A Book and Its Translators

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It was a freezing afternoon outside Warsaw in March 2012, and I was sitting in a cramped hut listening to the tinny sounds of an interview, conducted in Polish 33 years earlier and replayed on an ancient reel-to-reel recorder. It was an interview with a louse dissector.

My friend Izabela Wagner translated while Ryszard Wojcik, who had conducted the interview as a young man in the prime of life, occasionally smiled at me and spoke a few heartfelt, unintelligible phrases in French. We were wearing sweaters and our breath was freezing on the windows. We were drinking vodka and feeling fine, if a bit tense.

It can be challenging to research a book that is set in a country whose language you don’t understand among people who spoke another language you are just learning. Most of my book 
The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl
 is set in the city that is now Ukrainian Lviv, although it was called Lwow, or Lemberg, and was a largely Polish and Jewish city, in the period the book covers.

For this book I needed to scour literature in French, German, and Polish for sources. Hebrew and Ukrainian would have been nice as well, but were less essential. An Israeli friend helped me with a couple of Hebrew translations, while a Ukrainian librarian directed me through some Ukrainian sources.

The main problem was, while I can read French and German comfortably, my Polish is still pretty tentative. It would have taken me forever to go through the reams of relevant materials. I needed someone to help me find and translate those sources.

Until recently I was a freelance journalist, and not a wealthy one. At the start of my research, I hired a very good translator in Washington DC to put a 1200-word article into English for me. She charged $600. At that rate, I figured I would need about $50,000 to locate and translate everything for the book. That wasn’t going to happen. So I made a deal.

Actually I didn’t make a deal. I fell into a relationship, one that has turned out to be so much more interesting and enriching than simply hiring someone to do the translation.