Manuscript of Witold Gombrowicz’s ‘Diaries’

A Literary Kapo

BY Jan Gondowicz

The explosive mixture of hurt ambitions, feelings of superiority and complexes changes the editing process into a farce worthy of Gombrowicz himself. You need to have nerves of steel – on the job of an editor

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Critics disappear from human memory the day after they die, translators disappear on that same day they die, while editors are gone before they even stop breathing. They disappear as soon as their job is done. And how terribly ungrateful that job can be. The average reader was taught to acknowledge the popular translator, while the editor goes unrecognised. When you’re reading through a playbill, do you look for the name of the prompter? The editor is an assistant director, a prompter, a stage manager, machinist and fireman, all crammed into one person. An ambiguous position to be in, dangerously close to the dark side. And it’s very easy to do some real harm from this position. I can only speak from my own experiences – of a person with more than one job, an always-available labourer. I’ve been in this business for nearly 20 years and it was only recently that a publisher – a huge media company – openly accused me of siding with the author and not the employer. And what would happen were I a full-time employee? The book – horrendously designed, by the way – suffered the consequences.

The things people would do for a full-time position. I decided to leave out the more contemporary achievements in that category. A dozen years back I was preparing an edition of Three Men in a Boat for publication. When I looked at the original, it dawned on me that the editor of the previous Polish edition decided to cut some of the text to fit it onto an even number of pages. Somebody was methodically cutting out a word here, two words there. This translation I laboriously reconstructed appeared simultaneously with a new one, the latter filled with oddities such as people drinking beer on the Thames from aluminum beer cans in, wait for it, 1888. After they were both published, Literatura na Świecie, a Polish literary monthly, stated that the older translation was decidedly the better one. Well, after a hundred man-hours of work, I would think so!

When I cut something from the texts I was working on, I did it of my own free will – as I was allowed by the grace of late birth. Although a few “fucks” fallen victims to my efforts as well. A weird coincidence – the fragments richest in obscenities are usually the weakest. Because pointing out this coincidence counts among my proclivities, a certain pop-person decided to label me “a literary kapo” in print. She put it down in an autobiography, right at the end, might I add, but it was there all the same. A while later she tried explaining herself, saying that she didn’t know what the word “kapo” meant and implied. The publisher did not react.

I mentioned in a few interviews that if I had elaborated on how some texts looked before I had a chance to work on them, a few scandals would definitely have ensued. But I will not do that. Editors, like doctors, are bound by a literary version of the Hippocratic oath, combined with a life-long vow of discretion. That’s why they’re ultimately vulnerable. The author might complain, sitting at a coffee table, that I cut the very life out his or her work, while all I can do is silently give the author the finger with my hand stuck in my pocket. And I learned how it is to have your work cut and filtered through somebody else’s sensitivity when I became an author myself. This second pair of eyes, belonging to a professional editor, mercilessly hunted down mistakes and inconsistencies in my own writings. And trust me, there were quite a few. What can I say, nobody’s perfect.

Based on what I’ve heard and seen, I can easily say that a large part of modern Polish literature is a monument to the skill of the unknown editor. These writings are cut, slashed, pinched and blown up – which makes them partially ghostwritten. They’re reshuffled, turned inside out and polished. Without all of these efforts, they would’ve been impossible to read. Years ago I worked in pest control and that particular job imbued me with an ability to spot an infestation, no need to check in the back, thank you very much. The work of an editor imbues you with a similar intuition. I read a page and know exactly what it’s been through.

Editors are the reason behind reduced prices. A certain amount of work from third and fourth parties will make anything readable. These underwhelming submissions usually come from people that publishers can’t refuse or celebrities tempted by an easy buck. Like I said, my kind can make a book out of nearly nothing, for pennies on the dollar. But it hurts the writers, who, after an ambitious debut, are reduced to churning out a book per year. Once, I decided to name a few of these types during a public meeting. Back in the day, the writer’s profession was a lifelong commitment. You had to think hard about whether you really had anything to say. Now, when an actor can’t find a job or an athlete broke something they start writing a blog, which they later sell to a publisher. The publisher hires me and bam, we have a book. The book’s lifespan is something like a month.

Back when I was closely following the debuts, my intuition helped me create a Polish version of the literary career that Hemingway discovered among his compatriots and described in Green Hills of Africa. And so – in the previous decade – somebody with a terrible case of passion for writing was introduced to a wider audience via an important and popular debut. Later, they released a book they wrote before the debut, previously rejected by the very publisher. When the itch for a third book began, the writer in question had already authored a few essays, because celebrity status has its own perks. So, the essays were collected in a volume and the volume got published. Then, after a few years, a fourth book (which, in truth, was more of a sophomore effort) was published, and it usually was trash. Just before being thrown to the trash heap, the more resilient ones managed to publish a diary. With each subsequent publication, the amount of editing necessary for publication was steadily increasing.

The editor trade has its little victories. Sometimes we manage to find, for people who deserve it, a splendid turn of phrase, we help combine reluctant narrative threads, we come up with better titles. But most of the time, we have to fight tooth-and-nail for each and every change we make. I was once hired to edit a romantic, albeit amorphous, novel written by a Polish writer living abroad. I really liked the book. We met in an apartment belonging to a certain company from Kraków and we worked for 19 hours straight, both of us placing signatures on the bottom of each page we slogged through. I just couldn’t get my ideas through, all of the tricks I usually employed were useless. When we finally reached the back cover, and were both bone-tired, I asked the author what she did for a living in the place where she wrote her book. “I am a professional negotiator,” she replied.

The explosive mixture of hurt ambitions, feelings of superiority, and suddenly blooming complexes changes the editing process into a farce worthy of Gombrowicz himself. You need to have nerves of steel. Because I eventually frayed mine, I decided, fully following the rule that the only good authors are dead, to improve a highly scientific translation. This voluminous, sophisticated piece took me half a year to finish. Page after page, I wrote my own translation between the lines of the original, hideous version – and this time I tracked the changes. And all I got for my troubles was the publisher removing the “Translation revised by...” from the finished work. The family of the dead translator did not grant permission.

And so I decided to end my editing career. And, frankly speaking, I would like us – as far as literature is concerned – to stop doing editorial work altogether. Did an editor help publish works like Insatiability, The Street of Crocodiles and Ferdydurke? It’s the moment of truth, people.

translated by Jan Szelągiewicz

Tekst dostępny na licencji Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 3.0 PL.