Born in 1962, writes novels and essays and is the most widely admired Polish author of her generation. The winner of many prizes and honours, she has the rare distinction of being equally valued by the critics and the general reading public. Nobel Prize laureate.
As a teenager she tried her hand at poetry, but then remained silent for many years, until she wrote her first novel, The Journey of the People of the Book (1993), which was very well received by the critics. The book is a sort of modern parable. On the literal level it is about an unsuccessful expedition to find the mysterious Book; along the way the two main characters fall passionately in love. The story is set in seventeenth-century France and Spain; however, it is not the local colour that predominates, but the fascinating enigma of the mysterious Book. In her second novel, E.E. (1995), Tokarczuk turns back to a past era that is much closer to our own. This time the action is set in Wrocław in the early twentieth century. The main character is Erna Eltzner (the E.E. of the title), an adolescent girl from a bourgeois Polish-German family, who is found to have the powers of a medium. Here too we find a fascination with mysterious phenomena that defy human understanding.
Without doubt Tokarczuk’s greatest and most acclaimed success to date is her third novel, Prawiek and Other Times (1996). The Prawiek of the title (the word prawiek means “time immemorial”), a mythical village supposedly lying at the very centre of Poland, is an archetypal universe in miniature where all the joys and sorrows known to man are concentrated. As Jerzy Sosnowski wrote about this novel, “From odds and ends of real history Tokarczuk builds a myth, i.e. a history with a rigid order, where all the events, including the bad and tragic ones, have their reasons for happening. She organises space according to the model of the mandala – a circle drawn inside a square, which is the geometrical image of perfection and completion.” Prawiek and Other Times is the high point in modern Polish mythical fiction. Her next novel, House of Day, House of Night (1998), is very different in tone and genre. The word “novel” is quite misleading here, because the book is a hybrid of different pieces, including lots of sketches and more coherent stories, notes of an almost essay-like nature, private diary entries, etc. Indeed, House of Day, House of Night is the author’s most personal book and also her most “local”; in it she takes a close look at the area where she lives (in and around a village in the Sudety Mountains on the Polish-Czech border). Among the stories inspired by the place is the captivating tale of the mediaeval Saint Kummernis, a woman whom God saved from an unwanted marriage by giving her a man’s face.
In 1997 she published a small collection of three short stories, entitled The Wardrobe, but until Playing Many Drums (2001) came out there had been few opportunities to admire her talent as a short story writer. This book includes 19 stories arranged in three groups. The first group of stories could be described as self-referring, because they are about the nature of creativity (not just literary). The second group are apocryphal; just like the tale of Kummernis which was based on an authentic story Tokarczuk found in the Lower Silesian provinces, four of the stories included in Drums are also based on local legends, which she develops and continues in her own way, adding colour and enlivening the bare historical facts. Finally, the third group includes a number of stories with realistic main themes of a moral/psychological kind. Olga Tokarczuk has also published an essay as a separate book (The Doll and the Pearl, 2000), in which she offers a new interpretation of Bolesław Prus’s late nineteenth-century novel The Doll, which is considered a masterpiece of Polish novel writing.
Olga Tokarczuk was born 29 January 1962 in Sulechów and studied psychology at the University of Warsaw. After graduation, she worked as a maid in a London hotel and as a psychotherapist in Wrocław and Wałbrzych. Years after, when she received the Booker Prize in London, she said that the earrings she was wearing were from the time when she was working as a maid.
Although she debuted in 1979 with short stories in “Na Przełaj” magazine, it was in 1996 that her third novel, Prawiek i inne czasy (Primeval and Other Times), revealed itself as a great success. The novel was appreciated by the readership and was awarded with the Nike Readers’ Award (the novel was also awarded the “Polityka” Passport).
Tokarczuk is a rare case of a writer appreciated by both critics and the audience. Her novels enjoy great popularity and are sold in huge numbers (Księgi Jakubowe, or The Books of Jacob, the last novel of the Nobel Prize winner particularly appreciated by the Swedish Academy, has sold 100,000 copies within a year of its publication), and, at the same time, she is one of the most frequently awarded contemporary Polish writers: she has received, inter alia, the Kościelski Foundation Award, twice – in 2007 and 2015 – the Nike Literary Award, and in 2018, she was honoured with the International Booker Award.
The Swedish Academy, in its announcement of the verdict awarding the Nobel Prize to the writer, emphasised her “narrative imagination.” Tokarczuk’s novels impress with their epic breadth, although at the same time, she “never views reality as something stable or everlasting. She constructs her novels in a tension between cultural opposites; nature versus culture, reason versus madness, male versus female, home versus alienation.”
The Book Institute has been supporting the work of the Nobel Prize winner for many years. Until now, 91 translations of Olga Tokarczuk’s books into 28 foreign languages, including five into English and seven into Swedish, have been published as part of the ©Poland Translation Programme.
Translators on the work of Olga Tokarczuk
The role played by translators in the international successes of the Nobel Prize winner cannot be underestimated. Therefore, let us read what Jan Henrik Swahn, Yi Lijun, Jennifer Croft, Ostap Sływynski, and Petr Vidlak are saying. Within the framework of the ©Poland Translation Programme, conducted since 2004 by the Book Institute, 91 translations of the Polish Nobel Prize winner into 28 foreign languages have been supported over the last two decades, including 25 translations into 19 languages in the last three years.
Jan Henrik Swahn: There is a unique literary friendship between us
– There is a unique literary friendship between us, which has become more personal over the years – this is how Jan Henrik Swahn, who translated the writer’s novels into Swedish, described his relationship with Olga Tokarczuk.
Jan Henrik Swahn first came across Tokarczuk’s work almost 20 years ago, when her publisher proposed that Swahn translates into Swedish “something Polish”. “I hadn’t read her books before, and I didn’t know anything about her. But I started to read and thought, ‘God, she’s my writer!’, ” said the translator.
He added that when translating Tokarczuk’s work “it is very easy to fall into a trap and make her language too flat and neat”. “I tried to be close to her wording and, at the same time, to keep the order in long chains of sentences,” he emphasised.
When Swedish Academy Secretary Mats Malin announced the verdict on Thursday afternoon, Swahn was present among the people awaiting the decision in the Stockholm Stock Exchange Building hall. “So impressed was I that I couldn’t comprehend what happened. I started to lose my voice,” he said.
Born in 1959, Jan Henryk Swahn is a Swedish translator from Danish, French, Polish, and Greek, as well as a writer.
In 2016, Swahn together with Tokarczuk received the first international award from Stockholm’s Kulturhuset Stadsteatern for Księgi Jakubowe (“The Books of Jacob”).
Yi Lijun: Tokarczuk is the greatest contemporary writer
– “Olga Tokarczuk deserved the Nobel Prize; she is the most important contemporary writer who communicates deep philosophical thoughts in a simple language,” said Yi Lijun, Polish philologist and translator of the Polish author’s novel into Chinese, on Thursday.
“She is not a realistic writer, nor is she a surrealist one. She’s somewhere between the two. It’s hard to classify her into a particular genre. Tokarczuk is simply Tokarczuk, she is very specific,” said Yi in an interview with the Beijing daily ‘Xin Jing Bao’.
According to the Chinese Polish scholar, Tokarczuk carefully selects words and communicates deep philosophical thoughts in a simple language. “This is easy to overlook. Her works need to be read with attention, then you can discover their taste,” assessed Yi, who, together with her husband Yuan Hanrong, translated into Chinese the Polish writer’s novels published in China: Dom dzienny, dom nocny ((“House of Day, House of Night”) and Prawiek i inne czasy (“Primeval and Other Times”).
When asked about possible problems with translating the works of the Polish author, Yi replied that there are no difficulties at the linguistic level. “But when translating the thoughts conveyed in her novels, one must be very careful, one mustn’t lose any detail. If you lose even one, you can lose one of her great thoughts,” she said.
In her opinion, Chinese writers and readers should pay attention to the depth of thoughts and the pure style of Tokarczuk. “Her works are deeply rooted in Polish literature as well as in the very complicated social environment of Poland, but she comes out of it in a very subtle way. Therefore, she had to be awarded the Nobel Prize,” said Yi.
Jennifer Croft: Tokarczuk is an amazing writer.
– Olga Tokarczuk is an amazing writer. She is loved by both readers and recognised by critics,“ Jennifer Croft, the American translator of the Nobel Prize winner’s Bieguni (“Flights”), told Polish Press Agency (PAP).
“Olga is unique because she is both loved by a wide range of readers and critically acclaimed. This is what I love about her work. She is experimental, yet also very accessible,” assessed the author of the translation.
She explained that she was intrigued by the translation of Tokarczuk’s prose since she first read her collection of short stories from 2001 (Gra na wielu bębenkach [“Playing on Many Drums”] – PAP’s note). She added that she was excited to read Flights when it first appeared. She liked everything about this book, she assured.
“The biggest challenge in translating Flights was to find a publisher. Ten years of hard work finally convinced the editor of the publishing house to take the risk,” indicated Croft.
The book, translated into English, was first published in the UK in 2017 by the independent Fitzcarraldo Editions publishing house. It received enthusiastic reviews in the New York Times and New Yorker.
Croft admitted that she is currently translating Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob, as well as her short stories – old and new.
According to the New York Times, Fitzcarraldo has been interested in other translations of Tokarczuk’s books, including The Books of Jacob, since Flights won the Man Booker International Prize.
“Olga is such a great writer that she should interest all readers around the world,” argued Croft.
Together with Tokarczuk, Croft won the Man Booker International Prize 2018 for her translation of Flights. She translates from Polish, Ukrainian, and Spanish. She is a Fulbright scholarship holder and has received grants from such institutions as Cullman, PEN, and MacDowell. She wrote the novel Homesick in Spanish, which was published in English by Unnamed Press publishing house.
Croft holds a PhD in comparative literary studies from Northwestern University.
Her works have been published, among others, by the New York Times, The New York Review Daily, Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and The New Republic.
Ostap Sływynski: Tokarczuk tells us very important stories about ourselves
– “The news about the Nobel Prize for Olga Tokarczuk is a great joy, especially since she tells the stories of our region, completely unknown to its contemporary inhabitants,” Ostap Sływynski, Ukrainian translator of the works of the Polish writer, told PAP
“Olga can show us the pages of our local history that are completely unknown to us. I am thinking essentially of The Books of Jacob, which I am just about to finish translating. This is part of the past of the lands we live in today and about which most of the people living here have no idea. Olga tells us very important stories about ourselves,” he said on the phone.
“She has a unique talent for speaking to a wide audience without compromising her high aesthetic taste. I don’t know how she does it,” he emphasised.
According to Sływynski, Tokarczuk is one of the most famous Polish writers in his country. “Certainly, not many Polish contemporary writers can pride themselves on six translations of prose in such a short period of time,” he said.
Two more translations of Tokarczuk’s books, the novels The Books of Jacob and Opowiadania bizarne (“Bizarre Stories”) will be published in Ukraine in the near future – he informed.
“This means that there is interest from both readers and publishers – I don’t think it is accidental, Olga speaks in a simple way, with a stylistic taste and emotional warmth, which is free from exaggeration; she talks about very important issues, about issues important for our region,” Sływynski said in a conversation with PAP.
Petr Vidlak: her texts arouse emotions
– All of Olga Tokarczuk’s books, with the exception of Playing on Many Drums have been published in Czech,” said Petr Vidlak, the author of the translations of the Nobel Prize winner, to the Polish Press Agency on Thursday. He emphasised that Primeval and Other Times and Flights had two editions.
The author of all translations of Tokarczuk into Czech told PAP that Tokarczuk’s next book Bizarre Stories would be published in Czech before the end of the year. Tokarczuk’s books were published in moderate numbers for the Czech Republic – about 2,000 – 3,000. Flights and Primeval had second editions of 3,000 and 5,000 copies each.
“This is literature for the advanced, interested in Polish works,” said the translator. Her books are not bestsellers in the Czech Republic, but she is better known here than other Polish authors. “It is also a result of cooperation with HOST publishing house, which released all the translations of Tokarczuk, and they do it very well, professionally,” said Vidlak.
According to the translator, readers in the Czech Republic are attracted to Tokarczuk’s books by the subject matter and the way it is narrated, which encourages them to continue reading. The advantage of her prose is that it evokes emotions – he added. Prowadź pług („Drive Your Plow”) is, after all, a radical statement in defence of animal rights and on the emancipation of women. Her radicalism simply suits some readers in a divided Polish or Czech society,” Vidlak said and added that Tokarczuk’s attractiveness is due in particular to her writing skills and literary language. “This is what I try to show in each of my translations, “ he added.
In an interview with PAP, the interpreter admitted that the cooperation with the Polish author, which had lasted since the end of the 1990s, started by accident. “The publisher was looking for a translator because someone couldn’t, I sent my sample of the text, and so it began. Primeval is the best book that has gained fame. I tried to translate it in a way that was close to life,” he said.
From other translations, Vidlak drew attention to The Books of Jacob, whose translation in Czech was the first published in the world. In his opinion, this is due to the linguistic closeness of Polish and Czech. “Translators into other languages were in a lot of trouble. They simply couldn’t handle it. The English or German language barrier turned out to be critical,” he said. He himself translated The Books of Jacob for two years.