Monthly Archive for August, 2016

Found in translation

Our book for July was ‘A Grain of Truth’ by Zygmunt Miloszewski, set in 2009 and translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones in 2012 which plots the story of recently divorced state prosecutor Szacki who, after shifting his career from the capital to the picturesque town of Sandomierz, rapidly becomes involved in the investigation of a series of murders.

Rebecca Wilkie, Programme Manager for Festivals and Events at New Writing North had arranged for our discussion of the book to be facilitated by Marta Dziurosz, herself a translator of Polish to English and Translator in Residence with the Free Word Centre in London. The idea was to discuss the book as a translation, with the greatest challenge for a good translator being to achieve a story that flows, not an obvious translation with clumsy phrases or odd sentences that stand out, but one that reflects an understanding of language in culture and how it changes.

Marta is very warm and engaging and ably lead us through our discussion with a series of questions. She started by explaining the purpose of her residency with Four Word which focuses on literature, literacy and freedom of speech; working directly with regional writing agencies, of which New Writing North is one.

imagesMarta gave us some context for the author of ‘A Grain of Truth’, who she explained had started his career with a young writers’ competition in Poland. The book is the second in a crime series Miloszewski has written and he has also published a number of fantasy novels. She also told us about some other Polish Crime writing writers, namely Marek Krajewski and Katarzyna Bonda who Hodder and Stoughton will soon be publishing in translation.

We were then asked whether we regularly read authors in translation and this prompted a good discussion, revealing a number of authors whose books we particularly enjoy including Haruki Murakami, Tove Jansson, Pierre Lemaitre, Jo Nesbo, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Albert Camus, Mikhail Bulgakov, Orhan Pamuk, Isabelle Allende and classic writers including Leo Tolstoy who had many different translators of his work. We agreed that there are probably many others books that we’d read in translation but that it was the story rather than the fact that it was a translation that appealed when choosing what to read.

Marta asked us if we pick up a translated book thinking that we might learn something about the place it’s set in and one member said that she felt she had learned a great deal about Poland from reading ‘A Grain of Truth’, in particular the way a small town feels in direct contrast to a large city, which was one of the key themes of the book. We then discussed our thoughts on whether a writer needs to have direct experience of a country in order to write about it and on the whole it was felt that this was essential as we readers subconsciously expect to learn something from the book and anticipate a knowledgeable authorial voice. One reader, a history graduate, said that she simply wanted a good read rather than the author teaching her something and another reader commented on instances of authors writing about Irish history, thinking they understood the subject where clearly this wasn’t the case and producing books that were historically inaccurate, and distinctly unpleasant reads to the Irish reader.

We discussed the notion that crime fiction as a genre has become a keyhole through which we can look at other cultures. A key question from a reader was how realistic is the story and the incidents in ‘A Grain of Truth’ and Marta’s response was that it’s an extrapolated version of the truth. The novel, in her view sets out for the reader the undercurrents of hostility existing in Poland, the tensions that fluctuate and re-surface and is about the Polish/Polish relationship and the constant questioning of the country’s relationship with the rest of the world.

We did agree that the horrific incidences contained within ‘A Grain of Truth’ are offset by some great humour and tongue-in-cheek moments. We particularly liked the smattering of Jewish jokes, the sub-plot of a tv programme about a nice crime-solving priest set in the same town and a play on the author’s own first name, Zygmunt, which he claims only belongs to crusty old men; promptly contradicting this assertion with the introduction of an extremely attractive and hip thirty five year old character who bears the same name! None of this, however, distracted the group from the depth of the novel, the leit motif of the possible existence of a grain of truth in the myths and stories about Jews the author scatters through the story. As a character, prosecutor Szacki enters into a process of deconstructing himself and his prejudices, a number of readers expressing a dislike of his overt sexism and misogyny towards his female colleagues and women he’s attracted to.

At the close of our discussion we reflected on what the author is drawing us towards. Does he believe what he’s saying and is there a grain of truth in the myth about Jews taking over, dominating the financial world, or should we simply examine our own prejudices.

IMG_5299The group was split in terms of whether we enjoyed the book. One reader said she absolutely loved it and has gone on to buy every other novel that Miloszewski has written including his fantasy series and Marta commented that she felt the author would be thrilled to hear this.

Will we start reading more novels in translation from now on? I hope so and a few choices from those currently available and receiving good reviews are ‘Seeing Red’ by Arab-Chilean novelist Lina Meruane described as being ‘so wow that your teeth will fall out from jealousy’; Egyptian author/translator Nael Eltoukhy’s ‘Women of Karantina’; ‘The Door’ by Hungarian writer Magda Szabó and Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig’s ‘Beware of Pity.’

See you all in September when we meet on 12th to discuss Kit de Waal’s ‘My name is Leon’ which ties in with the author event at the Durham Book Festival on 9 October.

Happy holiday reading to you all.


Rachel Orange