Culturally speakingTranslator’s life


The Witcher games and series have been on everyone’s lips for some time now and I’ve got a real treat for you!

Here’s my interview with David French, the translator of the Witcher books from Polish into English

David has translated six books by Andrzej Sapkowski and he’s working on another three now. As it happens, we live in the same town! This year, I’ve had the pleasure to interview David twice – back when meetings with authors for the public were still possible. This one is a bit more private interview that we had in February. You will find out how it feels to be an Englishman living in Poland, what it takes to learn Polish fluently, and how the translation market works in Britain. I hope you’ll enjoy the conversation ? And make sure to read the Witcher saga while you’re waiting for the second season of the Netflix show!

  Translatorion translators interview David French English  

Martyna: You’ve translated six Witcher books. That’s impressive!

David French: It’s not bad, is it?

So, let’s start from the beginning.

That’s a good place to start.

How did you end up in Poland?

I always knew that I had a Polish grandfather, who died before I was born – before me and my siblings were born. So, we knew we had a famous grandfather who was a bit of an enigmatic figure, quite a fascinating character. We got two messages about him: one that he was an amazing and famous person who’d done some incredible things and the other that he was a totally lame husband and father. That was a bit weird.

So we were a little bit aware of Poland, we had a photo album from the one holiday we’d had in Poland in 1968, when my siblings and I were quite small. Then, when I was in my mid-20s and didn’t know what to do with my life, I did a course to teach English as a foreign language, without any particular aim. Towards the end of the course, people were talking about where they were going to teach when they got this piece of paper, about going to exotic places like South America and Spain. I decided to go to grey, communist Poland!

The most exotic one!

Maybe! I don’t know how it is with most people, but I don’t think my decisions are always motivated by what I claim them to be. My argument was that I had a Polish grandfather and an aunt from his first marriage, ciocia Malina. When she visited us she always spoke French with us. My thinking was: I have these Polish roots, why don’t I visit Poland? It could sound really bold and adventurous but I don’t think it was in my mind. It was in 1988, just before the transformation, 20 years after we’d visited Poland for the first time. So I made that decision, quite bizarre actually, to come and live in Poland for a while. I knew nothing about Poland, literally, and in the UK there was no information about Poland whatsoever.

I asked my tutor from the teaching course if she had any contacts in Poland. She was friends with the director of the British Council studium in Gdańsk. She got me in touch with him, he didn’t have a vacancy but I got a job instead at the British Council studium in Katowice. This was before any private schools in Poland, and outside state schools there were only teachers giving private lessons or korepetycje. I got a ticket to Warsaw, because that was probably the only place in Poland you could fly to from the UK. So that was my first experience.

I worked in Katowice for two years, it was an amazing time, and then… I’m not entirely sure why I left. But I came back to the UK and I got a proper university degree in teaching training. I stayed a couple of years in the UK and I couldn’t really decide what to do again, so I came back to Poland, to Kraków, hoping it would be like in Katowice. In Katowice, we had those imaginative lessons, we did complex projects. I hated teaching from a coursebook, which was freaking me out, I didn’t know how to use coursebooks, and I never have. In Kraków it wasn’t so cool anymore. The teaching didn’t seem to click the way it had the first time.

Back then, I used to go to Cieszyn to visit some friends I’d made the first time I lived in Poland. I would come down for the weekend, and we’d go hiking. After a year in Kraków, I came to Cieszyn and found a job at a language school at the university – English Language Study Centre. I worked there for quite a long time.

And how on earth did you learn Polish? It’s so difficult to learn this language!

Well, 38 million people managed to do so. I think the main thing is the motivation. I’m not the first person to say it. I think 90% of it is motivation.

What was yours?

To be able to speak to ciocia Malina! In Polish, not in French. And I did! Once I learned Polish, I visited her in Kraków quite often and we spoke Polish. I bought a book in the UK which was called Colloquial Polish, quite an old-fashioned book. I learned the grammar from that, and then I would use everyday situations like buying vegetables and fruit from the market stalls and trying to buy something from kiosks by twisting my neck and looking through the little window.

I also used to visit my good Polish friends and speak to them. I was practising, making observations, checking my grammar book, asking questions. I also had some lessons for a while. Someone lent me a book about Polish phonetics, which showed the articulation positions for doing sz, and cz, and ś, ć, ź, ż, and so I learned the pronunciation. Every Monday morning, I would buy sports newspapers and read the reports from football matches in the English First Division. I was interested in football, there was a concrete context, and they were short pieces. It’s a great way to learn a foreign language.

When did you realise you could really speak Polish and communicate in that language?

In public situations, it took me a long time before I could even relax a bit. After those two years in Katowice, I went back to the UK and lived in Manchester. There was a Polish school where the Polonia kids used to dance Polish dances and learn Polish songs and poems. I joined the GCSE class and I prepared for the exam – I got an ‘A’ grade in it. I was really proud of my Polish!

The next year I prepared for the A level, like matura, and so I was getting acquainted with Pan Tadeusz, Kochanowski’s, Szymborska’s, and Herbert’s poems, Mrożek’s Tango. As I was reading, I would often wonder what a particular word meant, would look it up in the dictionary and then say, ‘That’s the fifth time I’ve looked up the same word.’ My vocabulary was not extensive enough to bed new words into what I already knew.

I asked you about the beginnings of your stay in Poland and about the beginnings of your Polish language, and now it’s time for the ultimate question – how did you become a translator?

When I was working at the English Language Study Centre in Cieszyn, one day I was asked to translate the book Cieszyn w fotografii [“Cieszyn in photography”] by Mr Władysław Sosna into English. Before that, I hadn’t even thought about translating, so that was my first experience. The second experience was when a lecturer at a university in Sweden came one day with an article about Gombrowicz. I tried doing that, but he said it was no good because it was like “of, of, of” all the time. I didn’t know how to handle the genitive case in those days and it was a bit of a disaster because he rejected it.

Then I started doing texts for Zamek Cieszyn – fascinating historical ones, for example about the founding of Cieszyn. Then my friend who worked for TVP in Katowice said that one of his friends had made a documentary and needed to have English subtitles to send it to a festival. I translated the documentary and I thought, ‘This is good, this is more like the high life, this is TV. And it’s using natural, colloquial language. Let’s do this!’ So I did a few of these and I quite enjoyed them. Then some other documentary makers got in touch with me as well.

And at which point did translation become your full-time job?

I made a decision about that. About 10 or 12 years ago, when I was working at the Foreign Language Teacher Training College, I was sick of teaching. I decided I was going to switch to full-time translation. But the question was, would there be enough work? I thought that even though the last thing in the world I wanted was to work for an agency, I would at least try. I drove to one in Lublin, I did a course where they taught me how to do proofreading. But I told them I actually had a lot of experience of translating Polish into English, not boasting, just giving them the facts. And it was like they literally weren’t hearing it. They had two or three natives in their team who couldn’t speak any Polish. It was a bit bizarre, though, because they couldn’t see the benefit of having a native who could translate into English. And I didn’t want to do proofreading.

There were times that I really had to chase after jobs and sometimes it was a financial struggle, so it took some time and there were some periods which were a bit stressful. Screenplays were also attractive to me. I went to see a film by Andrzej Jakimowski, Sztuczki, and after I’d seen it I thought I really wanted to work with that guy. I got his email from someone in the Polish Film Institute, wrote to him and he wrote back saying, ‘Listen, I don’t think the subtitles for Sztuczki are that good, could you check them?’, and he gave me a couple of pages, which were pretty ropey. I sent it back to him in two columns showing what I would have done. And then he said, ‘Well, actually, I’m right now writing a screenplay and we’re gonna be filming it in English so I need someone to translate my whole screenplay.’ So I stayed in touch with him and I’m working on a third film with him now.

The Witcher books collection in English

So how did you get to translate the best-selling Witcher books?

After mainly translating texts connected with tourism and history and then some subtitles for documentary films, I wrote to the Book Institute in Krakow in June 2010. I translated some texts for their New Books from Poland catalogue. On 13 December 2011 (interestingly, 30 years to the day after Martial Law was declared in Poland!) I received an email from the institute informing me that Andrzej Sapkowski’s British publisher was looking for a new English translator for his Witcher novels. I was told I’d be given a sample of about five pages to translate. I agreed. I submitted my sample translation in December and waited. And waited and waited – well into 2012, and then finally stopped thinking about it. Then in the summer, quite out of the blue, I received an email from Orion saying that they liked my translation and asking whether I’d like to translate two books. It was something of a no-brainer.

Time of Contempt came out in 2013 and Baptism of Fire in 2014. Then I signed a new contract with Sword of Destiny, The Tower of the Swallow, and The Lady of the Lake. And then the stand-alone novel Season of Storms. Right now, I’m working on the third part of Sapkowski’s Hussite Trilogy. The first book is due out in October of this year.

What do you like about translating?

I’m a word-nerd. I’m obsessed with words! I’ve always loved words and their meanings, languages, dialects and obscure regionalisms, accents, figures of speech, and etymology. I get excited by things like finding out that the Polish word miednica – or large bowl – comes from miedź (copper).

Sapkowski is ideal for me, even though I check stuff almost every single sentence of his. I love his historical references, his use of obscure archaic expressions, his use of dialect and rare words. I’ve learned a lot about all sorts of different disciplines and areas of knowledge through translation.

On the down side, I do find the isolation of translation difficult, and I’m much more of a people person. Working alone with a single project for several months is pretty demanding. That’s why I really enjoy the editing stage, where you work with an editor, and then emails go back and forth, you have conversations on the phone, you make decisions, and so on.

Speaking of cooperating with editors – how does it look in the UK?

In the UK, there are always two people reading it. They’re British editors who don’t speak any Polish so all they see is what’s in front of them, without reference to the original. In the first Witcher books, when my manuscripts had been sent to them and then sent back to me, I would have comments written in the margins from both of them. One of them was the lead editor and the other one read it all but didn’t go into it so deeply. They generally expect me to accept their changes, unless I really want to fight for something I don’t want changed. They change a hell of a lot: style, word order, expressions, phrases, specific items of vocabulary.

But I don’t really mind, I know it’s a team effort to make the finished product as good as possible. So, there are always two people who edit it but there’s also a proofreader who’s looking at all the commas and full stops.

How much time does it take once you’ve finished a translation before the book gets published?

I get about nine months to translate one book, that’s quite a lot of time. Then, what they call production seems to take quite long. There’s the physical process of publishing the actual book, putting it on paper, so that obviously takes time. Also, they have to coordinate it with all the other books that are coming out at the same time – so they do need quite a few months once we’ve finished the manuscript – then it goes to the proofreader and comes back again after a couple of weeks and then it goes back again. There’s about a year between one part of the saga and another.

Now I have a difficult question. Why do British people read such little foreign literature, so few translated books?

The stats are roughly like this: on the Polish market, let’s say 40% of the books are translations, no one has a complex about it, it’s natural. I’m guessing it’s similar in other, non-English countries, although I don’t have the statistics. But the English-speaking world’s attitude to languages is one of suspicion, isn’t it? A foreign language is a foreign animal. English is a very dominant language; Polish is much more of a minority language.

A few years back at the London Book Fair, they were saying that of the English-language book market, 3% are translations. A couple of years later they said now it had gone up to 4%, which is a tenth of what it is in Poland. That means for a hundred books in your bookshelf in the UK, three or four books were written in a foreign language and all the rest are English – so it’s almost like zero – whereas in Poland it’s four out of ten. It’s all in mentality, in culture, the approach, the attitudes.

The Witcher saga books series

What about the Witcher?

If it hadn’t been for the game, which has sold tens of millions of units worldwide, the British publisher would not have taken on Sapkowski, and now, because of the massively successful Netflix series, the book sales have gone through the roof.

From this perspective, it must be very difficult to be a book translator in Britain?

In my case it was like, you know… koniunktura. I was lucky to be invited to do this trial translation of Sapkowski. What most Polish-to-English translators do – and there aren’t too many of us, you know, like maybe a few dozen or so – is they go for absolute leaders, the most wonderful books of Polish literature, and that’s the ones we hear about. Olga Tokarczuk, Jacek Dehnel, Jacek Dukaj, and a few other names, but quite a small number. The only ones that are being translated are the absolute tip-top, excellent, amazing literature that has to be translated. Antonia Lloyd-Jones always says that a translator has to be really well-read in Polish, to know what’s coming out, to sense a book that should be translated. Then you have to go touting the book round the publishers in the UK. That’s the sort of recommended strategy for new translators.

I’ve attempted that twice. I translated a few extracts from a Polish book that I really liked, wrote a bit about the author, and sent it to four or five publishers and then got letters back from maybe three, and a couple of them were quite positive but they said, ‘We can’t quite squeeze it in.’ But I went down this weird route with Sapkowski where I didn’t even have to think about the whole business of finding a new book, realising it’s absolutely brilliant, working out the strategy, and doing all the stuff I’ve just described. I was simply invited to take part in a selection process.

I know about your personal mission to make the names of translators visible. How do you think it can be accomplished?

By just continuing to do it all the time, if there’s a chance to mention it, to raise awareness. It’s kind of ignorance on one level, so it’s a question of correcting it and reminding people over and over again. I think it’s disrespectful to overlook translators – if not simply insulting.

What would you say to a person who would like to become a literary translator? Would you give this person some piece of advice how to become one, or how not to become one?

The question is, are we talking about quality of literature or are we being snobbish? Because one could say that being a literary translator is like the key, the apex of translation, but… is it? If I’ve translated a beautiful piece about a museum, why is that not just as good? Maybe it is reasonable to say that you’re never going to translate better stuff than if you’re translating the top non-fiction writers or the top novelists, so the quality of the text you’re working with is the best there could be possibly be, so it’s lovely to work with beautiful quality texts.

But again, if I compare it to translating an instruction manual for a car, then what right do I have to say that someone else doesn’t enjoy it for its own merit? But if it’s someone who is literary, you could regard that as the peak of what you might be translating, and I think that is really attractive to people. And there is clearly a certain amount of prestige linked to it.

At one of the first lectures I went to at the London Book Fair, one of the experts on a panel discussion said, ‘I just want to say right at the get-go; you’re not gonna make any money as a literary translator.’ I understand that many literary translators often do their translations in the evening or weekends, they have a day job, there’s no way they could afford to do it full time. A translator usually gets 1% percent of royalties, which is quite a small amount and in fact I believe it’s rare for enough copies of a book to be sold for a translator even to start earning that 1% of the price of the book. In other words, most often the translator only receives the fee for the translation after several months of very hard and concentrated work. And it’s not particularly cost-effective.

Also, you have to be an extremely good writer in your own language. What the readers see is not the original writer. Every word they see is your word. You’ve got to love the written word.

Is there a word in Polish that you particularly like or you think is missing in English?

I like the verb załatwić. It means to get something sorted out. In a wartime context I think people used to say the had managed to ‘organise’ some petrol for their car. It didn’t mean exactly bribe, it might have meant ‘scrounged’, it might have involved a favour or a bribe. We used to joke a lot about it in the late 1980s in Katowice – there was so much you couldn’t simply buy, so the word was used a lot. You have to say this word in Polish even if you’re having a conversation in English, you just cannot translate it. ‘You can’t buy it but I will try to załatwić it for you!’

The final question is – what do you enjoy about living in Cieszyn?

I just love this little town. Especially where I live now – it’s so close to the Olza river, I can see the Beskid Mountains from my windows, it’s near the town square. I rent office space in a co-working setup and I hang out with really nice creative people. Even though Cieszyn is a small town, there’s plenty of cool people who are cosmopolitan with wide interests and perspectives in terms of culture, travel, and language. It really suits me. You know, I go to Warsaw a few times a year, but recently I’ve been up there and realised I couldn’t actually live there permanently. I’ve lived in Cieszyn for a long time and I sometimes wonder why, but I guess a small town is just okay by me.

Thank you for the conversation!

Translatorion translator reading translation
Pic. Rafał Soliński


Here’s part of David’s sample during the competition to select a new translator for Andrzej Sapkowski, as it appears in the Witcher book Time of Contempt.

The narrow forest track was blocked with wagons. Aplegatt slowed down and trotted unhurriedly up to the last wagon in the long column. He saw he could not force his way through the obstruction, but nor could he think about heading back; too much time would be lost. Venturing into the boggy thicket and riding around the obstruction was not an attractive alternative either, particularly since darkness was falling. ‘What’s going on?’ he asked the drivers of the last wagon in the column. They were two old men, one of whom seemed to be dozing and the other showing no signs of life.

‘An attack? Scoia’tael? Speak up! I’m in a hurry . . .