The Literary Tourist Interviews Philip Boehm

The Literary Tourist is a column of conversations between literary translators about newly released books in translation. This month Andrea Gregovich interviews playwright, theatrical director, and translator Philip Boehm. Philip has translated numerous novels and plays from German and Polish, including Hanna Krall’s Chasing the King of Hearts. Chasing the King of Hearts is a compelling work of literary reportage about of a Holocaust survivor with a unique story.

Andrea Gregovich: Chasing the King of Hearts is the story of Izolda, a Jewish woman who doesn’t so much escape the Holocaust as connive her way through it. She’s so clever she could find a way to escape the occupied area entirely, but she’s determined to stay and get her husband out of Auschwitz. Izolda thought about turning her story into a book for years, and rejected more than one author before she started working with Hanna Krall. What is it about Izolda’s story that is so urgent and unique?

Philip Boehm: Izolda has to race against time to save her husband—that’s the urgency. Her personal odyssey is what makes the story unique—the twists and turns, the close calls and narrow escapes across the vast landscape of the Holocaust. The sheer amount of movement is spectacular: Warsaw, Vienna, various camps ranging from Auschwitz to Mauthausen.

AG: This book reads like a novel, but in fact it’s a woman’s life story written in the form of a novel. It’s been described as ghostwritten, a true life story, literary reportage, and a documentary fable. And Hanna Krall is known for writing these sorts of books, which seem to exist somewhere in the overlap of literature and journalism. How common is this sort of book in Poland and Eastern Europe? Are there English-language authors we might think of as equivalents, working in the same sort of genre?

PB: In Poland there is a very well-established school; perhaps the best-known representative is Ryzszard Kapuściński. Svetlana Alexievich (Belarus) won the Nobel Prize in 2015, and I think that has amplified awareness of the genre.

AG: The title of the book, Chasing the King of Hearts, refers to the playing cards Izolda looks to for prophetic guidance as she tries to reach her husband, who is always represented by the king of hearts card. Do you know much about this tradition of reading playing cards? Is it anything like reading tarot cards? How common was it in Poland during the era of this novel, and is it still a practice today?

PB: During the occupation people frequently turned to cartomancy and other forms of fortune-telling—which is understandable given that so much more was in the hands of “fate.” It is indeed still practiced, but the stakes have changed; now it’s more a kind of parlor game.

AG: I found Hanna Krall’s documentary style so effective. By telling a story with minimal poetics, she is able to highlight some of the chilling and bizarre details in Izolda’s experience. A scene that really struck me was early in the book, when Izolda is rushing through the ghetto to see her husband, and in her anxiety, she breaks into a run. The other people see her and start running with her, because they seem to think they’ll get shot if they don’t. Were there any particular moments like this that stuck with you?

PB: The imagery is very vivid, so it’s easy to recall dozens of such scenes. I think that translating the text also inscribed it in my memory. So I’m afraid there are too many to recount.

AG: How do you feel about translating a more minimalist style? For me, a simpler or more minimal text is often more difficult to translate from Russian—it feels like the less flowery the writing, the more likely it is for the idiosyncrasies of the original language (grammar, syntax, and so forth) to muck up the flow of the language in English.

PB: Hmmm. I would say it poses a different difficulty. First there is the question of voice—which for me is always paramount—and then there’s the problem of capturing the energy, which would dissipate if the translation weren’t tight. The terseness of the original is reinforced by the fact the Polish language does not use articles, and also because sentence subjects are often merely implied. So we have to look for other ways to reproduce the dynamism—for instance by restructuring sentences for rhythmic effect.

AG: Because there were people of such different backgrounds encountering each other in the camps and cities during the Nazi occupation, this book includes passages in Hebrew, occasional words in German, and dialogue in Yiddish and transliterated Russian. Sometimes these are footnoted, and sometimes they are translated next to the original in the text, like “Vsyo ravno, voyna… Who cares, it’s war…” There are also French and American characters who speak with Izolda in their own languages, but these sections appear mostly in English. How did you decide how to portray the non-Polish languages in this book?

PB: I think the only footnotes are the ones from the original: there’s one note from Hanna Krall and translations of the Hebrew passages. I thought it was important to keep the other languages present, precisely to convey that mix of backgrounds you mention. But whereas the Polish reader will easily grasp the sense of the Russian, our readers won’t necessarily understand these other languages, so I chose to convey the meaning within the text “discreetly” so as not to break the flow. This is actually a problem I’ve frequently encountered, and as a general rule I try to find just the right dose of “foreignness” while avoiding footnotes.

AG: In addition to translating, you’re a playwright and stage director. How do you manage such divergent pursuits? What’s your creative process like, and how does your schedule work? I ask as a fellow creative writer-translator; to me it feels like a life of spinning plates!

PB: Actually I keep discovering more and more overlap between translating literary texts and staging plays. In each case it’s a matter of reconstituting voices and recreating worlds. Of course one is a solitary pursuit and the other decidedly not. As for spinning plates, perhaps circus training should be part of every artistic curriculum. In my own ongoing search for balance I’m happy if I find a little equilibrium—and always hoping for a little more time to let each project ripen.

Andrea Gregovich is a writer and translator of Russian literature. Her first translated novel USSR: Diary of a Perestroika Kid was published by Fiction Advocate in 2014, and her translation of Nadezhda Belenkaya’s Wake In Winter was released in 2016 by Amazon Crossing.

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