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Microsuspense

December 14, 2019

Last month Notes from Poland started a new podcast with an interview with Jennifer Croft, who translated Olga Tokarczuk’s Bieguni (2007) into English as Flights (2017). The discussion of why Croft chose Flights instead of Runners is interesting (19:32–23:33), and while I was initially worried the treatment of translation in general was going to be frustratingly vague for my tastes, there were nice and specific points about language too:

Stanley Bill: You are a writer and a translator. So, you’ve just published your first book, the memoir Homesick. Perhaps you can tell us a little bit about it, but also I’m very interested in how you view the difference between writing and translating […] the prize you won together with Olga Tokarczuk, the [2018] Booker International Prize very much acknowledges the writer and the translator together on the same level […] How do you compare these two creative acts?

Jennifer Croft: I always thought of translation as a kind of apprenticeship in writing, and I always chose books to translate that really spoke to me on a kind of emotional level, but also on an intellectual level, and books that I thought would be able to teach me something about how I was eventually going to write. And it took me a long time and a lot of experiments to come to a style that I felt really worked for me. But translating along the way was essential, I would say. And I was very mindful of what elements I was taking from each writer I was working with, and also the elements that I was taking from the particular languages. Like I am fascinated by the Slavic grammars. I have always been a real grammar nerd when it comes to my studies of the Slavic languages, so I love the fact that…

SB: You taught Polish, by the way, at Northwestern University in Chicago, did you not?

JC: I did, yes, I…

SB: So your knowledge of Polish grammar is serious.

JC: Yeah, I mean, I, well, I started… part of what Homesick is about is how I started studying languages, and I really started by learning Russian grammar, and I was really fascinated from the beginning by the fact that Slavic languages have grammatical case, which English of course used to have, and other languages have as well, but what that means is that you can… you have to change the ending of a noun in the same way that we might change the end of a verb to show who’s doing what or how many people are doing it. So, because the form of the noun changes in the sentence to indicate its function, it frees up word order in a way that…

SB: Yes.

JC: …we don’t have in English, so I have always really loved that idea, that in order to emphasize something, or even to generate microsuspense in an individual sentence, you can play around with the order of the words and thereby change the order in which you convey the information you need to convey. So that was something that I also tried to introduce into my own writing in English. I tried to play around with the syntax…

SB: Very interesting.

JC: …as much as I could.

(episode 1, 24:33–27:47)

Croft, who has translated from Russian, Polish, Ukrainian, and Argentine Spanish, seems brilliant (which I wrote before reading she started college at 15), and I’m looking forward to more podcast episodes from Bill (who’s worth following on Twitter). I absolutely love “microsuspense” as a cover term that includes what Languagehat called Tolstoi’s “sucker punch.”

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