa Hennert was written “in the midst of action;” the novel is a faithful record of voices and perspectives that accompanied the discourse about the future social and political shape of a newly independent Poland. Nałkowska wrote her novel as she experienced the unification of the country, previously partitioned for 123 years. Particularly interesting are her observations about the process of forming a new state army and military power. Let’s not forget, the high-ranking officers had only recently been adversaries serving in armies of three different empires; they had to come together to collaborate in a new geopolitical reality.

Readers of The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma can either discover or confirm that the contemporary political situation in the world is not unique to our times. We can either find it comforting or deeply frustrating; comforting in the sense that we will survive the turmoil and that better times will come, or frustrating because history repeats itself and we don’t learn much from it.

I believe that every reader will find something new in both novels but this question should be answered by the readers themselves.

The Career of Nicodemus Dyzma
A Novel
Tadeusz Dolega-Mostowicz; Translated from the Polish by Ewa Malachowska-Pasek and Megan Thomas and with an introduction by Benjamin Paloff