When an Author You Translate Gets Death Threats

On a visit to Krakow last week, Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich spoke out in support of Tokarczuk, whom she called a “magnificent writer."

Acclaimed Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk (pictured) has received a steady stream of hate mail and even death threats after questioning her country’s view of itself as “an open, tolerant country.” As one person put it in a post to Tokarczuk’s Facebook page, “The only justice for these lies is death. Traitor.” Many agree that Tokarczuk’s “betrayal” must be punished; milder comments call for her expulsion from Poland. On a visit to Kraków last week, Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich spoke out in support of Tokarczuk, whom she called a “magnificent writer,” saying, “Some people would happily kick me out of Belarus in just the same way others are now calling for Tokarczuk to be removed from Poland.” While others have also expressed their solidarity with the author, the widespread outrage at Tokarczuk’s remarks has yet to subside.

The remarks in question are taken from a television interview Tokarczuk gave shortly after receiving Poland’s highest literary honor, the Nike, on October 4. She was awarded the Nike for her latest book, Księgi Jakubowe (The Books of Jacob), a monumental novel that delves into the life and times of controversial historical figure Jacob Frank, leader of a heretical Jewish splinter group that ranged the Habsburg and Ottoman Empires and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth seeking basic safety as well as transcendence. Tokarczuk’s twelfth book, considered by many critics to be her masterpiece, The Books of Jacob is also a suspenseful and entertaining novel that remained a national bestseller for months after its November 2014 release.

As the translator into English of The Books of Jacob, I asked Tokarczuk in April if she’d mind if I created a Facebook page for her Anglophone readers featuring links to published excerpts and the like. She agreed, and I quietly created the page, inviting a few friends to like it but putting off broader promotion until we had accumulated more posts. On October 4, I shared a picture of Tokarczuk accepting her award. Within hours this photo had been shared hundreds of times, and hundreds of new fans had liked our page and posted their congratulations. That night I went to bed feeling pleasantly surprised, delighted on Tokarczuk’s behalf that her extremely well-deserved fame throughout Europe was starting to cross more borders still.

But when I awoke the next morning, I was confronted with a different variety of surprise altogether. My email inbox was filled with Facebook notifications of comment after comment attacking Tokarczuk, calling for her immediate deportation, mutilation, and/or murder. As one commenter wrote, “You probably don’t even realize it but you’ll never be safe now in this country you’ll always be treated as a LIAR and genetic waste material” [sic]. In addition, there were numerous unrepeatable misogynist slurs and outright Holocaust denials. Worse was Tokarczuk’s Polish-language Facebook page, not to mention the countless other digital venues for such attacks.

An additional thread in these posts was the accusation that Tokarczuk is Ukrainian, not Polish, due to her traditionally Ukrainian last name. Another outraged Facebooker wrote, “Get out of our country since you seem to have such a problem with it. Hitler’s conspirators were Ms. Tokarczuk’s compatriots, i.e. the Ukrainians. Tokarczuk’s dad probably killed more Jews than all Poles combined. Let’s hope Putin finally instates some order in that Ukrainian pseudo-nation.” Anti-Ukrainian sentiment in Poland has risen recently with fears of an influx of illegal immigrants should the current conflict in Ukraine intensify. More varieties of xenophobia included anti-Muslim sentiment and anti-Americanism.

Stunned and also sickened by what I was reading, I wrote to Tokarczuk to ask if she was alright, and I turned to the Polish press in search of some explanation for this sudden outpouring of hate, absolutely unprecedented in Tokarczuk’s longstanding and distinguished career. I found an explanation in Tokarczuk’s post-awards interview, in which she said, among other things, “We have come up with this history of Poland as an open, tolerant country, as a country uncontaminated by any issues with its minorities. Yet we committed horrendous acts as colonizers, as a national majority that suppressed the minority, as slave-owners and as the murderers of Jews.”

As Cambridge University Professor Stanley Simon Bill notes, “one of the problems here was that, when quoted out of context, it sounded to people (or they chose to interpret it this way) as if Tokarczuk were making unjust general claims about Polish history. In fact, Tokarczuk is just part of a broader movement of Poles simply trying to bring some balance to the national narrative, and to talk about the dark pages as well as the light,” a project Bill calls “admirable.” Jagiellonian University Professor Roma Sendyka explains that “Poles, tormented time and time again throughout history by episodes of radical turmoil, maintained their identity on the basis of such immaterial qualities as ethics, culture and religion.”

Since the 1980s, however, this identity has been called into question by artists and academics through movements like so-called “critical art,” films like Paweł Pawlikowskis much-acclaimed Ida, research initiatives such as the Post-Dependence Studies Center—which examines Poland’s colonization of Lithuania, Belarus and Ukraine—and the POLIN Museum of the History of Polish Jews, built on the site of the former Warsaw Ghetto. New historical works like Princeton Professor Jan Gross’ Neighbors, on the murder of Polish Jews in the village of Jedwabne, have remained intensely controversial; Gross is currently facing a lawsuit from Poland for having claimed that Poles may have killed more Jews than they did Germans during the Second World War. Sendyka calls Tokarczuk’s pronouncement of “an uncomfortable truth” about Poland’s history “brave,” but she says it’s no surprise it provoked “paroxysms of moral panic.”

It is certainly also worth noting that the political climate in Poland has been particularly tense this month. In terms of their potential to determine the nation’s future, Sunday’s elections were arguably the most important in Poland since the fall of the Soviet Union. The conservative Law and Justice (PiS) Party roundly defeated the incumbent Civic Reform (PO) Party, which has maintained a largely pro-European economic and social liberalism. Law and Justice has promised family-focused reforms, including potential bans on abortion and in-vitro fertilization, and a reprioritization of Polish national interests as opposed to those of the EU.

Furthermore, while set in the eighteenth century, The Books of Jacob definitely taps into a twenty-first century Zeitgeist. It encourages its readers to reexamine their histories and reconsider their perspectives on the shape Europe will take in coming years. It celebrates and problematizes diversity in its plot and in the heterogeneity of its characters. It subtly participates in the debates dividing Europe—and the world—on how to protect tolerance, how to define intolerance, how to set and abide by the limits of contemporary sovereignty, and on specific issues such as how to handle an influx into Central Europe of Syrian refugees, in both practical and moral terms.

Hungarian translator George Szirtes has recently noted “the fierce, unrelenting rhetoric of hatred” that has pervaded that country’s conversations on Syrian refugees, who have been “mistreated and demonized as a matter of policy.” Hungary has now closed its borders with both Serbia and Croatia. Numerous Polish intellectuals have spoken out in favor of welcoming Syrian refugees into Poland, which has remained largely unaffected by the crisis until now; many others have demanded that the opposite occur.

A recent survey conducted by major news outlet Gazeta Wyborcza revealed that the majority of Poles feared religious and moral conflict connected with the possibility of an increased Muslim presence in the country. And the notion of the other as potential toxin to Poland’s otherwise robust national organism was recently revived by Law and Justice chairman Jarosław Kaczyński, who warned that refugees could spread infectious diseases if allowed into Poland, insisting they had already brought “cholera to the Greek islands, dysentery to Vienna, various types of parasites.” Professor Radosław Markowski of the Polish Academy of Sciences has said that Poland will likely become “another Hungary” in the hands of the Law and Justice Party.

Debates such as these are as urgent as they are fundamental, and I am in awe of Tokarczuk for the deftness, patience and lyrical grace of her prose that truly helps to deepen them through empathy and intelligence. I am honored to translate The Books of Jacob into English. Whether or not I’ll stick around as the administrator of her English-language Facebook page, however, I’m not entirely sure.

Tokarczuk emailed me back right away to let me know that she was fine. A few days later, she posted the following status on her personal Facebook page: “This experience has taught me that hate mail, or hatred, even if it’s able to engulf so many people and incite them to such aggressive, undignified behavior, nonetheless it also—and in spite of their intentions—leads to the creation of a countermovement. The enormous amount of solidarity I’ve experienced is a testament to this.”

“But it would be in vain for my aggressive and belligerent adversaries to await a response. I will not have a conversation in a climate of threats and invectives. I encourage them instead to read and to honestly reflect on the subject of Polish history; this history is comprised not only of great and glorious moments, but also of periods of shame and disgrace. Such discussions are incredibly necessary for us to have. Better late than never.”

*****

Jennifer Croft is the recipient of Fulbright, PEN, and National Endowment for the Arts grants, as well as the Michael Henry Heim Prize, and her translations from Polish, Spanish, and Ukrainian have appeared in The New York Times, n+1, Electric Literature, The New RepublicBOMB, Guernica, and elsewhere. She holds a PhD from Northwestern University and an MFA from the University of Iowa. She is a Founding Editor of The Buenos Aires Review. Read illustrated chapters of her novel—in a wide range of languages—at homesickbook.space.

Read More from Polish:

 

  • Antoni Wrega

    Dear Ms. Croft,
    I simply believe you are a proud human being from the West, and not one — even mentally — originated from the totalitarian East. And you will not and would not like to erase my note. There are some news about would-be death threats against writer Olga Tokarczuk posted in English language Press and they are circulating with some opposition to this form of market campaign thought to simply increase of Ms. Tokarczuk rather poor book production. For instance I would like to cite some voices, but firstly you have to know that anti-historical and ignorant Tokarczuk a few weeks ago accused Poles (at large, not a particular man or woman) as being “killers of Jews”, “colonialists” and “slave owners”. I am pretty sure that such rubbish accusations are very welcome in Putin’s Russia, being — as everyone knows — the last colonial empire on the Earth, and prison of nations. So, Tokarczuk’s silly comments made the outburst of disapproval and critical voices in Poland as well as even abroad. The one of them reads like this:
    “Both: Agnieszka Holland and Olga Tokarczuk are now simply boycotted by most Poles. Why? Fabricated lies are the main reason. Take into account comments from The Scotsman (Edinburgh) after its article ‘Polish author Olga Tokarczuk gets death threats’ [14 Oct.,
    2015] and form your own opinion.
    *‘Poles are the most hospitable people on earth, and Poles want to feed and give guests plenty of drink while in their homes. To be
    honest, I can’t think of more hospitable people, some will even try and make you an actual part of their family. The one thing Poles hold disdain for is disloyalty and the dishonor of their good name and country, the author must know this VERY well, therefore in doing so knew what she was doing. The only reason why Poles would dislike Jews or her is the above mentioned. When this woman or Jews write fabrications and lies trying hard to smear the Poles’ image and reputation then I would not be surprised if they did dislike these
    individuals. I’m sure they are sick of Jews’ typical behavior. Guilt mongering of the Poles by Jews is an every day item on the menu. It’s getting old at this point and the Poles should sue the woman and Jews at any chance that they get till they finally get the message.’ [JoeyF]
    *‘Dear Editor! Forgive me my straight word opinion but I have to share it here…Your news is a simply non-sense. Whole action made by fantasy story writer is one big humbug and cardinal NONSENSE! There are huge outcry among Poles, since mediocre roman
    writer Ms. Olga Tokarczuk publicly said that Poles had Jewish slaves, killed them and were simply… colonialists (not even — for instance — behaved as colonialists!) towards Jews. She did not mention of course either Germans or Nazis in this context [sic!]. Olga Tokarczuk is a radical leftist activist-writer, backed by outgoing now, but still powerful former Communists in Poland. She wants – in my opinion — to instigate tensions in Poland and whole region. Pro-immigrants, anti-Israel, always on knees hearing voices from Moscow, # 1
    hater in Poland… (And, unfortunately, she is a Pole, not a Ukrainian, having the same surname like famous archbishop the late Ignacy Tokarczuk, one of the leaders in the peaceful struggle with Communists). Her last anti-Poland explosion of anti-Poland sentiments probably starts beginning of the end of her elevated only by extremely leftist mass-media, bizarre literary career. The
    boycott of her (mediocre) books has just started in patriotic circles in
    Poland. Might be, she wants by her scandalous actions to enchant scores of ignorant and arrogant readers world-widely? Who knows? Sincerely yours, Antoni J. Wrega, historian and author.’
    *‘Unfortunately, Ms. Tokarczuk seems to many to be jumping on a bandwagon of misleading national self chastising for the purpose of self aggrandizement and personal benefit. The award she received is considered to represent post Communist circles, with the Communists having been the suppressors of freedoms, and perpetrators of crimes, in Pre and Post WW II Poland. Her statements in regards to Polish history do not do justice to Poland’s complex history, and do more to confuse than not, and she
    should know this. While Polish oligarchs did treat Ukrainian peasants as slaves, they treated the majority of the Polish population, namely the Polish peasants, the same, and those oligarchs quite often used Jews to administer their estates, which including overseeing the performance of the indentured slaves. While some Poles killed others, such as Jews and Ukrainians, Jews and Ukrainians also killed Poles. Making simplistic statements as Ms. Tokarczuk did, regarding this history, and certainly making one-sided statements, as she
    did, is unwise and anger provoking. Generalizing and stereotyping, which I believe Ms. Tokarczuk is guilty of, have to be avoided. What she did, and is doing, is tantamount to falsely accusing everyone in a room of murder, and then playing the poor victim when everyone starts screaming at her. I do believe that threats should not be made against anyone, but there is a reason for etiquette and fair play, and that is to avoid unnecessary friction, miscommunication and anger. Some intellectuals seem to think that publicly skirting good manners is fashionable and acceptable, when it is wrongheaded and arrogant! Telling someone they are wrongheaded and arrogant is allowed!’[Ryewkiding]”

  • Arent van Nieukerken

    Dear Mr. Wrega,

    I would like to react as a “proud human being from the West” who, however, has thrown in his lot with Poland, Polishness, the multi-ethnic and religious traditions of the Polish and Lithuanian Commonwealth, Adam Mickiewicz’s Romanticism etc. etc.(in fact, it would have been easier for me to write this reaction in Polish). I must admit that I have read Olga Tokarczuk’s novel with great pleasure. Her novelistic craftsmanship has been open to a lot of criticism in the past, but the real test of a novel’s impact remains “naive” reader experience. Last year, whilst staying in Warsaw, I finished reading “Księgi jakubowe” in only a week. This suggests that the novel is hardly boring and it also testifies to its societal relevance (which has increased during the last months, against the background of the European refugee crisis). I am eagerly looking forward to its English (and Dutch) translation, because I want to share my enthousiasm with my students at Amsterdam University. Of couse, artistic merit is never self-evident and must discussed. The same holds for the adequacy with which historical sources are interpreted and represented. But that is not what is at stake at the moment. The main issue is: Olga Tokarczuk has fallen victim to a vicious campaign of hate mail (“hejterstwo”), a phenomenon that seems to be typical for our times, not only in Poland, but all over the world (and particularly in Western and Central-Europe). This is what you should have condemned first. After that you may, of course, proceed to criticizing Tokarczuk’s “silly” interpretations of Polish (and Jewish and Ukrainian etc.) history. But, do you not agree that Tokarczuk’s novelistic handling of certain “taboos” of Polish history and her public statements (that may be sometimes onesided and emotional) are convincing proof of Poland’s return to democracy and modernity? Everything can be discussed (at least in Poland; not in Putin’s Russia and Lukashenko’s Byelorus). To me this seems a great achievement. We should not allow it to be undone. But when we do not speak out clearly and loudly against hate campaigns on internet and – instead – attack the victim of such a campaign, free speech will gradually disappear from the public domain. People will feel terrified and hide themselves in private life. It is not about being left wing or right wing (these words do not mean very much in Poland and in the rest of Europe). It is about being decent and defending the space for a civilized discussion.
    (Finally, dear Ms. Croft, I highly appreciate your courageous article)

    Yours sincerely, Arent van Nieukerken (lecturer of Polish Studies at the University of Amsterdam)