What made you want to become a translator of Swedish literature?
When I was fifteen, my mother decided we were moving to Sweden. I spent the next few years attending a Swedish upper secondary school in Helsingborg, learning Swedish and venturing into Swedish literature. I missed my Polish friends badly, the way only a young person can. Every week, I went to the post office with a thick envelope full of dried flowers and long letters in which I primarily told my friends about books I had read and liked. I soon discovered that many of my favourite poems and short stories had not been translated into Polish, so I started translating whole phrases and stanzas. After studying literature at Lund University, I got into an excellent translation programme at Södertörn University. There, I realised my teenage attempts at translation should be left in the long-since yellowed envelopes somewhere in my friends’ attics. A text, an important and beautiful text, is not a plaything. It is a serious business.
What is the best thing about being a translator?
Being a translator means working with a unique mode of reading, the kind of close reading that is rarely experienced otherwise. No critic, scholar or even author reads as meticulously or penetrates as deeply into the text as a translator.
What drives you?
What drives me is wonderful literature, of course. Swedish literature has what it takes to make me shudder, texts that itch under your skin for a long time afterwards, chafe under your eyelids and in your fingertips. I’ve been enormously lucky to have had the chance to translate outstanding authors like Tove Jansson, Ida Linde, Agneta Pleijel, Bea Uusma, Ebba Witt-Brattström and several Swedish poets, such as Linn Hansén, Jenny Tunedal, Athena Farrokhzad and David Vikgren. Being close to their texts is the best feeling in the world; I would be hard pressed to think of a profession capable of giving someone the same level of satisfaction and pleasure.
What do you struggle with when you turn Swedish into Polish?
Struggle? Come on. My job has a lot to do with searching, browsing, thinking, deleting, asking, not sleeping, searching again, finally finding and then changing my mind. To “struggle” is a verb I associate with death; when I translate, every sentence makes me feel closer to life. But I’ve always thought the Swedish sea is impossible to write about in Polish. Swedes have always wanted to live near the sea, while Poland has been landlocked for long periods of its history. That is why the Polish language is rooted in the soil, the earth, the field and the forest. It was exciting, and difficult, to translate Tove Jansson, who is more sea-oriented than any other author.
Can you tell us about a memorable translation? Something particularly challenging?
For most translators, showing your text to your colleagues is a challenge. Almost fifteen years ago now, I took part in a translation programme at Södertörn University. Several days a month over the course of an entire year, we critiqued each other in groups. Terrifying! I remember translating a short story by Stig Dagerman, “A Thousand Years with God”. My teacher didn’t even like Dagerman’s original, so the discussion was very intense. But I stuck to my guns and as it happens, that text became my debut; I published it in a magazine called FA-art 2004. Several years later, I found out that Polish author Olga Tokarczuk had enjoyed it and kept it on her desk for several years, until it inspired her to write one of the chapters in her magnum opus The Books of Jacob. Isn’t that lovely? Things like that remind you that your job is important!
Sweden will be the guest of honour at the 22nd International Book Fair in Krakow, which takes place 25-28 October. What does the Polish-Swedish exchange look like?
The Swedish crime boom triggered by the success of the Milennium trilogy had an impact around the globe. Publishers in Poland, as in many other countries, wanted good Swedish crime fiction. The result was that a very large number of Swedish crime novels was published in Poland. That’s also because a wave of young Swedish-Polish translators has joined the profession. Without them, the Swedish boom on the Polish book market could never have happened. Polish publishers are ambitious and look for other genres among the Swedish titles. That is how several Swedish fiction and non-fiction writers have found their way to Polish readers. And children’s books, of course. They seem to have brought about a new era for Polish children, parents, teachers and Polish children’s books.
But I wouldn’t call it an exchange. Very little Polish literature is published in Sweden. I encourage all Swedish publishers to take a closer look at, for example, Polish children’s literature, especially the illustrated books. They’re true gems!
Is there a Swedish book that is particularly close to your heart?
Oh no, please, don’t make me answer that. There are far too many.
Being a translator feels like a life of obscurity. Is that true?
Yes, for most translators, that’s true. But not for me. I’m very involved in the work of the Translator’s Association; in October 2017, I was elected chair of the organisation. I actively participate in the marketing of all my authors; oftentimes, I’m seen as their voice in Poland. It is flattering and fun, but there is a lot of work that goes with it. And the work is done in obscurity, in a room in Warsaw or Visby, or somewhere else, with my phone turned off. It’s just me and the book, not at all glamorous, but ever so wonderful!
What are you working on now?
At the moment, I’m translating the Finland-Swedish novel "Island of Souls" by Johanna Holmström. When I’m done with that, I’m going to delve into Ida Linde’s new book "Mother of a Murderer". It is beautiful but heavy, as usual with Ida, so in order to lighten the load this spring, I’m going to translate my first children’s book, Ture Sventon in London. Three books about the idiosyncratic detective were published many years ago, in translations by Teresa Chlapowska (who also translated the Moomins and several books by Astrid Lindgren); now the publisher wants to finish the series. It’s going to be fun; I’m reading the books with my daughter, so I’m hoping we can do some of the work together.
You can find a complete list of Justyna’s translations here https://pl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Justyna_Czechowska and here http://stl.org.pl/profil/justyna-czechowska/