Congratulations, Olga Tokarczuk (and Translators Too)!
It always makes me happy to see good things happen to good people. Conversely, something that really bothers me is awful people reaping major rewards, no matter how much talent they have or how hard they’ve worked. This week’s Nobel Prizes for Literature — two given in 2019 because issues with last year’s committee led to no prize awarded at all — had both.
Let’s get the bad news out of the way first: Austrian writer Peter Handke, a far-right nationalist who eulogized 1990s Serbian leader Slobodan Milosević after his death in 2006 while awaiting trial in the Hague for genocide and other war crimes. Many argue that writers’ personal lives should not undercut their significant literary accomplishments. But a Nobel Prize committee that has talked about diversifying the laureates’ list beyond European and American men could have chosen a number of other distinguished writers for the 2019 award who weren’t European men and who haven’t praised a European male head of state responsible for ethnic cleansing.
I supposed without the evil, it’s harder to recognize the goodness of the good, so maybe it is appropriate that the 2018 prize, awarded in 2019, has gone to Polish novelist and essayist Olga Tokarczuk. Tokarczuk, who I first learned about when she attended the U.S. premiere of Spoor (Pokot in Polish), a film based on her feminist thriller Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. The novel’s English translation, by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, only appeared in the U.S. this summer, so I read it in Spanish (as Sobre los huesos de los muertos) last fall. I also read one of her older novels, House of Day, House of Night, translated by Lloyd-Jones, a year ago. House of Day, House of Night is a meditation on home and place set in a rural village in the Kłodzko Valley of Poland, near the border of Germany and the Czech Republic, centered on an old woman who has never left the valley but regales the visitor from the city with stories that weave history, legend, and nature into a stunningly beautiful and revealing whole. Her Man Booker Prize-winning Flights, published in the U.S. in 2018 and translated by Jennifer Croft, is in many ways a complement to House of Day, House of Night, with its vignettes of and the stories of migrants making their way to and throughout Europe in the past and present.
In Flights, Tokarczuk writes of the advantages of people who do not grow up speaking English, who do not speak English only, because they can have private conversations while on their journeys. In the face of a narrow, strident nationalism that has swept her country as well as ours, she affirms the importance of connecting across lands and cultures, of finding our common humanity. Her characters may come from a small, isolated village, but their lives and struggles resonate across time and place. Translator Croft reported Tokarczuk’s statement after learning that she’d won the Nobel Prize:
I believe in a literature that unites people and shows us how very similar we are, that makes us aware of the fact that we’re all joined together by invisible threads, that tells the story of the world as if were a living and unified whole, constantly developing before our eyes, in which we are just a small but at the same time powerful part.
Tokarczuk’s victory is also a victory for her translators, because no writer can win the Nobel Prize unless the committee can read their work. In past years, writers in Scandinavian languages, German, French, and English — or who had been translated into those languages — dominated for that reason. It placed writers from less-spoken languages at a major disadvantage, one exacerbated by the fact that in the U.S. and the U.K., only three percent of books published are translations. It took five years for House of Day, House of Night to appear in English, ten years for Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, and eleven years for Flights. (Another novel, Primeval and Other Times, was published in the U.K. but not yet in the U.S., thirteen years after it first appeared in Poland.) As male authors have been disproportionately translated, they’ve had a leg up when it comes to the major prizes — yet another argument for supporting Women in Translation Month and women in translation every other month of the year.
A big Gratulacje! to Olga Tokarczuk and to her intrepid and gifted translators Antonia Lloyd-Jones and Jennifer Croft, who’ve brought her work to the attention of English-speaking audiences, as well as her translators to so many other languages. At a time of endless bad news, when the forces of cruelty seem to have risen to the top, it’s gratifying to see goodness, courage, and beauty rise to challenge it.