Poet, Professor … and now Translator … UHD’s Robin Davidson Introduces Readers to Ewa Lipska
Davidson's Translations Featured in 'Dear Ms. Schubert'
By Mike Emery
The poetry of Ewa Lipska has long mesmerized readers around the globe. As one of Poland’s most revered living poets, Lipska’s work straddles the political and the personal with both wit and humor.
Although her poems have a devoted international following, English translations of recent work have been rare. Credit University of Houston-Downtown Professor Dr. Robin Davidson for helping expand the reach of Lipska’s later works to western audiences.
Davidson, an esteemed poet herself, has again collaborated with poet Ewa Elżbieta Nowakowska to translate a recent collection of Lipska’s poems for a new book, “Dear Ms. Schubert” (Princeton University Press). Davidson and Nowakowska have translated Lipska’s series of poetic postcards sent to the title character Ms. Schubert from an enigmatic Mr. Schmetterling (or “Mr. Butterfly”).
Since the book’s release in January, “Dear Ms. Schubert” has earned attention and acclaim from the New York Times, The New York Journal of Books (NYJB) and literary journal The High Window.
“‘Dear Ms. Schubert’ is an admirable addition to international literature, a gift to the English-speaking world,” wrote L. Ali Khan in the NYJB review.
The praise is indeed music to the ears of Davidson and Nowakowska, and is validation of the meticulous work and care put into translating Lipska’s poems for English-speaking audiences.
It was actually Lipska herself who helped pair these translators. According to Davidson, she met Lipska through her mentor UH Creative Writing Professor Adam Zagajewski. In turn, Lipska introduced her to Nowakowska. The partnership (and friendship) was strengthened during Davidson’s residency in Kraków during the early 2000s. In addition to the recent collection of Lipska’s poems, Davidson and Nowakowska translated the 2009 book “The New Century: Poems” (containing 58 Lipska poems from previous volumes).
“It has been an incredible joy over the past 17 years to work with my beloved friend and co-translator, Ewa Elżbieta Nowakowska,” said Davidson, UHD Professor Emeritus of English and former Houston Poet Laureate. “In the beginning, before my reading in Polish was strong enough, she offered me initial, literal translations of the poems. I’d then work on these for clearer English resonances. Then we’d refine those drafts many times before we were even somewhat satisfied with the subtleties of the verse, and with how well Lipska’s startlingly unorthodox metaphors were coming through.”
Now, readers have the opportunity to learn more about Lipska’s writings through “Dear Ms. Schubert.” As mentioned, the volume contains a cycle of poetic postcards to Ms. Schubert, described by Davidson as a European everywoman. The title character, she said, is first depicted as being slightly naive, but matures as the works progress.
“She is also simply a persona, a vehicle for the poet’s ideas—Lipska’s philosophical and artistic inquiries infusing the poems,” Davidson said. “Lipska’s work relentlessly engages centuries of social systems—political, economic, scientific, technological, artistic—and their vocabularies to examine the viability of human knowledge and the motivations underlying it—and she uses sardonic wit, humor and the rupturing of clichés to do so.”
Davidson is grateful for the support of collaborator Nowakowska and Lipska herself for making this translated volume possible. She also credits Edward Hirsch, poet and President of the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation and her former professor Zagajewski (who wrote the preface for “Dear Ms. Schubert’) for serving as advocates for Lipska’s works and this particular book. She is equally grateful to the editors of Princeton’s Lockert Library of Poetry in Translation, Peter Cole, Rosanna Warren, and Richard Sieburth, for their faith in the translations and their expert guidance in bringing them to print.
Of course, she is most grateful to those readers and poetry aficionados who are gaining a stronger appreciation for Lipska through books such as this.
Her advice for Lipska neophytes? Expect the unexpected, she said.
“Let these poems open before you, and within you,” she said. “These ‘Ms. Schubert’ poems are mostly short, but they are dense, complex, and engage ideas and language from a range of social systems. She (Lipska) may allude to Biblical texts or military texts, or she may engage the vocabulary of music, economics, physics or death. Be prepared for the unexpected ... be prepared not to understand initially, but let these small poems work on you a while. Let them creep into your consciousness and soon, I’m confident that readers will discover wisdom and many joys from poem to poem.”
The University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) is the second-largest university in Houston and has served the educational needs of the nation’s fourth-largest city since 1974. As one of four distinct public universities in the University of Houston System, UHD is a comprehensive, four-year university led by President Loren J. Blanchard. Annually, UHD educates approximately 14,000 students, boasts more than 66,000 alumni, and offers 45 bachelor’s degrees, 12 master’s degrees, and 19 online programs within four colleges: Marilyn Davies College of Business, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, College of Public Service, and College of Sciences and Technology. UHD has one of the lowest tuition rates in Texas.
U.S. News and World Report ranked UHD among the nation’s Best Online Bachelor’s Programs for Applied Administration and Best Online Master’s Programs in Criminal Justice, as well as a Top Performer in Social Mobility. The Wall Street Journal/College Pulse ranked UHD one of the best colleges in the U.S. for its 2024 rankings, with notable distinctions: No. 1 for diversity (tied) and No. 3 for student experience. The University is designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, a Minority-Serving Institution, and a Military Friendly School. For more information on the University of Houston-Downtown, visit uhd.edu.