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  • Turning Heart of Darkness into a Racist Text: A Comparison of Two Polish Translations
  • Ewa Kujawska-Lis (bio)

Since 1975 when Chinua Achebe accused Conrad of racism, calling him “a bloody racist” and amending that later to “a thoroughgoing racist,” the debate on whether Conrad or his character Marlow was racist has continued unabated (257). Critical opinions are as contradictory as the views evident in Heart of Darkness, as aptly presented by Cedric Watts with reference to civilization, imperialism, racial differences, and morality (47). This analysis looks at this issue from a different angle: turning Heart of Darkness into a racist text through its translation, and the influence of the translators’ lexical choices and interpretations of the text on their perception of the novella as being imbued with racist overtones.

In Polish scholarship Conrad has been discussed more in terms of his nationalism than racial prejudice. In Poland his patriotism was the center of attention, with accusations that he “betrayed” his homeland by emigrating, and then writing in English without referring to Polish causes in his fiction (Zabierowski 101, 208). It seems that whatever one may say about Conrad, another will be ready to take the opposite tack. Aniela Zagórska, his cousin, defended him and claimed “I have no doubt that Conrad’s ‘double’ patriotism, being torn between England and Poland—leaning toward England—was a continuous, painful dilemma for Conrad” (“Kilka wspomnień” 310; translation mine). Before the outbreak of World War II, when the specters of fascism and totalitarianism hovered over Europe, in Poland Conrad was predominately seen as “an admirer of all races, a humanist worshipping authentic values [ . . . who] became an ally in opposing the horrific danger” [End Page 165] (Zabierowski 29; translation and italics mine). During the war the heroism of his characters and their ethical values were underlined as guiding the efforts of Poles in their fight against the enemy. Later, critical attention focused on a social and political reading of his works, as well as emphasizing that Conrad was an excellent marine writer (Zabierowski 45). Racial issues, particularly anti-African interpretations, are largely absent in Polish criticism. Since Conrad is primarily seen in Poland as a moralist, one of the factors contributing to this lack of interest in racial interpretations may be the extent to which the vision of Conrad in Polish readers’ minds was shaped by linguistic and cultural filters, that is, translators.

That great literature should be read in the original is undeniable, the more so since translators can manipulate literary texts in order to achieve personally desired effects. As Jose Ortega y Gasset famously stated, “a repetition of a work is impossible [ . . . ] translation is only an apparatus that carries us to it” (62). It is entirely up to the translator which dimension of a work they amplify, although ideally all levels of a literary text should be equally balanced. In translation, ideology may be analyzed from two perspectives: that of the original text and that of the translation, and these two do not need to be identical; they are dependent on the translator’s choice both at the microstylistic and macrostylistic levels. Peter Fawcett says of the latter that “throughout the centuries, individuals and institutions applied their particular beliefs to the production of a certain effect in translation” (107). Translators may tinker with the work in order to create a text which exaggerates or diminishes the ideological perspective of the original. Strictly speaking, at the macrostylistic level, ideological manipulation may be understood as a purposeful activity which accounts for “any interference with the text, be it cultural, religious, political or otherwise, imposing modifications that are not textual constraints, for the purpose of indoctrination” (Ben-Ari 43). Yet, even without purposeful manipulation, “[t]ranslating is always ideological because it releases a domestic remainder, an inscription of values, beliefs, and representations linked to historical moments and social positions in the domestic culture” (Venuti, “Translation” 485). Thus translations may, and do, differ depending on the historical circumstances in which they appear.

At a microstylistic level, the ideological dimension of the text may be influenced by the translator’s lexical choices, such as the deliberate selection or avoidance of certain words. Grammar choices may involve...


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pp. 165-178
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