A&S alumnus David Goldfarb explores Polish literature in talk-show style video series

March 17, 2021 by Sarah MacFarlane - A&S News

In many languages, the word for “tea” is similar, such as thé in French or chai in Hindi and Russian. But not in Polish, notes Faculty of Arts & Science alumnus David Goldfarb. In Polish, the word for “tea” is herbata.

It exemplifies the complexity of the language, he explains in the first episode of Encounters with Polish Literature, a new video series he’s hosting in collaboration with the Polish Cultural Institute New York. Each month, he discusses a new topic in Polish literature with scholars, critics, writers and translators.

Not fluent in Polish? No problem. Goldfarb and his guests explore English translations, and all their discussions are in English — though Goldfarb encourages Polish literature enthusiasts to give the language a try.

His own mastery of Polish is the result of years of experience as a translator and scholar.

“I have a small amount of Polish descent, but my interest in Polish came from the political situation and an intellectual interest in literature,” he says.

While studying Polish at Cornell University in the 1980s, he gravitated towards Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, a novelist, artist, playwright and philosopher commonly known as “Witkacy.” Witkiewicz’s novel Insatiability was translated into English by Louis Iribarne, a long-time professor in the Department of Slavic Languages & Literatures at U of T’s Faculty of Arts & Science who died last year.

“I thought, ‘I should go there and see if this field is right for me,’” Goldfarb recalls. “Louis Iribarne supervised my master’s thesis. He got me interested in translation since he was an outstanding translator and had real insights into that subject.”

After graduating from U of T in 1991, he began his doctorate in comparative literature at the City University of New York. He landed an assistant professor job at Barnard College before he had even finished his dissertation.

In 2010, he joined the Polish Cultural Institute New York as curator of literature and humanities, a role that combined promotion and academia.

“I was still publishing and presenting at academic conferences, but this had another dimension,” he says. “As a scholar, I usually worked with older texts, writers from between the wars or even as early as the 17th century. But now I could work with living writers, which was exciting. I was organizing the Polish presence at the PEN World Voices Festival of International Literature. I was helping writers connect with translators and publishers to get published in English. That seemed incredibly valuable.”

In 2014, Goldfarb began working as an independent scholar and translator after he and his family moved to his wife Nina’s hometown in Hawai’i. With the contacts he had acquired through academia and publishing, he realized he could work from anywhere. Over time he created a niche in translation for museum exhibitions and art catalogs.

“When the pandemic came, that fell apart because museums needed to close down,” he says. “The catalogs were all delayed, and they were all short of funds, but on the other hand, everybody was looking for a new kind of content.”

Enter the Encounters with Polish Literature video series. With the suspension of in-person events, the Polish Cultural Institute approached Goldfarb and proposed a series of online lectures about Polish authors. Goldfarb suggested a series with guests instead.

“I asked if we could bring in an editor so that it wouldn’t look like a Zoom meeting,” he says. “We all experience Zoom fatigue, so we want to make it look different. We want it to look more like a talk show.”

The first episode features a discussion with the editors of Being Poland: A New History of Polish Literature and Culture since 1918: Tamara Trojanowska from the Department of Slavic Languages & Literatures at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Arts & Science, Joanna Niżyńska from Indiana University and Przemysław Czapliński from Adam Mickiewicz University in Poland.

Part of the goal of the series is to be broadly educational, to let people know, ‘Hey, there's this whole interesting literary world out there that’s really fascinating and worth knowing about.’

The episode premiered on February 1, followed by “Episode 2 – Witkacy” on March 1. Both episodes attracted more than 500 views in their first week.

“As my 14-year-old son reminds me, that’s rather modest in the world of YouTube, but in the world of Polish literature, it’s fantastic,” Goldfarb says.

New episodes will premiere on the first of each month for the rest of the year and into 2022.

“Part of the goal of the series is to be broadly educational, to let people know, ‘Hey, there's this whole interesting literary world out there that’s really fascinating and worth knowing about.’”

The series also aims to offer insight into academic programs for students interested in Polish literature, which is especially important given the ongoing suspension of in-person campus tours.

“I feel like I'm now more in contact with my colleagues in Polish literature than I've ever been,” Goldfarb says. “I’m trying to reach out to all the programs in North America to support them, to give Polish studies more visibility.

“If you want to study Polish literature, how do you find out what the good programs are, especially if you've come from an undergraduate institution that doesn't really have Polish? This is an opportunity for those students to meet basically everybody in the field. That's not something I had, so I'm glad to be able to provide it.”