As part of our celebration of international crime fiction during the month of June, we bring you the following interview with Polish-English translator Danusia Stok, who has translated Marek Krajewski’s Inspector Eberhard Mock novels, among other works. Melville House Books, with Danusia as translator, has brought many of Krajewski’s novels to English audiences over the past few years, including Death in Breslau and, most recently, The Minotaur’s Head. Below, you can read Molly’s interview with Danusia about the experience of translating crime fiction. Molly is MysteryPeople’s resident international crime fiction expert/fangirl.
– Interview by Molly
Molly Odintz: I’ve been reading primarily fiction in translation for many years; partly, because it seems to me like a shortcut to finding excellence. What qualities spur the translation of a novel?
Danusia Stok: Firstly, of course, the book needs to grip my interest and this applies both to content and style. I guess content is the first attraction since I like to be engrossed in what I’m reading. But then the importance of style quickly slips in. If, as is the case with a crime novel I am reading now, the action is good but the language and style is poor, there is, I feel, no point in translating the work – just as I find reading poorly written English novels a waste of time and patience. Another aspect which I believe is important is characterisation. Novels where the characters are little more than caricatures or clichés fall in my estimation. Whereas novels where the characters reflect the culture of a given country and a psychology which is both universal yet, in certain aspects, specific to a particular culture may well be worth considering for translation. And then there is the geographical element – as in Krajewski – as well as the particular historical and sociological context.
MO: Tell me a bit about the experience of translating Marek Krajewski’s crime novels. How did your appreciation and understanding of Krajewski’s work evolve as you translated multiple novels by him?
DS: I’m not sure that my understanding of Krajewski’s work evolved as I translated the various novels. I sensed an affinity from the very beginning. Certainly, I became increasingly engrossed in the city and historical set-up. But as for my appreciation, I liked Krajewski’s work right from the start. However, as I continued translating his novels, I grew to feel that Mock and Popielski were long-standing friends of mine. I may not have liked every aspect of their characters (especially Mock’s) but I felt very close to them.
MO: Marek Krajewski immerses his readers in a pre-war Poland and Germany that look very different today than the period in which his novels are set. Did translating his lush descriptions of interwar Central Europe change your understanding of the world he describes?
DS: Certainly. Although I, myself, am Polish, I was born in England and history was always the weakest of my subjects working on Krajewski’s novels kindled my interest in both the topography, geography and history of 20th century Poland. In fact, it has heightened my interest and desire to visit other Central European countries. (To such an extent that I have just been on a short break to Budapest). There is something about the era about which Krajewski writes that I find both fascinating and disquieting, disturbing. I now plan to visit Wroclaw/Breslau.
MO: How do translators keep up with their craft? Does one need to read widely and constantly in the languages you translate in order to keep up with evolving phrases and linguistic usage?
DS: And this is a bit of a problem, finding the time – because yes, a translator needs to read continuously – both in the original language and the target language, since both languages are living (and literary trends changing). Then there are various workshops and conferences we attend. Interaction with other translators – and publishers of course – is also very beneficial and energising.
MO: Can you give me a couple examples of some of the harder to translate phrases used in Polish crime fiction?
DS: I’m afraid no particular examples as to difficult phrases to translate in crime fiction come to mind. However, what is extremely difficult to translate is jargon, slang, dialect, street language etc. The criminal underworld is full of specific terms and to find the equivalent can prove very, very hard, to say the least.
MO: When a book has appeal across many different languages and cultures, what, do you think, accounts for this appeal? What themes and genres translate most widely?
DS: Do you know, I think this changes. Trends come and go. At present I believe that crime novels in translation which delve deeper into the psychology of the characters are proving increasingly popular. They offer the reader something they can identify with – basic aspects of human psychology are much the same across countries – while providing a certain objectivity; the familiar i.e. the emotions and reactions, is brought up against the unfamiliar, i.e. the foreign setting. Crime novels which immerse the reader into the culture, traditions and atmosphere of another country, too, are of interest. People are – hopefully – becoming more open to other cultures, other ways of thinking and behaving, and a gripping novel which offers a reflection of these “other worlds” is an attractive way of learning and experiencing this “otherness”. I, for one, find I can retain and learn more from a historical, let us say, crime novel in translation, than from a text book.
MO: This one is kind of a broader question – what can we gain from reading literature in translation?
DS: Much of what I’ve written above pertains to this question, too. Literature in translation opens out the world – and I know this sounds very clichéd. But it is true. It immerses us into other cultures, histories, beliefs. It presents us with other angles on life. In so doing it could well – and let’s hope it does and will – teach us tolerance towards what may initially appear unfamiliar or even alien to us.
You can find copies of Marek Krajewski’s books as translated by Danusia Stok on our shelves and via bookpeople.com.