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National Romanticism: The Formation of National Movements

Balázs Trencsényi
Michal Kopeček

Chapter II. Spirit of the Nation: Customs, Language, Religion

Thoughts on how the translation of foreign belles-lettres influences Polish literature

Maurycy Mochnacki
Translated by Zuzanna Ładyga

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1Title: Kilka myśli o wpływie tłumaczeń z obcych języków na literaturę polską z dołączeniem wiersza ‘Emroda” Kropińskiego, przełożonego na język francuski przez Polkę, księżnę C... (Thoughts on how translation of foreign belles-lettres influences Polish literature with a poem from ‘Emrod” by Kropiński, translated into French by the Polish countess C… )

2Originally published: Dziennik Warszawski, 1825, no. 3, vol. 1, pp. 449–456 (anonymously)

3Language: Polish

4Modern Polish edition: Maurycy Mochnacki, Pisma krytyczne i polityczne, vol. 1, ed. by Zbigniew Przychodniak, Jacek Kubiak and Elżbieta Nowicka (Cracow: Universitas, 1996), pp. 87–90.

About the author

5Maurycy Mochnacki [1803, Bojaniec near Żółkiew (present-day Boyanets and Zhovkva, in Ukraine) – 1834, Auxerre (France)]: literary critic and radical political leader. Son of a lawyer, he studied at Warsaw University and was expelled in 1822 after having offended a police inspector. He became involved in intellectual circles influenced by German literature (Goethe, Schiller) and philosophy (Kant, Fichte, Schelling). Concurrently, Mochnacki participated in a conspiracy against Russian dominance in the Kingdom. He was arrested in 1823 and released after eight months of imprisonment in return for publishing a memorandum on the dangers of liberalism in the educational system of the ‘Congress Kingdom’ (which was intended to be used for the justification of planned restrictions). That act shaped his popular image as a dubious and mendacious (though very intelligent) adventurer. In the mid-1820s, Mochnacki emerged as one of the most influential and innovative literary and musical critics, developing his own critical terminology. He participated in the debates between romantics and classicists. In his O literaturze polskiej w wieku dziewiętnastym (On Polish literature in the nineteenth century), published in 1830, he was among the first to formulate the theory of Polish literary Romanticism. In the days of the November Uprising (1830–31), Mochnacki advocated a radical democratic position. He published several articles on the political situation of Poland stressing the need for widening the social basis of the uprising. Then he volunteered to serve in the Polish army. After the collapse of the insurrection, he moved to France and joined Polish radical organizations. Disappointed by the internal quarrels among the Polish democrats, he eventually joined the conservative ‘Hôtel Lambert’—the organization of Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski. Unlike other literary figures of the time such as Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Słowacki, and Zygmunt Krasiński, Mochnacki never became a national ‘prophet.’ Even though the figure of Mochnacki does not linger in the Polish collective memory, this talented theoretician is highly praised by historians of Polish literature.

6Main works: O literaturze polskiej w wieku dziewiętnastym [On Polish literature in the nineteenth century] (1830); O duchu i źródłach poezji w Polszcze [The spirit and sources of Polish poetry] (1825); Powstanie narodu polskiego w r. 1830 i 1831 [Insurrection of the Polish Nation in 1830 and 1831] (1833–1834).


7In the years following the debut of Adam Mickiewicz’s Ballady i romanse (in the volume Poezje, 1822), one part of the Polish cultural elite felt offended by the new literary style for its neglect of classical meter and for composing unconventional plots. But at the same time, groups of younger scholars and students at the universities in Warsaw, Cracow and Wilno (Lit. Vilnius) turned away from literary classicism and the moderate political stance of the previous generation. The controversies were often summarized in a simplified formula: enlightened reason vs. romantic sentiment, to be accompanied soon by another conflict: loyalty vs. revolution.

8In the late 1820s the adherents of literary Romanticism also shared the vision of a ‘national revolution’ against the tsar. Mochnacki was one of the most creative theoreticians of the new literary and political generation that sought to replace the political elite which created the ‘3rd of May Constitution,’ the Warsaw Duchy and the ‘Congress Kingdom.’ Transcending the borders of literary theory, he formulated a set of ideas concerning the ‘identity’ of the Polish nation. His definition of the nation de-emphasized the empirical in favor of the spiritual and moral. Mochnacki presented the final formulation of the idea of the Polish nation in his book, ‘On Polish literature in the nineteenth century,’ where he connected ‘the national essence’ with such features as common language and culture, and even climate. These features, however, did not describe the nation completely; they only formed an environment in which the real, spiritual national idea was formed.

9Mochnacki in his writings searched for descriptive features to define the symbolic borderlines of Polishness. In the present article, Mochnacki raises the problem of translations from foreign languages and the necessity of original literary production. Whereas thinkers of the Polish Enlightenment intended to (and did) ‘import’ ideologies and organizational achievements from the West, Mochnacki stressed the role of autochthonous ‘national literature’ as an expression of the nation’s peculiar character. At the same time, he raised the problem of exporting Polish intellectual achievements to the West. He was thus answering the same sort of questions as those raised by Staszic or Jezierski. While these theoreticians shaped by the Enlightenment put the rule of universal progress above national peculiarities, Mochnacki and other thinkers of the nineteenth century looked for the absolute within the sphere of the national. This search culminated in the specific philosophical systems created by Józef Maria Hoene-Wroński, August Cieszkowski and Bronisław Trentowski, which were based on the assumption that the moral priority and martyrdom of Poles gives them a special right to represent the values of humanity and progress and the salvation of humankind.

10While in the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth century Mochnacki’s contribution to the theory of literature was virtually ignored, during the last decades his oeuvre has finally become the subject of literary studies. His writings have gained him the reputation of having offered the most important Polish romantic contribution to the theory of literature.


Thoughts on how the translation of foreign belles-lettres influences Polish literature

12Montesquieu once said that “a man who does nothing but translation, shall never see his own works translated.” This could have well been said by the author of ‘The Spirit of Laws,’ ‘Persian letters,’ and many other works, which brought him and his country international recognition and fame. One of our learned countrymen compared translation to attentive reading, in the process of which we gain insight into essential ideas underlying the linguistic coat of written texts. The masters of our country’s literature have already recognized the dual role of translation as both enriching and impoverishing their mother tongue. However, the phenomenon of translation deserves attention not only due to its constructive or destructive impact on our native language, but also with regard to its powerful influence, be it inspiring or discouraging, on our intellectual heritage which is an inexhaustible source of forms and ideas. Have the numerous translations of foreign texts into Polish multiplied the intellectual resources of our nation? Have they enriched and intensified the flow of ideas, thoughts and visions which establish to a greater or lesser extent the intellectual level of our culture, and thus become the measures of its moral value? These are the naturally emerging questions, by answering which we could reach some valuable conclusions. As the process of cultural development is irregular and its course uneven, some nations reach high levels of culture at a rapid pace, while others achieve it slowly and gradually. Our nation used to exceed its neighbors in this process, but today they have outdistanced us in educational development, gained recognition for their scientific discoveries, and thus accelerated their march towards cultural supremacy so significantly that we can no longer expect to finish the race ahead of them. In order to keep up with the others and to counteract the current of civilization, we decided to follow in their steps, collect all the crumbs from their table, appropriate them as our own, and nourish the fruit of foreign labor until they bear new seeds. The French, the English, and the Germans have mastered the exercise of the human mind. We, therefore, feel justified in usurping for ourselves their intellectual achievements in all areas of knowledge, arguing that it is useless to repeat their enterprise and that we can, at a lower cost, by translating their work and using them as a model, gain from these discoveries the same as their authors. However, our profits will be a mere illusion, unless, of course, we devalue the worth of intellectual superiority to the level of a commodity. Just as Peruvian and Bolivian gold did not enrich but rather impoverished Spain, making it negligent of its national industry and indifferent in the face of the declining industriousness so the translations of minor foreign works will not only fail to enrich Polish literature, they will most certainly drive it to ruin. The possibility of effortless intellectual progress offered by translation, an exaggerated stress on learning foreign languages, and the widening gap between our everyday reality and the sphere of intellectual endeavors—all this heralds the dawn of an epoch of our country’s intellectual paralysis or even stagnation. A conclusion to be drawn here is that translations are by and large damaging, since they encourage stagnation not only in terms of language but also in terms of the ideas and thoughts this language expresses. This conclusion requires further discussion. If such thinkers as Montaigne, Montesquieu, Kant, Fichte, and many others, instead of exploring their own thoughts and visions—which have proven enriching for science and literature, which have broadened the human mind, the scope of its abilities, and epistemological horizons—had limited themselves to translating and copying lesser works, their achievements would not be so outstanding nor their profession so useful and important. The power of thought is man’s grandest valor. Thought multiplies the moral and sensual existence of communities; it is our alternative reality, our second nature and our second life. And it is the mastering of this divine power, the strengthening of its force, course and inner properties that lays the foundations both for a nation’s intellectual prosperity and for the moral refinement of an individual, as well as for the future fate of science and scientific inventions. Therefore, the people who observe the progress of civilization from a privileged position ought to be aware that the profitability of intellectual enterprise depends on the circulation of ideas among all classes of society, and that foreign creations do not enrich these ideas in any way, do not provoke intellectual speculation, and do not by any means make up for the serious deficiencies in the society’s intellectual activity. The process of educating individuals and entire societies resembles a journey, which, if financed by third parties and neighbors, may never take place at all. The masterpieces of human intellect created by a foreign hand can be a useful source of knowledge, but if we treat them as our only reference we will never be able to reach our own goals without their assistance.

13The growing need for translations in Poland is mainly due to the abundance on our literary scene of pseudo-literati who treat writing as craftsmanship, and the scarce number of original and insightful writers. And undoubtedly, acute observation and high intellectual standards are the guarantees of the happiness of individuals as well as the well-being of entire generations. However, without regard for the necessity of directing our minds towards issues and matters concerning the general state of humanity, we have come to treat the usurpation of foreign treasures as our undeniable right, in claiming which we have proven our incompetence. In this we ought to restrain ourselves. While evaluating the influence of translation on Polish literature, the attention of this nation’s great minds should be directed to the fact that the benefits of a translated work, even if the translation is perfect, will always be meager and ambiguous. For, are we not, when satisfying this immediate need to adopt, wasting those powers of ours that could be used for creating correspondingly original creations of our own? Are we not plunging ourselves into inertia or weakening our inborn capacity for thought, which is fruitful and vivid only when it moulds and sculpts the material on its own? The powers of the human mind are like lightning, which can energize the atmosphere only if from time to time it clears it with thunder. For that, however, it needs great objects such as rocks, buildings, and trees. By merely translating Kepler, Galileo and Leibniz we are not going to touch the greatest ideas of humankind, broaden the capacities of the human mind or gain insight into the oldest laws of nature. Thinking is all there is to existence, and therefore we live only as long as we continue to search for the evidence of our existence in the intellect. If this were not the case, there would be no difference between the life of a human being and that of a plant. And indeed there are examples of individuals and nations that live like the latter.

  • 1 Izabela Czartoryska (1764–1835), wife of Count Adam Kazimierz Czartoryski, translator and collecto (...)
  • 2 Ludwik Kropiński (1767–1844), general and poet.
  • 3 Ignacy Krasicki (1735–1801), Catholic bishop and poet.

14Nevertheless, there exists also a less destructive kind of translation, which could be used for those Polish literary works that are not known outside the country’s borders. Would it not be better if, instead of boastfully declaring how many foreign languages we know, we used this knowledge to translate Polish literature into French, German or English? A few of our countrymen have already undertaken this noble though burdensome project. One of them, Countess C.,1 driven by precisely this urge to promote our national pride, wanted to popularize the works of our best poets by translating into French the poems of Mickiewicz, the rhymes of Kropi ski2 and Krasicki’s3 fairytales. Having obtained her permission we publish here the French version of Kropi ski’s elegy Emrod as an example of a translation which preserves all of the features of the author’s poetic diction, versification and stylistic lightness, which is especially difficult to preserve in a foreign language.


1 Izabela Czartoryska (1764–1835), wife of Count Adam Kazimierz Czartoryski, translator and collector of national antiquities.

2 Ludwik Kropiński (1767–1844), general and poet.

3 Ignacy Krasicki (1735–1801), Catholic bishop and poet.


Zuzanna Ładyga (Translator)

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