Translators from across the globe discuss works of Nobel Prize winner Olga Tokarczuk

Translators met online to discuss Olga Tokarczuk’s use of language at this year’s PEN America conference. HowlRound Theatre Commons

The challenge of translating the Nobel prize winner Olga Tokarczuk’s works into nine different languages was the topic of PEN America’s virtual conference.

It is estimated, that there are 193 translations by 90 translators of Tokarczuk’s works into 37 languages.

Poland’s leading literary export, Ola Tokarczuk sprang to international prominence after winning the 2018 Man Booker International Prize.Andrzej Lange/PAP

Tokarczuk’s 2018 Literary Nobel Prize in 2019 “for a narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life” was all the better received around the world, as many readers were already familiar with her works thanks to a group of extraordinary translators. 

Their task was far from simple – the Polish writer’s stories are steeped deep into historical moments and cultures she describes, which is reflected in the language she uses.

In 2019, the author won the Nobel Prize for Literature for her book Flights. Press materials

In an essay “How Translator’s Are Saving the World”, translated by one of the event's participants, Jennifer Croft, Tokarczuk spoke about the significance of the translators’ task: “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. (…)

“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.”

The PEN America conference brought together a talented group of translators into English, Japanese, Hindi, Ukrainian, German, Czech, Norwegian, Italian, Brazilian Portuguese, and Romanian to compare their experiences.HowlRound Theatre Commons

Concluding the essay, the Nobel prize winner said: “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.”


The PEN America conference brought together a talented group of translators into English, Japanese, Hindi, Ukrainian, German, Czech, Norwegian, Italian, Brazilian Portuguese, and Romanian to compare their experiences working with this challenging and dynamic author, as the final event of the “Translating the Future” conference.

The translators agreed, that to work with Tokarczuk’s prose, one has to go much further than just knowing the language. 

Speaking about “The Books of Jacob”, which is set in the 17th-century historic region of Podolia (now part of Ukraine and Moldova), Italian Barbara Delfino remarked, that it required thorough research into the different cultures, areas, and epochs mentioned in the book. 

Speaking about Tokarczuk’s “The Books of Jacob”, Italian Barbara Delfino remarked, that it required thorough research into the different cultures, areas, and epochs mentioned in the book. Barbara Delfino/Facebook

The specific challenge of an Italian translation was the comparatively short sentences. Polish is “too telegraphic for an Italian reader,” Delfino said. 

Speaking about the same novel, Lisa Palmes who specializes in both Polish and German studies, said that she had to adjust the German she used to the 17th century one, to fit the book setting. 

As noted by Lothar Quinkenstein, the co-author of the translation, the location of the action required, for example, that the translation be given a little bit of Austro-Hungarian character. 

The specific challenge of translating the books into Italian was the comparative shortness of Polish sentences. Press materials

Hikaru Ogura, an associate professor of comparative literature in the department of Japanese Literature and Culture at Tokyo University, said that the geographical and cultural differences between Europe and Japan were the main difficulty of bringing Toakrczuk’s work to the Land of Cherry Blossoms.  

She also had to deal with the fact that there are many more personal pronouns in her language, as well as the use of homiletics or sermons in other words. 

To read more about this subject, click HERE for TFN’s interview with Jennifer Croft who translated Flights into English.