Interview

Discover the shortlist: Olga Tokarczuk, ‘The encyclopedia showed me the enormity of the world’

Shortlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize, Olga Tokarczuk is the author of The Books of Jacob.

Winner of the 2018 International Booker Prize and one of the most critically acclaimed authors of her generation in Poland, Tokarczuk discusses the beauty she sees in English-language translation.

Olga Tokarczuk

Written by Olga Tokarczuk

How does it feel to be shortlisted for the International Booker Prize?

I’m so happy to find myself in such select company. It is truly a great distinction, particularly since it’s happening for the third time!

What first inspired you to write The Books of Jacob?  

I think the most inspiring thing was that this incredible, amazing story was virtually unknown, so I had a real sense of purpose, of mission, to tell it as accurately and as well as I could.

What’s your earliest reading memory?

My first readings took place in my parents’ voices; they read me serious works of literature before I fell asleep. I kept that habit — I can’t fall asleep without reading at least a page. 

What authors have made the biggest impact on your work?

I cannot choose one name. I understand literature as a collective work of many different authors, which creates an amazing network of relationships and connections.

How does it feel to have your work translated for people in the English-speaking world to read?

The English language is a kind of magic wand that makes a text written in another language immediately more universal. And the translator is the wizard who wields this wand.

Tell us a lesser-known fact about you.

A few days ago my first grandson was born.

2018 International Booker Prize

The English language is a kind of magic wand that makes a text written in another language immediately more universal

And an interesting fact about the book.

The manuscript was about 100 pages longer initially, those additional sections being devoted to matters of religious doctrine; there were also several scenes that did not end up in the book.

Tell us about a book that changed your life.

When I was a few years old, while I was sick, out of boredom I read a one-volume encyclopedia. This showed me the enormity of the world that lies before me and the effort I must make to understand it.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?

Try to record your own dreams every day. It is very hard. Writing down dreams is a great exercise because it requires great concentration, good memory, and exceptional linguistic precision.