Interview with Bill Johnson
Following up on the Read This Next feature of Magdalena Tulli’s In Red, we now have now posted an interview with Polish translator Bill Johnston about this novel.
Bill is an amazing translator and reader, and this interview is filthy with interesting insights into both the translation process and Tulli’s work as a whole. HIGHLY RECOMMEND. Here’s an excerpt:
LY: So do you think in her progression towards a more traditional narrative style, she’s losing something, or do you think that this is actually highlighting the unusualness of her writing?
BJ: Well, to me Flaw is the first overtly personal book that she’s written. It’s about a square in a bourgeois area of an unnamed city where a streetcar runs around the square in a circle. Over the course of the single day, refugees start to emerge from the streetcar and gather in the square. The people living around the square don’t know what to do with them and end up herding the refugees onto the little lawn at the center of the square and telling them they have to stay there. And at one point, one pregnant woman gives birth on the square. The baby’s delivered, but in the confusion the baby goes missing. It just disappears. One of the recurring devices in the book is that Tulli says of a particular character, “it could be you, it could be me,” and basically says about this baby: “it could be me.” It was at that point that I realized how personal the book is for Tulli. Her mother was a Holocaust survivor, and I think there’s a degree of trauma that can be read into all of her writings, but especially Flaw. This is a book about how one deals with “the unwanted,” what Mike Davis calls “surplus humanity,” but it’s also a book about Tulli herself. This was the first time I had seen her overtly present in one of her own books, not hiding behind the mask of a rather sort of pedantic narrator, which she often draws on. I see that very much as a progression.
And has she lost anything? I think Dreams and Stones is a really beautiful book. It’s very much a book of ideas, but it’s also a book of poetry for me, a book of images of extraordinary vividness. But I don’t think she loses that. Her style is always incredibly precise. When you sit down and start to translate something, you really quickly start to see whether the prose has been put together carefully, and in Tulli’s case there’s an extraordinary precision in her choice of words, in the choice of sentence structure, in the exact positioning of perspective mediating between the writer and the narrator, in the characters and so on. And I think that follows through all of the books. When I’ve shown Tulli drafts of the translations, we’ve had very long discussions about very precise phrasing. In fact, she’s even changed some of the original phrases for the English translation. I’m always a little worried that somebody’s going to sit down and compare the two versions and say this is a bad translation. There are some differences between the Polish and the English, but that’s because Tulli decided she should have written it differently. She’s known for revising her own work a great deal, so with each of her books I’ve had to make sure that the version that I’m working with is in fact the most recent version. It’s a little scary when you’re getting into a translation and somebody says, “Oh by the way, this new revised version just came out . . .”
So she’s very much a stylist in the mode of Flaubert, very concerned about word choice, and punctuation and sentence structure and so on, and I think that’s something that remains throughout all four books.
LY: Do you think this makes the process of translating her more difficult, or more enjoyable?
BJ: Both, definitely. For me, as a translator, difficult is enjoyable. Usually. When it’s a good challenge. As a translator I love writers who are very precise and creative with language. Who are not just telling a story in a kind of workmanlike fashion, but really revel in the material with which they’re making their stories. Tulli is very much in that mode. She’s extremely difficult, so it’s a slow process, but a very rewarding one when it finally comes out. It helps to have translated her other three books, because even though each book has a particular narrative voice, there’s still kind of an authorial—I hesitate to use the word “spirit” because of Douglas Robinson—there’s an authorial kind of underlying voice or discourse that can be traced from one book to another. Not that it goes any faster, but maybe I feel a little more confidence. Also, having corresponded so much with Tulli, as I’m working I can hear her comments, saying It’s not that word it’s this word and Could we not do it this way? or Do we have to have to have this syntax? and I think that helps.
Read the whole thing here.