“We would like to transmit how rich our literature is”
Interview with Halina Cieplińska-Bitner. This Story belongs also to the Polish Centre.
By Ginevra Avalle
Pune, 27th September 2018
Halina Cieplińska-Bitner is a Polish translator, reviewer and critic of British and American literature, publisher, editor, translator of dialogues and film commentaries, poet. She has been General Secretary of the Polish PEN Club since 2017.
G.A. How did you first hear about PEN International and when did you join?
H.C. I heard about PEN when I was still at school. Later, after my graduation from the English Department at the University of Lodz, I moved to Warsaw and started attending the Polish PEN literary meetings for years; I joined PEN in 2002. I had a fascination for British and American culture and literature. Bleak communist times in my country made my fascination still stronger, I think.
You asked about my background. Well, I think it somehow gifted me with the fascination I have just mentioned. My father was in the underground anti-Nazi German resistance during WW2, and – as a civil engineer – he was responsible for the central part of the country’s radio communication with the Polish Government-in-exile in London. My mother’s eldest brother was deported with his family by the Soviets, after they invaded Poland in 1940. Like many thousands of Polish educated people, they were deported to Kazakhstan: land of starvation and violence. The Soviet idea was to exterminate the educated. There, young Polish men, like my uncle, joined the army incorporated into the British troops, and they fought in the Middle East, Africa and Italy. The soldiers who ended up in the UK were afraid to go back to Communist Poland and be prosecuted. So my uncle also stayed in the UK for good. Thanks to this fact, many years later – still having the Iron Curtain problems with travelling – I had a chance to visit the UK, one of the two countries whose culture and literature I was going to study.
Out of over 25 books that I have translated the most important ones are Walden, Civil Disobedience and Life Without Principle as well as several other essays by H.D. Thoreau. I am his first Polish translator ever and also his promoter. In 1981 I was lucky to be invited – by the President of the Thoreau Society in Concord, Massachusetts – to become its member; I also had a chance to get a residence at Harvard to work on the Transcendental Movement there. In Warsaw I was editor for prestigious publishing house PIW and became the head editor of the English and American books department. In 1990-91 I was granted several months in London to get familiar with the British publishing. It was a great experience. As well as my stays at the Centre for Literary Translation at Norwich University in 1992 and at the International Writing Program at Iowa University in 1999.
Around 2002 I was invited to join the Polish PEN. In 2016 I was chosen as a board member, and the General Secretary in 2017.
We call our PEN Centre a Club. The second President was Ferdynand Goetel (1927-33) and during his tenure the organizational framework of the Polish Centre was shaped and it started to play a significant role in the country’s literary life. Just after WW2, due to the Iron Curtain problems, the Polish Centre was forced to switch its focus from international contacts to home activity. But step by step the international contacts became more frequent. Of course, after the collapse of communism in 1989 the situation changed dramatically. We do campaigns for writers in prison abroad, and work for freedom of expression, also promote literature and award writers, essayists, poets, translators and editors. Regular literary meetings are organized several times a year; we grant several awards annually. Quite a few prominent writers from all over the world were hosted by the Polish PEN, including J. Brodsky, M. Atwood, R. Harwood, W. Styron, S. Bellow, E. Caldwell, I. Murdoch, U. Eco, Cz. Milosz, T. Venclova and others. We have been trying to influence the literary scene. We have been in regular touch with PEN International; and have quite frequent direct contacts with a few regional PEN Centres. Due to still more intense contacts and relations the Polish PEN organized two Congresses: in 1930 and 1999.
G.A. When was the Centre created? What led to its creation?
H.C. The Polish PEN Centre was established soon after the English PEN, in December 1924, by our famous writer Stefan Żeromski, and joined the International PEN due to his prior correspondence with John Galsworthy. Consequently, on 12 June 1925, the official inauguration of the Polish PEN Centre was celebrated at the Royal Castle in Warsaw. The Polish PEN hosted John Galsworthy and a group of British members of PEN.
G.A. Can you tell me an interesting anecdote about your Centre? Or about any of its members?
H.C. In 1981, during the martial law imposed by the communist regime, our Centre was put to sleep. It helped the Centre survive, it was the only proper and adequate decision to make. Juliusz Żuławski was the President at that period of time. Many PEN members were interned as “enemies of the regime” and they organized literary meetings there to keep up their spirits and to mock the regime. After the collapse of communism in 1989, some of them – crème de la crème – became ambassadors, advisors, ministers or other members of the new Polish government.
G.A. What would you like to see achieved for your Centre with the Exhibition? How would your Centre use it?
H.C. I think it would be a good opportunity to present how long and rich the history and tradition of the Polish PEN Centre are, and how important its activities are, trying to influence the cultural and literary scene in Poland. The standards are quite high: not everyone is accepted as a member. And since the Exhibition is going to be presented online, its informative role cannot be overestimated. I am sure all the Centres will have a great chance to get more familiar with each other. Our Centre is sure to promote the Exhibition and the Polish collection with its archival photos. Also, we would like to transmit how rich our literature is.
G.A. What is the situation of writers in Poland today?
H.C. Briefly speaking it is all right. There are no writers in prison cases. There are many good, important publishers and they publish what they wish and who they wish. Of course, generally, there is this tension and friction between the right and the left, the opposition.