Antonia Lloyd-Jones - “Olga does all sorts of things for all sorts of people” - Hindustan Times
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Antonia Lloyd-Jones - “Olga does all sorts of things for all sorts of people”

ByAmrita Talwar
Mar 13, 2024 08:58 PM IST

The award-winning translator of the works of many of Poland’s leading contemporary novelists talks about translating Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk’s books

How did the decision to translate Olga Tokarczuk come about? Did you read her work and feel this is something that must find readers in English?

Translator Antonia Lloyd Jones (Susan Bernofsky)
Translator Antonia Lloyd Jones (Susan Bernofsky)

I have known Olga for a long time now, since the mid-1990s. She was already quite popular in Poland when I first met her. Someone was already translating her work into English, though without a publishing deal, so I didn’t think I would ever be her translator. Unfortunately, it took a long time for an English-language publisher to take an interest. In those days, Olga was represented internationally by her Dutch publisher, who finally sold the rights to one of her books to a British publisher, Granta. The editors there were trying to decide between two books in particular, and the Dutch publisher recommended me to them as a potential translator.

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The book they chose was House of Day, House of Night, and I suspect they may have chosen the wrong one to launch her work in English at that point in time, and possibly Primeval and Other Times (which I translated a few years later) might have been more successful, but who knows? I am about to revise my translation of House of Day, House of Night for a new edition that will be published next year; I think I can improve the translation, and I’ll restore some sections that were cut from the old edition. Granta didn’t want to publish another one of her books because they weren’t happy with the sales; it’s always difficult when a publisher doesn’t want to continue publishing a particular author. Like the novel Flights, House of Day… is what Olga Tokarczuk calls a “constellation novel”, formed from a mosaic of loosely connected pieces of text. She likes experimenting with the form of the novel, and often rejects the idea of the linear novel in favour of something very different.

288pp, ₹361; Riverhead (HC) (Amazon)
288pp, ₹361; Riverhead (HC) (Amazon)

You mentioned Drive Your Plow should have been published before. Why is that?

In fact, it is her most conventional, linear novel. For some years we couldn’t find a new publisher for her in English. I tried and tried with Drive Your Plow…, and whenever Olga and I appeared at a public event, I would invite publishers to attend, but without luck. Soon after translating House of Day… I was contacted by a young American translator called Jennifer Croft, who told me she was passionate about Olga’s work and would love to translate it. I was impressed by the sample translations she sent me. To cut a long story short, we became friends and we teamed up to promote Olga’s work. Jennifer was interested in Flights, so she began working on that, but at first her efforts to find a publisher were as fruitless as mine. Then came the time when Poland was going to be the guest of honour at the London Book Fair. Suddenly, publishers woke up to the idea of Polish literature. By then, Jennifer had sent some extracts from Flights to Jacques Testard, who runs the British publishing house, Fitzcarraldo Editions. He published it in time for the book fair, when it could get maximum publicity, and he also did a very good job of selling it on to an American publisher. Suddenly, everything fell into place – Flights won the Booker International prize. In the meantime, I had translated Drive Your Plow… so that the publisher could follow up on the success of Flights quickly.

Drive Your Plow… has been Olga’s most successful book in terms of sales, but I think that’s partly because it’s a crime novel, a genre that appeals to some readers who wouldn’t necessarily want to read a highly literary novel. Also, it’s funny and comparatively short. Some of Olga’s books are very long, in particular The Books of Jacob, which is an epic historical novel for which she did eight years of research. As the translator, Jennifer Croft had to do a lot of research too.

Tell us about Olga’s relationship with her translators.

One thing about translating a writer of Olga’s stature, especially now that she has won the Nobel Prize, is that she has been translated into very many languages. Her translators have become friends and have built a community. It started with The Books of Jacob, when the translators needed each other’s help to research all the historical details.

Olga now holds biannual events in Wrocław (the city where she lives some of the time) where she invites her translators to meet up and talk about our work. We also have our own Facebook page where we ask each other questions about the text. It’s a special kind of brother- and sisterhood where we share books and writers.

Olga Tokarczuk (Markus Wissman/Shutterstock)
Olga Tokarczuk (Markus Wissman/Shutterstock)

Tell us a bit about Olga Tokarczuk

Olga lives in a remote village in south-western Poland called Krajanów, which is similar to the one described in Drive Your Plow. It’s in a strange part of Poland called the Kłodzko Valley, which protrudes into the Czech Republic. It’s different, rather isolated, and has a special magic of its own. I used to visit Olga there every summer, and I remember trudging across the fields in bad weather to a remote, run-down house that was home to an old, retired woman named Teresa Chmura. Although she was living in very poor conditions, she was a former engineer, and an excellent artist with a brilliant imagination. Olga was very fond of her and used to take her food in the winter. When Teresa Chmura died, Olga established a local walking route in her memory, with signs along the way featuring her drawings of the landscape. Olga made sure Teresa Chmura was memorialised in the place she had been a part of, had loved and drawn. As you can tell, Olga is a remarkable person, who does all sorts of things for all sorts of people. She’s very interested in people. Since winning the Nobel Prize, she has established the Olga Tokarczuk Foundation, based in Wrocław. It supports a range of cultural, social and educational projects.

While you are translating from one language to another, how do you translate the atmosphere of the place?

Put simply, the main tasks for a translator are to understand what the author is trying to say in their own language, and then reproduce the same meaning and effect in their own language. Olga writes very well and is very good at descriptive narrative. But, of course, it helps that I know the place where Drive Your Plow is set, so to some extent I knew what Olga was imagining while composing some of the scenes. While I’m translating, I try to imagine two people standing behind me. One is the author, and the other is the reader. So my job is to understand what the author has written, what their intention was, and how they’ve achieved it – why they’ve put this word rather than another. Once I have understood the author’s approach, I have to think how to say the same thing in English, in the same way, so that the reader will understand it and will feel the same effect as the Polish reader.

When you are translating a Polish novel, there must be a significant style that you follow. Can you tell us about the style?

Polish literature does not have one particular style. At the moment, I am working on the Penguin Book of Polish Short Stories, an anthology of 39 stories, dating back 100 years, in a wide range of styles, most of them never previously translated. Nine of the stories have been bought in as existing translations; I have commissioned 13 from other translators, and I’ve translated 17 myself. They’re all completely different in terms of style, so I’ve had to change style every few days, which has been challenging. Perhaps there’s a certain mood to the way Polish writers think. Their work is quite often characterised by black humour, and they have a slightly different way of looking at the world from many Western authors, a Central European approach, we could say.

Please name three Polish writers whose work is essential reading.

There are so many good writers that it’s hard for me to select just three. I would recommend the classic poet Adam Mickiewicz; in particular, his epic poem Pan Tadeusz, which is one of the most important and inspiring works written in Polish. It’s also a good, exciting story that reads like a novel – the latest translation, by Bill Johnston for Archipelago Books, is superb and an immensely good read. You should definitely read anything by the Nobel prize-winning poet Wisława Szymborska, whose poems are wise and, as I see it, help us to understand life. I recommend a collection titled View with a Grain of Sand, translated by Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh (published by Faber). I keep her books in the bathroom, where I read a poem whenever I go to the loo! So I come out relieved, not just physically, but also spiritually. I can also recommend The Possessed by Witold Gombrowicz, which is a funny pastiche of a Gothic novel (I translated it for Fitzcarraldo Editions), full of bizarre characters including a pair of star-crossed lovers, a mad old prince who lives in a crumbling castle, and his scheming secretary.

Amrita Talwar is a marketing professional who is an avid birdwatcher.

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