Editor’s Note: No spoilers are included in this story.
By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson
‘Societies Define Us More Than We Admit’For a guy who declares to an interviewer, “I like societies,” Zygmunt Miłoszewski sure enjoys taking the starch out of them. Especially if they’re part of his native Poland’s urban culture. He’s so hard on the cities in which he sets his crime dramas that he has been accosted by locals.
Of course, they know him when he arrives. Miłoszewski is Poland’s top-selling author. Winner of the Polityka Passport for Polish literature, he’s a two-time laureate of the High Calibre prize for crime novels and twice a nominee in the Prix du Polar Européen. None of which may ever redeem him with the townfolk of Olsztyn, the setting of Rage in northeastern Poland’s Warmian-Marsurian district.
The book is among the biggest releases of the year from AmazonCrossing, the translation imprint of Amazon Publishing, which has become the largest publisher of translated work in the United States. This year, Seattle’s spokespeople confirm to us, AmazonCrossing will publish 65 titles from 22 countries in 16 languages.
As AmazonCrossing releases Rage in its English translation today—rated as a bestseller in pre-orders among Amazon’s vigilante/justice/thrillers classifications—you can bet there’ll be no congratulatory fruit baskets sent to Chez Miłoszewski from the Olsztyn tourism authority.
“He had never liked the Germans, but he had to give them credit: everything attractive in Olsztyn—everything that gave the city its character, or made it interesting with the not-so-obvious charm of a thick-skinned woman of the North—had been built by them. Everything else was bland at best, but usually hideous.”
And don’t ask him about Olsztyn’s weather.
“Some sort of Warmian crap was coming out of the sky, neither rain, nor snow, nor hail. The stuff froze as soon as it hit the windshield, and even on the fastest setting the wipers couldn’t scrape off this mysterious substance. The windshield washer fluid did nothing but smear it around.”
Miłoszewski is the kind of talent whose voice is so integral to his work that phrases from the simplest passages resonate with you for days. As in much of contemporary crime fiction, his victims and perpetrators are a lot less interesting than his investigator. It’s that character for whom Miłoszewski is so famous in Warsaw—the hometown he readily denounces as “Europe’s ugliest capital.”
The prosecutor Teodor Szacki is a contentious man in a ticked-off world. Nobody in Miłoszewski’s Rage is happy. As societies go—as long as our author has brought them up—Szacki’s society is put out, fed up, exhausted, and plagued with domestic abuse: Miłoszewski takes on one of society’s most troublesome syndromes in each book.
Szacki makes his third appearance with this release. Entanglement and A Grain of Truth precede it. And Szacki wears his celebrity less gracefully than Miłoszewski wears his. The prosecutor is peeved at everything, from the town’s ludicrously bad traffic lights system to the broken home he goes home to nightly. He’s so over it all that when he speaks to a school class, he confounds the teacher by telling the kids:
“Perfect crimes are committed every day. Sometimes they’re too minor to be reported. But most often they remain hidden behind a double curtain of fear and shame. That includes domestic violence. Bullying at school. Bullying in the workplace. Rape. Sexual harassment.”
“I like the way societies define us,” Miłoszewski says to Publishing Perspectives, “more than we admit.
“Seven or eight years ago, I read novels by Henning Mankell,” the Swedish crime writer and Ingmar Bergman’s son-in-law who died last October, “and I was really in love. Great crime stories, gripping, keeping you on the edge of your seat. Still they were amazing books about society, its shadows, its undercurrents, its hidden ills. You say ‘skeletons in the closet.’
“So I said, ‘Okay. Let’s write three different crime stories that take place in three different cities in Poland, and cover three different painful topics.'” And that’s the origin of the Szacki trilogy, the third book of which is Rage.
Lloyd-Jones: ‘I Put Up With Him’
As good as Miłoszewski is in English when you speak with him, this new work in English comes across with intricate subtlety thanks to the work of Miłoszewski’s London-based translator, Antonia Lloyd-Jones. She’s an award-winner, herself, whose work is closely associated with that of author and playwright Paweł Huelle.
At Publishing Perspectives’ request, AmazonCrossing facilitated a rare chance to interview both author and translator together at BookExpo America in Chicago in May.
The best part of a talk with this pair of colleagues is the wry sense of humor they share. Lloyd-Jones needles Miłoszewski as they talk. She interjects asides as frequently as Miłoszewski describes another architectural blunder in Olsztyn. They’re a congenial match, gabbling together like kids.
And yet for all the wisecracks she zings into their chat, read how sensitively she can render what Miłoszewski wants to show us about the context for Szacki’s bad moods:
“He had always lived in the city. He had never had any other view than staring at apartments in neighboring buildings. For forty-four years. If right now this pile of junk had skidded on the slush, Szacki would have died without knowing what it felt like to stand at a bedroom window with a cup of coffee, gazing at a view that stops only at the horizon.”
“We were both upset about Googling how to dissolve a body,” Lloyd-Jones says in a feigned hush.
“I was afraid I might not be allowed in the States,” Miłoszewski says with a chuckle, “because of all the things in our emails and the way the NSA reads email.”
“The things we have to look up.” Lloyd-Jones rolls her eyes and shudders.
She beams when Miłoszewski confesses that there are “some little things in any book, you know” that an author would like to change. A translation in good hands like hers is a new chance to make those changes, and this is the fourth translation of Rage so far, each with subtle differences. Which of the translations is the best? “This one.” Big smiles.
Miłoszewski: ‘Better Than the Polish Original’
“It doesn’t always happen that I get to work so closely with a translator,” Miłoszewski says.
“We’re good friends,” Lloyd-Jones says.
“We are?” He asks.
“I put up with him,” Lloyd-Jones says. “I’m very tolerant.”
So tolerant, in fact, that she’s had him visit for a week at a time in London so they could sit together and work over the text to produce this articulate rendition of Rage. Does that happen frequently, we ask, this thing of translators at work in close physical proximity with their authors?
“I work with almost all my writers,” Lloyd-Jones says. “And I’m friends with most of them.”
Do those writers all have such good English as Miłoszewski has?—surely this makes the collaboration better.
“No, I don’t need them to speak in English,” Lloyd-Jones says. “Zygmunt and I don’t talk in English. Mostly we talk to each other in Polish.” She waits a beat as Miłoszewski’s eyebrows go up. “Unless I’m feeling lazy,” she says.
Lloyd-Jones: ‘Covered in Dust and Builders’
“I like to be friends with the authors because if I translate a book, I really care about that book, it’s something I feel is really worth doing and it’s a lot of work. So I like to know the authors, I like them to be part of my life.”Antonia Lloyd-Jones
Lloyd-Jones warms to the conversation, barely pausing for a breath: “I remember, I was having an awful summer when Zygmunt came to London, my mother’s house was completely rebuilt, I was sitting among all these builders, typing this translation with cats flying in all directions and sitting in an area about this big,” she opens her arms, “because it was all I had that wasn’t covered in dust and builders, and I was worried about missing the deadline, and so Zygmunt came to stay with me, and he knows how neurotic I am, and he was very sweet and he stayed a week and he was reading the translation that I was still finishing.”
Despite home remodeling, pets, dust, and self-declared neuroses, Miłoszewski says he’s glad about the process he and Lloyd-Jones used.
“Many translators,” he says, “tend to treat their authors as if they were dead. And I get it. I totally get it. But it shouldn’t be the thing with popular fiction, contemporary fiction,” the authors of which are very much alive.
He and Lloyd-Jones talk about using Skype as well as stints together in person. Skype and such tools as Google Docs can make it possible today for authors and translators to work together, even across vast distances.
“I like to be friends with the authors,” Lloyd-Jones says, “because if I translate a book, I really care about that book, it’s something I feel is really worth doing and it’s a lot of work. So I like to know the authors, I like them to be part of my life.”
‘Our Cleaning Lady Wants To Speak With You’
“I took Antonia to see the city where I set A Grain of Truth,” Miłoszewski says. That’s the southeastern Polish town of Sandomierz. “It’s a small shithole in Poland,” he says as Lloyd-Jones cackles beside him. “The Polish edition of Newsweek,” for which Miłoszewski once worked as a journalist, “had published the first chapter of the book. We went there the same week.”
“He’d told me,” Lloyd-Jones says, “that he wouldn’t be welcome in the city after the book came out. It’s all about anti-semitism”—another of Miłoszewski’s takedowns of societal shortcomings.
By the time the author and translator arrived at Sandomierz, the word was out. When they met with the custodian of a former synagogue, his first words were: “I know exactly who you are.” The first chapter is set in that old building and Miłoszewski describes its Medieval recessed windows as filthy. The custodian told Miłoszewski and Lloyd-Jones, “And our cleaning lady wants to speak with you.”
‘Many translators tend to treat their authors as if they were dead. And I get it. I totally get it. But it shouldn’t be the thing with popular fiction, contemporary fiction.”Zygmunt Miłoszewski
Miłoszewski apologized profusely to the woman—no, no, no, her janitorial services were never in question, and, hey, the book is only fiction—all to no avail.
“‘But it’s gone out into the world,’ she told him,” Lloyd-Jones says.
“And we ran off,” mortified.
They both laugh at the incident. But Miłoszewski has a deep appreciation for what this kind of shared fiasco has produced: “This translation,” he says, “is better than the Polish original.”
Happily, there’s more of this teamwork ahead: AmazonCrossing already has another of his books on contract for translation—Priceless, a contemporary novel that deals with art theft in World War II.
Miłoszewski: ‘You’re Supposed To Like This’
And maybe the author’s friendship with his translator is at times a helpful balance to his homelife with a wife who has stood by him, but not without some expert criticism, he says, as his career developed.
Only in the last four years have his books begun to support him, and his wife reads drafts for him. She’s a theater director in Warsaw and creates adaptations of work for the stage, Lloyd-Jones says. “She teaches in a drama department,” the translator says, “and she does a lot of book adaptations. So she knows how they should work.”
“She knows too much about how fiction works,” Miłoszewski says ruefully, “and how it should be structured. And sometimes, she’s very critical. Too critical. I say, ‘Oh, come on, you’re my wife, you’re supposed to like this.'”
Lloyd-Jones laughs at his discomfort.
“This is why I say that translators,” Miłoszewski flashes a cherubic smile at Lloyd-Jones, “are wonderful readers.”