I met Olga Tokarczuk in a cramped airport in Goa. I had hours to kill, surrounded by an ocean of people desperately looking for things to do. On the flight back to Delhi that evening, I sat in my middle class Economy seat that wouldn’t budge, and soaked up Flights, Tokarczuk’s brilliant book about airports and terminals and journeys and people in transit.
However, on that fateful day, I met another woman named Jennifer Croft – the wonderful translator of Tokarczuk’s book, without whom the story of the Nobel laureate would be incomplete, at least to those who read in English. It made me think about what access to words really means, and more importantly, where “authorship” begins and ends.
Croft’s work both as a translator and writer is striking. For her recent memoir Homesick, she got renowned translators and writers from across the world to translate parts of the books, in multiple languages including Swedish, Ukranian, Turkish, Slovak, Serbian, Romanian, Polish, Mandarin, Korean, Italian, Hungarian, Hindi, Hebrew, Haitian Creole, Farsi, Bangla, Albanian, Armenian, and Spanish (which she did herself). Within this context, therefore, Croft is not mistaken when she elaborates in a recent interview that the construct of “authorship” is deeply community-driven, and an important place to start; that a book necessarily does not cease to be written on the fateful day of publication.
Enter the reader
She refers to Flights, describing it, as Tokarczuk does too, as a “constellation novel”, specifically crafted to engage the mind of the reader, forcing one to piece together different stories that do not necessarily follow a linear-spatial pattern, so much so that it becomes almost a different book for every reader. Tokarczuk herself refers to Central European writing as being generally fluid and non-linear, stating that they “don’t trust the idea of telling a story from beginning to end in a classic way because it’s simply not true. Nothing happens in this beautiful linear way.”
In a way, writers who break form, particularly in books like Tokarczuk’s, or Marlon James’ Black Leopard Red Wolf, which hold readers to such a high intellectual standard, themselves extend the period of “authorship”. The idea of the book itself keeps flowing endlessly from the author to the readers, the experience itself taking “paradoxical turns” as Tokarczuk calls it, such that the story is different for every reader.
Croft also extends this idea of an extended authorship that challenges the moral aspect of authorship, of intellectual property itself, stating that it varies according to cultures, and that the idea of translation itself challenges the idea of fidelity, so that translation becomes, closely, something akin to co-writing. Ann Goldstein, the English translator of My Brilliant Friend and the Neopolitan series, who describes herself as “the language, not the creator of the world”, has perhaps blurred the line the most, almost becoming the “face of the author”, which is particularly true in the case of the elusive writer, Elena Ferrante.
Ferrante is also a useful example in another context – she extends the authorship to the reader by inviting them to imagine the dialect, instead of directly writing in dialect. Kate Briggs, in her book This Little Art, uses another example to illustrate this. In a book she reads out loud to her children, the “Dragonese” (a deep-sea language for dragons) is printed in the Adobe Gothic font, even though the entirety of the text is in English. She says this prompts readers to perhaps assume an accent of their choosing, staying true to the “logic of the book”. She draws similar examples in the Bible, and, of course, the imaginative power of the text of Ferrante’s novels.
A new medium
The act of authorship continuing beyond the publishing date is perhaps more relevant now than ever. When one compares Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s original book, Good Omens, to the television show written by Gaiman, it is abundantly clear how a text is shaped over time, with more context and maturity. Gaiman adds more nuance to the writing, strips away some of the characters, injects a greater degree of defiance and heft to the female characters, makes the voice of god that of a woman’s, and makes Adam and Eve black.
Of course, Gaiman had the privilege of chipping away at his own work, a privilege many artists crave for. What this really means is that stories are never truly completely formed, that the act of writing, moulding, fermenting, is never truly over – the author may add to it, the readers may change the context, the translators may bring forth new forms of access. Our cultural consumption is conspicuously shaped by this very changing nature of “authorship”.
The beginning and end of cultural artefacts and of authorship itself, particularly in the case of books, is perhaps more difficult to predict, and may not always be necessary. As Briggs mentions in her book, sometimes you do not need to speak Dragonese in a different accent – it is part of the provisional agreement between the translator and the reader, between the reader and the author:
“...good books make us hear different voices. They make us feel and in this way believe that they are written in different languages, in different orders of language here competing with each other, even when they appear to be, or when convention or convenience or the contested boundaries of so-called national literatures insist that they are written in just one.”
Therefore, when books and ideas stemming from art itself are so fluid and community-driven, the act of authorship itself can perhaps never be truly individualistic. Writers will often claim “originality”, but being truly original means to be somewhat derivative and draw upon the collective creativity and imagination of an entire species, of borrowing and building upon previous worlds. Through this, it is hoped that the notion of authorship will continue to expand, to translators, fact-checkers, editors, readers, designers, illustrators, and production personnel – to everyone who becomes, as Briggs calls it, “makers of the whole”, in every language and circumstance, because it is different every single time.