A Conversation with Olga Tokarczuk’s Translators.

Jennifer Croft at LARB presents a fascinating discussion:

I recently had the chance to catch up with a dozen friends and fellow translators of Polish Nobel Laureate Olga Tokarczuk at the finale of the summer series Translating the Future, organized by Esther Allen and Allison Markin Powell. We talked about our languages, processes, philosophies, and more — and while in many ways we’re all very different, we have one very important thing in common: a love of Olga’s work and a wholehearted dedication to carrying it over into our own cultures for more people to appreciate and enjoy. That conversation, facilitated by Susan Harris, was such a joy that I wanted to continue it further, so I followed up with everyone over email and am pleased to share their thoughts here.

First everyone responds to the questions “How did you feel when OT’s Nobel Prize was announced? Where were you when you heard the news?” (lots of screaming), then they go on to the topic “Olga’s books are part of Polish literature, but they are also part of world literature,” which leads to some good reactions:

MM [Milica Markić]: Olga as a local and universal writer is highly recognizable in terms of topics that are the nemesis of the people in the region of the Southwest Balkans in dealing with identity-related issues, the mixture that Yugoslavia represented as a melting pot of ethnicities and religions. The first book of hers translated was The Journey of the Book People, and it is good that the reader’s adventure with Olga in Serbia (then still Yugoslavia, but in a mutilated form) started with that book, because the plot takes place in France in the 17th century, but already strongly raises the theme of religious persecution. In the afterword I wrote in the first edition of the book, in 2001, I touched on this seemingly incidental topic of the exodus of Huguenots from France. Then the late Tadeusz Komendant visited us on the occasion of the publication of Olga Tokarczuk and Natasza Goerke in Serbia and he told me that none of the critics had written about it in Poland. I was very proud of it, but it somehow naturally coincided with my way of living and existing at the time: as an ardent religious practitioner, I was very sensitive to religious issues. Had the topic been narrowly Polish, the book certainly would not have had such an echo. Almost 10 years later, in 2010, when Flights was published in our country, this was only confirmed. Namely, the chair of the jury for the biggest Serbian literary award (the NIN) stated that instead of any of the domestic candidates for the prize, she would choose Flights, a book that is out of competition as a foreign literature, because: “This Polish woman writes like no one else in our country! She taught us a lesson! It is an unsurpassed work, both in terms of genre, topic, and style.”

LQ [Lothar Quinkenstein]: Speaking in terms of The Books of Jacob, which is for us — Lisa and me — our most intense experience of Olga’s writing to date, I would say that the enormous power of this novel consists in the meticulous local settings, which transcend the specific at the same time and attain a kind of universal significance (“Write local, think global!”). The history of Central Europe, in which the Jews played an essential role, as Milan Kundera put it in his legendary “Tragedy of Central Europe” essay, reveals everywhere how each local Central European microcosmos with its rich diversity (in language, culture, religion) becomes a mirror image of a universal experience. (OT’s earlier novel House of Day, House of Night would also be a good example, of course.)

At the Bruno Schulz Festival in 2018 in Drohobych, Olga created a wonderful metaphor, which is actually more a precise description of a real loss than a metaphor, namely that we can look at Schulz’s lost novel Messiah as the epitome of Central Europe, and that our awareness of that irreplaceable loss radiates an enormous power of inspiration until this very day. So, extending the metaphor, the Central European literature is, in a way, still “searching” for its lost Messiah. This holds true for The Books of Jacob, in which, by the way, the alleged first sentence of Schulz’s Messiah is quoted! But beyond that, also the journey of the eternal stranger is the epitome of a universal experience — a reflection of the human condition.

But the most interesting bits for me came in response to “How do differences between the Polish language and your language condition your translations?”:

LP [Lisa Palmes]: In German, Olga’s sentences are mostly longer than in the Polish original. I think the reason is here that German — similarly to English — is a language where the position of the words in the sentence is instantly important, and their inflection is not so visible, whereas in Slavic languages like Polish the inflection is more visible and the word position less important, which results in more structural variety. Additionally, Polish is often more economic than German, a language that cannot stuff so much information into single words or phrases like Polish. These two facts — and surely many others — are the reason why a translator into German is forced to create more subordinate clauses and divide long sentences in two or three.

Olga’s language in the German “sound” is mostly considered to be long sentences and slow descriptions. This is how structural language specifics co-decide about a writer’s voice.

OBS [Olga Bagińska-Shinzato]: Definitely the formality of the Polish language and the informality of Brazilian Portuguese are the main issue. Sometimes you have to be more descriptive in Brazilian Portuguese. Because of cultural differences it’s difficult to find the exact vocabulary or terms that are as concise as in Polish. I would say that one of the characteristics of the Polish language is that it’s descriptive in a concise way (especially with all its prefixes and suffixes). Brazilian Portuguese is quite not as concise, but it’s very malleable and poetic.

MM: Slavic languages ​​are related to each other, but that is exactly why there are huge traps that can easily swallow you — they are false friends, words that sound the same but have a completely different meaning. Polish is a very baroque language, and as a mirror of Polish culture it offers a wide space for creative interventions. A big problem for me is the participles that we do not use in the Serbian language, although we know about them. With the great language reform in the 19th century, they were thrown out of use in literary language, which is a big handicap, because participles are a sign of a good language economy.

In addition, the Polish language fits very well with the plural form which is natural, while in the Serbian language it is very difficult to make a plural form for certain nouns (for example we have no plural for word “snowman”), and the passive forms are also natural, while our language feels better in active form. One of the difficulties is also the rule of transcription, that foreign names and titles must be orthographically adapted to the Serbian language, and this requires considerable research.

I also very much liked the final exchange:

Olga, I was very interested to hear that the adopted language into which you translate, Brazilian Portuguese, feels more like “your” language to you than your first language, which is Polish. I’m curious what translation means to you, given that feeling, and how important it is to you to bring over works from Polish into Portuguese. Do you translate in order to share certain aspects of Polish culture or literature with the people of Brazil? Do you write in Portuguese?

OBS: To me translation is a way of life, a bridge between people and cultures. Ever since I can remember (when I was a child), I grew up in circumstances that shaped me to be a kind of a medium between people, languages, cultures, mentalities, and realities. I write in Portuguese. Actually, I prefer to write in Portuguese (or English) than in Polish. I feel that I can express myself more clearly and freely than in Polish. The Polish language for me is limiting, too formal, maybe. Writing in Portuguese or English gives me a sense of pleasure and satisfaction. I actually thought about it after reading your question (I don’t remember thinking about it ever before) and came to a conclusion that feeling more comfortable writing in Portuguese or English probably has to do with the fact that I started writing and learned to write in English (also creative writing) before I learned to write in Polish (due to the fact that I went to school in the US), so for me it was more natural to express myself in a language which (in theory) was not my mother tongue. I feel that Brazilian Portuguese gives me the possibility to be “me,” to express my emotions, to transmit what I feel without having to use an “armor” or “carapace” to hide my emotivity. That’s probably why I feel very comfortable translating Olga’s novels, exactly because of their emotivity, something I would say is not very common in Poland. Unlike the Brazilians, Polish people tend to hide their emotions — that’s why I perceive writing in Polish as something rigid (probably because when I returned to Poland after living for many years in the US I had already learned to communicate in English and did not feel very comfortable writing in Polish because of some sort of insecurity that it awoke in me).

I translate to share the best that Poland and Polish culture has to offer to the world. I was born in Poland and despite growing up and living abroad for many years, I have a strong identification with the Polish culture, which I catalyze in translating Polish literature. At the same time, there are many aspects of it that I would change (if I could), or that I don’t like, for example, the lack of openness to other cultures (cultural empathy and cross-cultural awareness) or ideas that I feel Poland has lost (or is in the process of losing) and that literature is still able to rescue, or redeem. I believe that Olga’s works play a very important role in the process of redeeming what we’ve lost or forgotten as a nation, or what has been repressed into the unconscious over time.

It all makes me want to read Tokarczuk. Don’t miss Lothar Quinkenstein’s reference to the Bielefeld conspiracy (which I learned about at LH); also, there is an excellent photo of Pavel Peč’s cat (who doubtless helped with the translation).


  1. Here are Jennifer and Olga on a literary podcast…

  2. PlasticPaddy says

    But why should we have to be useful and for what reason? Who divided the world into useless and useful, and by what right? Does a thistle have no right to life, or a Mouse that eats the grain in a warehouse? What about Bees and Drones, weeds and roses? Whose intellect can have had the audacity to judge who is better, and who worse? A large tree, crooked and full of holes, survives for centuries without being cut down, because nothing could possibly be made out of it. This example should raise the spirits of people like us. Everyone knows the profit to be reaped from the useful, but nobody knows the benefit to be gained from the useless.

    Ale dlaczego mielibyśmy być pożyteczni i wobec czego? Kto podzielił świat na bezużyteczne i pożyteczne, i jakim prawem? Czy oset nie ma prawa do życia albo Mysz, która zjada ziarno w magazynach, Pszczoły i Trutnie, chwasty i róże. Czyj to rozum odważył się na taki tupet, żeby sądzić, kto jest lepszy, a kto gorszy? Wielkie drzewo, krzywe i dziurawe, przetrwało wieki i nie zostało ścięte, bo w żadnym wypadku nie dałoby się niczego z niego wykonać. Ten przykład powinien podnieść na duchu takich jak my. Wszyscy znają korzyść z pożytecznego, ale nikt nie zna pożytku z nieużytecznego.

    Even not knowing Polish, I would notice

    1. 4 and 5-syllable words do not seem affected and give the Polish prose for me a stateliness that would be difficult to imitate in English. The alternation of the 5-syllable words in the last sentence is for me more impressive than “useful” vs. “useless”.

    2. The author uses a rhetorical “grouping of 3 things” (Mouse, Drones, weeds) which the translator breaks up by division in to separate sentences, I suppose to keep a rhythm in the prose or because of a personal aversion to rhetorical elegance ????

    3. Polish has two words for useless: “without use” and “not useful”. The translator could use “inapplicable” for “without use” but that would destroy the connection between the three words.

  3. In Russian, “bespolezny” means ‘useless’ and “ne polezny” is ‘not useful’.

    To me, the latter is just a diplomatic way of saying “harmful”.

  4. Could someone explain MM’s “in Serbian … we have no plural for word ‘snowman”? How would Serbs translate “snowmen”?

  5. I wondered about that too.

  6. snjegovići/сњеговићи – “snowmen”

    But perhaps he feels it’s not proper Serbian?

  7. Jen in Edinburgh says

    Maybe they only make one snowman at a time?

  8. Maybe there’s only one snowman in all of Serbia.

  9. Jen in Edinburgh says

    The only time I was in Serbia it was too hot to go out in the daytime and too hot to sleep at night, so…

  10. Andrej Bjelaković says

    We can say snowmen but it is kind of awkward and this is why: the word is sneško belić (sneg – snow, beo/beli – white), which is reminiscent of a proper name (just now I was tempted to write it as Sneško Belić), a bit like if the English word for it were Jon Snow.

    Also, I think we then don’t change the first bit, just the belić, which is also unusual, as normally, with actual people, you’d inflect both the first name and the last name.

    So N sg sneško belić, but N pl sneško belići

  11. Thanks, I was hoping you’d weigh in!

  12. But what’s wrong with snjegović?

    Is it Croatian word?

  13. Andrej Bjelaković says

    I am familiar with snješko as the Croatian version, but I see Croatian Wikipedia mentions snjegović as well.

    Maybe zyxt can tell us about the prevailing usage!

  14. J.W. Brewer says

    Just because this thread is about Slavic and translation it seems like a good place to pose the question (or meta-question): How does one go about figuring out whether, e.g. Wallace Stevens’ poem “Extracts from Addresses to the Academy of Fine Ideas” has ever been translated into Russian?

  15. Find the Russian form of the name via Wikipedia and use Google Translate for the title or a significant quote and hope for the best. In this specific case, the answer is apparently (and predictably) no — Уоллес Стивенс has never had any traction in Russia.

  16. Although I may have spoken too soon: I see there was a 142-page book of his poetry published in Russian translation in 2000, called Тринадцать способов нарисовать дрозда [Thirteen ways of drawing a thrush/blackbird]; it may well have had a version of that poem — I have no way of finding out.

  17. Here’s a free translation of the blackbird poem by a Russian who found it mentioned in Daniel Handler’s Adverbs; she says:

    Героиня одной из новелл упоминает поэта Уоллеса Стивенса, мне становится интересно – не знаю такого. ищу, нахожу. влюбляюсь в стихотворение о черном дрозде, позволяю себе неслыханную дерзость вольного пересказа. Потому что стих есть и он чудесный, а перевода достойного нет. Все, что на русском плоско, убого. нечитаемо.

    The heroine of one of the stories mentions the poet Wallace Stevens, and I got interested — I didn’t know such a poet. I searched and found him. I fell in love with a poem about a blackbird and allowed myself the unheard-of daring of a free retelling. Because the poem exists and is marvelous, but there’s no worthy translation. Everything that exists in Russian is flat, poor, unreadable.

  18. @J.W. Brewer: I’m aware of two Stevens collections in Russian. The one LH mentioned must be a book of translations by Grigory Kruzhkov. Some of them first appeared in a Soviet literary journal in the 1970s. I’ve looked through half a dozen: they are horrible but it’s easier for a Russian to learn English than to translate Stevens. The second book is a recent volume by Lev Oborin. I don’t know anything about it but I’ll try to find a digital copy and check if it includes “Extracts.” Also, Alexei Tsvetkov Sr. has translated a few poems – you may want to look them up at aptsvet.livejournal.com. Tsvetkov is a remarkable poet but I’m not sure if his Stevens is any good.

  19. I do hope you get round to reading Tokarczuk – her novels are so different, and her translator into English has done a very good job. I’d recommend starting with ‘Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead’ which is a detective story with a difference. I can’t wait for ‘The Book of Jacob’, which is due in the spring, I think.

  20. Great, thanks for the recommendations!

  21. …and Amazon had the Kindle version for $1.99, so I grabbed it.

  22. Funny that Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, a book I had never heard of before, gets mentioned in two comments here this week.

  23. “A large tree, crooked and full of holes, survives for centuries without being cut down, because nothing could possibly be made out of it. ”

    That parable is from Zhuangzi, isn’t it? The whole passage feels rather Taoist.

  24. Funny that Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, a book I had never heard of before, gets mentioned in two comments here this week.

    Well, I hope Hat enjoys it much more than I did. (At least, at $2 he’s not overly committed.) I read it very shortly after it was announced that Tokarczuk had been awarded the Nobel, but I had a viscerally negative reaction, declaring it my personal “Worst Book of the Year.” Mostly because the author didn’t seem to have the faintest conception of the conventions of the genre in which she was. nominally, attempting to write. As a celebration of a particular landscape the novel might have some merit. But as “detective fiction”? Absolutely none whatsoever.

  25. In what sense is Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead supposed to be a detective novel? I quite liked that novel, probably because I read it as a somewhat magical realist portrait of a Polish small town and she has an interesting philosophical angle on animal rights. I don’t think she was even attempting to write genre fiction. I am also not a huge fan of detective fiction in any case, so that may be why I had a very different reaction.

    I wonder how good the Russian translation is? Would seem preferable to English if one can read both.

  26. The author herself has called it that in interviews. (Here, for instance: https://www.bklynlibrary.org/blog/2020/01/12/olga-tokarczuk-interview) And what else would you call a novel whose entire plot is structured around a series of unexplained deaths?

  27. Horror fiction, possibly. That is, if they stay unexplained.

  28. Yes, JC, horror fiction is a better description actually. Her short stories also tend very much toward the „Unheimlich“ and Flights as well.

  29. Spoiler alert? No, the deaths are ultimately completely explained by the end of the novel.

    And no, “horror fiction” could not possibly be a more inaccurate and inapt description of the novel.

    I won’t argue the point further, though. I thought it was simply a terrible novel, on every level, possibly the very worst I’ve ever read by a Nobel Prize winner. But, “tastes differ.” I’d be willing to give Tokarczuk a second chance, but for now she’s filed under “proceed with extreme caution.”

  30. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

    I’ve read three chapters now, and while I don’t hate it as much as laowai, I find myself bored and restless — the narrator is annoying (the random Capitals make me grit my Teeth, for one thing), and nothing of interest is happening. I may give it another try sometime, but for now my feeling is that Life Is Too Short.

  31. Marcel Theroux reviews The Books of Jacob for the Guardian (“And, by the way, the pages are numbered backwards in a nod to Hebrew convention and the reversal of values implied by the imminent millennium”). Thanks, Trevor!

  32. The Guarniad get so many things wrong — especially about international politics — do they even have fact-checkers — I can’t even read it anymore, but the book reviews are still pretty non-contaminated by the nonsense.

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