Olga Tokarczuk

Brücke-Berlin Prize for Literature and Translation
The Polish author Olga Tokarczuk and her German translator Esther Kinsky are winners of the BHF foundation Brücke-Berlin prize for literature in translation. The prize is awarded to a significant work of literature from Central or Eastern Europe. 2002 is the award's first year, and the work chosen is Olga Tokarczuk's novel Dom dzienny, dom nocny.

This is the speech given by Esther Kinsky at the prize-giving ceremony in Berlin.

As a rule, the translator is seen primarily as a mediator. Mediation may indeed be an essential function of translation, and its significance may be rather underrated and insufficiently acknowledged, but I see it rather as the by-product of an activity which has much more to do with language itself as an adventure. This adventure has perhaps something to do with how and when one begins to experience foreignness in relation to language and when and in what context one realizes that there are countless names for every single thing. Each language constitutes a universe of its own which not only sounds different but in which the world looks different, in which the names of things evoke different images and the relation to space and time is experienced and described in a different way. Polish 'czerwony' is so different from German 'rot' ('red'), the compact Polish verbs with their suffixes allow for a flexibility and range of nuances which reflect a perception of action so different from the adverbial structures of the German language, and 'rzeka' flows in such a different way from a German 'Fluss' ('river'). Translating one language into another is always like walking a tightrope between these two universes, an experiment in the course of which it emerges how what is said in one universe can be transposed into the other with more gain than loss, how sound changes and what happens to the images in one's head when 'las' becomes 'Wald' ('wood', 'forest') and 'miasto' 'Stadt' ('town'). Every translated page of a book thus becomes a journey of discovery along the boundaries and possibilities of the language in question, an adventurous quest for the sound and the texture of the words that come closest to the original, because, for all the subjectivity of the process of translation, this faithfulness to the original text remains the translator's prime responsibility and commitment.

I would like to address another question I've been asked again and again: Why Polish? Somehow, Polish seems to be a less comprehensible choice of language than for instance English or Russian. I remember very well the occasion when I heard of Poland for the first time. One memorably rainy summer's evening when I was four or five years old my father told us about Poland, a country to which he was linked by a handful of memories from visits in his childhood and adolescence. These were no fond memories; when he talked about Poland there was something of rejection and bitterness in his voice, which we, as children, didn't understand. A lover of dramatic landscapes, my father described with a vague sense of horror a country so flat that allegedly one could for hours observe a train approaching across the plains. Somewhere in his stories there were also birches and fir trees, muddy or dusty village streets and most likely also mushrooms, borshtsh and poppyseed cake, because my father liked to talk about food. But, strangely, it was this very image of the vast flat landscape, probably chosen by him as the epitome of barrenness, which took root in my imagination and became the seed of a yearning. It was only much later that I realized how the image of the trains was connected with Poland and my father's bitterness and also that the yearning roused by it was not so far away from this bitterness.

My first literary encounter with Poland - in translation of course - was Bruno Schulz's Street of Crocodiles, a book very conducive to yearning, bitterness and melancholy. Years later, when I had been to Poland a number of times, and had established not only that the landscape was as I had imagined it, but also that everything was marvelously different from Western Europe, I read the book in Polish. Since then, I've had two Street of Crocodiles worlds in my head which complement each other in a friendly and familial way, as it were, each of them with its own colours, light, smells and sounds, and the two go together nicely.


I would like to thank the BHF foundation for this award: it is not only a personal distinction, but also - by honouring the translation along with the original - a tribute to a profession too often overlooked.






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