Conrad First The Joseph Conrad Periodical Archive

Marguerite Poradowska as a Translator of Conrad

Anne Arnold

[This essay was first published in The Conradian 33/1 (Spring 2008): 119–29. Reproduced by permission.]


The first reference to a possible “translation” of Conrad’s work by Marguerite Poradowska occurs in a letter of [30 July 1894](CL1 164) related to Almayer’s Folly, which Conrad was then desperate to see published. In the throes of doubt at this critical stage of his life, he wrote to Poradowska, agonizing over the outcome of his long struggle to become a writer. Having sent the novel to T. Fisher Unwin, Conrad was on tenterhooks, apparently believing that the longer the publisher remained silent, the less the chance of the book’s acceptance. As a fallback plan, Poradowska was to use her connections with Paris’s Revue des Deux Mondes to publish the novel in translation.
Why Conrad thought of her in this respect remains a mystery, although Poradowska’s role as a translator of Polish literature may have paved the way. Significantly, she occasionally wrote in English to Conrad, as his compliments testify: “You write English very gracefully,” and “Thank you for your letter in English. You write very well, very well indeed” ([7 January 1894], 8 September 1894; CL1 143, 173).1 Poradowska may have been attempting to show off her knowledge of the language and thus suggest her translating skills.
However this may be, the balance in the master-pupil relationship shifted as soon as Conrad asserted himself professionally. In a letter of [23 February 1895], he enquired: “My publisher speaks of a French translation. What should I do?” (CL1 201), apparently feeling that he owed Poradowska first refusal on a French translation of Almayer’s Folly. In the end, nothing came of this, and more than five years later, on 16 May 1900, Conrad told her of his “burning desire” to read her translation of “An Outpost of Progress,” acknowledging receipt of it a fortnight later but begging off an immediate response because of the press of business. In 1902, in a letter to H.-D. Davray, Conrad mentions Poradowska’s translation somewhat unflatteringly and his reluctance to use it for publication given that Davray, who was well placed in Paris literary circles, was in effect becoming his “official translator”:


A year ago, my relative and good friend Mme Marguerite Poradowska (born Gachet) translated the story Outpost of Progress, which is in the volume in question. I have the manuscript with me. It’s quite good, but the style needs a little fortification. I believe she intended to place the piece in the Revue des Deux Mondes. You see the situation for, to be honest, without my negligence the story would have appeared a long time ago.
(2 April 1902; CL2 398)


René Rapin stated that Poradowska’s translation never saw the light of day (1966: 174 n. 5), and as recently as 2000, the authors of the Oxford Reader’s Companion to Conrad likewise recorded that Poradowska’s translation “was never published” (372).2 Research into the impact of Conrad’s African stories in Belgium and France has uncovered it: the translation appeared in two issues, those of 22 and 29 January 1903, of Les Nouvelles Illustrées (Paris), under the title “Un Avant-poste de la civilisation. Drame sur les rives du Congo par Joseph Conrad, adapté de l’anglais par Marguerite Poradowska.” As well as solving the mystery of what happened to Poradowska’s translation, this discovery also represents the first known publication of Conrad’s work in French translation, pre-dating Davray’s work.

Form and Content: “An Outpost of Progress”

Conrad was pleased with “An Outpost of Progress”: “Upon my word, I think this is a good story,” he wrote to his publisher (CL1 294). The story “was meant for” his friend Edward Garnett, who “will understand the reason and meaning of every detail, the meaning of them reading novels and the meaning of Carlier not having been armed” (CL1 292). The late Michael Lucas emphasized the story’s dynamic style, its lack of expansive descriptions, and its lexical insistence, and concluded that in these aspects it is atypical of Conrad’s work at the time and “foreshadows his best work, to be written five to ten years later” (2000: 149). Returning, for the purpose of inspiration to his African trip, Conrad himself recognized in his “Author’s Note” to Tales of Unrest that he “stepped in a very different atmosphere” and “seemed able to capture new rhythms for my paragraphs” (10). But there is no doubt about the painful nature of his memories, or about the anger and psychological resistance that he felt while he was there:


– It is a story of the Congo. … All the bitterness of those days, all my puzzled wonder as to the meaning of all I saw – all my indignation at masquerading philanthropy – have been with me again, while I wrote. The story is simple – there is hardly any description. … I have divested myself of everything but pity – and some scorn – while putting down the insignificant events that bring on the catastrophe.
(To T. Fisher Unwin, 22 July 1896, CL1 294)


In other words, the reader is to expect “bitterness,” expressions of his “puzzled wonder,” and “indignation” in regard to the European pretence at philanthropy as well as scorn and pity. The tale recounts the plight of two “civilized” Europeans, in effect weak and passive fools à la Flaubert’s Bouvard and Pécuchet, who find themselves involved in “inhuman processes in the wilderness.” The futility and insignificance of human endeavour is carefully staged in a structurally simple tale, divided into two parts and hinging on a turning-point in the plot, when the action quickens.
The first part alternates between description, mainly of the characters’ psychological states and narrative, while the second part concentrates on developing action. Michael Lucas’s structural approach to the tale highlights the importance of its grammatical features and their bearing on the reader’s experience. For instance, the significantly lower density of adjectives in the second part shows off the nature of the shift between the more descriptive first part and the eventual focus of the second.3 Hence, in the context of translation, the meanings are impressed and shaped by the sharpness and rhythms of the prose. This is to say that, faced with the task of preserving or relaying the text’s power into another linguistic system, a translator must attend to and balance both its syntactic and semantic contents.
As George Steiner has said, “To understand is to decipher. To hear a signification is to translate” (1998: 17). Did Marguerite Poradowska “understand” Conrad’s text, or rather, did she share his semantic coding of English, a foreign language to them both? Moreover, to what degree did she comprehend his appreciation and representation of the colonized Congo? Given the interpretive and re-creative nature of translation, it is clear that there are many grounds for the achieved translation or Target Text (TT), Poradowska’s “Un Avant-poste de la civilisation,” to be estranged from the original or Source Text (ST), Conrad’s “An Outpost of Progress.” The accuracy of the translation depends upon both the translator’s linguistic knowledge and conceptual world. Reciprocally, we may expect to learn, from this reading of “An Outpost of Progress,” how “close” indeed Poradowska and Conrad were to one another.

Poradowska’s Translation

The purpose of this short and far from exhaustive approach to Poradowska’s translation is not to identify a definite meaning in Conrad’s text to which the translation would be faithful to a greater or lesser degree, but rather to establish and evaluate a potential semantic distance between the source text and target text and to consider its impact on a global understanding of the tale. To do so, the texts are first compared structurally and then a more comprehensive approach is essayed that encompasses further stylistic and semantic dimensions related to the tale’s context and the reader’s acquired knowledge.
Evidently, the story’s publication in an illustrated weekly involved structural constraints. The text must appear in two vertical columns and must be divided so as to be visually appealing, allowing for momentary pauses in the flow of type. Even so, a comparative first glance at both texts reveals their differing textual density. In ST, the first paragraph extends over more than two pages and covers the first day, until “we shall see, very soon” (88). In TT, the same section is cut eighteen times, and includes nine paragraphs comprised of a single sentence only and four of two sentences. The original’s paragraphing, then, has been significantly modified, a fact bound to impact on the reader, especially in light of Conrad’s comments in his “Author’s Note” to Tales of Unrest that, in this tale, he felt able to “capture new rhythms” for his paragraphs (vi), a remark that implies care for structure. By contrast, where Conrad privileged short, neat sentences in descriptive passages, his translator opted for greater length. Part of this is an aspect of French syntax, with most texts translated into French being longer than their English originals, but there is an undeniable loss of impact: 

Besides the storehouse and Makola’s hut, there was only one large building in the cleared ground of the station. It was built neatly of reeds, with a verandah on all the four sides. There were three rooms in it. The one in the middle was the living-room, and had two rough tables and a few stools in it. The other two were the bedrooms for the white men. Each had a bedstead and a mosquito net for all furniture.
(Outpost 86–87)


Non loin de ce magasin et de la cabane de Makola, s’élevait, juste au milieu de la station, un grand batiment tout à fait isolé. Il était soigneusement bati en fort roseaux, et sur chacun de ses quatre cotés, s’avançait une véranda.
La maison était divisée en trois pièces: dans celle du milieu, qui était la salle commune, se trouvaient deux tables grossières et quelques chaises; les deux autres servaient de chambres à coucher aux agents et n’avaient pour tout ameublement qu’une chaise et un lit. (APC 89–90)

Conrad’s short sentences tend to heighten the focus on individual words, for instance, the choice, and repetition of “it” for the white men’s habitation. In Poradowska, the batiment graduates to a maison (house) and the phrase “white men” is replaced by agents, thus removing the racial antagonism as the power-invested company employees live in a “house” as opposed to Makola, who lives in a cabane (technically, a “shed” rather than a “hut”).
The looser structure disinvests words of their power and the approximate translations tone them down further, as does the removal of the colour adjective. The images of the outpost as well as the balance of power between the white men and the native have been blurred, however slightly. Poradowska, moreover, creatively and intrusively adjusts the text, positioning Carlier and Kayerts’s dwelling at the dead centre of the station (“juste au mileu de la station”), a detail, in conjunction with the phrase “tout à fait isolé,” arguably of symbolic weight and not in the original and interpreting or extending the notion of “the cleared ground.”
The phenomenon of dilution and alteration of meaning is further enhanced by the repetitive – indeed, compulsive – addition of words or nominal groups, at the beginning of sentences, presumably in order to link ideas. Yet, whether they are adverbs (toutefois, cependant), conjunctions (mais), or compound forms (un jour, et maintenant, de son coté), they carry additional grammatical and semantic weight, not thought necessary by the author, but deriving, possibly, from Poradowska’s sense of an audience culturally different from that originally addressed.
To highlight the structural alterations leads naturally to pondering their impact on the tale’s main message. Certain passages of the translation distort the reader’s relationship with the text:

Everybody shows a respectful deference to certain sounds that he and his fellow can make. But about feelings people really know nothing. We talk with indignation or enthusiasm; we talk about oppression, cruelty, crime, devotion, self-sacrifice, virtue, and we know nothing real beyond the words. Nobody knows what suffering or sacrifice mean – except, perhaps the victims of the mysterious purpose of these illusions.
(Outpost 105–06)

Les hommes, en général, professent une respectueuse déférence pour certaines phrases qu’ils émettent. Quant aux sentiments qu’expriment ces phrases, ils n’en connaissent souvent absolument rien. Ils parlent avec indignation ou enthousiasme des oppresseurs ou des opprimés, de la cruauté ou du sacrifice, ou bien encore de la vertu. Au fond, ce sont des mots vides! ... (APC 122)

In Poradowska’s version, “everybody” becomes the somewhat neutral les hommes (people) and then, crucially, “they.” In Conrad, the reader is swiftly, if imperceptibly, sucked in and involved by the choice of the personal pronoun. In the translation, on the contrary, les hommes remains ils (they) rather than nous or on (we), with the result that the reader is disconnected from engagement and responsibility. There is some loosening of specificity as “Nobody knows” shifts into the vague and fatalistic “Au fond, ce sont des mots vides” (In the end, these are but hollow words), a phrase, moreover, given an strong emotional tinge by an exclamation point that is absent in the original.
The reader’s position is similarly modified in one of the final scenes: as Kayerts reflects upon his situation, the reader is suddenly forced to appraise the agent’s fate, noticing that “He was completely distracted by the sudden perception that the position was without issue” (112). This strategy of emotional distancing does not appear in the translation.
Even more than blurring or distorting, cases of misinterpretation or even mistranslation occur at the verbal level: “Carlier, smoking native tobacco” is translated as “Carlier, qui fumait du tabac de son pays” (Outpost 93; APC 92); literally, “Carlier, who was smoking tobacco from his country.” Further, the compound form “to put up with” in “what a fellow has got to put up with in this dog of a country” is obscurely translated by “qu’est-ce qu’un malheureux a bien pu faire au bon Dieu pour être condamné à vivre dans ce pays de chien!” (What has a wretch done against God to be condemned to live in this damned hole!), which expresses a guilt being expiated by living in such an abandoned place. These cases show that the translator’s lexical and colloquial knowledge were insufficient to convey the original’s subtleties.
Similarly, Poradowska’s word choice, if not technically wrong, sometimes dramatizes or exaggerates, deviating from Conrad’s attempt at an emotionally contained “white prose”:

And now, dull as they were to the subtle influences of surroundings, they felt them- selves very much alone, when suddenly left unassisted to face the wilderness; a wilderness rendered more strange, more incomprehensible by the mysterious glimpses of the vigorous life it contained.
(Outpost 89)

Mais a présent, troublés par les influences occultes environan-tes, jetés sans appui au milieu de cette éffarante barbarie, rendue plus incomprehensible encore par les éclairs de vie sauvage qui s’y révélaient, ils se sentaient horriblement aban-donnés … (APC 90)

Here the original contextualizes the characters’ feelings of loneliness in surroundings that may, with some logic, be found impressive. Poradowska’s version shifts the emphasis, dramatizing the vigorous life impulse of the wilderness and transforming it into occult influences, inhabiting an “éffarante barbarie” (bewildering barbarism). This has two consequences: it suppresses the emotional distance the reader is to maintain, and it replaces a sense of menace and mystery by nineteenth-century stereotypes of the occult and exotic.
There is no doubt that the choice of names and epithets, whether they refer to colour or title, is crucial. It is fair to assume Conrad’s awareness of the historical contexts surrounding the writing and publication of his text, and, therefore, that his use of “white men,” “nigger,” and “agents” in the tale is thought through. Their mistranslation affects the characters’ profile, or the balance of the characters’ relationships, and alters the story’s impact on the reader. In these cases, the translator’s ability and desire to be faithful to the text’s central message is seriously placed in question.
On several occasions, the translation replaces the term “white men” with agents as in the description of the dwellings mentioned above, or with their names as in the following episode with Chief Gobila:

The two whites had a liking for that old and incomprehensible creature, and called him Father Gobila. (Outpost 95)

Carlier et lui avaient une predilection pour ce vieux barbare mysterieux et le nommaient Father Gobila.
(APC 93)

Paradoxically, in this overt naming sequence, which is supposed to define reciprocal recognition and rank, the linguistic acknowledgement of Father Gobila is subverted by other modifications. The “white men” are identified by their names, while the “creature,” a naming that suggests difference and unfamiliarity, is replaced by a cliché that implies backwardness, especially in nineteenth-century terms: barbare (barbarian). Textually, Father Gobila is a reminder of Balzac’s Père Goriot, mentioned a paragraph earlier, a subtlety that evidently escaped the translator as she translates the expression “old image” by vieille momie (old mummy). Jean-Aubry’s 1932 translation reinstates the intertextual link and thus, the textual richness by vieille caricature (as shown in Stassen and Venayre [2006: 16]).
Finally, Conrad’s tale questions the gradation of beings on the planet and the value of so-called humanity and civilization. Typically, nineteenth-century ideas deemed Africans generally inferior to Caucasians in intelligence, customs, and behaviour, if not totally animalistic. An ironic and subversive thread runs throughout “An Outpost of Progress,” which, through nicknames and insults evoking animality, conveys a questioning of the so-called “humanity” of the two white men at its centre. This thread is repeatedly lost in the transition from ST to TT. “You fiend!” yells Kayerts at Makola, when the nature of the trade is openly admitted between the two agents of a spurious progress. Poradowska oddly translates this insult by the word lâche (coward), which alters the moral context, for rather than shirking a task, Makola in Kayerts’s eyes has committed one in such a way as to give him a demonic aspect, setting him outside the pale of morality altogether. Poradowska silences these allusions:

Suddenly Carlier said: “Catch hold of the other end, Makola – you beast!” and together they swung the tusk up.
(Outpost 106)

“Allons, imbecile, prenez-la donc par l’autre bout.” Et ensemble, ils soulevèrent l’énorme défense.
(APC 122)

The word “beast,” which qualifies Makola’s behaviour, and implicitly theirs, disappears in Carlier’s banal insult “imbecile,” with its racist tinge (Africans being mentally inferior to Europeans in colonialist thought), while the tusk’s size is needlessly, and perhaps distractingly, emphasized by the adjective énorme.
The pattern of erasure is twice repeated at the end of the story, first as Kayerts and Carlier fight:

Kayerts in desperation made a blind rush, head low, like a cornered pig would do, and over-turning his friend, bolted along the verandah, and into his room. Carlier was kicking at the door furiously, howling.
(Outpost 111)

Kayerts, en désespoir de cause, se rua sur lui, le repoussa, ouvrit la porte de la véranda et se réfugia dans sa chambre. Carlier lacérait la porte de coups de pieds, vociférant.
(APC 124)

Both Kayerts’s metaphorical “pig” and Carlier’s “howling” are suppressed. Similarly, the last animal image, when Kayerts’s identity almost merges with Carlier’s, disappears, with “Carlier! What a beastly thing!” being translated into the anodyne “Devenir Carlier! Quelle bonne blague!” (Become Carlier! What a ripping joke!) (Outpost 115; APC 126).
In the end, Poradowska’s translation of “An Outpost of Progress” diminishes the richness, density, and subtlety of Conrad’s text. It does so morphologically, by modifying its structure at the paragraph and sentence level, and by adding adverbs and conjunctions to articulate and loosen longer phrases, essentially diluting an otherwise dynamic prose. It also does so semantically by removing the text’s allusive power, whether implicit or metaphorical.
As the mistranslations cited show, this is partly due to Poradowska’s inadequate knowledge of English. Yet, there is also a sense that she is insufficiently close to the tale, either rushing her work or oblivious to its troubling questions. It could, indeed, be that she applied her personal knowledge and comprehension of the colonial adventure to her task, calling up preconceptions on the text’s surface to the detriment of Conrad’s subversive message. Her translation silences the most evocative features of Conrad’s short story, along with its irony, so central to its art and meaning.



I am deeply grateful to Allan H. Simmons, who encouraged this project and offered advice during the various stages of its development.



1.The page references here and in similar instances refer to the original French; the quotations, however, are from Karl and Davies’s English translations.

2.Rapin records the first published translation of “An Outpost of Progress” as by the Belgian writer Gaston-Denys Périer (1879-1962): “Un Avant-poste de la civilisation” (Brussels: Renaissance d’Occident, 1925).

3.For a more detailed discussion of the text’s grammatical elements, see Lucas (2000: 121–58).


Works cited

Knowles, Owen, and Gene M. Moore. Oxford Reader’s Companion to Conrad.    Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

Lucas, Michael. Aspects of Conrad’s Literary Language. Conrad: Eastern and Western
Perspectives, Vol. 9. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

Poradowska, Marguerite, trans. “Une Avant-poste de civilisation.” Les Nouvelles Illustrées (Paris), 3 (1903): 89–96, 121–27.

Rapin, René, trans. Lettres de Joseph Conrad à Marguerite Poradowska. Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1966.

Stassen, Jean-Philippe, and Sylvain Venayre. Au Cœur des ténèbres, précédé d’Un Avant-poste de la civilisation. Paris, Gallimard, 2006.

Steiner, George. After Babel. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.