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Flights interview

Flights interview

Olga Tokarczuk talks about the congratulations she has received from so many different countries on making the longlist, and translator Jennifer Croft takes us through Tokarczuk’s ‘constellation’ strategy which brings together lots of different voices into relationships with one another via the lines the reader draws between them.

This is part of our series of Man Booker International Prize 2018 longlist interviews.


Olga Tokarczuk, author of Flights

What has it been like to be longlisted?  

It’s been incredible. Just the worldwide reach and power of the Man Booker International Prize has astounded me. I’ve received congratulations from so many different countries, and I get the impression that readers treat the longlist as a kind of recommended reading list, too, and that is really an invaluable service to any writer.

Flights is a novel I wrote over ten years ago, so I do have some distance from it (I’ve written three other books since then), and I sometimes have to go over it again now to refresh my memory, but in fact—to my great astonishment—I find this process to be a pleasant one, and I even find I wouldn’t change much about the novel if I had it to do over.

Can you give us a taste of your longlisted novel Flights?

Gladly! Here’s a sample from about halfway through the book:

The Tongue is the Strongest Muscle

There are countries out there where people speak English. But not like us—we have our own languages hidden in our carry-on luggage, in our cosmetics bags, only ever using English when we travel, and then only in foreign countries, to foreign people. It’s hard to imagine, but English is their real language! Oftentimes their only language. They don’t have anything to fall back on or to turn to in moments of doubt.

How lost they must feel in the world, where all instructions, all the lyrics of all the stupidest possible songs, all the menus, all the excruciating pamphlets and brochures—even the elevator buttons!—are in their private language. They may be understood by anyone at any moment, whenever they open their mouths. They must have to write things down in special codes. Wherever they are, people have unlimited access to them—they are accessible to everyone and everything! I heard there are plans in the works to get them some little language of their own, one of those dead ones no one else is using anyway, just so that for once they can have something just for themselves.

The science of preserving bodies is a theme in your novel. How did your preoccupation with this start?

It is one important theme, yes. It’s always amazed me how little we know about our bodies. How we could travel to distant lands or even go to the moon and yet have no idea what our own livers look like. Our bodies are still mysteries. Yet these are the fragile vehicles in which we make the journeys of our lives.

I’ve also long been fascinated by how people ever came to learn about the body to begin with, and by the development of the study of anatomy. That field really sort of exploded in Holland in the seventeenth century. As I was writing Flights, I happened to be spending some time there, and I took full advantage of the local museums and libraries. Back then I was most affected by the art of preserving human tissues, which I saw as a metaphor for humanity’s eternal yearning for immortality.


Jennifer Croft, translator of Flights    

What has it been like to be longlisted?

It has been unbelievably gratifying to see Olga’s work begin to reach the worldwide readership it so richly deserves. I fell in love with Olga’s writing around fifteen years ago and have been working ever since to get her books published in English, with a lot of help from Olga’s other translator into English and even longer-standing advocate, Antonia Lloyd-Jones. Flights is an ambitious novel with a quirky (and if you ask me, thrilling) form. And even though many readers find this form appealing, publishers in the U.S. and the U.K. were extremely reluctant to take a chance on Flights. It took ten years from the Polish date of publication for it to come out in English. We’re so thankful to Jacques Testard at Fitzcarraldo Editions for having the courage and the vision to make this happen at last, and we are so thankful to the judges of this year’s Man Booker International Prize for reading and considering Flights, because just being on the longlist has enabled Olga to reach so many new readers all over the world.

What did you most like about translating Flights?

For this novel, Olga uses a strategy she calls ‘constellation,’ which partly means bringing lots of different ideas and stories and voices into relationships with one another via the lines the reader draws between them. I love translating all of Olga’s writing because of her surgical precision in dealing with the psychologies of her characters and her nuanced and lyrical prose, and the fact that without ever being heavy-handed, she always manages to be crystal clear and profoundly effective. Flights was also delightful because I was able to tap into a fresh subject every time I sat down at my computer. One minute I was worrying about the woman who flies back to Poland from New Zealand to kill a dying childhood friend; the next I was amused by foibles of the internet; the next I was rethinking my own approach to travel, or to my body. I could go on and on. I love translating Olga.

You translate from Polish, Spanish and Ukrainian. What are the main differences between these three as source languages?

My main languages are Polish and Spanish, though I have translated a Ukrainian writer friend named Natalka Sniadanko. There are many differences between Polish, which is a Slavic language, and Spanish, which is a Romance language. When you translate from a Slavic language into English, the translation is almost always longer than the original was. This is because languages like Polish have grammatical cases and lots of nice, concise prepositions to convey meanings that require whole phrases in English. Slavic languages are poorer, meanwhile, in verb tenses and moods. The translator has to just decide whether something ‘was’ or ‘had been’ based on context or intuition. All of this is the opposite with Spanish: translations are often shorter than originals, and moods like the subjunctive can lend rich textures to even the plainest statements.

The other thing is that the literary cultures are very different. I actually came to Spanish via Witold Gombrowicz, a Polish writer who lived in Buenos Aires for twenty-three years. I wound up living there for seven years when a short stint as a researcher blossomed into complete and utter fascination and love. Gombrowicz often noted how free Argentine writers were, whereas Polish writers were bound—or even enslaved—by many centuries of tradition. And the significance of that Polish literary tradition to the Poles would also be impossible to overstate. When Poland was first partitioned in 1772, Polish nationhood was in effect resettled from the geopolitical to the linguistic and the literary. This situation continued for nearly a hundred and fifty years, but at the end of World War I, Polish literature remained essential to the project of national rebuilding. Nor did literature’s vitality, or urgency, diminish under Soviet rule, when, as under partitions, many of Poland’s best writers were forced to live and work in exile.

Argentina has none of this at all. I’m drawn to both, and I’m as likely to feel an affinity with a Polish author as I am with an Argentine, but for two Catholic countries where people speak European languages, the literatures really are extremely different.