Interview _ Renata Strzok

Renata Strzok is a writer, blogger, translator, and technical writer.

As a member of a student creative writing group, she had some of her stories, both in Polish and in English, published at CREATURE: Sekcja Creative Writing KNA UJ and currently is co-editing the second short story anthology to be published by the group.

Strzok also blogs at Uczę się mówić, which she describes as "a mixture of personal reflections, mostly on the issues of mental health, quotes, angry rants, and short fiction."

She finished her MA studies in translation and intercultural communication at the Jagiellonian University, and since then has cultivated her interest in translation through workshops and projects such as Yeats Reborn and Journeys in Translation. For two years, she has been working in the area of technical communication.

In this interview, Renata Strzok talks about creative writing, Journeys in Translation and poetry.

How would you describe your writing?

Most of my writing stays in my diary, which is as much a place to reflect on what happens within and around me as a document recording those reflections. Other than that, I write mostly short fiction, also quite introspective, but not necessarily personal.

For me, writing is a way to get the most important things – things that make me happy, angry, or which hurt – out of my head, and share them. This doesn’t apply to my work as a techwriter, which is not so much about writing as it is about gathering information and presenting it in the clearest and most useful way possible.

Who or what has had the most influence on you as a writer?

I think I’ve gone through several phases where I could notice different writers’ influence in my own writing. For example, there were the phases of Edward Stachura, Virginia Woolf, or Witold Gombrowicz.

What would you say are your main concerns as a writer?

Gombrowicz wrote that we should write about things that really interest us, and not be boring. That’s one of my main concerns: not to bore myself to death with my own writing because if I am bored, how can I expect a better response from others?

I also try to make sure that the things my characters do make sense emotionally, from the point of view of psychology. For example, if a character does something that’s bad for them, there should be a reason for it.

What is the name of the student creative writing group that you are part of? And, what does the group do?

The name is actually quite long: the Creative Writing Section of the Association of Students of English at the Institute of English Studies of the Jagiellonian University in Kraków. The group has been active since 2014, and I’ve been part of it all along. I joined out of curiosity, and because I wanted to have people to talk to about writing.

Over the years, there were many occasions to discuss both serious and not-so-serious issues, have a beer together, and of course exchange feedback on the texts we write. In the very beginning, we agreed that the feedback must be constructive, so that we hear more than just “I didn’t like your story” or “you’re such a good writer”.

I can’t give you an exact number of people in the group - people come and go, but recently I think there are five people meeting regularly every two weeks.

Apart from the meetings, we organized two short story contests for students who are not native English speakers. We got submissions from Sweden, Lithuania, Spain, Russia, and of course Poland. We published the Obsessions anthology after the first contest, and we’re in the process of publishing the second anthology called Press Any Key. I got involved in the language editing of both books, and typesetting of the second one.

Press Any Key, the second anthology from the Creative Writing Section of the Association of Students of English at the Institute of English Studies of the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, mentioned in a local newspaper.
Why are groups such as this important?

Through interaction with other writers, you really learn a lot. For example, you may learn about kinds of literature you’ve never heard about, or learn that criticism doesn’t have to hurt. Thanks to our meetings, some of us started to submit their texts to online magazines or publishing houses, which they didn’t feel confident enough to do before.

Accomplishing something together, like we did with the contests, is also a great experience. But probably the most important thing about such groups is the awesome people you meet there.

What led you to translation and intercultural communication? 

I liked learning English at school. When I started getting fluent and reading books in this language, my first attempts at translating fragments of them came about kind of naturally. For example, I remember translating a fragment of Life of Pi just because I wanted to see what it could read like in Polish. Then, I started studying translation and intercultural communication, and learned some theory which was also interesting for me.

I also had great teachers, including dr Agata Hołobut and prof. dr hab. Marta Gibińska-Marzec, whose knowledge and enthusiasm for translation were really inspiring.

During my studies, I had a lot of practice: we translated everything from promotional materials through to travel books and poems. Nowadays, I sometimes take part in events such as the ha!wangarda festival, or the Miłosz Festival, which offer challenging and sometimes unconventional translation workshops.

I’ve also participated in two translation projects so far, both centered around poetry: one of them was Yeats Reborn, a call for translations of selected W.B. Yeats’s poems, and the other was Journeys in Translation which is translating poems from Over Land, Over Sea: Poems for those seeking refuge (Five Leaves Publications, 2015) into other languages.

How did you get involved with Journeys in Translation?

I learned about it from a friend from the creative writing group. Then I read the poems, and found some of them interesting to translate. So I started translating.

Which were the most challenging aspects of the work you put into the project?

Given that Polish translations tend to be longer than their English sources, one of the biggest challenges was preserving the shape of some of the poems. For example, “Stories from the Jungle”, where lines are already long, so I didn’t want to make them any longer, and “Dislocation”, where I think the brevity of the lines contributes a lot to the meaning.

I also made multiple attempts at the poem “but one country”, where I strove to preserve not only the shape of a globe, but also the links between lines in both parts of the poem, which wouldn’t form naturally like in the English text because Polish has more cases.

One of the poems I liked best, “Yalla”, also proved difficult to translate. Its imagery is quite complex, but after reading it several times I started seeing that rock, that sand, that heavy sky and the remote land with my own eyes. I tried to render this poem according to what I imagined reading it. Some of the expressions I used, e.g. “pomarszczone palce gładzą sny / osad, co powstał wbrew ruchowi fal” (“wrinkled fingers stroke dreams, / residue all at odds with the tides”) are unusual in Polish, but I think that’s the strength of this poem, that’s what made the English text so memorable to me.

As part of Journeys in Translation, Renata Strzok has translated poems that include Rod Duncan's "but one country" and Trevor Wright's "Yalla", from Over Land, Over Sea: Poems for those seeking refuge (Five Leaves Publications, 2015), from English into Polish.

What would you say is the value of initiatives like Journeys in Translation?

I guess all translation projects encourage people to communicate across language barriers as well as other barriers, to do with culture and politics. We may live in an era of globalisation, but this is still very important.

This particular initiative is also important in that it tackles the topic of refugees through a different medium, and from a different perspective than we’re used to. Where I live, the media focus on conflict, do little to fight xenophobia within the country, and hardly ever talk about ways to help those seeking refuge. The poems in Over Land, Over Sea offer a closer look at the lives of refugees, showing their experiences, so that we see them for who they are: people who need help.

Editor's Note:

Journeys in Translation aims to facilitate cross- and inter-cultural conversations around the themes of home, belonging and refuge.

The project encourages people who are bilingual or multilingual to have a go at translating 13 of the 101 poems from Over Land, Over Sea: Poems for those seeking refuge (Five Leaves Publications, 2015) from English into other languages and to share the translations, and reflections on the exercise on blogs, in letters and emails to family and friends, and on social media.

So far, the 13 poems that are being used as part of the project have been translated into languages that include Italian, German, Shona, Spanish, Bengali, British Sign Language, Farsi, Finnish, French, Turkish and Welsh. Currently, over 20 people from all over the world are working on the translations. More translations and more languages are on the way.

In Leicester, Journeys in Translation will culminate in an event that is going to be held on September 30 as part of Everybody's Reading 2017. During the event the original poems and translations will be read, discussed and displayed.

Over Land, Over Sea: Poems for Those Seeking Refuge (Five Leaves Publications, 2015) was edited by Kathleen Bell, Emma Lee and Siobhan Logan and is being sold to raise funds for Doctors Without Borders/ Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF)Leicester City of Sanctuary and the Nottingham and Nottinghamshire Refugee Forum.

Copies of the anthology are available from Five Leaves Bookshop (Nottingham).

More information on how Over Land, Over Sea came about is available here.


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