Poland’s acclaimed nonfiction writer Ryszard Kapuscinski, who died on
January 23 at the age of 74, was an unsurpassed chronicler of the Third
World. His best-known works, widely read and translated, included Shah
of Shahs, a documentary collage on Islamic revolution in Iran; The
Soccer War, stories about upheavals in Latin America; Imperium, an
insightful, at times metaphoric, account of the fall of the Soviet
Union; and Shadow of the Sun, a collection of poetic sketches from “his”
He considered himself a “translator of cultures.” Tirelessly spanning
the globe for half a century, he witnessed some thirty coups and
revolutions, courageously confronting the powerful (he came to know Che
Guevara, Idi Amin and Salvadore Allende) and patiently listening to the
I first met him as a budding AP journalist in my native Warsaw. Fresh
out of university, I often worried that someone as shy as myself would
never make a good reporter. It turned out that this great journalist,
whom I had admired since my teenage years, was even shyer than I was.
Late one evening, he stopped by to say that his fax machine had broken
down, and could he please use one in our office if it’s not too much
trouble? We started talking. I trembled and stumbled. He smiled and
I later learned that just like me, he often dreaded asking questions,
especially in public. But he never needed to. Self-effacing and
delicate, he simply inspired trust. Desperate African mother, tired
shipyard worker, hardened dictator or reckless revolutionary–across
continents people from all walks of life would willingly share with him
whatever they could: a shabby hut and a bowl of soup, their fears and
Born March 3, 1932, he spent his early childhood in the ethnically
diverse Pinsk (today part of Belarus). He was 7 years old when World War
II began–perhaps the most formative experience of his life. Six
decades later, when I knew him, he would still vividly remember what it
meant to be hungry, how humiliated he felt lacking shoes, how it felt to
go to bed in a frozen apartment. Even more acute was the intellectual
poverty–going to school without books, pencils or even a simple
Paradoxically, it turned out to be invaluable journalistic training.
His Pinsk experience allowed him to feel comfortable amid the poor,
displaced and humiliated all over the world. He never had to struggle to
imagine how they felt; he knew. This empathy was probably one of the
most potent of his journalistic tools.
Another was his ability to transform his unique raw material into
powerful metaphors. A master of the wide angle, Kapuscinski would often
transcend beyond a seemingly mundane detail to capture something more
elusive and important. This technique, employed perhaps most
impressively in Emperor–ostensibly an account of the fall of Ethiopia’s
Haile Selassie, but widely interpreted as a reflection on all
dictatorships–became his trademark.
Kapuscinski’s beautiful, poetic prose, sometimes compared to magic
realism of Latin American writers, appeared effortless. Deceptively. His
harrowing trips were preceded and followed by painstaking
research–countless hours spent in his secluded study, filled with
books, maps and newspaper clips. He did not have a phone there, he never
used the Internet and he couldn’t even be persuaded to use a computer.
He shunned modern equipment. But he was an avid reader. He would enter
into dialogue with generations of historians, writers, thinkers who had
traveled the path he was about to take. Out of this dialogue came the
richness of his work and the depth of his insights.
Fascism, communism, colonialism, racism–he experienced firsthand the
greatest plagues of the twentieth century. If there was one common
denominator, one root of all this evil, Kapuscinski believed, it was the
scary divide between the haves and have-nots, rich North and deprived
South. He aspired to being a messenger between these two worlds, a
translator of cultures.
On numerous occasions in my journalistic career I felt discouraged
because efforts to bridge these two distant worlds seemed futile. He
would provide encouragement and inspiration. An invaluable mentor to
scores of journalists all over the world, he was able to infect us with
deep belief in the value of our profession.
We would flock to his book-filled attic to recharge batteries. He was
someone who provided direction and perspective when we felt lost or
confused. I haven’t been there since 2001. Interviewing him for the BBC
just days after September 11, I never imagined it was my last time in
his attic. “I greatly fear that we will waste this moment. That instead
of meaningful dialogue, it will just be gates and metal detectors,” he
Six years later, thousands of miles away, I learned this week he
already went through his last gate, and I did not manage to catch him.
In the past I occasionally worked as his assistant and translator. But
in reality, it was the other way around. Farewell, my Translator. Thank
you for everything.