Olga Tokarczuk destined to win Nobel Prize, says Jennifer Croft, her translator

The World
Writer Olga Tokarczuk appears at a book fair.

Polish author Olga Tokarczuk was named the 2018 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature on Thursday, after a sexual assault scandal led to last year’s award being postponed. Austrian writer Peter Handke won the 2019 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Tokarczuk, 57, won for “a narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life,” said the Swedish Academy, which chooses the literature laureate. It recognised Handke, 76, for a body of work including novels, essays and drama “that with linguistic ingenuity has explored the periphery and the specificity of human experience.”

Both authors have courted controversy — Handke for his portrayal of Serbia as a victim during the Balkan wars and for attending its leader’s funeral, and Tokarczuk for touching on dark areas of Poland’s past that contrast with the version of history promoted by the country’s ruling nationalist party.

Related: Poland invites nationalism in its commemoration of WWII by moving location and inviting Trump

While Tokarczuk’s agent said the award should not be seen in the context of a parliamentary election Poland will hold on Sunday, the author called on Poles to “vote in a right way for democracy.”

“The prize goes to eastern Europe, which is unusual, incredible,” Tokarczuk told a press conference in the German town of Bielefeld prior to giving a lecture.

“It shows that despite all those problems with democracy in my country we still have something to say to the world.”

Crossing boundaries

Tokarczuk trained as a psychologist before publishing her first novel in 1993. Since then, she has produced a steady and varied stream of works and her novel, “Flights,” won her the high-profile Man Booker International Prize last year. She was the first Polish author to win that award.

Responding to her latest award, Tokarczuk wrote on Facebook, “Nobel Prize for Literature! Joy and emotion took my speech away. Thank you very much for all your congratulations!”

Related: Should nonfiction be considered literature? The Nobel Committee thinks so

She later told Polish broadcaster TVN she was proud that her books covering small towns in Poland can be read universally and be important for people elsewhere in the world.

“I believe in the novel. I think the novel is something incredible. This is a deep way of communication, above the borders, above languages, cultures. It refers to the in-depth similarity between people, teaches us empathy,” she said.

Tokarczuk’s English-language translator, Jennifer Croft, whose debut novel, “Homesick,” was published on Sept. 9, said in an interview with The World that Tokarczuk’s nomination didn’t surprise her. “She’s always been really committed to celebrating women’s voices and she has always loved nature,” she said. 

“[She’s] been an environmentalist and lately she’s also been really interested in things like borders — what it means to have a particular nationality and how fluid those kinds of identities might really be,” she added. 

Croft spoke with The World’s host, Marco Werman, on translating Tokarczuk, finding an American publisher, and how speaking multiple languages — not only English — empowers polyglots to subvert the dominant cultural paradigm. Croft also emailed us some of her favorite passages to translate:

Marco Werman: What was your reaction this morning, Jennifer, when you heard that Olga Tokarczuk had won the Nobel Prize for Literature?

Jennifer Croft: You know, I have been absolutely certain that it was going to happen. I’ve been saying it to editors who didn’t believe me for years. But when it actually did happen at 4 a.m. in the morning my time, because I am in Los Angeles, I squealed, I cried. I did a lot of extremely unprofessional things in my pajamas — romping around my living room, waking up my cats, who are now terrified of me. I am ecstatic, although not surprised.

Related: What author would you pick for a Nobel Prize in literature? 

Why were you so sure that Tokarczuk would win?

I think it’s a variety of things. I think a lot of her thematic concerns are really in line with the values of the Nobel Committee. She’s always been really committed to celebrating women’s voices and she has always loved nature. [She’s] been an environmentalist and lately she’s also been really interested in things like borders — what it means to have a particular nationality and how fluid those kinds of identities might really be. And then, stylistically, she’s so appealing. She just has such a beautiful lyrical prose style.

How did you come across her work in the first place?

I did an MFA at the University of Iowa in literary translation starting in 2001, and I had started with Russian language, but moved into Polish. And I was looking to translate some contemporary writers and she had just published a short story collection in 2001 called “Playing on Many Drums,” which I stumbled upon at the university library and I just thought it was like falling head over heels in love at first sight.

You talked about her lyricism in her writing. How hard is that to capture in English?

Since I’ve been working on her for such a long time, I think that it’s kind of an instant click sort of situation, for the most part. But, in general, I would say her prose is so beautiful, but also so clear, there’s never any question as to what the tone is or what the author’s intentions are. It’s a real gift to be able to translate a writer like her right.

So for “Flights,” which you translated, as you said, I know, it took you a while to find a publisher. Why was that? And how long did it take to find one?

It took me a decade to find a publisher and that was with me publishing excerpts in really good literary magazines and I got a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. I went to New York and pitched it to all the different houses and people were just kind of scared because it had this unusual format. Olga calls it a constellation novel which means that, in this case, it’s a lot of different fragments of stories about things and characters and places that seem to be not that related to one another. But it’s actually so fun to read, but it just doesn’t look like a traditional novel. So editors just weren’t sure about publishing it.

I see that the number of translated books published in the US keeps going down. Why is that do you think?

I didn’t know that it was going down. My impression has been that people are actually more and more interested in international literature and in the act of translation itself.

It went down 3% in 2018.

That is a big surprise. Maybe with literary fiction that hasn’t been the trend. Olga is one of many authors who are doing much better in the US and in the UK than had been expected.

Have you spoken with Olga today?

I haven’t gotten to talk to her yet. I’ve been trying, but her line is always busy. I know she and her husband were travelling in Germany when they got the news and they have now checked into a hotel in Düsseldorf and are awaiting interviews. So we’ll see!

The line will be busy for a while no doubt.

I think so.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Reuters contributed to this report.

Will you support The World with a monthly donation?

We rely on support from listeners and readers like you to keep our stories free and accessible to all. Monthly gifts are especially meaningful as they help us plan ahead and concentrate on the stories that matter. Will you consider donating $10/month, to help sustain The World? Thanks for your support!