Acta Structuralica

international journal for structuralist research

Journal | Volume | Article

Literary studies, literary translation, and literariness according to Edward Balcerzan

Ewa Kraskowska(Adam Mickiewicz University, Poznań, Poland)Ewa Rajewska

1Edward Balcerzan (b. 1937), a co-founder of the Polish structural-semiotic literary studies and what has become known as the Poznań School of Translation Research, is one of the most eminent Polish humanists and authors of the 20th and early 21st centuries — a highly regarded scholar set on typologising, discovering patterns and peculiarities hidden in the literary and cultural universe, and naming them inventively. It is thanks to Balcerzan that the language of Polish literary studies features terms such as “translation series” [seria przekładowa], “poetic strategy” [strategia liryczna], “poetic situation” [sytuacja liryczna], “multimedia genre theory” [genologia multimedialna], “literature from literature” [literatura z literatury], “screen words” [słowa-ekrany], “generation of the transformation age” [pokolenie ery transformacji], “contradictory conception of literariness” [sprzecznościowa koncepcja literackości], and many others.1

2Throughout his research activity, spanning over five decades (from the 1960s to the present), Balcerzan has addressed fundamental problems of literary studies: the ontology of literature and literary work (e.g. in the “contradictory” theory of literature), epistemology (e.g. the notion of interpretation as “an attempt at the whole”) and aesthetics (e.g. aesthetics as the fourth part of semiology). He studied versification; he popularised Russian theoretical thought and analysed Russian poetry; he discussed the problems of synthesis in literary history, the reception of a literary work and, more broadly, literary communication; he responded (often polemically) to successive methodological turns in contemporary humanities and he took part in debates about the situation of academic Polish studies. Balcerzan’s oeuvre is usually situated within the “Warsaw-Poznań School of Structuralism” (Głowiński, Wołowiec 2018), but in our opinion it also has its own specificity, which is worth examining and describing in detail.

1 | Literary studies

3We propose to begin our discussion of Balcerzan’s literary research with an analysis of selected terms coined by him, their linguistic specificity and possible connections with his poetry and prose works, as well as their historical and methodological sources. A potential dictionary of such terms contains — as far as we have been able to establish — over two hundred entries; their list could start with the “inner author” [autor wewnętrzny] and end with “prose elements” [żywioły prozy]. Some of them have permanently enriched the language of the Polish humanities of the 20th and 21st centuries (e.g. “translation series”, “multimedia genology”, “poetic strategies”); still more, however, remain dormant in his works or are used only incidentally. They all belong to the legacy of the Polish structuralist-semiotic school in literary studies and as such are worth disseminating and testing.

4The discourse of the humanities is governed by different laws than the discourse of hard science. As the British chemist-turned-novelist C. P. Snow said about scientists in his famous 1959 lecture The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution: “They have their own culture, intensive, rigorous, and constantly in action. This culture contains a great deal of argument, usually much more rigorous, and almost always at a higher conceptual level, than literary persons’ arguments”. He also remarked: “Now and then one used to find poets conscientiously using scientific expressions, and getting them wrong—there was a time when ‘refraction’ kept cropping up in verse in a mystifying fashion, and when ‘polarised light’ was used as though writers were under the illusion that it was a specially admirable kind of light” (Snow 1963, 16). By saying “poets” and “writers” Snow basically meant “literary intellectuals” in general, and his observations remain relevant today. In fact, the very term “refraction”, derived from physics, is quite frequently used in contemporary humanities, e.g. in translation, comparative, and reception literary studies (Lefevere 1992).

5Before a term is coined, there must be a concept. So how are concepts and terms created in the humanities? What makes some of them gain a permanent position, and remain “constantly in action” (to use Snow’s expression) in international academic discourses, while others appear for a moment and soon vanish from specialist jargon? Of course, we do not intend here to recapitulate the whole history of humanistic vocabulary, as this is beyond our capabilities and the scope of this article. We will focus on the terminological specificities of structuralism and semiotics (taking into account the contribution of Russian formalism), since Balcerzan’s original naming system grew out of this background. When asked in personal conversation, how he managed to continually create new concepts and terms, he replied: “First I start noticing some pattern, regularity, and then the name comes to me by itself”. This statement is a maifesto of a structuralist and objectivist attitude: the scholar is convinced that the regularities he sees are not his theoretical construct, but actually occur in the universe of culture, and it is his task to grasp and name them.

6The original and primary reservoir of structuralist and semiotic vocabulary was linguistics, with its largely empirical character. Linguists are generally very attached to their specialised terminology and its precise application, and their arguments are subject to rigours similar to those of the hard scientists. Such ambitions were precisely the driving force behind structuralism, which aspired to develop objective research methods in the humanities. Terms such as “sign”, “meaning”, “binary opposition”, “distinctive feature”, “synchrony” and “diachrony”, “invariant” etc., were transfered from the study of language to anthropology, sociology or literary criticism, and began to refer to the increasingly diverse cultural universe. Other basic concepts and their names — e.g. “system”, “structure”, “relation”, “function”, “morphology” — pointed directly to the natural sciences: physics, chemistry, biology, earth science, astronomy. But it was not only the structuralist-semiotic vocabulary that referred to science. A similar role of making the language of Geisteswissenschaften emulate the language of science was played by definitions and typologies, which became an indispensable element of the discourse. Perhaps the best-known example of such practices is still Roman Jakobson’s model of the functions of language, and its six factors of communication, accompanied by his famous definition of the poetic function as “the projection of the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection to the axis of combination” (Jakobson 1960, 358).

7Polish structuralism of the 1960s and 1970s, leaning towards literary communication theory, adapted perfectly to this discourse. It is enough to recall here some canonical works by its most highly regarded representatives: “Synchronia i diachronia w procesie historycznoliterackim” [Synchrony and diachrony in the historical literary process] and “Wokół teorii języka poetyckiego” [On the theory of poetic language] by Janusz Sławiński; “Relacje osobowe w literackiej komunikacji” [Personal relationships in literary communication] by Aleksandra Okopień-Sławińska; Michał Głowiński’s “Świadectwa i style odbioru” [Testimonies and styles of reception] with his typology of seven such styles: mythic, allegoric, symbolic, instrumental, mimetic, and expressive. For Edward Balcerzan, a young theorist and literary historian in the 1960s, this discourse became a natural mode of thought, research and expression in his academic work.

8But Balcerzan is not only a scholar; he is also a man of letters. His poetic debut took place in 1954 in the local magazine Głos Szczeciński [The Voice of Szczecin], and his first volume of poetry appeared in 1960, entitled Morze, pergamin i ty [The sea, parchment and you]. In 1964, he published a novel under the title Pobyt [Stay], and in 1972 a second one — Któż by nas takich pięknych. Tryptyk [Who would].2 He soon abandoned fiction, but continues to write poetry. In addition, genres such as the essay (particularly of the autobiographical kind) and the column play an increasingly important role in his non-academic writing. Here, Balcerzan likes to combine autobiographical, academic and literary topics.

9The links between Balcerzan’s research activities and his literary work were strongly emphasised by Beata M. Wolska,3 who sees a certain paradox in his academic writings. On the one hand, he consistently “strives to be scientific” and “creates concepts aimed at systematising [...] literary discourse”; on the other hand, “he often derives his insights [...] from specific poetic concepts” (Wolska 2018, 28). Non-academic writing has been indeed practised by other Polish literary scholars, including structuralists (although this is not as common as in other academic cultures). What distinguishes Edward Balcerzan, however, is undoubtedly his degree of involvement in original poetic and prose writing (including poetry translation), as well as his active participation in literary life and his membership in the Association of Polish Writers and the Polish PEN Club.

10At first glance, several categories can be distinguished among Balcerzan’s terms, depending on how they were created. These include neologisms and neosemantisms; metaphors; conceptual amalgams; borrowings; paraphrases; and stylistically neutral terms, such as genologia multimedialna or seria translatorska. Two or more categories can intersect within the same term: a metaphor can be constructed on the basis of a conceptual amalgam (e.g. pola sobowtóry [doppelganger fields], słowa-ekrany [screen words]), a pun (świat podstawiony, [substituted world], instead of świat przedstawiony, [represented world]) or a paraphrase (awangarda rozrzucona, [scattered avant-garde], after Tadeusz Różewicz’s play Kartoteka rozrzucona, [The Card Index Scattered]). Balcerzan’s most famous borrowing is sytuacja liryczna [lyrical situation], taken from Julian Przyboś and applied first to his poems (Balcerzan 1989), then widely popularised as a common literary term, used even in school teaching. As it is impossible to describe in one article all of Balcerzan’s term coining strategies, let us illustrate the apparent paradox of his discourse — i.e. combining poeticism with scientism — with only one of them, namely neologisms. They are created from words already existing in the vocabulary of general humanities or literary studies, and include, for example: Kontakter, Korekcjoner, amigracja, nieprzekład and niekrytyka przekładu.

11Neologisms occur in all varieties of language — from colloquial to scientific to artistic. They allow to name unknown or previously non-existent areas of reality (physical or non-physical), to colour utterances, to play with language. In Balcerzan’s work all these functions coexist. His own lyrical œuvre is usually situated in the tradition of linguistic poetry, which is quite rich in the history of Polish literature, and is represented, among others, by authors he holds particularly dear: Bolesław Leśmian, Julian Przyboś, Miron Białoszewski, Tymoteusz Karpowicz. As a historian of Polish poetry, Balcerzan himself described this poetic style as originating “in the astonishment at Polish language”, making us “experience our mother tongue as if it were a foreign language” (Balcerzan 1988, 79).

12Kontakter4 appears in Balcerzan’s work very early, in his doctoral dissertation Styl i poetyka twórczości dwujęzycznej Brunona Jasieńskiego [Style and poetics of Bruno Jasieński’s bilingual writing] published in 1968. The term supplements Jakobson’s model of communication and is defined as follows: “Someone who does not produce Messages himself, but only receives them and sends them on, taking care especially of the maximum efficiency of the Contact” (Balcerzan 1968, 119; author’s capitals). The same word-formation principle gave rise to Korekcjoner, which appeared in 1972 and was intended to denote the “multiform co-sender of a message” (Balcerzan 1972, 107), e.g., literary critic, ghostwriter, editor. Amigracja, on the other hand, dates back to 1992, when emigration and its historical and cultural contexts were very hot topics in the Polish humanities and public life. Balcerzan’s article Ojczyzna wobec obczyzny [Homeland vs. Foreign Land] was first published in the volume Między Polską a światem: kultura emigracyjna po roku 1939 [Between Poland and the World: The Culture of Emigration after 1939], and the term was to stand for a community united by “the refusal to abandon one’s country or the compulsion to remain within its guarded borders”. Thus, it was the author’s voice in the discussion of Poles’ attitudes towards the experiences of World War II and the Polish People’s Republic. “Emigration, amigration, immigration”, he wrote. “In this triangle we all fit. It accommodates three varieties of human experience, ethical orientation and imagination” (Balcerzan 1992, 22).

13The supposed origin of the terms nieprzekład [non-translation] and niekrytyka przekładu [non-criticism of translation] requires a broader explanation. There are quite a few “negated terms” [terminy zaprzeczone] in contemporary humanities, of which “non-place”, coined by Marc Augé (1992), is perhaps the best known. The Tartu School is the source of such neologisms as “non-text” or “non-sign” (Lotman, Piatigorsky 1978 [1968]). Although Balcerzan was undoubtedly strongly influenced by Yuri Lotman’s and his colleagues’ theoretical concepts, we would like to propose a different hypothesis as to the provenance of his “non-translation” and “non-translation criticism”. As was already mentioned here, one of Balcerzan’s favourite poets is Bolesław Leśmian (1877-1937):

[...] Leśmian was a genius. He grew out of symbolism, infatuation with folklore, fascination with Eastern religions, he drew on the teachings of philosophers (especially Bergson). He was a child of his epoch, and yet he remained someone utterly separate. He was unlike any of his predecessors. A poet without masters, a master without imitators. Endowed with incredible inventiveness of imagination, courageous in shaping the Polish language of his poems as if he were inventing it from scratch. Today he is counted among the greatest — not only in Poland. (Balcerzan 1996, 87).

14Leśmian’s principal ontological question concerns non-beings and the manner of their existence; according to Żaneta Nalewajk “[T]he concept of a nonexistent object is paradoxical in nature, and what is more, this paradoxical nature turns out to be a characteristic feature of Leśmian’s poetry” (Nalewajk 2015, 250). One sign of this urge to create such objects, or entities, is the high frequency of lexemes with prefixes bez- [“un-”; “-less”] and nie- [“non-”; “no-”] in his poetry. Some of them belong to standard Polish language (bezludna [uninhabited]; niebyt, nieistnienienie [non-being]), but are subject to neosemantization, while others have been invented by the poet (i.e. bezświat, bezśmiech, nieżal, niewiadomość5).

15Balcerzan’s negated terms nieprzekład and niekrytyka refer to phenomena related to translation, and can be seen as inspired by the style and thinking of Leśmian. “The focus on the negative aspect of the object of research (interest in lack, absence, unfulfillment) is a specific characteristic of translatological consciousness”, he wrote in one of his papers (Balcerzan 2011 [2009], 134). According to the scholar, “every translation is to some extent a non-translation [nieprzekład]” (Balcerzan 2011, 31). He uses the term nieprzekład in two senses. On one hand, the translation “against the background of its foreign-language source presents itself as a hybrid entity”, and its units “are of a dual nature, to some extent identical and to some extent different from the elements of the original text” (Balcerzan 2011, 303). There are thus diverse areas of otherness from the source text at various levels of the target text — and these are the areas of nieprzekład. But Balcerzan also uses this term for features or components of the source text transferred (“translocated”) unchanged into the translation (i.e. not subjected to the process of translation via equivalence, just like the very term nieprzekład in the previous sentence). These are the two sides of the same coin — the two sides of nieprzekład. In turn, niekrytyka przekładu [non-criticism of translation] is one aspect of the ubiquitous phenomenon described by Balcerzan as niewiedza o przekładzie [ignorance of translation], and denotes a way of writing about a translated work as if it were its source text.6

16Among the above-mentioned terms, perhaps only amigracja has found a wide reception in the Polish humanist discourse, responding to an obvious demand to fill a certain gap in the existing nomenclature. The remaining terms have not (yet?) entered wider circulation. The term Kontakter, directly referring to Jakobson’s concept, is probably too specialised, while Korekcjoner refers to quite specific aspects of literary communication and has not found wider application in research discourse, just like nieprzekład and niekrytyka, which in addition seem too vague, ambiguous and require familiarity with the specific argument of their creator. However, there is still a chance that someone will come across them and give them a new life.

17Balcerzan’s terminological neologisms are just the tip of the iceberg, hopefully representative of his inventiveness. Its scale certainly gives him a unique place among Polish literary scholars. Within Polish structuralism, he shares this position only with Janusz Sławiński (see Januszek 2012), who was three years his senior. The two scholars not only shared a similar approach to literary research. For many decades, till Sławiński’s death in 2014, they remained close friends and were not even separated by the extreme divergence of their political choices, which slowly became apparent after the political transformation of the 1990s: Sławiński went conservative, while Balcerzan supports liberal democracy, broadly speaking. The structuralist foundation of this friendship allowed it to survive even such strong divisions as the one that has torn today’s Poland in half.7

2 | Literary translation

18To be precise: artistic translation. Although Balcerzan in his research on translation mostly refers to literary examples — he sees literary translation as “literature [born out] of literature”, but never entirely isolated from the biography of the translator, his life experiences, literary culture or, finally, his artistic intentions (Balcerzan 1998, 4) — he is convinced that the proper status of literary translation is that of an art, and that literary translations should be read and studied as works of the art of literature. Already in one of his earliest but widely resonant texts, “Poetyka przekładu artystycznego” [The Poetics of Artistic Translation, 1968], Balcerzan postulated that the poetics of artistic translation should become a subject of in-depth literary studies as a separate humanistic discipline (Balcerzan 2020a, 24). His paper “La traduction, art d’interpréter”, presented in May 1968 in Bratislava at an international conference, which, under the headline “Translation as an Art”, was intended to create a platform for a pan-European discussion on emerging Translation Studies, opened the conference publication edited by James S. Holmes with Frans de Haan and Anton Popovič (Holmes 1970).

19At the beginning of the 1970s, the concept of “translation as an art” distinguished the more literary-oriented, maturing Translation Studies from the linguistic approaches. In the case of Edward Balcerzan, the concept of “artistic translation” stemmed from his Russian-language readings — especially of Korney Chukovsky, Efim Etkind and Victor Koptilov (Szczerbowski 2011, 11; 74). Balcerzan was also one of the first researchers in Poland to attact the attention of scholars of Polish language and literature to the study of translation. At the turn of the 1960s, together with Jerzy Ziomek, Stanisław Barańczak and other colleagues from the Institute of Polish Philology, Balcerzan established an informal research team which came to be known in Polish academic circles as “the Poznań school of translatology” (cf. Constantino 2015, Szymańska 2016). The Poznań school — or rather the Poznań tradition, as the group has not developed any consistent innovative methodology to study translation — was also literary-oriented; this feature could be seen as the differentia specifica of Poznań translation research. Poznań translation scholars excelled in comparative microanalysis of literary texts. They emphasised the interpretative nature of literary translation and were interested especially in reception and the historical (diachronic) aspect of the workings of translations in the receiving literature (Constantino 2015, 24). The theoretical framework of their research was structuralism, allied with semiotics and literary communication theory. Structuralism — allowing literary scholars to perceive their research as free from ideological taint, objective and, consequently, reliable — was then seen as an alternative to Marxism, which had dominated the academic world in the Soviet Block after World War II in its vulgarized and doctrinal version. Associating oneself with structuralism implied the scholar’s resistance to the dominant system; thus, adherence to the structuralist approach in Poland in the 1960s and 1970s was a political gesture to an extent (Kraskowska 2015, 119).

20One might think that a natural consequence of Edward Balcerzan’s conviction of the artistic status of literary translation would be to grant the translator the status of an artist. And, going just one step further, to grant him the status of the creator — or the co-creator — of a literary work of art. However, Balcerzan is not inclined to do so. In his view, a translator is not an artist but rather a craftsman (Balcerzan 1977, 7); translation approximates creativity only on the lowest level of text construction, i.e. in the lexical and phraseological layer, and that “does not yet amount to creativity” (Balcerzan 2020b, 36). What really counts is the original creative impulse, the inspiration, the genesis of an original literary work, and in this field the translator is limited by the inspiration of the original author, embedded in the original text. A translator’s achievements can be indeed remarkable: “the innovations on the translator’s part concern the lowest levels of an artistic work and play out among micro-stylistic combinations within the text. It might come as a surprise that these interventions influence the shape of an individual text to an incommensurably greater extent than stylistic polysystems formed within the local literary tradition” (Balcerzan 2020b, 42). But they are not original; they are not creative. The work of a translator is (only) “literature [born out] of literature”.

21For Balcerzan, a translator is definitely not a co-author of the work he has translated. He is the creator of another, second existence of the text (Balcerzan 1977, 12), maker of the second, substitute world presented by the author in the original literary work (Balcerzan 2011, 142-143). “An intelligent transmitter”, trying “to do justice to the author of the original, to speak in his voice” (Balcerzan 2020a, 34). Balcerzan evidently favours “translation proper” over “interpretation”, where “the translator [is] the main speaking subject” (Balcerzan 2020a, 34).

22The definiteness of Balcerzan’s views is well illustrated by his polemics with two Polish translation scholars. The first is Anna Legeżyńska, who has introduced into the Polish translational discourse the notion of “a translator as the second author”. She did so in her doctoral book, written under the supervision of none other than Edward Balcerzan. “The specificity of the translator’s communicative role lies in the accumulation of the roles of reader, expert, critic, researcher and ‘second author’ of the text”, wrote Legeżyńska (1999, 12), and to describe the process of communication in this specific case of translation, she redoubled Jakobson’s well-known linguistic model. In her perspective, the translator in a way becomes the second sender, who encodes the message in another, second language system. “The translator [...] takes on a role different from that of the author”, she pointed out (Legeżyńska 1999, 20; author’s spacing), but she was clear that translation is creative, “original” and individual: “[I]t should be acknowledged that a translation is a creation because, in relation to the original, it meets the condition of ‘novelty’ (it is not, after all, an identical work). In the psychological perspective of creativity, the author of a translation is a subject, endowed with different psychophysical properties than the original author. Therefore, the process of translation must also be individual in character.” (Legeżyńska 1999, 35). In an article written years later, Legeżynska further sharpened her observation: “The conviction of the creative rather than reproductive character of artistic translation has become a non-polemical statement among translatologists. Of course, no one claims that the two types of creation, original and translation creation are identical. […] Through decisions in the realm of elocution, the translator enters the realm of authorial invention. He becomes the ‘second author’ of the work, although he rarely competes with the author proper.” (Legeżyńska 2002, 123; author’s emphasis).

23Edward Balcerzan does think it is a polemical statement — and in his 2007 book he explicitly distances himself from the concept of the translator as the “second autor”. He emphasises that his earlier idea of the translator as the creator a of second existence of the text had nothing to do with Legeżyńska’s approach: “Initiators of the ‘second existence’ of a literary work are its various performers — stagers, directors, illustrators, interpreters, translators. If we call them all ‘second authors’, nothing but a blurring of the meaning of the word ‘author’ will come out of it”, he argued (Balcerzan 2007, 7). A few years later, he criticised “the cheerful self-indulgence” of “auxiliary authors” — translators who “have abandoned their duties as translators and reached out for authorial authority [...], have begun to interfere, have taken the stylistic initiative, have thrusted into the author’s seat, have begun to write on behalf of the author” (Balcerzan 2011, 171-172).

24In his article “Niech nas zobaczą” [Let Them See Us] from 2011, Jerzy Jarniewicz, a translation scholar, professor and historian of British and Irish literature, poet, and a literary translator himself, proclaimed the coming-out of Polish translators: a coming out of the insides of books onto their covers, in a clearly authorial gesture. The text was reprinted in Jarniewicz’s book Gościnność słowa [Hospitality of word] (2012), reviewed by Balcerzan in Literatura na Świecie, an established Polish journal for literary translations. The review was not particularly flattering. “Dealing with the works of the great masters, which one painstakingly reconstructs sign by sign, symbol by symbol, motif by motif, in a language other than that of the source work, can put the translator in a momentary state of ‘mistaken emotion’, when he seems to himself ‘a second Homer’, ‘a second Rabelais’, ‘a second Calderon’”, wrote Balcerzan, and he criticised Jarniewicz for accepting this “translatological hyperbole” — of “translator as the second author” — as an academic term rather than a mere metaphor (Balcerzan 2013b, 484-5). Jarniewicz contradicts himself, Balcerzan argued: his in-depth studies collected in this book bring “non-revolutionary but encouraging conclusions: Translation remains a sovereign field of creativity, subject to its own discipline, not identified with original creation, nor with half- or quarter-author masquerade” (Balcerzan 2013b, 491).

25Jarniewicz responded to these reproaches in Tygodnik Powszechny, a major opinion-forming weekly; later, in an extended version, this essay opened his next book on literary translation, Tłumacz między innymi [Translator among others] (2018). “When translating Homer, I do not put myself in a state of ‘mistaken emotion’, nurturing the conviction that I am ‘a second Homer’ […] When I translate Joyce, I don’t get excited by the idea that I equal Joyce’s genius”, protested Jarniewicz. “Between the statements: ‘as a translator I am a co-author (of the target language text)’ and ‘I am a second Homer (or Joyce)’, there stretches a huge space”, he argued (Jarniewicz 2018, 24). Jarniewicz has placed a strong emphasis on the target literature: the translated text is first and foremost a work in the language of translation, belonging to the culture of that language. “A translator is an author, whether s/he wants to or not — when translating s/he has to make authorial decisions, i.e. decisions that s/he would make if s/he were writing the original text. If s/he translates into Polish, s/he puts her/his ear to the words s/he chooses and listens to how they resonate with the Polish language. S/he looks at the emerging text and watches how it composes with other texts of Polish literature. S/he observes her/his own words and remembers that they will be read by users of the Polish language who have been brought up on the literature of that language […] Or, to put it another way: a translator as an author is a necessity for the existence of translation” (Jarniewicz 2018, 34-35; author’s emphasis).

26Balcerzan, a doyen of Poznań translation scholars group, is the author of many terms functioning in the discourse of Polish translation studies, including “literature from literature” [literatura z literatury], “translation strategy” [strategia przekładowa], “polemical translation” [przekład polemiczny], “latent translation” [tłumaczenie utajone], “creative bilingualism” [bilingwizm twórczy] or “confrontational reading of the translation” [lektura konfrontacyjna przekładu]. The vitality and operability of his terminology is especially well exemplified by the concept of “translation series” [seria przekładowa], akin though not equivalent to Western “retranslation”. Introduced as early as in the 1960s with an apt definition (“A series is the basic form of existence for artistic translation. Such is the specificity of its ontology”; Balcerzan 2020 a, 25), this term gained a strong standing in Polish translatology, and has had a major influence on other scholars. It has significantly stimulated Polish descriptive studies on translations of the same source text; not only has it become one of the basic instruments of translation analysis, but it has also been further elaborated theoretically (cf. “reception series”, Skwara 2014).

3 | Literariness

27Edward Balcerzan’s book on the true, universal though only situationally present identity of literature, which can be recognised with scientific tools: Literariness. Models, gradations, experiments (2013a als Literackość. Modele, gradacje, eksperymenty; English translation 2016), is his summa as well as tour de force. It is an attempt to outline the immutable characteristics of all literary phenomena — and actually much more, as “literariness can manifest itself outside literature without losing its basic distinguishing features, while literature without literariness is unthinkable” (Balcerzan 2016, 39). To this end, Balcerzan constructs a model of literariness, recurring as the invariant of innumerable variants. We are not going to discuss this concept in detail here, especially since Balcerzan’s book is itself heterogeneous and at times contradictory. It consists of theoretical lectures, academic polemics, analyses and interpretations of literary works, of single metaphors, of poetics of individual authors or whole literary formations, etc. As briefly as possible, his thought goes as follows.

28There are countless definitions of the literary. Facing this, Balcerzan expresses the belief that “LITERARINESS IS A COMMUNICATIVE QUALITY THAT IS SITUATIONALLY MADE PRESENT, which does not mean, naturally, that it does not possess essential, permanent, universal attributes resulting from states of a language’s substance” (Balcerzan 2016, 36; author’s capitals). According to him, the common feature of all literary creations is that in each of them one can find some kind of antinomy, contradiction (usually more than one such relation), that “the contradictions may engulf and antagonize «anything» — in other words, whatever exists within the boundaries of the work’s poetics”, and that “the various antinomies between selected qualities [...] in the poetics of the work do not have equal force” but are of a gradational nature (Balcerzan 2016, 51). Contradictions do not exist only within literary texts, but also between the text and extra-textual reality, or between what is explicitly given in a text and what has been rejected. One example of such oppositional tension that Balcerzan devotes considerable attention to is the relationship between the expressible and the inexpressible (a variant of which is the relationship between the translatable and the untranslatable). In a series of examples taken from contemporary Polish poetry (by Wislawa Szymborska, Miron Białoszewski, Tadeusz Różewicz, Zbigniew Herbert and others), he shows how the inexpressible becomes part of the text, how it transforms into the expressible, or how it can be reduced to the unexpressed.

29Here it might be appropriate to point out the oppositional tension existing in Edward Balcerzan’s own discourse. Striving for maximum precision in presenting his concept, he proliferates examples taken from the rich, yet rather narrow, body of Polish literature. The reader of the English translation of Literariness will therefore be confronted with an abundance of unfamiliar names, titles, references to facts from the local history of literature, intertextual allusions which are comprehensible only to a narrow circle of experts, and other such exoticisms. And while the translator of the book has done an admirable job of trying to convey the nuances of the works quoted and the often difficult syntactical constructions of Balcerzan himself, one must admit that a potential foreign reader of this work will not have an easy task. Therefore, it is all the more important to try to make it available in excerpts, commentaries and summaries, and above all in attempts to apply the theory proposed in it to one’s own research.

30The contradictory concept of literariness is the result of several decades of Balcerzan’s reflection on different aspects of the literary universe. By introducing it, he attempts to revive the tradition of universal theoretical models in literary studies, such as Mikhail Bakhtin’s polyphonic theory of the novel, and of the “carnivalesque”, or Yuri Lotman’s concept of art as a sort of secondary language/modelling system and the work of art as a text in that language (Lotman 1977 [1971], 10). These projects were typical of the Central and Eastern European structural-semiotic paradigm, about which Danuta Ulicka recently wrote that it became the space for the birth and formation of world theoretical literary studies (Ulicka 2020, 11). But Bakhtin’s and Lotman’s concepts come, respectively, from the early and mature stages of this paradigm, while Balcerzan’s proposal was announced long after structuralism, post-structuralism and numerous turns in the humanities. Does it then contain something that will attract the attention of today’s reader, apart from the novelty of the idea that “THE ESSENCE OF LITERARINESS IS THE CONTRADICTORY RELATION” (Balcerzan 2016, 49-50; author’s capitals)?

31It seems that the time factor, which may have proved unfavourable to the book, may in fact work in its favour. Firstly, because the original methodological core was encapsulated in it by the experience of successive paradigm shifts. The main idea of Literariness emerges as much from the uninterrupted continuity of the author’s objectivist thinking in terms of systems, relations, and functions, as from his dialogue (often polemical) with competing approaches to literature and literary studies. In these dialogues and disputes Balcerzan can sometimes be concessive, but in other cases he remains steadfast. For example, with time and as a result of his close personal contacts with representatives of gender studies and feminist criticism, he has softened his former negative stance towards them, but when it comes to deconstruction, his voice is always not only critical but even scathing. This polemical and dialogical character imbues the scholar’s discourse with various affects, which makes it more engaging to read than the emotionally neutral canonical texts of structuralism and semiotics. The “I” of his parole is never — or almost never — emotionally indifferent.

32The second attraction of Balcerzan’s scholarly method has to do with the extraordinary capacity of his memory, which is filled to the brim with literary quotations (mostly Polish or Russian), other people’s narratives, fragments of conversations, letters, jokes, etc. All this varied linguistic material he incorporates into his own argument, making it either an object of interpretation or a suggestive illustration of what his research is about. A casual register of speech provides a counterbalance to his often challenging and complex arguments, and the academic study acquires vividness, authenticity, directness. It becomes a kind of life-writing. As a recent commentator put it, the scholar is now famous mostly for “an evocative history of literary and scholarly life, accompanied by colourful anecdotes, in which the most important role [...] is played by the history of post-war Polish literary studies, seen from the first-person perspective of a participant in the events” (Hellich 2020, 55-56).

33The third reason to be optimistic about the future of Balcerzan’s theory of literature is the noticeable revival of interest in Central and Eastern European theory.8 This can be felt both within and outside this area. The presence of theoretical thought from this part of Europe in the international academic culture was most strongly felt during the war and post-war years, when waves of eminent émigré scholars joined Western university staff. As Ulicka argues:

In this respect, [Polish] [...] literary émigrés were both relatively few in number [...], and probably did not navigate the new scientific markets well. Unlike Russian and Czech literary studies, which from the beginning had strong ambassadors in the USA, Canada, France and Israel (such as Roman Jakobson, Viktor Erlich, René Wellek, Benjamin Hrushovsky, Ladislav Matějka, and later Aleksandr Piatigorski, Lubomír Doležel, Thomas Pavel, Peter Steiner), who disseminated "their” theories in the form of textbooks, anthologies, long-term publishing series and monographs, Polish literary scholars in exile [...] neither continued their interests, nor propagated the interwar and postwar Polish theoretical output as effectively as their Russian and Czech-Slovak neighbours (Ulicka 2020, 35).

34It should be emphasised that these eminent émigrés not only published their original concepts in a new and very receptive academic environment, but also took care to transmit the works of their colleagues who stayed in their home countries. In this way, the works of Vladimir Propp, Viktor Shklovsky, Boris Eikhenbaum, Mikhail Bakhtin, Yuri Lotman, for example, reached the West and quickly became seminal. Without much exaggeration, one can say that they changed the landscape of the world humanities. The Morphology of the Folktale9 was published in English as early as 1958, Bakhtin was introduced to the world’s academic salons (first in France) by Julia Kristeva and Tzvetan Todorov in the late 1960s, and Lotman began to be widely translated in the 1980s. The translations of the Prague Linguistic Circle’s works were also received with interest, though on a rather smaller scale. When it came to the works of Polish scholars, however, things were sadly different. To quote Ulicka again:

The opportunity to bring Polish literary studies to the world stage then, when it was just being arranged, was missed. Subsequent translations of works by Polish scholars in the 1970s and 1990s, although numerous and published in recognized periodicals and publishing houses, were scattered and could not disturb the already established canon and restore their rightful place (Ulicka 2020, 38).

35The spectacular success of Central and Eastern European theories is unlikely to be repeated, so today they can only settle for moderate popularity. But even such popularity will not come by itself; it must be earned not only by the scholars themselves, but also by a whole host of intermediaries (translators, commentators, editors, publishers) in the dissemination of their theories, concepts, and methods. From today’s perspective, we can see that if our part of Europe is to play a greater role in shaping the landscape of global humanities, it should be through revitalization of these original pioneering ideas born in the 20th century and by setting them in new contexts, rather than through copying, processing, and domesticating newest concepts developed elsewhere. And for such purposes, Edward Balcerzan’s views and inventions are very well suited indeed.


  • 1 Unless otherwise stated, all translations from Polish into English are our own — EK, ER.
  • 2 This is a phrase from Bruno Jasieński’s poem Pieśń o głodzie [A Song of Hunger]: “nie będziemy już odtąd umierać więcej / któż by nas takich pięknych i olbrzymich grzebał” [We will die no more from now on / who would bury us so beautiful and huge].
  • 3 Such links have also been discussed by other commentators on Balcerzan’s oeuvre (Michałowski 2007; Pawelec 2009), but Wolska considers this issue most thoroughly. Her monograph is entitled Nikt się nie rodzi strukturalistą. Twórczość literacka Edwarda Balcerzana [No one is born a structuralist. The literary work of Edward Balcerzan]. This paraphrase of the famous sentence opening the second volume of Simone de Beauvoir’s Le deuxième sexe (“On ne naît pas femme...”) may seem an involuntary irony on the part of the author, since Balcerzan’s attitude to feminist criticism has been reserved to say the least.
  • 4 Balcerzan patterned the name on the terms codeur and decodeur, proposed by the Czech linguist Lubomír Doležel.
  • 5 Świat [world]; śmiech [laughter]; żal [sorrow]; wiadomość [message].
  • 6 “It is notorious for writing about translation as non-translation. This popular variant of criticism should be called non-criticism of translation” (Balcerzan 2011, 182).
  • 7 This friendship is evidenced by Balcerzan’s essay entitled Sześć początków o Januszu Sławińskim [Six beginnings on Janusz Sławiński] (Balcerzan 2005, 95-102).
  • 8 One evidence of this interest is the recent collection of newly translated essays by Yuri Tynianov (2019). As anounced by its translators and editors, “This book is the first comprehensive collection of Tynianov’s theoretical work in English” (xi).
  • 9 It was also translated into Italian and Polish in 1966, French and Romanian in 1970, Spanish in 1971, and German in 1975.


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Publication details

Published in:

Mrugalski Michał, Jeziorska-Haładyj Joanna (2022) Polish structuralism. Acta Structuralica Special Issue 4 (1).

Full citation:

Kraskowska Ewa, Rajewska Ewa (2022) „Literary studies, literary translation, and literariness according to Edward Balcerzan“. Acta Structuralica 4 (1).