“Kajtuś, Kaytek, Korczak” – Interview with Antonia Lloyd-Jones

by Mikołaj GlińskiKaytek the Wizard

“Although Harry Potter faces adversity from cruel adults too, his world does not share the painful reality of Kaytek’s existence. Korczak wanted to help difficult children find ways to express themselves, and to overcome their troubles, so his aims were not purely to entertain”, Antonia Lloyd-Jones, the translator of Janusz Korczak’s Kaytek the Wizard talks about the differences between Kaytek and Harry Potter, and divulges her recommended Korczak reading for the world’s bankers

Culture.pl: Could you say something about your first encounter with the works of Janusz Korczak? Was it when you were still a child or later in life?

Antonia Lloyd-Jones: I was totally unfamiliar with the works of Janusz Korczak until I had learned Polish, as an adult. The first book of his that I read was King Matt the First in Richard Lourie’s translation. Unfortunately Korczak is not well known in the English-speaking world, either as a children’s author or as a pioneer of educational methods. My first real knowledge about him came with Andrzej Wajda’s 1990 film.

Culture.pl: I think reading Korczak in Polish is already quite a challenge. I mean especially his use of spoken language, ellipsis, language of children, jargon, etc. Maybe it’s just the Korczak idiom. Anyway, sometimes I’m just not quite sure if I get the sense right. It seems to require the right interpretation on the part of the reader. Do you also find him difficult as a writer?

A. L.-J.: Absolutely. His language is often quite ambiguous, and definitely presents the translator with a challenge, especially his dialogue. This is partly the result of his aim to reflect children’s speech genuinely, and to reproduce the words spoken to him by the children in his care. As I wrote in my Afterword, while he was writing Kaytek the Wizard he consulted with the children and changed the text according to their suggestions and wishes. As the publisher was keen for the translated book to be accessible to modern American children, I quite often had to make decisions about the meaning and expression that would meet their needs.

Culture.pl: What were the biggest problems with translating Kajtuś Czarodziej?

A. L.-J.: The biggest problem was with the name “Kajtuś”. English does not have an equivalent for the name Kajetan, and the diminutive “Kajtuś” would have been unpronounceable and unrecognizable to American (or other English-speaking) children. The hero is not actually called Kajtuś, but Antek, and only gains his nickname when a soldier passes by, sees him smoking, and says “Look at little Kajtuś, puffing away like an old man.” As Korczak’s original readers would have known, “Kajtuś” was a generic term used to address any little boy. So there were several considerations to take on board. The publisher and I discussed lots of possibilities. For some time I used the working name “Willy” (“Willy the Wizard”), purely for practicality, never as a final decision. In keeping with the tone of Kajetan, the publisher suggested using a Polish, Catholic saint’s name, so we experimented with Kazimierz/Kazik or Casimir. I wanted to call him Titus, because it rhymes with Kajtuś, but the publisher was very unhappy with that suggestion because of associations with Titus Vespasianus, the Roman emperor who destroyed Jerusalem. Finally the Polish Book Institute, who were in charge of Korczak’s copyrights, told us that they were keen for the titles of his works to remain unchanged. Realizing that nothing I could do would meet all the criteria, I decided to use this ideal excuse and follow the example of the French translators, who had simplified the name to “Kaytek” – pronounceable to English-language readers too. I simply had to drop the nuance introduced by the soldier’s remark.

As mentioned earlier, there were also phrases that were ambiguous. I owe a debt to the French translators, because although I have never resorted to reading a translation into a third language before, in this case I did at times look to see how they had resolved some of the ambiguities and let myself be guided by them.

Culture.pl: Did you have to make some changes in order to make it more comprehensible to a non-Polish audience?

A. L.-J.: I did not make any changes to the text. I wanted to remove a few expressions which to the modern reader are certainly politically incorrect, but the publisher preferred to keep the text exactly as it was written. The same is true of the mistake that penguins live at the North Pole, which I wanted to correct. Although as a translator I make it a rule never to add footnotes to fiction, in the case of this book I made an exception, as there were facts that a young American or British reader couldn’t possibly know, about the geography of Warsaw, for instance, so I did add a few very brief explanatory notes.

Culture.pl: What do you think of the analogy linking Kaytek and Harry Potter? Is it legitimate in any way? In your opinion, what is the main subject of this book?

A. L.-J.: Personally I find the analogy with Harry Potter irritating. Harry Potter goes to magic school to learn to be a wizard, and comes out of a modern tradition for totally fantastical children’s stories that have almost no relation to reality. Kaytek teaches himself magic through sheer willpower and persistence. He is a difficult character, a troubled and troublesome boy who is constantly misunderstood and unfairly treated by the adults and even the other children around him. He comes from a deprived but very real background. Although Harry Potter faces adversity from cruel adults too, his world does not share the painful reality of Kaytek’s existence. Korczak wanted to help difficult children find ways to express themselves, and to overcome their troubles, so his aims were not purely to entertain.

Culture.pl: Some time ago Kinga Dunin made a point that there are in Kaytek some aspects which from today’s perspective could be considered politically incorrect, like the depiction of the boxing fight between Kaytek and a negro boxer, for Dunin, an instance of ‘pure racism’. She also said that this is a “deeply patriarchal book. A work of a white male author, dedicated by him to restless boys. They are the sole recipients of all those beautiful values, like power and autonomy.” (K. Dunin, “Epitafium dla Kajtusia” – http://www.gavagai.pl/society/harry-potter.php). Were these aspects a “problem” in translation?

A. L.-J.: I have mentioned some of these issues above, but this quotation is taken out of context, and I think what Kinga Dunin was saying is that Kaytek the Wizard is a book of its time, written in 1933, when values were different. The depiction of the black boxer is not in fact unsympathetic – even though he is portrayed as rather simian and simplistic, he shows his tender heart in his concern for his young adversary. Hergé’s portrayal of Africans in Tintin in the Congo, also written in the early 1930s, has suffered from similar charges of racism, though at the time these patronizing perceptions of African characters were not regarded as unacceptable in imperial Europe. Kinga’s description of the book as patriarchal is also simply a factual statement of the truth of the times when it was written.

Culture.pl: In a recent interview for Gazeta Wyborcza Joanna Olczak-Ronikier, the author of a biography of Korczak published in Poland in 2011, complained that Poland is incapable of “selling” Korczak outside Poland. She was very bitter about the fact that Korczak never became “a Polish export good”  Do you think it’s possible that “Korczak” does become such export good?  

A.L-J: I agree with Joanna Olczak-Ronikier that Janusz Korczak should be a global household name. It is puzzling that his pioneering work and revolutionary ideas are so little known outside Poland. His work is still thoroughly relevant today. As recently as July an excellent book was published in Britain, Among the Hoods by Harriet Sergeant, which is about the problems of delinquency among disaffected young men who are social misfits and who form criminal gangs for lack of any other social identity. When I read the book, it occurred to me that Korczak wrote about and did his best to understand and help just the same kind of abandoned children whose lives are doomed to failure from the outset for lack of love and understanding. These problems exist in societies the world over, and Korczak’s wise and practical works, such as How to Love a Child, still have relevance today. His advice is straightforward and easy to understand, not at all patronizing to children, but looking at life from their perspective. I think the world’s bankers could benefit from reading Little Jack Goes Bankrupt, another of his neglected novels for children which teaches simple lessons in economics.

Culture.pl: What is for you as a person the most valuable thing about Korczak?

Exactly this – his efforts to understand and empathize with young misfits, children whose lives had gone wrong from the very start, leading them into rebellious delinquency. Instead of punishing them or writing them off, he tried to see things from their perspective and then to guide their energy and abilities onto positive tracks. Although some of the orphans who grew up in his care were said to have later criticised him for “using” them as guinea pigs for his social experiments, which implies that his methods were not always successful, he should still be commended as a pioneer, who laid the foundations for children’s rights, and for regarding children as individuals with a say in their own future and situation, and not just objects to be dictated to by adults claiming to act in their best interests.

He undoubtedly improved the desperately deprived lives of very many Jewish orphans, not just by providing them with a stable home for as long as he could (though sadly this was only to the age of 14), but also by establishing regular summer holiday camps for lots of impoverished children.

He also wrote timeless children’s stories that have entertained children for decades. Though fashions have changed and by today’s standards they may be dated, his classic King Matt the First is still an exciting, thought-provoking story, unusual for the challenges faced by the young hero, and for the fact that – realistically – life doesn’t always turn out well for him, and ultimately his noble aims are a failure.

  • Antonia Lloyd-Jones is one of the finest translators of Polish literature into English. Born in 1962, she read Russian and Ancient Greek at Oxford. Her published translations from Polish include novels by Paweł Huelle (Castorp, Mercedes-Benz) and Olga Tokarczuk (Day House and Night House), short stories by Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, and non-fiction, most recently by Ryszard Kapuściński and Wojciech Tochman. One of her latest translations to appear in print is Ryszard Kapuściński: A Life by Artur Domosławski. Kaytek the Wizard appeared  in English in August 2012. In 2009 she was awarded the Found in Translation Award.

The original interview appeared on Culture.pl

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