This is my favorite part of the job: working with a beautiful and exciting text. Forgetting about the whole world, just going back between the Polish and the English and reliving every sentence twice, three times, four. Perhaps no one delves into a text like a translator does, not even the author. The author has thoughts he wishes to express. The translator has just the text to live in.
Here is my most recent fascination, delight, abandonment: Jacek Bocheński's Tiberius Caesar coming up from Mondrala Press in July. It has taken the author 30 years to write and I feel like, to do it justice, I should take thirty years of my life to translate it.
Now, on the historic night of October 18/19 AD 31, things are just starting to happen. There is great excitement in all the special services. Relatively smallest among the female and male prostitutes on duty, somewhat larger at the fleet headquarters, which had been instructed to stand by, ready to sail from Misenum for an unknown destination. Also in the fire department, where an emergency was declared in the morning (although nothing was on fire anywhere) and around noon the firemen were given weapons for some unknown reason and told to stand by. There was a pleasant surprise in the barracks of the Praetorian Guard: there had never been a shortage of plonk there, but today the whole unit suddenly received double rations of Greek wine from Tiberius’ private cellars, even though it was not a holiday.
The praetorians employed at the observatory fared worse. Not only did they not get wine, but they had to receive signals from Misenum all day long, and in the evening, it turned out that all, without exception, were to stay at the post all night, because tonight, they would not be replaced by the second shift. No one was allowed out, not even to the latrine. During the day, Tiberius himself visited them several times and personally supervised the receipt of reports. However, even the telegraphists did not know what was actually going on. The information, broadcast during the day from Misenum with smoke signals of various colors, was not only vague and difficult to read but also encrypted with some new code, the principle of which was revealed to them only at the last moment.
Meanwhile, the darkness has fallen, the first call sign from Misenum has flashed on the horizon: Long live Caesar Tiberius, we are moving from smoke to light, do you read us in Capri? Long live Caesar Tiberius!—the telegraphists from the observatory answer—we read you loud and clear. From now on, please use dotted light (holy smokes, they had the technology?)—a rapid series of messages to flow. So, first of all, confirmation: the criminal, imprisoned, awaits his sentence. The Senate, which had decided to imprison him in the morning, held their deliberations in the temple of Apollo, and in the afternoon met for the second time in the temple of Concordia near the prison. The base in Misenum has not yet been informed about the results of the afternoon session. However, it takes some time for each signal to be transmitted by dozens of relay stations from Rome to Capri. The diary of the day is only now being completed.
Armed fire brigades occupied the square as soon as the Senate’s morning deliberations began. Orders received by the Praetorian Guard did not raise any objections. All senators voted unanimously. No one dared to speak out in defense of the criminal. Even before the enemy of the people was led out of the temple of Apollo, the people went out into the street and manifested. Statues were toppled and there were calls for the head of the criminal. Demonstrations continue while the Senate reconvenes. Crowds flock to the temple of Concord, the curia, and the prison.
It’s now or never, Marxists! Now you have a chance. The people overthrow the statues, do you hear? If you take the initiative immediately, you will be able to achieve your revolutionary goals. Here is the situation: in the streets of Rome: rampaging plebs, in Caesar’s headquarters: a tired crew of telegraph operators who still do not understand what is going on and would rather hurry to the latrine. In moments like these—that’s when revolutions take place! All you have to do is seize the Roman Empire’s most strategic point: the communications center in Capri, where reports come in and orders go out. But do not delay, because the moment is approaching when the telegraph operators will understand what has just happened. Perhaps that moment has come already. Perhaps they had already received that unbelievable message, after which they felt as if the whole building of crushed limestone and brick had shaken under their feet, as if it was falling with a thud about them, and falling straight into the sea, and leaving behind only these ruins we see today.
But they—the telegraphists—would only feel that way for a twinkling of an eye, because the observatory is not falling apart at all, but stands in the darkness of the night, as massive and unmoving as ever. I suppose one of the telegraph operators, probably the stupidest, says: “No! What is this over in Misenum? Have they lost their minds?” And another, picking it up, adds with contentment: “Heads are gonna roll.” But the first one still answers: “What? Condemned to death? How? By whom?” And: “Do I have to take this message?” But then a third cuts in: “Wait, wait… where’s the prefect’s personal signature code?” There has been no message with the prefect’s personal code all day.
“By Jupiter! Back to work, you motherless whoresons!” the captain of the detail has just come to his senses and urges them on. “Write the message down! Record as reported from Rome: the enemy of the Roman people, Sejanus, condemned to death. Executioner will strangle him tonight. Long live Caesar Tiberius! No seal.” However, no one listens to the commander, only the most stupid one grabs the stylus and the tablet—out of habit, because the commander ordered—but he writes nothing, because just then a shout: “Misenum transmits!”
Everyone rushes to their stations, maybe there will be a correction, so they push past one another to see better, and Misenum is indeed transmitting, but the same as before: there is no correction. Only confirmation. Is it possible? Was Caesar himself behind all this? He wants to rule without his prefect and the guards? “Report this to Caesar?” the stupidest one breaks in again. “I will report it, dumbo” the commander replies.
“Whoa, whoa, what people are these?” Someone looks through the spyhole. “Who are those sentries down there? They’re not ours!” “The fire brigade!” “The fire brigade?” “They’ve surrounded the observatory!” The commander turns pale. “Boys, I…” he begins and stops.
“You all stay on duty. I’ll go and report to Caesar.” “No way!” calls the man from the spyhole. “You’re not going alone! Either we all go or else no one goes.” “Where is our guard?” “What about the cohorts in Rome?” “Will they sentence them to death, too?” “And us?” The commander, furious, turns red: “Is this a mutiny?!” “Let him go!” others shout. “Let him go, talk to the firemen!” “The door is barred from outside!” “Treason! We have no weapons!” “Wait, Misenum reports! Urgent!”