Page 6, 9th November 2007

9th November 2007
Page 6
Page 6, 9th November 2007 — LIVES REMEMBERED

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Locations: Warsaw, London


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Jerzy Peterkiewicz, novelist, poet and translator, was born on September 29, 1916. He died on October 26, 2007, aged 91 Jerzy Peterkiewicz achieved fame throughout the Catholic world for his translations of the poetry of Karol Wojtyla.

He was born four years before the future Pope John Paul II, in Fabianki in the Dobrzyn district in north-east Poland. As a young man, he lived in Warsaw, where he was a celebrated poet. He left Poland during the Second World War and settled in London, where he combined his literary interests with a distinguished academic career.

In the 1950s and 1960s he was regarded as one of the most original and talented of new novelists writing in English. From 1952 to 1972 he was Lecturer, then Reader, in Polish Literature at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies. and from 1972 to 1977 head of the Department of East European Languages at the University of London.

In 1975 he published The Third Adam, on the heretical Mariavite sect in Poland. Graham Greene praised the work for its compassion, honesty and humour.

Prof Peterkiewicz read his first poem by Karol Wojtyla in the 1960s. But his life did not become entwined with the pontiff's until 1978. Shortly after John Paul II's election Prof Peterkiewicz was invited by the BBC to discuss the new pope's poems. "I translated about eight or 10 lines from 'The Quarry' and I recited it for them. That was a poetic bomb that exploded around the globe," he later said.

The publisher Hutchinson gave Prof Peterkiewicz a month to translate a selection of Karol Wojtyla's best short poems. He obtained permission from the Vatican and set to work. The collection was surprisingly diverse, with only one or two explicitly devotional poems. The poems described the lives of car factory workers, blind men and lovelorn girls.

In an interview in 2003 the professor reflected on the difficulties of translating the pope's poems. "From the beginning I was aware that I had to be very responsible," he said. "I was not only translating a literary text, but also a historical document. This responsibility was in me. I had to look at the words very carefully. I had to remember that this was a man of literature and of history."

He refused to yield to the temptation to soften the words, to pander to the saccharine souvenir-plate image of the papacy. "I would always hesitate to prettify anything." he said. "Some people — especially in Italian — prettify things. But that's not him. He has something rough, something harsh, and I like that."

A quarter of a century after he first published his translations, Prof Peterkiewicz continued to receive letters from readers around the world. He recalled hearing of two English women suffering from cancer who chose to read the poems as a companion before death.

In 2003 he was given one last, great papal commission. He was entrusted with translating Roman Triptych, a poem cycle written by John Paul II. He believed that the work "closed the circle" of Karol Wojtyla's poetic career.

Prof Peterkiewicz's faith was deep. He had a strong mist in his guardian angel, who he felt protected him as he fled the Nazis in 1939, and a great love of St Anthony ("a holy giver"). This was nothing compared with his love of the Blessed Virgin. In his flat he had a stained glass of Our Lady of Skempe, who he referred to as "the lady of the house" and to whom he expected guests to pay their respects.

His funeral took place on All Souls' Day at St Mary's, Hampstead, north London. In a eulogy Richard Freeborn, Emeritus Professor of Russian Literature at the University of London, described his former colleague as a brilliant lecturer, inspiring teacher and a charming and delightful companion.

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