Category Archives: Slavonic Languages

Literatures of Multilingual Europe: Polish

Oxford is one of the few British universities where Polish can be studied to degree level. For more information, see here. Application is open to beginners as well as existing speakers of Polish, including those with Polish A-levels. Polish language and literature are also available as optional subjects to students of Modern Languages other than Polish, notably Russian and Czech, as well as to undergraduates in Linguistics.

If Polish piques your curiosity, you might like to begin exploring literature written in Polish. This post originally appeared on the Taylor Institution Library’s blog, as part of a lecture series on ‘Literatures of Multilingual Europe.’ Here, Dr Kasia Szymańska gives us an insight into Polish literature in a piece written to accompany the webinar of her lecture. We are grateful to the Taylor Library and Joanne Ferrari for allowing us to reblog this post here.

You can view the webinar of Kasia’s lecture by clicking the image below or following this link.

The lecture series on Literatures of Multilingual Europe, most of which took place in the course of Michaelmas (autumn term) 2018 came at a very significant time. As we were giving our talks at the Taylorian, we could hear the almost imperceptible sound of the Brexit time-bomb ticking towards its final countdown like the calm before the storm. How ironic to introduce ‘lesser-known’ European literatures such as Scandinavian, Irish, Hungarian, Czech, Polish, Modern Greek, and Yiddish to -our English-speaking audience at a time when we could not even take an interest in the more mainstream ones for granted? This thought kept nagging away at the back of my mind as we discussed the rather flimsy position of translated literature in the UK and the US during our introductory panel.

2018 was a particularly successful year for Polish literature and film in the UK. The Man Booker International Prize was awarded to Polish contemporary writer (and later the 2018 Nobel Laureate in Literature) Olga Tokarczuk and her American translator Jennifer Croft for Flights (Fitzcarraldo). This happened only the year after yet another Polish author, Wioletta Greg (based in the UK), made it onto the longlist alongside her translator Eliza Marciniak for Swallowing Mercury (Portobello Books). In 2019, Tokarczuk was shortlisted again with her other translator, Antonia Lloyd-Jones, for Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (Fitzcarraldo). Some might call it a literary hat-trick, others might see it as a positive trend for the British reception of Polish works. In other news relating to the visual arts in 2018, the UK-based and Oxford-educated Polish director Paweł Pawlikowski, known for his previously Academy-awarded Ida (2014), created another black-and-white masterpiece entitled Cold War. The film earned him the Best Director prize in Cannes and three nominations for the Academy Awards including Best Director and Best Foreign Language Film.

Wioletta Greg ; translated from the Polish by Eliza Marciniak. London : Portobello Books, 2017.

While this was clearly a reason to celebrate the significance of Polish artistic output in the UK, it still felt like a parallel universe somewhat disengaged from everyday problems. Polish is currently the second most widely spoken language in the UK after English and, on a wave of anti-EU sentiment, the Polish minority in the UK has been subject to a range of xenophobic assaults, including verbal and physical violence such as hostile graffiti, offensive messages and gang attacks. Of course, there have been strong moves to commemorate the presence and contribution of Poles in the UK way before 2004 (e.g. the Chopin statue in Manchester, the Joseph Conrad bike tour, Polish ENIGMA code breakers in Bletchley Park, the statue of war hero General Maczek, the statue of Wojtek the Bear, and the Great Polish map of Scotland, to mention a few).

However, it is very difficult to bring the two divergent worlds together, when there is so little academic interest in Polish literature and culture. Whilst the study of the history, economy, and politics of the country is also crucial, elevating and re-evaluating the status of Poland’s vibrant literary and cultural activity across the centuries might be a more promising way of changing the way it is perceived ‘under Western eyes’. This was partly the intention of the introductory talk which I gave for the series. In addition to serving as a taster of a lesser-known literature and highlighting the Bodleian and Taylorian’s collection, the talk was meant to condense the long rich history of a literature which represents Britain’s ‘invisible minority’. This literature perhaps remains overshadowed by the stereotyped view of a community which is thought of as just another Eastern European country supplying the UK with skilled manual labour.

2018 was also symbolic for another reason: it marked the centenary of Poland regaining its independence after more than a century of being partitioned between three empires (those of Prussia, Austria, and Russia). These partitions took place at the end of the eighteenth century, after hundreds of years of a prosperous Kingdom of Poland and later a Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and exerted a stranglehold over Polish life and culture throughout most of the nineteenth century up until 1918. It is towards the end of this tumultuous period interspersed with failed uprisings and frustration that anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski and writer Joseph Conrad (or more accurately: Józef Konrad Korzeniowski) arrived in London at the heart of the British Empire. It is also half way through this period, in 1850, that the Bodleian Library purchased a large collection of early Polish books known as Libri polonici (see Stone 2005), which would become one of the major collections of the kind in the West. This repository includes less than two thousand items such as printings of sixteenth-century literature, a unique copy of the first Polish newspaper dating back to 1557 and material related to Polish Arianism in the age of Reformation.

Libri polonici (Polonica from the Bodleian’s pre-1920 catalogue), entry on different printings of the work by Mikołaj Rej (1505-69), one of the founders of the Polish literary language.

Fifteen years later, in 1865, the Earl of Ilchester, a friend of the Polish prince and statesman Adam Czartoryski, endowed the University of Oxford with a substantial sum to encourage ‘the study of the Polish and other Slavonic languages, Literature, and History’. He made it explicit in his will that priority should be given to Polish over any other Slavonic language. However, most likely following the advice of an amateur philologist, Lord Strangford, Convocation breached the agreement. Instead, the University funded the study of Russian, the language of one of Poland’s imperial occupiers at that time (see: Stone 2005). Taking this backstory into account, there are few places where the celebration of Poland’s regained independence from imperial forces could have been felt more powerfully so many years later than here in  Oxford.

When preparing for the talk and asking our Library Subject Specialist Nick Hearn for books to be displayed, I came to realize that the collections of both the Bodleian and the Taylorian were far more diverse and rich in Polish sources than I could ever have foreseen. As part of Libri polonici, the Weston Library holds quite a number of early seventeenth-century printings of the work of Polish Renaissance poet Jan Kochanowski (1530–84), including his cantos, epigrams (fraszki), threnodies (treny), and elegies, both  in Polish or Latin. In my talk, I introduced his cycle of threnodies or lamentations entitled Treny from 1580, movingly rendered into English by Seamus Heaney and Stanisław Barańczak, among others. In particular, I briefly discussed Kochanowski’s ‘Lament 7’:

‘Tren 7’ by Jan Kochanowski, Kraków 1639, Weston Library (Libri polonici).

The holdings of the Taylor Institution library were in particular a great surprise to me. As part of the series on Literatures of Multilingual Europe, we hosted Professor Bill Johnston from Indiana University. Bill returned to Oxford after decades (he read Modern Languages at University College in the early 1980s) to read from his newly released Guggenheim-funded translation of Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz. Originally published in Paris in 1834, Pan Tadeusz [Master Thaddeus] comprises twelve books in verse and is sometimes considered the last great epic poem in European literature as well as the Polish national epic. How excited we were to see that the Taylorian was actually in possession of the first edition!

Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz, Paris 1834, Taylorian collections.

With their worn-out edges and dog-eared pages, library holdings like this one contain whole different universes and bygone worlds, which have sadly sunk into oblivion and remain unexplored. They could almost stand for the “empty frames” in the hall of mirrors from this passage in Bill’s translation of Pan Tadeusz (p. 52):

These memories had clearly left him pained,

He wished them gone. Upstairs they came at last

To a great room that had been in the past

A hall of mirrors; now all you could see

Were empty frames and windows. A gallery

Overlooked the gate. Gerwazy hid his eyes

In his cupped hands, head bowed in thought. His gaze,

When he looked up, showed grief and hopelessness.

Dusting off some of Bodleian and Taylorian’s impressive holdings and revisiting their stories seemed like giving them a new lease of life. To speak about them to the Oxford public was an act of filling these empty frames again with some colours and reflected images. Perhaps, some other generation of readers, students, and scholars will also come to look into all these mirrors, and hopefully, they will find and recognise themselves in their reflections, too.

Dr Kasia Szymańska

Former Junior Research Fellow in ML, Oxford; Thomas Brown Assistant Professor, School of Languages, Literatures and Cultural Studies, Trinity College Dublin.


Polish literature bibliography

Adam Mickiewicz, 1798-1855 : selected poems, editor: Clark Mills (et al.) New York: Noonday Press, 1956

Foer, Jonathan  Tree of codes London: Visual editions, 2010

Gombrowicz, Witold Ferdydurke Kraków : Wydawn. Literackie, 2010

Gombrowicz, Witold Ferdydurke  Translated by E. Mosbacher, London, 1965

Greg, Wioletta  Swallowing mercury  Translated by Eliza Marciniak  London: Portobello books, 2017

Kochanowski, Jan  Laments Translated by Seamus Heaney and  Stanisław Barańczak,

Kochanowski, Jan Treny Wrocław: Zakład Narodowy imienia Ossolińskich, 1986

Krasicki, Ignacy  Mikołaja Doświadczyńskiego przypadki Warszawa: Książka, 1947

Krasicki, Ignacy The adventures of Mr Nicholas Wisdom Translated by Thomas Hoisington Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1992

Krasicki, Ignacy Monachomachia ; Antymonachomachia Warszawa : Książka i Wiedza, 1988

Krasicki, Ignacy Myszeidos pieśni X Wrocław : Zakład Narodowy im. Ossolińskich, 1986

Lem, Stanislaw  Solaris  Warsaw: Agora, 2008

Mickiewicz, Adam  Ballady i romanse Lipsk, 1852

Mickiewicz, Adam  Forefather’s Eve Translated by Count Potocki of Montalk  London: Polish cultural foundation, 1968

Mickiewicz, Adam  Dziady  Wrocław, 1864

Mickiewicz, Adam  Pan Tadeusz, or, The last foray in Lithuania: a story of the gentry from 1811 and 1812: comprising twelve books in verse Translated by Bill Johnston  New York: First Archipelago Books edition, 2018

Mickiewicz, Adam  Pan Tadeusz, czyli, Ostatni zajazd na Litwie : historja szlachecka z r. 1811 i 1812, we dwunastu ksiegach, wierszem Paris, 1834

Miłosz, Czesław The History of Polish Literature  Berkeley : University of California Press, 1983

Peterkiewicz, Jerzy, Five centuries of Polish poetry, 1450-1950; an anthology London: Secker & Warburg, 1960

Prus, Boleslaw  The doll Translated by David Welsh  New York: New York Review, 2011

Prus, Boleslaw  Lalka: powieść w trzech tomach  Warsaw: PIW, 1972

Schulz, Bruno  The street of crocodiles  London: Pan books, 1980

Schulz, Bruno  Sklepy cynamonowe ; Sanatorium Pod Klepsydrą    Translated by Celina WieniewskaKraków : Wydawn. Literackie, 1994

Tokarczuk, Olga  Flights  Translated by Jennifer Croft  London: Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2018

Revolution Rekindled

The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities (TORCH) is a thriving hub of activities bringing together our community of scholars – students and tutors alike – across subjects within the humanities. One of their regular events is the ‘Book at Lunchtime’ series, which is usually a discussion of a recent publication by an academic from Oxford. On today’s blog, we’re featuring the Book at Lunchtime episode starring our very own Polly Jones, Associate Professor of Russian at University College. Prof. Jones discusses her book Revolution Rekindled. The Writers and Readers of Late Soviet Biography with Professor Ann Jefferson, Dr Katherine Lebow, and Professor Stephen Lovell.

Polly Jones offers the first ever archival and oral history study of Brezhnev-era publishing and propaganda production, highlighting the consistent pressure throughout late socialism to find new forms of propaganda and inspiring ‘revolutionary’ narratives, and challenges the widespread idea that these became ‘standardised’ and ‘stagnant’ soon after Stalin’s death. Jones reveals the vitality and popularity of late Soviet culture, especially biography and historical fiction. She emphasises that both writers and readers found in late Soviet ‘official’ publishing opportunities to reflect on complex questions of Russian and Soviet history and identity and employs extensive new archival material, and oral history interviews with some of the leading literary and cultural figures of the Brezhnev era.

More open days – come and try us out

A couple of weeks ago, we posted about our upcoming German open day, a chance for you to learn about the German course at Oxford. This week, we continue the theme by bringing you news of our open days in Spanish and Portuguese (Thursday 28 February at The Queen’s College), and Russian and other Slavonic Languages (Saturday 2 March at Wadham College).

As with the German open day, these events are a fantastic opportunity for you to explore what an Oxford degree in those languages looks like. They offer a mixture of academic tasters so you can get a feel for the content of the degree, information about applying to Oxford, and interactions with tutors and current students, who will be happy to answer any questions you have about languages at Oxford.

Highlights of the Spanish and Portuguese open day include: an introduction to Portuguese in 15 minutes, an introduction to other peninsular languages (Catalan and Galician – for more on Galician, see our post here); a spotlight on Portuguese-speaking Africa; and a Spanish Translation workshop.

Highlights of the open day in Russian and other Slavonic Languages include: a mini lecture on ‘Home from home: Russian writers in interwar Paris’; a mini lecture on ‘Russian Grammar in Time and Space’; and a parallel discussion for parents and teachers.

The open days are open to anyone in Year 12 who is interested in studying those languages at Oxford, including if you are interested in picking up the language from scratch (with the exception of Spanish, which we do not offer from scratch). Sessions will be suitable for learners who have no prior knowledge of the language, as well as those hoping to apply post-A Level. There are a limited number of places for accompanying parents and teachers. The events are free of charge but a place must be booked through the faculty’s website.

The full programmes are below, or available to view at https://www.mod-langs.ox.ac.uk/schools/meet-us

A Prague Christmas

This post was written by Dr James Partridge, Teaching Fellow in Czech (with Slovak) at Oxford. Here, James tells us about Christmas in the Czech Republic.

My first Christmas in the Czech Republic was back in 1993, when I was still an undergraduate, 3 months into my year abroad in Brno. Christmas customs, though, are usually measured in decades and centuries, so 25 years later my Czech students at Oxford on their years abroad will still see most of the same things I did.

Much of the run up to Christmas (Vánoce) will be familiar to anyone from the UK: packed shops, panic buying, mildly disappointing Christmas markets. Early in December, though, the first Czech Christmas ritual begins: the baking of cukroví – Christmas biscuits. There are many different kinds of cukroví, and most are usually quick and easy to make, but they are made in large quantities. Most families take great pride in baking their own cukroví and have their own favourite recipes, often handed down through the generations. Vanilkové rohličky (vanilla rolls) are made from a simple dough of butter, flour, sugar, egg yolk, a little vanilla sugar, perhaps some ground nuts, pressed into moulds and baked quickly. Medvědí tlapičky (‘bears’ paws’) are made from a similar dough, but flavoured with cocoa. Colourfully decorated gingerbreads are also very popular, and some cukroví such as kokosové kuličky (coconut balls) aren’t baked at all. However you make them, the idea is to make as many as possible so that there will always be a selection available for family and guests for the whole Christmas period, if they last that long.

Christmas day itself (Štědrý den, literally ‘Generous / Bountiful day’) is on December 24th. In the past, Štědrý den was a day of fast and people would eat nothing (or very little) until the evening. In the middle ages, the custom was not to eat meat during the day, but something plain like barley groats with mushrooms. Those who honoured this custom faithfully were rewarded by seeing a vision of a zlaté prasátko (golden pig) in the early evening. Traditionally, the pig is a symbol of abundance and prosperity, and gold represented the passing of the winter solstice, however people nowadays usually just tell their children that you see the golden pig because you are so hungry by sunset that you start hallucinating.

Once you’ve seen the golden pig it’s time to sit down to Christmas dinner and eat until you can eat no more, and the centrepiece of the meal should always be carp. The Czech tradition of eating carp is a very old one, probably dating back a thousand years or more to the early Christian period, when monasteries would construct special fish-ponds for raising carp to eat. The cultivation of carp really took off in southern Bohemia after the early 15th century on the estates of the powerful Rožmberk family, and especially thanks to the work of their celebrated Master of Fisheries Jakub Krčín (1535-1604), who oversaw the building of a network of lakes that still supply carp to this day.

Buying carp before Christmas is a task that many westerners find… disturbing. A week or two before Štědrý den, large blue plastic vats overflowing with water begin to appear outside supermarkets, on street corners and in other places in villages, towns and cities across the country, and these vats are filled with carp, brought up from the lakes of Southern Bohemia. These are big fish: 5-8 kg is a pretty standard size. Long queues form, regardless of freezing winds and snow, and people simply choose their carp from the small shoal swimming around in front of them. Up until quite recently, many families would take their live carp home with them and put it in the bathtub for a few days as a sort of ‘pet’, albeit one whose remaining days were very short in number. Nowadays, the fishmongers who run the carp stalls usually just hoik the animal out of the water, whack it on the head with a hammer and then either wrap it up and give it to the customer (hopefully not still flapping), or behead and gut it on the spot. Once they get going, it doesn’t take long before the pavement is running red with fish blood.

The fish itself is prepared by being filleted, breaded and fried until golden brown, and it is always served with remarkable quantities of potato salad. This may sound easy, but filleting a big carp is serious manual labour, and nothing can go to waste: fish giblet soup is one of the highlights of the whole meal.

Olomouc at Christmastime. Image by Labenord on Pixabay

The other essential component to any Czech Christmas is watching pohádky, which are filmed versions of classic fairy tales. This is a tradition that really took off in the early years of the communist period, and one of the first pohádky is still one of the most loved: Císařův pekař a pekařův císař (The Emperor’s Baker and the Baker’s Emperor, 1951), written by and starring Jan Werich – an actor and writer of great importance in Czech theatre and film history. I should also mention Pyšná princezna (The Proud Princess, 1952), Princezna se zlatou hvězdou (The Princess with the Golden Star, 1959), the extraordinary, expressionist (and genuinely scary) Tři zlaté vlasy Děda Vševěda (The Three Golden Hairs of Grandpa Knowall, 1963), not forgetting the delightful and hugely popular Tři oříšky pro Popelku (Three Hazelnuts for Cinderella, 1973). And no Christmas would be complete without the Russian fairy tale Mrazík (Old Father Frost, 1967). I first saw it in the cinema during that first Christmas in Brno in 1993 and the atmosphere was like a late-night showing of The Rocky Horror Show here in England: the audience knew every word of the story of Ivanko and the lovely Nastěnka, and sang along to the soundtrack of the film.

These classic pohádky are an integral part of the Czech Christmas ritual. The TV papers are eagerly scanned to see when Tři oříšky or Pyšná princezna are showing, and on that basis lunch, supper, or visits to and from friends and family are carefully arranged. More surprisingly still for the uninitiated foreigner, the same films are watched religiously every year and enjoyed just as much as they were in previous years. Pohádky, in short, are as much a part of Christmas as cukroví and carp.

Adventures on the Bookshelf will be taking a break now for Christmas but we’ll be back on 9th January. Have a great festive period and Merry Christmas – or, as they say in Czech, ‘Veselé Vánoce!’