‘Surreal Siberian Odyssey’ – a word from the translator with Antonia Lloyd-Jones

English PEN talks to the translators of some of our award-winning books. Here, we talk to Antonia Lloyd-Jones, whose translation of Kolyma Diaries won an award at the start of 2014

kolyma diaries front hr pen

Hawking at great length, she brings up some phlegm. What’s she going to do with it? I wonder. Will she spit it into the ashtray, the rubber plant or the waste bin? Or maybe she’ll swallow it?

Ediiy Dora stands up and looks around, says something in sign language, so our interpreter (who is there because the spirits only allow Dora to speak in Yakut) obligingly hands her a small piece of paper. The Teacher makes a cone into which she spits green mucus, which hangs from her lip for a long time, like a melting icicle.

This is a good moment to make my excuses concerning the structure and cover of this book – to explain why it is in three parts, and why dark green with gold lettering. It’s because Ediiy Dora saw all this in her mind’s eye a year ago.

Excerpt from Kolyma Diaries by Jacek Hugo-Bader, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones

Interview by Rebekah Murrell

On the visceral

From start to finish, Kolyma Diaries is replete with visceral imagery: of phlegm (shamaness Ediiy Dora hawks out ‘a Teacher’s cone full of snot’ to cleanse Hugo-Bader’s soul from ‘all your bad experiences’); of cannibalism (‘did you know that human flesh tastes just like reindeer flesh?’); of constant, gnawing hunger. What was translating such body-imagery like? Did it help you get to know these characters or make you feel distanced from them as you read?

‘All the people you met on that journey were mad, weren’t they?’ I asked Jacek. ‘Oh yes, that’s right,’ he replied nonchalantly. He certainly collects – or attracts – colourful characters on his journey. But it’s in the nature of the place he’s describing. The book is a portrait of Kolyma, the easternmost part of Siberia, an extreme part of the world, where everything is far more painful, far more horrifying, and far more difficult than in the ‘normal’ world where we live. As well as being a place with an inhospitable climate that would seem to defy human survival, it’s the backdrop for some of history’s most infamous and blood-curdling events, and yet people continue to live there. Jacek presents it and its inhabitants warts and all – he’s particularly interested in all those bodily, human, tangible, sensual details because they make the reader react with the senses, they rouse our instinctive responses. Naturally as the translator I took care to retain all these images at full strength, as the author intended. And I like the characters in the book. They have stayed with me since I translated it, particularly Ediiy Dora, the shamaness, Yuri Salatin, the ex-army major who lives on a rubbish tip, and Madame Marianne, who can see and talk to ghosts. I’m scared of the card-playing, vodka-swilling thugs whose Russian is nothing but swearwords, and of Basansky, the gold oligarch who tried to buy Jacek like any other journalist. And I laugh at the thought of Niurgun the amateur inventor, who almost electrocuted his own father in his efforts to rejuvenate him.


On Death vs. Life

Kolyma Diaries documents life in one of the most remote corners of the globe. The Kolyma Highway, a thousand-mile stretch of road that took the lives of the countless prisoners forced to construct it, is called ‘the world’s longest graveyard’ by locals, but the extraordinary stories Hugo-Bader tells are filled with human survival and vivacity. How did you feel about the balance between the prominence of death and the perseverance of life?

Kolyma is the site of the labour camps described by Aleksander Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago, and by Varlam Shalamov in his brilliant Kolyma Tales. The road is indeed built on bones – at least half a million prisoners died in the region. But apart from the memory of the systematic Soviet killing machine lingering in the air every step of the way, this is a place where nature can kill you quite easily anyway. Anyone who lives in this climate is bound to be fatalistic, and to regard life as precarious. As the people Jacek meets along the way tell us, you can die of cold because you fell over drunk at night, or because a bear trapped you on the roof of your lorry; you can be killed by carbon monoxide fumes in your vehicle when you fall asleep with the engine running; you can run into a crazy drunk with a gun – the varieties are endless. Alcohol usually plays a part, numbing the pain of this tough existence as well as hastening the end. Yet people go on living here – the human will to live is invincible.

But this book really is as much about life as death. The people who live here either do so because of fate – they were born here, the descendants of prisoners who never went home, or of prison guards, or members of indigenous tribes; or they have chosen to live here, to mine gold that rarely ever makes them rich, or to get away from something that has driven them to the far end of the continent. The fact that they take on the challenge of surviving in Kolyma testifies to their tenacity. ‘You must have nothing to lose, or no alternative, in order to settle at the cruellest extremity on earth’ – according to Jacek, that’s what people write about the place. But he finds plenty of warmth and humanity, laughing the night away with the daughter of Stalin’s most murderous henchman, or carousing with an 80-year-old gold prospector and his admirers. He has a well-perfected knack for getting their life stories out of people – he says he does it by telling them a lot about himself first, drinking with them and getting them talking; knowing that he’s just passing through and they’ll never see him again, they are much more inclined to be open than they might be with friends or neighbours. And these life stories are just that, packed with life, all about endurance against the odds.


On translating creative non-fiction

How does translating creative non-fiction compare to working with fiction? Do you have a preference?

I don’t have a preference between translating fiction and creative non-fiction, because both offer equally interesting challenges. I have translated books by five Polish authors who, like Jacek Hugo-Bader, specialise in what is called reportage, which crosses the borders of travel writing and foreign correspondence. Their style is different from fiction, generally less lyrical and more economical, though some write in a very literary way. Wojciech Jagielski, for instance (author of The Night Wanderers, about Ugandan child soldiers), has developed his style over the years to a point where it reminds me of literary fiction, although it is pure fact. I have to listen to the poetry and cadences of his writing as well as take notice of the words he has chosen and the meaning he wants to convey. Not to say that style is unimportant for the other reportage writers. One of the leading authors in this genre is Mariusz Szczygieł (author of Gottland, a book about the Czech people which came out this year in English), whose work reminds me of the sort of modern painting that consists of three carefully positioned brush strokes that speak volumes. This very concise writing can be extremely hard to translate; the sheer economy gives the translator less to work with, but s/he still has to come up with the same impact in English, without losing the lightness of touch.

In Jacek’s case, the tricky thing is to retain the chatty, letter-from-a-friend tone, which is also not as artless as it looks. When Polish authors are writing about a foreign country, another culture enters the mix too. While translating Kolyma Diaries and White Fever I’ve felt relieved that I know Russian, because just about all the talking in the book was done in that language, and even though it is written in Polish, I can often see the Russian behind it. Jacek knows Russian extremely well, and of course it is not as hard for his Polish readers to understand the Russian words that pepper his text. I had to make case-by-case choices to accommodate them for the English-language reader, but tried (with mixed results, I fear) not to lose the spice added by prison slang and other Kolyma jargon.


On Hugo-Bader’s journalistic style and your response to it

Jacek Hugo-Bader, who you frequently collaborate with, deliberately writes about those not normally found in the pages of books. He wrote for the PEN Atlas earlier this year: ‘The world of the homeless can only be described from the position of a piece of trash lying in the street (or of a stray dog too). You’ll never find out how people (the normal ones) regard a piece of trash that’s knocking about in the street, unless you are one.’ Do you as the translator feel the need to undergo a similar process of mental transformation in order to convey Jacek’s experiences honestly, or is his immersion in the lives of his subjects enough?

Fortunately I don’t have to recreate Jacek’s journey across Kolyma in order to translate what he writes about it. As a translator I have sometimes felt as if I’m going through the same emotions as the author when he or she wrote the text – it can be a very difficult experience. But luckily I don’t have to make the physical journey. I can sit in my nice warm flat, while Jacek battles his way along the Kolyma Highway, and I don’t have to share a bedroom with bandits, cross the ice-choked Aldan River in a cockleshell, or get drunk on cheap vodka with just about everybody in the book. As for mental transformation, I can’t help being affected by some of Jacek’s emotional responses to the people he has met, but as his adventures are generally so physical, I get off very lightly compared with him. His earlier book, White Fever, includes chapters about tragic situations that often come back to haunt me: the Yakut reindeer herders who are dying out because of the toxic effect of alcohol on their organisms, the ex-Afghan war officers who find consolation in worshipping a self-appointed Christ, or the people who still live on the site of the USSR’s nuclear tests and are at extreme risk of radiation poisoning. I can’t forget about them, as if I had actually met them.

As a journalist, Jacek sometimes takes his physical involvement to extreme lengths. For instance, he once lived as a homeless man on the streets of Warsaw for several weeks, purely to write a report about it. Last summer he put himself to a physical test that most journalists would refuse to contemplate. He climbed most of the way up Broad Peak in the Himalayas with a group of highly experienced professional mountaineers, on an expedition to recover the bodies of two of their comrades who had died on the descent from a winter assault some weeks earlier. Jacek is a regular marathon runner, very fit, but he had no idea how he might react to altitude, which can be physically devastating (these climbers don’t use oxygen). Happily, he got through the climb without falling sick. And luckily for me, I can rely on his description. But if and when I come to translate this book, I am afraid of coming face to face with the highly emotional experience engendered by the tragic reasons for the expedition and the agony of the bereaved participants, who didn’t entirely welcome the presence of a writer on the trip.


In three words…

Describe the book in three words.

Surreal Siberian Odyssey.


Antonia Lloyd-Jones is a freelance editor and translator. Her translations from Polish include works by Joanna Olczak-Ronikier, Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz and Paweł Huelle, of which the novels CastorpWho was David Weiser? and Mercedes-Benz were all short-listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Award.

Read more about Kolyma Diaries on the World Bookshelf

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