Bieguni meaning Flights: How one word can change an understanding of the entire book

  • Aleksandra Szaniawska
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Translation is an art of interpretation.  Translating a literary work into a different language could give it an additional meaning that broadens the perspective and the work’s reception. But it could also narrow it down, preventing the work from being fully understood in different geographical locations. The very first translated words – the title – play a key role in this process as exemplified by Olga Tokarczuk’s book entitled “Bieguni” (originally published in 2007).

In English translation, the title of the book written by this year’s recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature is “Flights.” This title replaces the slavic word “bieguni,” which references an old rite sect who believe that remaining in constant motion could protect one from evil. The choice of a more generic word/noun “flights” opens up this interpretation, and connotes both the action of flying and fleeing.

This modification implemented by Jennifer Croft, the work’s translator into English and Fulbright Poland alumna, played a vital role in the interpretation of the book by literary critics. In Polish reviews, a recurring theme has circled around the reading of Tokarczuk’s book through the prism of a clear connotation between its title and religion. Interestingly, readers who had based their reviews on the English version of the text have emphasized its “experimental” nature – a thought that has been fairly absent in Polish analyses of Tokarczuk’s work.

Translator – a key element to success

Because the translator has the ability to adjust specific fragments of a literary text in order for them to be understood in different socio-political and cultural contexts, he or she plays a vital role in influencing how this text will be analyzed in different countries. A good example here is the translation of William Shakespeare’s play entitled Hamlet and the ongoing discussion between the advocates of either Maciej Słomczyński’s or Stanisław Barańczak’s translations.

As a result, the role of the literary translator far surpasses the mere word-by-word translation of the text from one language into the other. An acknowledgement of Croft’s complex work of translation has come in the form of The Man Booker International Prize – a prestigious award that recognizes both the author of the book and the book’s translator.

And it is a well-deserved award. In one of her interviews, the Fulbright alumna has mentioned that the initial working title of the English version of Tokarczuk’s novel was “Runners,” which would give the book yet another meaning. Even though the word “runner” connotes the activity of running away from someone or something, it is most widely associated with sports and simply references people who run.