Interview: Translator John Curran Davis on Polish Writer Bruno Schulz

"This world itself is fantastical, if only one looks at it in the right way."

Bruno Schulz (1892 — 1942) was a Polish writer of stories that share some affinity with the work of Alfred Kubin, Franz Kafka, and Michael Cisco, among others. He was shot dead by a Nazi officer when he ventured into an “Aryan” section of his town during World War II. A great prose stylist, Schulz created a mythical childhood in his fiction that centered on surreal, sometimes grotesque events. We’re pleased to run the following fascinating interview with John Curran Davis, the latest translator of Schulz’s work. Elsewhere on, you can find Davis’ translation of “The Sanatorium Under the Sign of the Hour Glass” and his short introduction to Schulz’s life and work.

John Curran Davis What did you grow up reading, and was weird fiction welcome in your household?

John Davis: I grew up reading horror, horror and more horror. It started when I was allowed to stay up late to watch the old Universal horror films on TV, at about age eight. The first book I read to the end was Dracula. Back then, it was palpably exciting even just to own the book. My parents were very characterful people, but not great readers, I’m afraid (although my mother did love Hammer films). I, on the other hand, having no brothers or sisters, read a lot. I can still vividly see the first anthology of Poe’s stories that I owned; bought second hand, it was a little pocket-sized thing illustrated with somewhat scrawled line drawings. I remember only one instance of disapproval of my choice of reading matter. My father (for such was his way) thought none too highly of Shakespeare, or of those who read him, who did so, in his eyes, for some spurious reason of status. Otherwise, no matter how weird, I could read what I liked. Can you give WFR readers a sense of why you became a translator and what other kinds of work you do?

John Davis: I became a translator precisely because of my encounter with Bruno Schulz. Until then, I don’t think the thought had ever entered my mind. For my day job, I work in the Creative Studies department of a school, where I cover the practical side of various media courses, advising students on how to make short films and animations. Terrific fun! And reassuring, somehow, to see that today’s teenagers are no less obsessed with horror than I was. Do you remember the first time you encountered Schulz’s work? What story was it, and what was your reaction? 

John Davis: Some years ago, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to spend four months studying at a university in Poland, and Bruno Schulz was recommended to me as a suitable subject of research. I had never heard of him. Neither, incidentally, did I speak any Polish. In preparation for this adventure, I optimistically bought Teach Yourself Polish. It transpired (by a minor miracle) that the copy I had bought was the venerable Corbridge-Patkaniowska edition of that book, written in the 1940s, surely one of the last copies ever to be printed. I opened it, and my life radically changed. I realised what a fiendishly difficult language it is. It was as if I were being personally challenged; and I have been absorbed by the Polish language ever since. Who could have imagined that, just a few weeks later, I would open another book, and it, too, would radically change my life? I was on a tram, going from Katowice to Sonsowiec, when I first began to read Bruno Schulz. The story was “August”, which begins with a description of food, which Adela, the servant girl, brings home in her basket, its appearance and its aroma. Accustomed to British food, and now living in Poland, I had only recently discovered that food can actually have an aroma! I claim, I maintain, I swear that, before I had reached the bottom of the first page, I knew that, one day, I would read Bruno Schulz in the original. And that is how the translation began. At first, it wasn’t even meant to be a translation; it simply grew into one. As you’ve explored the rest of Schulz’s fiction, what is it that you find enduring / compelling?

John Davis: Schulz writes in a very special way about quite ordinary things. He imbues his subject matter with layer upon layer of highly original imagery, with mythology, but the underpinnings of that subject matter are the basic material of all our lives: the seasons, plants and buildings, quirky relatives, and so on. He doesn’t invent fantastic worlds; there is no escapism in Schulz. He suggests that this world itself is fantastical, if only one looks at it in the right way. Once one is initiated into Schulz, the world itself becomes more amazing. In winter, it becomes a labyrinth; come the spring, a great revolution. In summer, the world is like a great book; and all those books accumulate in the library of the season we call autumn (or fall). One simply begins to look at the world with slightly wider eyes. Perhaps because of the dreamlike qualities, Schulz’s fiction is compared to Kafka’s quite a bit. Is this a fair comparison, and could you give us some sense of how you see them as distinctly different writers?

John Davis: They both came from middle-class Jewish families in Austro-Hungary. Schulz even had a hand in translating The Trial into Polish, so it is by no means impossible when Schulz writes in his stories that his father was transformed into a cockroach, a huge fly, or a scorpion, that something has filtered through from Kafka. There is a sense in both writers that their work is infused with an element that is deeply, if unorthodoxly, religious, sublimated from their actual lives. Perhaps one can see the difference by tracing it to its source: the different ways in which they view God. Kafka’s God has turned his back on mankind, leaving us lost in the darkness. His narrative distorting lens is wide-angle; the images are black and white; the characteristic scene is an infinitely long tunnel. Schulz’s God is the Gnostic one, ever present, always at the ready to burst the imperfect world magnificently apart. The images are in full colour – Schulz writes with the mind of a painter. Schulz loves labyrinths, too, but they represent only one side, the wintery side of things. The characteristic scene in Schulz is found under a resplendent sky, which opens above us like a vast book. Is there some aspect of Schulz’s fiction that you feel isn’t emphasized or talked about as much?

John Davis: It is not easy to think of any. Schulz may not, relatively speaking, be all that well known, but his initiates are devoted. He appeals strongly to academics, and his life and work have inspired a great deal of commentary and analysis, much of which is of significant interest. If I were to attempt to add anything to that esteemed body of work, it might concern the influence of traditional Hasidic stories on Schulz’s stories. Schulz himself had a certain reluctance about interpretation, comparing it to “the unmasking of actors”, something that might impoverish rather than enrich the vision inherent in a work of art. He believed in a “true reader” to whom the true mysteriousness of the work would unfold itself directly and in full. Obviously, there are problems with this point of view! It is hard to imagine how such a true reader would emerge without somehow gaining the habit of interpreting. There are, incidentally, things that I think have been talked about too much. There has arisen an unwinnable dispute over who, as a Polish Jew and a victim of the holocaust, Bruno Schulz “belongs to”; not that the issues are not important; but Schulz seems, inadvertently, to have become caught up in those issues in a particularly awkward way, one that does little for his reputation as a writer and artist. Is there a sense of humor in Schulz, and if so is it immediately evident or…

John Davis: There is a profound sense of humour in Schulz, but it is not so much “immediately evident” as “or…” I could never hope to describe that subtle sense of humour with anything like the accuracy or insight with which Schulz describes it. So perhaps a quote is in order. According to Schulz himself, his writing “applies a certain formula to reality, evinces a certain special kind of substance. The substance of that reality is in a state of incessant fermentation, germination, potential life. There are no dead, solid or restricted objects; everything is diffused beyond its own boundaries, enduring in any particular form for but a moment, to quit it at the first opportunity. In the customs and manners of that reality, a certain principle is displayed, panmasqueradium. Reality adopts certain forms only for the sake of appearance, as a joke, for a game. One person is a person, another a cockroach; but such forms do not reach the essence, they are merely roles, assumed momentarily, like an outer skin that is cast off a moment later. A certain radical monism of substance is evinced here, in which individual objects are merely masks. The life of this substance depends upon its consuming a vast number of masks. Its life essence is that meandering of forms. From that substance, therefore, there emanates the aura of a kind of pan-irony. A backstage, behind-the-scenes atmosphere is always present, in which the actors, having taken off their costumes, now crease up with laughter at the pathos of their roles. The very fact of individual existence implies irony, leg-pulling, a clownish poking-out of the tongue.” I could add to this that, while Schulz is not exactly laugh-out-loud funny, he is conspicuously charming. Although his writing circulates in lofty, exultant realms, he nonetheless speaks very directly to the reader (he often seems to whisper conspiratorially into the reader’s ear). More than is the case with most writers, to read Schulz is like spending time in some intriguing person’s company. Do you have a favorite scene or story from his fiction? Why?

John Davis: It is all my favourite! Schulz writing seems to have the quality of uniform brilliance. If I were to name the first things that spring to mind, they would be: the seventeenth chapter of “Spring” a kind of improvisation, at the same time a fugue, where the reader is led on a subterranean journey in the springtime twilight, to discover the roots, the mythical sources of all stories; the carriage ride in “The Cinnamon Shops” on the brightest of winter nights, in which stars fall from the sky, land in the snow, and are gathered up by eager wanderers on exultant hillsides; Father’s account of a sea captain he once knew, whose decorative cabin lamp was really the body of his murdered mistress; and the various descriptions of the sky, in which Schulz sees the endless shelves of vast libraries. These are striking, conspicuous elements; and Schulz is an eminently quotable writer; but all those individual, striking, visionary passages really belong in their places, delicately embedded in their structure of themes and images. What are the hazards and pitfalls of translating his work into English? What is a translator in danger of losing?

John Davis: Bruno Schulz is not quite so difficult to translate as it is sometimes claimed or assumed. His sentences can be convoluted, his choice of terms idiosyncratic; but his tone is clear, his voice unmistakable. Generally, it is highly idiomatic language that poses the greatest challenge to a translator: the language of slang and so on, that is so very culturally specific. (Imagine, if you can, the characters in a Western movie all speaking in the idiom of a Noel Coward play; it is that kind of incongruity that arises whenever someone attempts to impose the idioms of one language-culture on characters supposedly from another.) But thankfully, Schulz’s prose is light on idiom; its quirks are his own personal quirks, which can be reproduced in English with relative ease: his tendency to describe seeing “how” things happen (“I caught a glimpse of my father; how, barefoot and wearing only his nightshirt, he ran back and forth across the leather sofa”), his tendency to refer to himself at times in the plural, so that sometimes, when he says “we”, it is not quite clear whether he means himself and the other people in the story, himself and the reader, or himself alone. But on the other hand, Schulz’s language is so internationalist in flavour that it is creates a converse difficulty, all its own. Often, he creates neologisms from distinctly non-Slavic terms, such as “indiferencji”, “konglomeratów”, “gynkoracji”, “antecedensów”, the meanings of which even a non-Polish speaker might make a reasonable guess at, but which strike the Slavic ear strangely. That strangeness is inevitably lost in an English translation. How would you compare or contrast your approach to the previous translators of Schulz’s fiction?

John Davis: When I first began reading Bruno Schulz (in the well-known translation by Celina Wieniewska), I already had, although I cannot say exactly how, a definite sense that something was amiss with the translation. I became more greatly convinced of this later, when I began to untangle Schulz’s prose for myself. I must take issue with that translation on several grounds. There are some quite basic blunders; many words and phrases are simply mistranslated. But worse are the ellipses, the passages simply omitted. There is a sense of paraphrase, of too much explanation, of shying away from taking a challenge. “A peony overflowing with pink plenitude”, typically, becomes simply “a peony”. Bruno Schulz does emerge, but often in a muffled way; it is Schulz with half the stops in. Apart from rectifying those issues, I have attempted a translation that retains, inasmuch as it is possible in another language, the rhythms, sometimes incantatory, sometimes staccato, of Schulz’s writing. I have attempted a translation that preserves the narrative impetus of Schulz’s stories, so that they do not merely consist in assemblages of striking, isolated images; but that the thematic logic of those images is retained, their inevitable, dynamic accumulation in a unified piece of writing. (Incidentally, I have been asked many times about my approach in the rarified terms of critical theory, which can be mildly irritating as there seem to be ever present, unstated assumptions involved when someone asks what “translation dominants” one employs, or when someone matter-of-factly states that “translation is always an expression of power”. One should read up on translation theory; and subscribe to not a word of it. There is no absolute truth in translation, and no one unequivocally correct approach. Each individual text contains, I believe, the unique clue to the approach that is most appropriate in translating it. At times, the best approach is a literal one; at times, one must make radical alterations in order to come closer to what is poetically true; and these two supposedly opposite principles are often to be usefully applied even within a single sentence. In the end, the most important quality that a translator can possess is honesty.) What is the most pleasurable aspect of translating his work?

John Davis: The pleasure of discovery, of finding buried treasure; and also the pleasure of personal growth. I have spent rather a long time on this project, a long time side-by-side with Bruno Schulz, and his way of looking at the world, his insights and his aesthetic sense have grown into me. He has given me terms in which to express, for example, why I like certain works of art. Who else have you translated, and can you tell us a little bit about current projects?

John Davis: Most of the other things that I have translated have been for the benefit of people in the academic sphere, specifically writings by Tadeusz Kantor, the Polish artist and theatre director. Anyone interested in the sort of Eastern European weirdness that I love should definitely check out Kantor; he is its absolute epitome. Sadly, the man himself is no longer with us, but he has left a huge and fascinating legacy. Bruno Schulz is still a current project, actually. There are still a few pieces of his literary criticism that have never been translated into English. Also, I am working on a novella by Karol Irzykowski, called “Maria Dunun’s Dreams”, an interestingly proto-weird number involving secret societies. And there is a nineteenth century novel by Józef Bohdan Dziekoński about a Polish alchemist that I am rather intrigued by. There are other ideas that I could tell you about, but then I would have to kill you. And somewhere, striving to take some sort of shape, is the primordium of an idea for a piece of fiction of my own…

12 replies to “Interview: Translator John Curran Davis on Polish Writer Bruno Schulz

  1. Nice interview. I especially like this comment:

    John Davis: The pleasure of discovery, of finding buried treasure; and also the pleasure of personal growth. I have spent rather a long time on this project, a long time side-by-side with Bruno Schulz, and his way of looking at the world, his insights and his aesthetic sense have grown into me. He has given me terms in which to express, for example, why I like certain works of art.

    I once heard a famous poet say that one way to make yourself a better poet/writer was to absorb yourself in another writer. Clearly Davis has done that. How delightful to have had that kind of passion about someone elses work!

  2. Great to read this. As someone with the Wieniewska translation of Schulz’s work, I’m very curious to compare Davis’s translation.

  3. Good interview and as one who has read JCD’s translations of Schulz, I have to say that I prefer his translations to the now outdated Wieniewska, which unfortunately seem to have become canonical.

  4. As the executor to Bruno Schulz´s Estate and the copy right owner, I have the pleasure to inform you all, that Polish Book Institute has commissioned, with my blessing, Prof. Dr. Madeline G.Levine from University of North Carolina to translate works of Bruno Schulz into English.

  5. Dear Mr. Podstolski,

    Could you illuminate us on the copyright laws that grant you ownership of Bruno Schulz’s work? I understand that you are the last living distant (?) relative, but I’m not clear on how that connection comes into play in a legal sense so many decades after Schulz’s death.

  6. Let me retract the “distant” relative supposition, as I have found out something I should have more rigorously investigated before posting the above, namely, that you are the grand-nephew of Bruno Schulz, connected via his older brother, your grandfather. So pardon my haste before my research. I still would like to understand the copyright situation, as Poland has gone through various stages of copyright law since Bruno Schulz’s time.

  7. As the author of the only international comparative study (Muse & Messiah: The Life, Imagination & Legacy of Bruno Schulz, Inkermen Press 2007) based on first-hand interviews with biographers, ex-students etc., I fully concur with John Curran Davies. The CW earlier translation, sanctioned by Marek Podstolski in spite of awareness of the unacceptable nature of her translation (his control has now expired), has been superseded by Mr. Davis’ fine and sensitive work. The Prof Dr (actually retired according to the university website) Levine material is being prematurely heralded in the Polish press, but in fact nothing has been published, which if not the cart before the horse I don’t know what is. Mr Davis’ work and website on Schulz is foremost in the field. I eagerly await his work on Karol irzykowski, an influence on Schulz.

  8. Thank you for this interview. I am wild about Schulz and, having already read many of the stories on Davis’ website, feel deeply grateful for his tender treatment of the master and the generosity of posting it for anyone, everyone, to read. Thank you both.

  9. john curran davis… cant be many guys with that middle name who love horror. how are you doing? its been many years since i saw you in Hydro last. Long story, i live now between Ukraine and Spain. Met several old classmates (Nigel Harrison (Finland), Colin Robinson (wokingham), Richard Snowdon (london and Finland)) and Wayne Stephens (Bass) and chat with others occasionally on Facebook, we often asked what happened to you, but nobody knew. Please get in touch. i’m in spain now but back in Ukraine for Xmas. karl at epam dot com

  10. Excellent interview. Davis’s passion and high regard for Schulz are obvious, as is his keen literary perception.