[Musings] How Translators Are Saving the World

  • onJune 29, 2019
  • Vol.44 Summer 2019
  • byOlga Tokarczuk


Lately I have often stood alongside a translator as I have launched books published in other countries.

It’s hard for me to express the relief that comes with being able to share authorship with someone. I was delighted to relinquish at least a little bit of my responsibility for the text, for better or for worse. Thrilled to not have to face on my own a riled-up critic, an oversensitive reviewer, a journalist with no interest or taste in literature, an arrogant, overconfident moderator. I took genuine pleasure from knowing that not all questions would be directed to me, and that in that object made out of printed pages, not all of it belonged to me. I think that many writers would share this sense of relief. The most astonishing thing, however, was the fact that the presence of the translator opened up all sorts of bold new worlds for me, entering into debates and discussions completely independent, touching on issues I found not entirely comprehensible, unfamiliar, mysterious, even. Suddenly, the text was freed from me, or maybe it was me being released from it. My text acquired a kind of autonomy, like a rebellious adolescent deciding to run away from home to a music festival in Jarocin. The translator would take over calmly, showing the text to the world from a different perspective, becoming its support and vouching for it. What bliss. Translators free writers from the profound loneliness that is inherent to our work, when for hours or days or months or even years on end we wander alone in the cosmos of our thoughts, internal dialogues, and visions. Translators come to us from the outside and say: I have been there, too. I have walked in your footsteps—and now we will cross over this border together. And indeed, the translator literally becomes a guide, taking me by the hand and leading me across the borders of nation, language, and culture.

Literature begins when one signs a text one has written under one’s own name, when one stands behind the work as its author, expressing through words one’s deepest, most intense, and sometimes even painful unique experience, taking on the risk as well that it will not be understood, that it will be ignored, that it will make people angry or be dismissed. Literature is thus that particular moment when the most individual language meets the language of others. Literature is thus the space in which private goes public.

A fact commonly agreed upon is that the first human being to sign a literary text (and therefore the first writer) was Enheduanna, the Sumerian priestess of the goddess Inanna. In a dark time of social unrest and political battles over power, Enheduanna wrote “Hymn to Inanna” in a mood of doubt and disappointment. It is the extraordinarily moving lament of a person who feels she has been abandoned by God. Thanks to the translation, which naturally modernizes its language, this text is perfectly understandable and relatable to the contemporary reader, transmitting deep, intimate experiences that voyage through time; it is without any doubt universal. It is a very dramatic, crestfallen confession of despair, of a sense of abandonment and isolation, written around 5,000 years ago (!), that may be fully experienced by anyone living in our radically different world, despite the fact that all the official languages of that world have long since crumbled (literally) into dust.

A person’s private language gets shaped over the course of her whole life as a series of accidents from the language inherited from her parents to the language around her as she grows up, what she reads, what she’s taught, along with her own unique individual experience. This is the intimate language in which we speak to ourselves, and which only gets written down sometimes, since of course not everyone is in the habit of writing down her thoughts, of keeping a journal, or of creating any kind of text. An intimate language is therefore as unique as a fingerprint and can also be used to identify a person.

I think culture is the complex process of striking a balance between private and communal languages. Collective languages are trodden routes, while individual languages perform the functions of private paths. Collective languages are agreed upon forms of communication that have been adapted for society to be as understandable as possible to the widest range of that society’s members; above all, they are to convey content that enables the construction of a similar or identical picture of reality. In a reality held in common, words will refer to concrete phenomena and things, whether existing or ideal. Moving forward, the common language and picture of reality will reinforce each other. The paradox is that in this situation of codependency between the collective language and conception of reality, one gradually begins to feel trapped, since language fuels reality and reality, language. The best examples of this are closed totalitarian regimes in which the media, seized by the authorities, grinds out a well-known, predictable reality couched in only the most appropriate terms. In this scenario, collective language serves to maintain a given political vision and is consciously and cynically used in propaganda. Soon communication stalls; then it becomes impossible.

It becomes an act of courage to recall a word or an idea from outside that system, or to pronounce aloud a truth that is apparent though not accepted by the system. Amongst the system’s adherents, the collective language gradually becomes so obvious that it is increasingly used reflexively, words being emptied of their meaning, contexts growing too threadbare to be recalled. This sort of language turns into what is known in Polish as “speechgrass,” meaning language that’s simply there, that communicates nothing in particular, that can only be a ritual, a shouted slogan. Ideas without contours, suitable only for chants.

The worst is that in the process of creating such politically marked collective languages, words get stolen. Some neutral, mostly forgotten, highly archaic word suddenly retrieved from the discard pile makes its way onto banners and political platforms. One example from my own country today is “nation.” It turns out that, stripped of its historical context and dusted off a bit, it serves perfectly the construction of the new world order. It becomes so completely appropriated that even those who speak another collective language cannot use it now, since, weighed down by new connotations, it has become a danger.

Of course, some collective language has to exist in order for us to be able to communicate with one another in a reality we must constantly negotiate. There must be a dimension of general agreement and of commonality, and often the simplest phrases and idioms do give a sense of order and make the common world feel whole.

The battle over the imposition of a common language is currently being waged not only in parliaments and on television stations, but also at universities. There, intellectual trends come in waves that tend to bring with them their own shared languages. The implementation of a language like this can take a few years, but once it has been accepted, it serves not only to sketch out a picture of the world, but also to create new selective societies in which some will become members and from which others will be excluded. Every generation has such a language to describe the world, and these days, there may be a new one as often as every decade. At the same time, this kind of language may remain blithely unaware of its ephemerality and its limitations as it articulates only that which is located within its narrow borders.

There is no worse affliction than the loss of a person’s private language, its replacement with the communal one. Politicians, officials, academics, and priests may all suffer from this. And the only possible form of therapy for this affliction is literature: coming into contact with the private languages of artists permits the reader to strengthen her resistance to an instrumentalizing vision of the world. This is a powerful argument for reading literature (the classics, too), for literature demonstrates that collective languages once functioned differently, and in conjunction with this, other visions of the world arose. It is precisely because of this that it is worth reading—in order to behold those other visions and to be reassured that our world is only one of many possible worlds and that we are surely not confined to it forever.

The responsibility of the translator is equal to that of the writer. Both stand guard over one of the most important phenomena of human civilization—the possibility of transmitting the most intimate individual experience to others, and of making communal that experience in the astonishing act of cultural creation.

Copyright © 2019 by Olga Tokarczuk


by Olga Tokarczuk
Winner, Nobel Prize in Literature 2018
Winner, 2018 Man Booker International Prize
Author, Flights (2018),
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead (2019)
Translated by Jennifer Croft
Cowinner, 2018 Man Booker International Prize