‘For me, writing has a lot to do with the desire to explore this diffuse space of longing and make it narratively fruitful.’
Author Judith Schalansky and translator Jackie Smith speak about the 2021 International Booker Prize-longlisted An Inventory of Losses.
Judith, what has it been like to be longlisted?
I love lists! And to be represented on this wonderful list with a book that is itself a kind of list, for this great prize – one of the few that gives equal credit to author and translator – just makes me happy and also proud. I certainly catch myself wanting to tell everyone about it.
How would you summarise An Inventory of Losses in one sentence?
The book is a personal cabinet of curiosities of natural and cultural objects that no longer exist and that are brought to life through a variety of literary means.
What originally inspired you to write about loss?
For as long as I can remember, I have known Sehnsucht (for me the most beautiful German word), the desire for something that is distant, absent, past or lost, often capturing my fantasies far more than anything that is actually there. For me, writing has a lot to do with the desire to explore this diffuse space of longing and make it narratively fruitful. Like all my books, An Inventory of Losses is a research project, only without footnotes. What interests me are the gaps in the tradition, the phantom pains, the echoes and the signs of omission, the shimmering, narrow space in between where facts and fictions blur. Because when something is lost, it crosses over into the space of myth – and then literature and the medium of the book – is not the worst way to gauge what exactly this loss means, what it stands for – and what gain it might come with.
Is there a story of loss in the book that you particularly treasure?
I had to do a lot of research for most of the texts in the book: from pre-colonial oral storytelling traditions of the South Seas to so-called Outsider Art, from the classification of dragons to the concepts of female same-sex attraction, from an extinct world religion to ruin fashion, the history of lunar lore or the psyche of Greta Garbo, but I was most afraid of writing the text about the demolished GDR prestige building Palace of the Republic, which required hardly any research. Because for me, a completely different loss is connected with this vanished building. My mother had once separated from my father when I was still a toddler because he had been seen closely entwined with another woman in the Palace of the Republic. I did not meet him until I was 16. It was clear to me that I had to tell this, very personal story, but I was very afraid of the monstrous responsibility of turning my parents into characters. Finally, I came up with the idea of telling this very quiet story of alienation and betrayal in the style of an American short story, in which the protagonists’ state of mind is basically told only through outward appearances and through actions. This allowed the characters to keep their mystery. Now, I think, one can smell the GDR in this text and feel a paralysing alienation between the young couple. To have found a language for this speechlessness is particularly comforting for me.
Hi Jackie - what has it been like to be longlisted?
It’s an amazing feeling to have been longlisted for the International Booker Prize. An Inventory of Losses was my first full-length literary translation, so I’m stunned and thrilled that it has had such a positive reception. This was a demanding translation project in many ways, and it’s so gratifying to get this acknowledgment that all those hours of crafting my text, racking my brain, researching, polishing and trying to do justice to Judith’s wonderful prose paid off.
What did you enjoy about translating An Inventory of Losses?
So many things! I loved the intellectual and creative challenge of translating often intricate and complex prose and attempting to capture its rhythm and flow. I also enjoyed being plunged into a different world with each new piece, from Ancient Babylonia to 1950s Manhattan to 1970s East Germany. The book consists of twelve essays with vastly differing styles and subjects, so it was almost like translating twelve different books. I found myself researching, say, the names of the gates of Ancient Rome one day, and wetland flower species another. Working with Judith was also an absolute pleasure. I was lucky enough to be able to meet her and put all my questions to her directly, which was an enormous help.
Did the shift in genre and tone throughout An Inventory of Losses make it more difficult to translate?
Yes it made it more difficult, because each piece called for a completely different narrative voice, which of course had to sound authentic. One story is an imagined sweary inner monologue in the voice of Greta Garbo. Another – a description of a country walk – is a minutely observed piece of nature writing. As I worked on each one I found it helpful to immerse myself in other works of a similar period or genre, like The Catcher in the Rye and films of that era in the case of the Garbo piece.
Which of the 12 stories was your favourite to translate?
I especially enjoyed the final piece, Kinau’s Selenographs. It’s a wonderfully imaginative tale of a 19th century Bohemian botanist who develops a fascination with the moon and ends up living on it. The story has quite a melancholy feel to it, but I liked the archaic, quasi-scientific style of writing, and the romance of the setting and subject really appealed to me, so much so that I developed something of a moon fascination of my own!