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THE BOOK TRADE

Polishing Up a Classic 'Trilogy'

May 12, 1991|ELIZABETH MEHREN

Here are some comments from fans that any writer would welcome: William Faulkner: "Why do writers write? One day I understood that Sienkiewicz had the answer all along: 'To uplift the hearts.' This touches all of us. Sienkiewicz showed us all how to be a writer."

Franklin Delano Roosevelt: "The place of Henryk Sienkiewicz among the immortals is secure because he created a work of enduring interest dealing with a deathless theme. I gladly add my tribute of praise and appreciation of a master of letters whose work is a world heritage."

Upton Sinclair: "I read 'Quo Vadis?' in the Italian language in my student days. Even more vivid, however, is my memory of the Polish 'Trilogy,' which I read some 40 years ago. I thought them among the world's greatest novels, and judged by the vividness with which I still remember them, they must truly have many great qualities."

The Henryk Sienkiewicz in question was a Polish newspaper editor and foreign correspondent. Americans who recognize his name know him best for his novel "Quo Vadis?," written in 1896. But it is his "Trilogy," published in book form in Poland between 1884 and 1888, that won Sienkiewicz the Nobel Prize for literature in 1905.

Until 1945, Polish students were required to read the vast epic of their country's history, geography and culture. Even throughout Poland's domination by the Communists, every new edition of "Trilogy" sold out the day it appeared in Poland. Poles say the book describes for them "what it means to be Polish." Sienkiewicz liked to say that he treated his novels as "social tools" to inspire the masses.

Sienkiewicz drew heavily on his own travels in writing the "Trilogy." His details of the Ukrainian steppes actually were inspired by visits to California and the American plains, and descriptions of Tatars and Cossacks were drawn in part from his memory of various American frontiersmen and Indian tribes. Two of "Trilogy's" main characters--Pan Zagloba, the rollicking, bombastic anti-hero, and Pan Longinus, the gentle Lithuanian giant--were based on personalities Sienkiewicz met in California.

Published between 1890 and 1905, English editions of the "Trilogy" were instant best sellers in America. But the translations came not from the Polish but from Russian versions of the epic published as newspaper serials. Hippocrene Books and the Copernicus Society of America, publishers of a massive new English translation of the "Trilogy," out May 3, say politely that earlier translations of the Sienkiewicz opus "lack authority."

By contrast, the new edition reflects six years of total immersion by Polish-born American novelist W. S. Kuniczak. Kuniczak not only translated and updated the purposely antiquated style of Polish that Sienkiewicz preferred, he also adapted the prose for a modern reader who might not be well versed in the history and culture of Poland.

For 2 1/2 years, Kuniczak studied more than 40 books in three languages dealing with the "Trilogy's" setting, customs, dress, weaponry, military tactics, architecture and prevalent ideas and beliefs. The resulting translation prompted novelist Jerzy Kosinski to remark that "W. S. Kuniczak . . . himself deserves the monument in American literary ethos."

Of his work on the Sienkiewicz collection, Kuniczak said, "I think the word is obsession." As he tells the story, after he first read the "Trilogy" in Polish at age 6, he immediately set for himself the goal of becoming a writer. When he read the earlier English translations, he found them "appalling, about as stiff and wooden as you can get." It became his dream early on to rectify this injustice, and make the translation as exciting as the original.

Kuniczak went on to write his own novels. When he reached the point where "all my profundities had been exhausted," he turned to translating the Sienkiewicz "Trilogy." He said he has sometimes had a difficult time explaining his work as the translator of Sienkiewicz, because "people kept asking me what the 'Trilogy' is like." Kuniczak tells them that "on the one hand, it's sort of like 'Gone With the Wind.' On the other, it's sort of 'War and Peace.' " But even that description makes him uncomfortable. "When you read the 'Trilogy,' you realize--poor Margaret Mitchell, she was not even a pebble on Sienkiewicz's grave."

"With Fire and Sword," the first volume in the "Trilogy," will be followed this fall by "The Deluge." "Fire in a Steppe," the final volume, will be published in 1992.

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