In one of your interviews I read that your foreign language endeavours started with Russian. What led a thirteen year old to be interested in Russian?
The reason I started learning Russian when I was thirteen was mostly just that I was fascinated by the alphabet and by these very graceful people I kept seeing on TV at the Lillehammer Olympics like Ekaterina Gordeeva and Sergei Grinkov. I had also always wanted to escape Oklahoma, where I grew up, and travel somewhere far away.
When it comes to Russian culture, I had the luck of having an aunt who travelled there a lot during the communist time and shared a love for the culture even after the great political shift. Were you immediately drawn to the culture? Was there something in particular that captivated you?
I also had an aunt with some fondness for Russian culture, although she didn’t speak Russian or travel there. I don’t think there really was anything in particular that drew me to Russian, other than the silly things I mentioned before. When I finally made it to Moscow at the age of eighteen, I realized that as fascinating as the city was, I would not be able to live there in the long term, which I wanted to do in order to fully appreciate the language I would be translating from. This may be partly why I was so open to Polish when I began my MFA program at the University of Iowa a year after that.
I know the next questions will be quite obvious but I cannot bring myself not to ask them. Why Polish? How Polish? In a typically Polish self-deprecating manner, the Polish language seems to be a very exotic and marginally popular language.
Polish was a happy accident. When I arrived at the University of Iowa, several of the Russian professors had just retired or taken leaves for the academic year. That meant that the only Slavic language I could still study was Polish. Fortunately, I got really excited about Polish literature and applied for a Fulbright to live in Poland for a year after I graduated, i.e. 2003-2004.
That is one fortunate accident, indeed. Is Polish literature a fringe on the fringes of academia or does it hold some stable interest?
Polish literature strikes me as a burgeoning field within American letters, but then, American letters themselves are ever at risk.
Why are the American letters at risk? Is this a new state or something ongoing?
My opinion is that the risk is ongoing, having to do with the very essence of American culture, which is guided by a Protestant work ethic that developed into a need to ceaselessly produce and consume, as well as a distrust of an intellectualism that might mean not everyone is equal–equally educated, equally intelligent, etc. We’re always going to be more comfortable with baseball than with short stories.
I am afraid that the reality is similar in Poland, even without the Protestant roots. Here the problem seems to be connected with the post-communist stratification and embrace of consumerism. Do you see this changing in the US or globally? I always wonder if it will just continue to be this way or is there some giant crisis around the historical corner.
I’m not sure! Anything could happen, I guess.
I’m caught in between cautious optimism and crippling pessimism. Well… Let’s leave this path and tread back to literature. In one of your interviews you said that Wisława Szymborska’s Birthday was the reason you did your PhD. Why did it captivate you so?
It was Clare Cavanagh’s translation of “Birthday” that captivated me. She gave a talk at the annual gathering of the American Literary Translators’ Association that is now—very fortunately indeed—reproduced in the volume In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What It Means, edited by Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky and published by Columbia University Press. Clare’s piece is called “The Art of Losing: Polish Poetry and Translation.” It’s brilliant. It was like listening to an alchemist spill all her secrets. I still feel that way, fifteen years later.
Thank you for pointing me to the book and article. I managed to find it in the vastness of the internet and it was a very good read. Academic writing often has problems with accessibility but here it was a pleasure to read. I especially liked the child with a blanket on its head comparison. And it connects nicely with one of your statements regarding translation. „To me, nothing is untranslatable. Nor is anything reproducible, in a strict sense.” I believe that these two sentences were related to prose so I would like to make sure: do they hold true for poetry, too?
Absolutely. Translating poetry requires the same approach, as far as I’m concerned. You read sensitively, and then you make a new text.
And would you say that poetry is more about creating from anew than prose or is this an overgeneralisation?
I don’t think poetry in translation is necessarily more from scratch than prose. A lot depends on the style and effect of the original. Right now I’m translating prose by a poet, namely Stancje by Wioletta Grzegorzewska. While the narrative itself is straightforward enough, Wioletta’s language is absolutely impossible to translate word for word (then again, nothing is ever word for word, unless you’re Nabokov).
According to your own words, you are one of the lucky translators who is able to choose what to work on. So how did you come to choose Olga Tokarczuk and how was this experience?
I first came across Olga Tokarczuk’s short story collection Playing Many Drums (2001). I had just received a Fulbright to go to Poland (to the University of Warsaw) and was looking for contemporary women writers to translate as I finished my MFA in Literary Translation at the University of Iowa. I immediately fell in love with Olga’s work. The lure of her elegant and lyrical prose is undeniable, and it’s the perfect way to explore truly ground-breaking ideas about society, humanity and the world. I’ve learned so much from Olga and feel so privileged to be working with her now, to be able to have some access to her brilliant mind and very kind and generous personality.