The Hunting of the WHAT

You may seek it with thimbles – and seek it with care

“Originally published in the Knight Letter, the magazine of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America, Volume III, Issue 10, Number 110, Spring 2023″

That is how my hunt for an extremely-difficult-to-find Polish dual edition of The Snark began. I also had forks and hope but not a railway-share. Probably my smile charmed it, as the book finally appeared on my desk and, luckily, the Snark was not a Boojum.

Specifically, this is a most unusual edition that boasts two different translations of the poem, each with a different illustrator: Obławantura przez Wążarłacza is a translation by Grzegorz Wasowski illumined by a fresh set of wildly colorful drawings by Dominik Jasiński; Łowybryki wokół Żreka is a translation by Wojciech Mann and Grzegorz Wasowski with the original, albeit poorly reproduced, drawings by Henry Holiday. The ISBN is 978-8393497201, but good luck in finding a copy (infra).


The poem itself is a culmination of an absurd sense of humor, typical of England, as evidenced by its late translation into other languages. It was not translated into French until half a century after its publication in English. Meanwhile, in Poland, the social and political situation was so ludicrous that people were not interested in reading absurd poems. So far, four translators have set out to create Polish versions.

In the mid-seventies, even if there was a translator who could handle the poem, the publishers turned out to be Boojums—they refused to publish it. At least that’s what happened to Robert Stiller. It was not until 1982 that Wydawnictwo Morskie published Stiller’s translation, under the title Wyprawa na Żmirłacza, although it had appeared earlier, in 1973, in a literary magazine, Literatura na świecie [World Literature] no.5(25). In 1998, Stanisław Barańczak, the Polish poet and translator, included the poem (titled Łowy na Snarka) in the anthology 44 Stories. In 2004, Oficyna Naukowa published a bilingual version with footnotes and hysterically funny illustrations by Janusz Stanny—also a very difficult book to find.


Music journalists Wojciech Mann and Grzegorz Wasowski began translating The Snark (Łowybryki wokół Żreka) in the late ’70s, but unfortunately their work took so long that Robert Stiller beat them to it, and his translation was published in an edition of 200,000 copies. (This is a lot for the Polish reading market.) Several years passed before Wasowski decided to set up his own publishing house, Wydawnictwo Wasowscy, and issue a new version of The Snark. In 2012 the book was printed in a small edition with the title Obławantura przez Wążarłacza i Łowybryki wokół Żreka.


Forty years after the first translation, Grzegorz Wasowski “discussed things with himself ”—as he humorously presents it in the Introduction—and decided on a new title, Obławantura przez Wążarłacza. Wasowski created two portmanteaux for the title itself: wąż (snake) and żarłacz (shark) resulted in wążarłacz. He altered a simple English word, “hunting,” into a new Polish portmanteau, obławantura: combining obława (round-up, as in a rodeo) and awantura (adventure, fuss).


Although Wążarłacz is used in the title, Wasowski uses the name Żrek from the previous joint translation in the first line of Fit the First. He adds in a footnote that the Bellman used the common name Żrek; however, zoologists refer to this animal as Wążarłacz. The name of the Bellman is more ambiguous. In the first translation, he was called BossTon, while in the latest version he is called Bim-Boss, Boss, or BijDzwon (“ring a bell” or TollBell). The use of as many as three terms for one person may be a bit confusing for the average reader.

Other characters were named Butypuc – Boots; Beretnik – Maker of Bonnets and Hoods; Bezprawnik – Barrister; Broker, Bilardzista – Billiard-marker; Bankier, Bóbr – Beaver; Bułkopiek – Baker; and Bydłotłuk – Butcher. Some are similar to the English ones; some are word games, such as Butypuc (an inversion of Pucybut, bootblack); Bułkopiek (bułka, a roll + piekarz, baker) and Bydłotłuk (bydło, bovine + tłuc, to club) are portmanteaux.


Another difference concerned the rhymes; the Polish language has many more feminine rhymes than masculine ones. In addition, Wasowski did not consider it necessary to stick to the number of syllables. The governing principle was to convey the humorous meaning of the poem, not to faithfully imitate the English rhymes. According to him, some parts of the poem are funny in English, but not in Polish. Therefore, he gave up on having a faithful translation.

Carroll’s stanzas consist of four lines, while Wasowski created verses with sometimes four, sometimes six lines. Compare

“For, although common Snarks do no manner of harm,

Yet I feel it my duty to say

Some are Boojums—” The Bellman broke off in alarm,

For the Baker had fainted away.

with its rendering as

Choć nic złego od Żreka

Nie spotkało człowieka,

Muszę rzec, nie chcąc u was mieć krechy,

Że Żrekami niekiedy

Są Buczydła, a wtedy . . .

Padł Bułkopiek zemdlony na dechy.

Personally, I rather regret the loss of the Bellman’s famous saying, “What I tell you three time is true.” According to Edith Wharton’s autobiography A Backward Glance (D. Appleton-Century, 1934), Theodore Roosevelt used it, and I doubt he would understand Wasowski’s Polish equivalent, “Prawdą jest, z czym się trzykroć wynurzę” (The truth is what I come up with three times). Instead of Carroll’s “tell,” Wasowski uses wynurzyć się (to surface).


Jasiński’s illustrations are the undoubted attraction of the publication. In my opinion, the vibrant pictures correspond to the content of the absurd expedition. I’m just an ordinary reader, not an art critic, so I was curious about how others perceive Jasiński’s vision. From some of the friends I surveyed, comments came back like “tiring,” “a bit aggressive,” “chaos reigns,” “characters are grotesque,” and “the characters come from nightmares.”Others were of the opposite opinion: “colorful and so cheerful,” “they arouse sympathy,” “pastel colors give a lot of light,” “the characters are funny,” “stimulates the imagination,” “the illustrations refer to traditional Japanese graphics and art nouveau,” “each is a beautiful painting,” and “a fervor of color and surprising compositions.”


I asked Veronica, my daughter, to scout around for a copy, and she rather miraculously found one in an antique shop in Cracow. Contrariwise, my Instagram friend Semper Lux took over a year to find her copy, and she finally succeeded only because she continually badgered the illustrator, who now dwells in Portugal, a “gentleman farmer” living in a village so small that postal and other couriers come once a week, if that. He originally said he had none, but he eventually went home to Poland for a visit and found three in a dusty corner of his studio, which he signed and sent to her. Apparently only four copies of this rare beast, a veritable okapi, have been identified: one in the Burstein Collection, one in my possession, one shines its beatific light upon Semper Lux, and one has found its way to the Antipathies (Australia).