From Man Booker International winner Olga Tokarczuk to partners Ma Jian and Flora Drew leading authors and translators discuss the highs and lows of cross-cultural collaboration
On the night of last years Man Booker International prize ceremony, two winners swept up to the podium novelist Olga Tokarczuk and her translator Jennifer Croft but a third was back at their table cheering louder than anyone. I was thrilled to bits, I still am, says Antonia Lloyd-Jones. What makes this unusual is that Lloyd-Jones is the Polish authors other translator, who has been working with her far longer, but wasnt responsible for the winning novel, Flights. With a shared purse of 50,000 at stake, was there not even the tiniest bit of envy? Were a team of course its Olga and Jennifers win, not mine, but its great for all of us who have spent years trying to popularise her books outside Poland, and its great for Polish literature in translation, says Lloyd-Jones. This was a major breakthrough after almost 30 years of work. And it has done sales of my own translations a lot of good. Nifty scheduling by the indie publisher Fitzcarraldo has meant that these include Tokarczuks Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, a quirky eco-thriller very different from Flights, which has won Tokarczuk her second Man Booker International prize longlisting. This years shortlist will be announced on Tuesday.
Its not just Polish novels that are enjoying a boost. Sales of fiction in translation were up in the UK by 5.5% last year, with sales of translated literary fiction increasing by 20%. As the UK turns inwards, caught up in an increasingly bitter fight over leaving the EU, readers are looking outwards, with literature from mainland Europe accounting for a large part of the growth. Jacques Testard, who publishes Tokarczuk, is part of a new wave of independent publishers who hope for further integration of translated fiction into the mainstream, pointing out that it is only in the UK that foreign literature is corralled into a separate compartment from that originally written in English. In France, where a fifth of all books are published in translations, youll find Balzac and Bolzano, Calvino and Carrre on the same shelf in bookshops. Its only in the Anglosphere that it gets set apart.
That separation is in evidence in the awards world, as well as the bookshop, with the Man Booker International the biggest among a host of grants and prizes for fiction in translation. How did Croft and Lloyd-Jones decide who would take responsibility for the Tokarczuk novel that eventually went on to win? Its a matter of trust, says Tokarczuk. Im definitely not the right translator for Flights, says Lloyd-Jones, but when it came to Drive Your Plow, Olga said I should do it. She joked that, at 57, she and I are more like [the eccentric narrator] Duszejko, and, well, theres some truth in that.