Klara Glowczewska: Bringing a Literary Travel Star to New Readers

Travel Interviews

08.24.07 | 11:01 AM ET

imagePhoto by Brigitte Lacombe.

Klara Glowczewska was working as an editor at the New York Review of Books in the mid-1980s when she was given a task. Having been born in Warsaw before moving to the U.S. when she was 7, she was handed a small piece of Ryszard Kapuscinski‘s writing to translate from Polish to English. “I can’t even remember what it was anymore,” says Glowczewska. “He apparently liked what I did with it and came to see me next time he was in New York. We struck up a friendship, and he asked if I would translate his next book, Imperium, which he was just starting to write.” That’s how she became the English-language translator of the late, great Polish travel writer. It happened, as she puts it, “quite by chance—as most things in life.” Glowczewska is now the editor in chief at Condé Nast Traveler, where she has worked since its launch in 1987, with only a brief detour to Vanity Fair in the early 1990s. I asked her about her work with Kapuscinski.

World Hum: How is Ryszard Kapuscinski seen in his native Poland?

Klara Glowczewska: A literary superstar. Arguably Poland’s most famous writer after Joseph Conrad—another Pole who found his subject in foreign lands, distant places.

And you met him?

Yes, many times. I saw him each time he came to New York, and met him on several occasions when I was in Poland and he happened not to be traveling abroad.

What was he like?

One could write a book on this! Briefly put: humble, unassuming, wonderfully generous, profoundly interested in others and in the world, somewhat impatient with his literary celebrity (even though a part of him loved it, of course) insofar as the demands on his time it entailed kept him from getting on with his next project, his next book. For him there simply never was time enough to write. And, of course, he died just as he was to start work on what I believe would have been one of his greatest books, about his hometown of Pinsk, in what is now Belarus.

What was the translation process like? Was he hands off, or did he vet everything?

Ryszard was completely hands-off. All I ever did—and this was true of each of the three books I ended up translating—was to send him the completed English manuscript. I’d usually get a call about a week later (figure five days for the package to travel from New York to Warsaw) saying he was very pleased with it. How carefully did he read it? I have no idea. He is translated into so many languages, that were he to truly scrutinize each translation—even if only those rendered into languages he knew—he would have needed to spend a great deal of time on that alone. My sense is that he picked his translators carefully, and then trusted them to do well by him.

What’s the hardest part about it?

I never found translating Kapuscinski to be difficult. The only difficulty, if one wishes to call it that, is the time commitment translating a book entails. It’s a slow and solitary process. But how lovely to see the English version of the original slowly take shape, emerge from a veritable sea of linguistic possibilities.

Are there things about his writing that are especially difficult to translate from Polish to English?

No, there aren’t. His language is clear, straightforward. There is nothing baroque about Kapuscinski’s style.

As I’m sure you know, Kapuscinski has been accused of being fast and loose with his facts. Do you have any thoughts on that?

No, not really. All his books resonate for me with a very profound, essential truth. 

Do you have a favorite passage or image of his, or one that comes back to you from time to time?

I have too many favorite passages to list them all! But here’s a truly random sampling from The Shadow of the Sun, the book he wrote before Travels with Herodotus. Here Kapuscinski is describing his stay in a village in the Sahel, on the border between Senegal and Mauritania:

One day I summoned my strength and set off on a walk from hut to hut. It was noon. In all the dwellings, on the earthern floors, on mats, on bunks, lay silent, inert people. Their faces were bathed in sweat. The village was like a submarine at the bottom of the ocean: it was there, but it emitted no signals, soundless, motionless.

I love that submarine image. Or this, from a sojourn in a village in Uganda:

One of Simon’s neighbors is Apollo—a man of indeterminate age, skinny and taciturn. He stands in front of his house pressing his shirt on a board. He has a charcoal-heated iron, enormous, rusted, and old. His shirt is older still. To describe it one must resort to the vocabulary of art critics, capricious postmodernists, scholars of suprematism, of abstract expressionism. It is a masterpiece of patchwork, of collage and pop art, a testament to the heights of imagination attained by those hardworking tailors whose little shops we passed driving here along the road from Kampala. For this shirt has had its holes patched so many times, there are so many bits and pieces of the most varied fabrics, colors, and textures sewn onto it, that it is no longer possible to ascertain the color and material of that original, primary, ancestral shirt, the one that had set into motion the long process of alterations and transfigurations, the effect of which now lies before Apollo on his ironing board.

I could go on an on.

What’s your favorite book of his?

I can’t say that I have one. They are all wonderful in their different ways.

What is something you’ve learned, as a writer or editor, from translating Kapuscinski?

The way in which he sees worlds in grains of sand—for instance, in the sight of a man ironing his shirt in an African village, which I quoted above. The way in which so much is worthy of attention, the way the world positively pulsates with meaning—if you just have the sensitivity, and the imagination, to see it.

I know there are quite a few other books Kapuscinski wrote that have not been translated into English. Are there any plans to do those?

The only ones I’m aware of are his collections of thoughts and aphorisms, which he titled Lapidarium. I don’t know if there are plans to publish them in English, although there may well be.


Frank Bures is a contributing editor at World Hum, where his stories have won several awards. More of his work can be found at frankbures.com.

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