‘Present tense tension’ – a word from the translator with Philip Boehm

English PEN talks to the translators of some of our award-winning books. Next in the series is Philip Boehm, whose translation of Hanna Krall’s novel Chasing the King of Hearts won an award in 2013

When the train stops in Radom the German takes her to the police station.chasing_hearts_NEW_hires_cream

Evidently you look like a Jew, says the policeman.
She’s genuinely surprised: I look like a Jew? I’ve never heard that before.
Can you say your Hail Mary? the policeman asks.
Of course. Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee… (Lilusia taught her when she put the necklace on Izolda: Repeat after me, she said…) Blessed art thou among women… Because she is addressing the Mother of God, who is full of grace, she goes slowly, making every word count, to show respect.
Listen to you, the policeman laughs out loud. What normal person says Hail Mary like that? Usually it’s hailmaryfullofgracethelordiswiththee… You really are a Jew!

Apparently Lilusia forgot the most important thing: that the delivery has to sound completely ordinary. Poor Lilusia – she thought about handbags and medallions, but it never occurred to her there might be a Jewish way of saying the Hail Mary.

-Excerpt from Chasing the King of Hearts by Hanna Krall, translated from Polish by Philip Boehm

Interview by Grace Hetherington

The language in this novel is extremely economical and the pace sometimes bewilders the reader, with an array of characters occupying the pages of the book. Did you have to make a conscious effort to retain this style of writing as you translated?

Rhythm does have meaning. Establishing the pace came with finding the voice. The laconic style of the original is reinforced by the language itself: Polish does not use articles, and often the subject of a sentence can be inferred from the context or implied from the grammar. I did make a conscious effort to streamline the English, but only after first attempting to capture the full meaning of the Polish sentences. Consequently the English is differently laconic than the Polish.

The author of this book, Hanna Krall, describes herself as a reporter, not a novelist, and has said that everything that happens in the book is true. Did that affect the translation process?

In theory perhaps it makes no difference, but in practice the fact that all this actually happened makes research both helpful and necessary. Helpful because it can lead to factual details that can resolve ambiguities which might not stop the Polish reader but require some reworking in English – the description of the prison in Vienna, for example, or of the monument in Łódź. Necessary because these same dates and places need to match the historical record. My own familiarity with Warsaw (where I lived for several years) also helped in conveying that particular topography.

The voice of the novel is very distinct: matter-of-fact, blunt, unexpected at times. Was it the ‘voice’ of this work which first interested you in translating it?

Voice is what always interests me the most. And the fact that this voice is so distinct might make it harder to find in English, but easier to render once it has been found. I happen to have translated a lot of material from this time period and that experience helped determine the range and register of vocabulary.

Hanna Krall manages to convey the unspeakable through the brusque dialogue of the book. Did you find it a challenge to ‘translate’ what is not said in this novel as well as what is said or implied?

The challenge is to find language that is taut enough to contain the silences. This is as much a matter of rhythm as word choice. It’s a problem I’m very familiar with from my work in the theatre. Also from my experience translating Herta Müller, who is another master of using silences between words to express the indescribable.

Describe Chasing the King of Hearts in three words.

Present tense tension.


Philip Boehm is the author of more than two dozen translations of novels and plays by German and Polish writers, including Nobelist Herta Müller, Christoph Hein, Bertolt Brecht and Stefan Chwin. Non-fiction translations include A Woman in Berlin by Anonymous and Words to Outlive Us, a collection of eyewitness accounts from the Warsaw Ghetto. For his work as a translator he has received numerous awards, most recently the Oxford-Weidenfeld Prize (UK), the Helen and Kurt Wolff Prize (US), and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He also works as a playwright and theatre director, and is the Founding Artistic Director of Upstream Theatre in St. Louis.

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