Uilleam Blacker talks about the island library that fostered his love of reading - and how the International Booker Prize allows readers to cross borders through literature
Uilleam Blacker is one of Britain’s leading literary translators from Ukrainian. He is Associate Professor of Ukrainian and East European Culture at University College London. He is also an author and a writer, with his work appearing in The Atlantic, The Times Literary Supplement and The Literary Review. In 2022, he was Paul Celan Translation Fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna.
Why do you think the International Booker Prize matters and what’s special about it?
There is a huge world of literature out there that we English speakers, with our big, dominant language, sometimes forget about. And when you forget about this, your understanding of literature is very narrow. That’s why translation is so important - it helps us move towards a more complete understanding of what the world is writing, it gives us insights into cultures and experiences that would otherwise remain closed to us. Without translators, culture and literature would never evolve, they would be deprived of new ideas. And yet, translation, although it is so crucial, has for so long been an undervalued activity. The International Booker does a brilliant job of giving translators, and the books they translate, the prestige and recognition they deserve.
Tell us about your reading habits under normal circumstances. What type of books are you usually drawn to?
I teach and research the literatures of east-central Europe, mainly Ukrainian and Polish, so my reading is almost entirely given over to that. I’m particularly interested in writers who cross between cultures and languages. Most Ukrainian writers, because they lived in states that marginalised Ukrainian, had to write at least part of their work in another language, so bi- or trilingualism is normal. There’s Gogol, for example, who many know as a Russian writer, since he wrote in Russian, but who was Ukrainian and was raised, in part, on Ukrainian drama and poetry. I’ve just translated a novel by Maik Yohansen, a writer from Kharkiv who was of mixed Ukrainian and Baltic German heritage, wrote his first poems in Russian and German, but decided to become a Ukrainian-language writer as a young man after the Russian Empire collapsed and Ukrainian was no longer suppressed. He wrote amazing avant-garde prose that wears the author’s journey into a new language like a joyful coat. I’m also interested in Jewish writers from Ukraine - they wrote in at least six different languages and were often multilingual. I love the work of Debora Vogel, for example, an avant-garde writer from L’viv who was brought up on Polish, German and Hebrew but chose to write in Yiddish (often translating her own work between Polish and Yiddish). I first read her in Polish and Ukrainian translation, although there are now some great English versions. This is partly why I’m so thrilled to be judging the International Booker - translation is everywhere in what I do in my day job.
When I’m not reading for work, and it occasionally happens, I tend to read a fair bit of Scottish literature, which helps me keep in touch with home. Scottish poets are a big source of joy for me - Norman McCaig and Kathleen Jamie are two favourites, I think most of all for the way they write big ideas into familiar landscapes.
There is a huge world of literature out there that we English speakers, with our big, dominant language, sometimes forget about. And when you forget about this, your understanding of literature is very narrow.
Tell us about your path to becoming a reader - what did you read as a child? Was there a book or author that made you fall in love with reading?
We always had plenty of books at home, and we also had a great little public library on the island where I grew up (Barra, in the Western Isles) - that was very important. So, I was very lucky to have a wide selection of books available. From childhood, I remember we had a really nice series of books based in Scottish history and folklore called Kelpies – books about selkies (seal people) and such like. They really appealed to the imagination and seemed connected to the world I lived in. As a teenager I inherited writers like Saul Bellow or Samuel Beckett from my mum, as well as the latest Scottish literature of the time - writers like Alan Spence, James Kelman, Liz Lochhead. I read Waiting for Godot several times as a teenager and that opened up a new side of literature that I didn’t quite understand but really wanted to: it was funny, yet also quietly horrifying, and that intrigued me.
Tell us about your favourite International Booker Prize-nominated book from previous years, and why you like it.
It has to be Olga Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob. It’s a Polish novel set among a Jewish community in Ukraine, so it’s right up my street. It uses its borderland setting to explore what it means to cross borders, to change shape, to transgress. It’s something I love in Tokarczuk’s work - how she takes a very specific setting, a bounded place, and uses it to destroy any notion of restriction, whether in time, space, culture, bodies. Her Primeval and Other Times was one of the first books I read in Polish, and the way it folds a huge sweep of history and ideas into a tiny, imagined village is amazing. I really admire her translators, Antonia Lloyd-Jones and Jennifer Croft, who do a brilliant job of rendering the specificity of context and the uniqueness of the author’s voice. Jennifer Croft’s translation of the thousand pages of Books of Jacob, with all its cultures, languages and peoples, must be one of the most impressive translation feats of our time.
Without translators, culture and literature would never evolve, they would be deprived of new ideas.
Judges of the Booker Prizes have to read several books multiple times. Away from this year’s prize, is there a book that you’ve re-read more than any other and, if so, what makes you keep returning to it?
I re-read the authors I teach, of course. I’ve read Bruno Schulz’s stories for pleasure and work a dozen times - he’s another borderland writer, Polish and Jewish, who worked in interwar Poland but had his roots in the Habsburg Empire and whose legacy is in Ukraine (all his works are set in his hometown Drohobych, now in Ukraine). There are several good English translations of his work available. Rereading the classics of Ukrainian literature, like the fiery national poet Taras Shevchenko or the modernist feminist Lesya Ukrainka, is always rewarding - recently, I’ve been reading their works with my decolonization hat on, and both are amazing anti-colonial writers who spoke about the ills of Russian imperialism in ways that are entirely relevant today.
Other than that, the book I’ve re-read most often is probably James Hogg’s The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. It’s one of the greatest Scottish novels, a creepy, supernatural thriller that satirises religious hypocrisy and explores split personalities.
What are you particularly looking forward to or already enjoying about the process of judging the prize, and is there anything you’re not looking forward to?
It may be an obvious answer, but just having the chance to read such a variety of books from such different contexts. I’m learning a lot about parts of the world I knew too little about and seeing interesting trends that seem to cross borders in unexpected ways. Similar ideas pop up in very different places, creating this sense of a big, international literary dialogue.
What does translated fiction offer readers that fiction written originally in English doesn’t, and how can we encourage more people to read it?
For me, reading in translation and learning languages are two sides of the same coin. By learning languages, you access people, places, histories, and cultures that you would never otherwise encounter. It makes you realise that your perspective is just a fragment of something infinitely bigger. That gives you a sense of humility, which in turn encourages you to listen. As English speakers, we need to learn that cultural humility, which history has removed from us, and learn to listen. Of course, we can’t learn all the languages, but, luckily, we have translators, who can transport us into those other languages and cultures. Translators are our ears, allowing us to stop talking for a minute and listen to the world.
In the UK, we could learn a lot from other countries where reading in translation is normalised and where translation has a higher status. In Ukraine and Poland, for example, writers are often also translators, and this is listed alongside their prose writing or poetry as an inherent part of their literary identity. I think, now, publishers are beginning to understand the wealth of material that is out there and how talented and vital translators are as cultural actors, and I hope that continues. Schools are also crucial, however. It’s important to get children used to reading in translation and to give them an understanding of what translation is and why it’s important. This can also plant the seed that could encourage them to learn languages and become translators themselves.
What are you hoping to find in selecting books for the International Booker Prize longlist? Are there certain qualities or attributes that you’re looking for?
I’m trying not to have too many preconceived ideas, although it’s difficult. I suppose I am looking for a book that brings many things together successfully - a book that is innovative from a literary point of view but is also saying something important, something that feels like a necessary and original contribution to a global conversation. Of course, I’m also looking at the translations. I can’t access the originals for the vast majority of the books, but I can see where the challenges will have arisen. I’m watching out for translations that seem particularly ingenious in how they overcome problems, but which are also beautiful texts in their own right. Translators are writers, so I am paying attention to that aspect.