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Welcome back to our Greatest Women in Translation interview series, dear readers! Our interviewee today is Antonia Lloyd-Jones, award-winning literary translator from Polish into English.
Image created with Canva. Picture by Susan B.
1. Your wide list of published translations from Polish into English include fiction, reportage, biographies, poetry, children’s books, film scripts, short stories, academic essays, among others. In such a diverse portfolio, what do you like translating the most?
I don’t have a favourite genre, but I enjoy varying my diet. When I’m translating an entire book, it inevitably gets into my blood stream – to sense fully what the author is aiming to achieve, I have to let it get inside me, let it touch my soul, before I can find a voice for it in English. It can be a painful experience if the emotions expressed in the book are difficult (and Polish literature has more than its fair share of tragedy), so I need variety to alter the mood.
One of the features of Polish literature is that it has very strong literary non-fiction, with just as much to offer the translator as fiction. The genre that has come to be known as reportage is largely a Polish invention, started off by Ryszard Kapuściński in the 1950s and developed by Hanna Krall, and in the next generation by writers including Mariusz Szczygieł and Wojciech Jagielski. They write books that are about true events, people and places, but it is neither news reporting or travel writing; instead they portray whole societies or nations from the bottom up, through the lives of ordinary people. In terms of style these are some of the most challenging books I have translated, and among the most fascinating.
I love translating children’s books, probably because I have never fully grown up myself, but also because they offer specific translation puzzles that are fun to unscramble.
For instance, in Krystyna Boglar’s novel Clementine Loves Red, which I co-translated with Zosia Krasodomska-Jones, there’s a little girl with the weird name ‘Jarzynka’, which means literally ‘little vegetable’. When they meet her, the other children are amazed, but later it turns out her father is called Mr Jarzyna, an unsurprising Polish surname, and the child’s nickname is a diminutive based on it. After much head-scratching, in English we called her Macadamia, and her father was Mr MacAdam.
My translations due to appear this year illustrate the huge range on offer in Polish literature, and I really can’t say which is my favourite. This month there’s Posts, a witty poetry collection by Tadeusz Dąbrowski, including evocative poems inspired by the trips to New York that resulted from a previous joint publication. Next month there’s Dancing Bears, reportage by Witold Szabłowski, who uses the fate of performing bears rescued from Bulgarian Gypsies and rehomed in a special shelter as an allegory for people in countries that have emerged from totalitarianism, but who don’t understand freedom. In May there’s Priceless, a high-energy thriller by Zygmunt Miłoszewski, about a team of Poles commissioned on behalf of the nation to steal a Renaissance painting that was looted during the war, but when they try, they realize someone’s trying to kill them. In June there’s Lala by Jacek Dehnel, an exquisitely written novel, closely based on reality, about the colourful life and adventures of the author’s grandmother. And finally in September, there’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, an eco-crime novel by Olga Tokarczuk, in which the female narrator lives deep in the Polish countryside, where she insists that avenging animals are responsible for a series of strange deaths of local male bigwigs who hunt.
2. You have led workshops for Translation Nation project in UK primary schools working with children aged 10-11 to produce translations of stories from their own native cultures. How was this experience in introducing translation to kids?
I’m not sure what the children would say about my competence as a teacher. I came away from this experience with undying admiration for all primary school teachers, as they do one of the most difficult jobs imaginable, especially teaching classes with children from twenty or more cultures. And I’m also in awe of Sarah Ardizzone, who devised and runs the whole project (now as Translators in Schools). Even with my lack of ability to organize boisterous 10-year-olds, I found it tremendously rewarding.
The project involved encouraging children from various cultures to bring stories from home, for their classmates to translate and then read to each other in performance. At the first school, the story that made the greatest impression came from a shy Polish boy who told it to me between sessions in the corridor; it was about his granny’s appalling experiences as a deportee in Siberia during the war. The other children were moved and shocked by the real-life story of their friend’s relative. It was the only moment in three whole days when they sat riveted, in silence. Afterwards the headmaster thanked me for bringing so much out of this shy boy, and had a local paper report on it. But it wasn’t me, it was the excellent project that gave him a chance to explain something about his culture to his school friends.
Another child said he was half-Greek, and brought in the Odyssey! That was a bit ambitious as a translation project, but we chose the story of the Cyclops, which went down well too. At the second school, an Egyptian boy who had only been living in Britain for a few months made up his own wonderful story, about a man living in Cairo with a giant pet tortoise that destroyed the neighbour’s garden but made up for it by giving him a daily ride to work on its back. And there was a Latvian girl who at first wanted nothing to do with the project, but ended up as our most enthusiastic participant. I felt sad to say goodbye to her and hope she’s flourishing.
Children from abroad who’ve settled in the UK with their parents learn English very fast and often speak it better than the adults, so they act as ambassadors for the older generation. And among them there are sure to be some future literary translators, so it’s brilliant to start nourishing their talents early.
3. You promote Polish books to English-language (UK and US) publishers and readers. Apart from having two past winners of the Nobel Prize for Literature, namely Czesław Miłosz and Wisława Szymborska, in your opinion, what’s special about the Polish literature? What’s your pitch to publishers and readers?
Polish literature has several special features. Its fiction tends to differ from English-language novels, for instance, by being based more often on style and less often on linear plots or straightforward story-telling. That quality can make it not just hard to translate, but hard to sell to publishers, who view it as experimental and possibly unappealing to British and American readers, whose expectations tend to be fairly conventional. But it is actually an asset for ambitious, high-quality literature.
For instance, last year two Polish novels were very well received in English, though neither has a conventional structure and both are characterized by superb style. They’re Swallowing Mercury, Wioletta Greg’s evocation of childhood in a Polish village, translated by Eliza Marciniak, and Flights, Olga Tokarczuk’s unusual take on the broadly understood concept of travel, translated by Jennifer Croft. I’m thrilled to see what excellent reviews these books have had, as both are gems of contemporary Polish fiction.
As I have said above, Polish reportage is in a special category of its own, so I often find myself explaining its particular qualities to publishers. In the past I have put a lot of effort into finding publishers for my own generation of reportage authors, and now I’m very pleased that my colleague Sean Bye has made headway with bringing more of them to English-language audiences. His translation of Filip Springer’s History of a Disappearance, about the fate of a mining town that ceased to exist, brings a superb new voice to a wider audience. And we both have plans for more Polish reportage in translation.
I suspect that translators from some of the more mainstream languages, such as French, Spanish or German, are more likely to be commissioned than translators of ‘minor’ languages such as Polish. Instead, translators from Polish have to work alongside Polish publishers and agents to convince foreign publishers to buy the rights to Polish books. On average, only about 10 to 15 literary works in English translation from Polish are published each year. But I don’t see anything wrong with that as an annual ‘score’ – what counts is quality, and the competition that Polish books have to go through to appear in English to some extent guarantees that it’s the best books that get through, or at least the ones with the best chance of success on English-language markets.
Of course Polish poetry is well-represented in English, but there are some dynamic younger poets yet to be translated. Although I rarely translate poetry I’m hoping to find a publisher for a collection by Krystyna Dąbrowska, a personal favourite of mine. How would I pitch her work? It’s vivid, evocative, haunting, sometimes deeply personal and emotional, sometimes keenly observing other people’s lives, often inspired by travel to faraway places. But the best way will be to show it to them.
Another Polish speciality is children’s illustrated books. There is a fabulous new generation of illustrators and graphic artists at work now, many of them inspired by their predecessors in the 1960s and 1970s. After a rather Disneyesque phase, the best tradition is back and booming. So far Daniel & Aleksandra Mizielińska have blazed a trail abroad with their worldwide best-selling Maps, H.O.U.S.E., and Under Earth, Under Water. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg — Polish illustrated children’s books represent an unexploited gold mine, represented by artists such as Katarzyna Bogucka, Agata Dudek, Paweł Pawlak, and many others. Their work speaks for itself, and I’m hoping more English-language publishers will soon see the light.
4. According to your own words, you find it enriching to mentor emerging translators. Why?
Mentoring is one of the best parts of my job. I’m now working with my sixth mentee, Zosia Krasodomska-Jones, who for the mentorship is focusing on children’s books, especially YA and younger children’s novels. What a great excuse for me to find out more about them too. We have just spent a week in Poland talking to people who are well-placed to advise us on the latest publications. There’s a wealth of good books to choose from, and the hardest thing is to decide which ones are likely to work on English-language markets. We came away with lots of ideas, and a big task ahead to sift out the ones we want to pitch at the Bologna book fair in March.
I don’t have time to work on all the books I would like to promote or translate, so helping younger translators to develop their careers allows me to pass on ideas or projects that deserve attention. Sometimes I pass on work to them that I haven’t time for, but I don’t want to treat my mentees like a dumping ground – mainly I try to help each one to identify and then realize translation projects that they feel passionate about. I think mentoring is the best way to increase the number of Polish books being published in English while also guaranteeing quality. Over the years I’ve built up useful contacts and experience that I can pass on to emerging translators, which gives them an instant leg-up in the profession. I’m very proud of their achievements so far and look forward to watching them change the future face of Polish literature in translation.
But I also learn a lot from my mentees. Translation can be an isolated profession, so to see how other people approach a piece of text, which works attract younger translators and what they’re interested in translating broadens my vision and keeps me open to new ideas.
5. In your interview for Authors & Translators, you said, “It’s disheartening that some people would never contemplate watching a film with subtitles or reading a book in translation – saddest of all for them, as they’re missing out on a feast of entertainment and knowledge. And the world loses, for lack of mutual understanding.” Apart from Polish literature, what translated books have you enjoyed reading and suggest to us?
Where do I start? I’ll tell you about three authors I have recently read in translation. I can’t stop thinking about The Gurugu Pledge by the Equatorial Guinean writer Juan Tomás Ávilar Laurel, translated from Spanish by Jethro Soutar (published by And Other Stories). It’s a shocking account of the desperation that drives people to leave their homes in African countries and try to get into Europe, but end up trapped in a horrible encampment in Morocco, where the women in particular suffer appallingly. I think every world leader should be made to read it.
Another book I’d recommend is Eve Out of Her Ruins, by Ananda Devi, translated from French by Jeffery Zuckerman (published by Les Fugitives/CB Editions). Set in Mauritus, it’s about four teenagers grappling with their own identities and with the adversities life has forced on them already. I’m pleased to see that Jeffery Zuckerman has been shortlisted for the inaugural TA First Translation Prize for his beautiful translation.
And finally please read Jón Gnarr’s trilogy, translated from Icelandic by Lytton Smith (published by Deep Vellum). Gnarr was a stand-up comedian who became a rather unlikely but apparently successful Mayor of Reykjavik. Based on his childhood and adolescence, the first in the trilogy is The Indian, which despite being about a child’s struggle with his own intellectual limitations and the lack of understanding of the world around him, is riotously funny. The second is The Pirate, about his determined teenage efforts to be a punk rocker, when there was only one other punk in all of Iceland. The third is The Outlaw, when things turn dark as our hero discovers sex and drugs. Moving, comical, disturbing, brave, highly recommended.
6. You have translated different books by the same authors, such as Zygmunt Miłoszewski, Olga Tokarczuk and Paweł Huelle. Do you get more familiar with the author’s style after the first book or is every book unique?
It depends on the author. Paweł Huelle does more or less write in the same style, and of course practice has made me more familiar with it. He has favourite words (whether he knows it or not) that he understands in a particular way. But he sometimes surprises me totally – not long ago he wrote a story that could have been by Gogol, or Dostoevsky in his satirical mood, featuring an insane dream largely set in Saint Petersburg. Apart from that, two of his novels are deliberately stylized in homage to great European authors: Mercedes-Benz is a tribute to Bohumil Hrabal, and Castorp is a prequel to The Magic Mountain and owes a great deal to Mann. In both cases I read translations of these authors into English to help me to attune to the style.
Zygmunt Miłoszewski is best known in English for his crime trilogy featuring Prosecutor Szacki (Entanglement, A Grain of Truth and Rage), and they do have a homogeneous style, but his thriller Priceless reads more like similar books written in English – at times I felt I was translating a translation. And his latest book in Polish, As Ever, is a totally new departure, not a crime novel but a romantic book with a historical twist; in 2014 an old couple are celebrating 50 years of married life, then they mysteriously wake up back in 1964 with the chance to live all over again, but this time Poland is not under Soviet, but French control. In every way it is new and different from his earlier books, and I’m looking forward to translating it.
Olga Tokarczuk is extremely versatile and every book is distinctly different. She loves to play with form and voice, so it’s hard to say that I grow more familiar with her style from one book to the next. The three I have translated are House of Day, House of Night, which is one of her ‘constellation’ novels, consisting of a loosely connected set of stories, ideas and images; Primeval and Other Times, the twentieth-century history of a village told through its residents, which owes a lot stylistically to myths and legends; and Drive Your Plow… in which the narrator’s sometimes unsettling voice is influenced partly by William Blake, partly by Leonora Carrington, and wholly by Olga Tokarczuk. Luckily I share her work with Jennifer Croft, an excellent translator, who is now working on The Books of Jacob, a sweeping historical epic about the mystical leader of an eighteenth-century religious sect.
7. Now it’s your turn to nominate our next Great Woman in Translation.
I nominate Nicky Harman, who translates from Chinese.