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  • Heart of Darkness: Polish Transformations
  • Ewa Kujawska-Lis (bio)

Heart of Darkness is arguably the best-known Conrad work in Poland. This novella had for years been set as compulsory reading in Polish secondary schools, but was removed from the curriculum by the government in the year commemorating Conrad’s 160th birthday (2017) and established by the Polish Parliament as the year of the writer. Irrespective of these politically-driven paradoxes, for Polish readers, this novella—together with Lord Jim—remains a household name. Sadly, however, when asked whether they understand and enjoy this work, first-year students of English Studies (nineteen-year-olds) invariably answer in the negative. The reason for this might be twofold: firstly, secondary school teachers may not have sufficient critical background to be able to explain this text’s intricacies and nuances; secondly, the problem may lie in Conrad’s oblique language and its reconstruction in Polish. Both of these issues have, however, been addressed. Many versions of the novella are published with accompanying notes for students and commentaries in line with the curriculum. In such publications, appropriate quotations are marked in the text; a synopsis guiding interpretation is included, as well as an overview of events presenting the action chronologically to facilitate students’ comprehension of Marlow’s narration. Additionally, sample answers and essays compatible with the examination key are provided, as well as questions to check students’ familiarity with the text. All cultural references are also explained, thus leaving the students little opportunity to explore such allusions on their own, guided by their teacher. It is not surprising, then, that Heart of Darkness is disliked—students do not actually study and interpret it but are encouraged to learn appropriate answers without a true understanding of the text.

Attempts to address the second problem have resulted in various retranslations; Heart of Darkness stands alone as Conrad’s most-often translated work. Thus far, seven translators have offered their versions of this classic text: Aniela Zagórska (1930), Jędrzej Polak (1994), Barbara Koc (2000), Ireneusz Socha (2004), [End Page 57] Patrycja Jabłońska (2006),1 Magda Heydel (2011), and Jacek Dukaj (2017). Spanning a period of nearly a century, these versions differ primarily at the stylistic layer, some of them attempting to modernize the language for contemporary readers, others trying to create a late-nineteenth-century ambience. The latest version, created by the Polish fantasy and science-fiction writer Jacek Dukaj,2 is the most radical departure from the original. My purpose here is to examine this literary experiment, illuminating ways in which Dukaj modifies Conrad’s text, and to set his endeavor against other, more traditional Polish translations.3 I comment initially on Zagórska’s twentieth-century text, then on the twenty-first century translators, and finally on Dukaj.


The first translation of Heart of Darkness was prepared by Conrad’s cousin, celebrated for years as his best translator. Her relationship with Conrad is well known and well documented in their correspondence. However, suggestions of his influence on her translatorial choices seem much exaggerated. Conrad was outraged with the initial Polish translations of his works, as is evident in this extract from an interview in 1914. When asked by Marian Dąbrowski: “Do you like the Polish translations of your books?”, he answered with indignation:

Oh, not at all! To begin with I was never even asked for permission to translate my books and besides, the translations are extremely poor. It is real agony for me to read things that were written in English in my native language. After all, I know Polish and French quite well. And the Polish translations are so careless, so unfaithful to the original. The French are faultless, but the Polish always irritate me. For example this fragment in a Lwów daily paper. Awful, absolutely awful. Even ‘Malay’ has been translated as ‘little Negro’ . . .

(Dąbrowski 200).4

Knowing Zagórska personally, and trusting in her linguistic skills and intellectual abilities, in a letter of 10 April 1920, he transferred to her an exclusive copyright to the publication of his works in Polish: “I give you my best...


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