For Those looking for our Olga Tokarczuk Post on the Corona Virus

By Brian Fawcett | April 18, 2020


A few days ago, Merrily Weisbord sent me a piece written by Olga Tokarczuk about the Covid-19 crisis currently sweeping the world. A friend of Merrily’s, Jerzy Przytyk, had translated the piece using Google’s notoriously mechanical translation program.  What Tokarczuk had to say in the piece was interesting simply because she is Olga Tokarczuk, the author of a remarkable book titled Flights, which won her the Man Booker International prize, and was almost certainly a major factor in her being awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize for Literature. I became aware of her several years ago, have managed to acquire all of her work that has been translated into English. I consider her, with Spanish novelist Javier Cercas, the two most interesting writers working today in any language.

The piece Przytyk sent to Merrily was still smoking hot when she forwarded it to me, and I assumed that it had been pulled off the Internet from Poland, and had been translated into English using Google translate, or some other application that translates one language into another’s version of Chinook. I decided, before I finished reading it, that the English-speaking world needed to know what Tokarczuk had to say, that I had the tools to retranslate it in understandable English, and, copyright be damned, I would upload a revised translation to this website.

Which is what I did, with a very short preface explaining where it came from, who was responsible for the retranslation, and a completely cryptic note concerning how the retranslation was effected:

This piece is respectfully published under the Havana Copyright Conventions, which state that any piece of writing is the intellectual property of whoever needs to know about it. It was translated from the Polish language by Jerzy Przytyk using Google Translate, and was then processed according to the R. Murray Schafer-Slobodan Drakulic translation protocols by Brian Fawcett. Thanks go to Merrily Weisbord and Jerzy Przytyk for their editorial help. Olga Tokarczuk was the richly deserving recipient of the 2019 Nobel Prize for Literature. She lives in Wroclaw, Poland.

About six hours after I got my upgraded version of Tokarczuk’s piece online, someone forwarded me a link to the New Yorker, which had published an (authorized) translation of its own. You can find it at

I removed my post from immediately. The reason for uploading it in the first place was that I thought it was something people needed to read and otherwise wouldn’t be able to (as per the Havana Copyright Conventions), and that with the New Yorker publication, this reason had vanished. We’re not thieves around here, despite my fairly intimate knowledge (and past uses) of the Havana Conventions.

The only loose end at this point is that cryptic line in the preface about how I cleaned up the Google translate version of the piece using “the R. Murray Schafer-Slobodan Drakulic translation protocols”.  There’s a story behind the protocols, and it’s worth recounting. Normally I have to be fairly drunk before I’ll talk about them, and this is the first time I’ve even attempted to write them down soberly or otherwise.

Let’s do the R. Murray Schafer part of this first. R. Murray Schafer is a Canadian musical composer and acoustical educator.  In his 80s, now, he’s highly regarded in Canada and internationally as a composer, (since the earliest versions of this piece Shafer has died) but he’s also been notable for a couple of other things most people don’t know about. In the 1960s, while he was the director of the then-experimental Communications department at newly-minted Simon Fraser University in the Vancouver suburbs, he created something called the World Soundscape project, which undertook to record and document the vast treasurehouse of sounds that were then disappearing from the world.  Many of the sounds the project recorded were natural sounds in the process of being buried under the onslaught of 60 and 50 cycle electrical technologies. But there was a human soundscape that was being lost as well, the orchestration of a more gently-paced way of living: church bells, musical instruments, alerting mechanisms like fire and police sirens, even tube radios. Most of these sounds were already neck-deep in white noise when Schafer created his project, so once identified as a problem, the World Soundscape became an urgent mission to the people who gravitated toward Schafer and his concerns.

I was one of them. I worked for him for several years as the 1970s began, including a year where I burned up a Woodrow Wilson fellowship, one of the last the Ford Foundation funded, and among the very few ever given to a student to remain at the university at which he’d taken his BA.  I argued successfully that I wanted to stay at Simon Fraser because Schafer was a genius, and I had much to learn from him.

Murray Schafer was a genius at getting people to do things they couldn’t possibly do. Examples? Sure. He once convinced six (or was it twelve) professional trombonists to space themselves, at 6 AM, around a small, mosquito- and blackfly-infested Ontario lake to play one of his compositions. The composition, Music for Wilderness Lake, was recorded by a recording crew from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation from a large canoe drifting near the middle of the lake. Things like this just aren’t possible.

On another occasion, he was able to convince a well-known Canadian poet who was notoriously afraid of water (and unable to swim) to stand upright in a 16-foot canoe for close to an hour on a windy lake near Banff (probably Lake Louise) wearing a bulky headdress that weighed thirty pounds. The poet did this as part of another performance of a Schafer composition.  There are dozens of other similarly ridiculous—but usually marvellous—stunts people performed for Schafer, none of which they could possibly have conceived or carried out on their own.

He got me to do quite a few things I couldn’t possibly do during the years I worked for him. One of them involved standing at midnight on a beach on the west coast of Vancouver Island holding high fidelity micophones outstretched in each hand with another two identical microphones ducktaped to my armpits. I was trying to record ocean surf in quadraphonic, and the microphones were attached to a pair of $4000 Uher reel-to-reel 15 pound “portable” taperecorders I had perched atop a log. The tide was coming in a little faster than I’d calculated it would, and, well, you can probably guess what happened: we only got a stereo recording of surf.

Two of them of the other things I couldn’t possibly do for Murray Schafer involved translations. One was translating the musical journalism of Ezra Pound, much of which was written in Italian while he was living in Rapallo with Olga Rudge during the 1930s, and not incidentally, acting as an advocate for Benito Mussolini’s strain of fascism.

“But Boss,” I whined when Shafer dropped the first stack of Pound’s Italian columns he’d somehow obtained through interlibrary loan in front of me and ordered me to translate them. “I don’t speak or read Italian.”

Schafer wasn’t interested in my problem. “Figure it out,” he said, and walked out of the room.

I did what he said.  I located and hired a trained Italian translator, a woman named Maria Chiara Zanolli, to make a literal translation of the columns. She did this, complaining the while that Pound’s Italian was so idiosyncratic it was more obtuse than the most obscure of dialects. I then took what she provided, and, with my graduate student’s knowledge of Pound’s utterly idiosyncratic English idiom, (I was probably better at mimicking Pound than at understanding exactly what he was saying) retranslated them so they sounded like Ezra Pound, and made some sort of logical sense.

Doing the translations was interesting to me in several ways. It taught me that intellectual muddling was great fun, and it turned me around on Pound, because along the way it had become clear to me that the great poet was clinically insane during the 1930s and that he remained cracked until well after the Allies caught him late in the Second World War and stuck him in a cage near Pisa, where he wrote what are arguably the best of his Cantos and, with help from writers like Ernest Hemingway and Charles Olson, regained a degree of sanity. At the time I manufactured the translations I was trying to write a M.A. thesis on the subject of Ezra Pound’s economic and poetic theories, and the translations revealed to me that I was writing an apology for fascism. My MA thesis was never completed, but you can find the translations I “figured out” in Schafer’s Ezra Pound and Music, which New Directions published in 1977, and Faber & Faber did in 1978 for British readers.

A year or so after I did the Pound translations, while Bruce Davis and I were helping Schafer create Okeanos, a ninety minute quadraphonic composition that is rumoured to have destroyed quite a lot of CBC broadcast equipment when it was aired without equalizing the sound levels, and which eventually won a Prix D’Italie prize for broadcasting, he got me to translate several passages from Apuleius’ The Golden Ass into an English musical enough to be read into the script of Okeanos. I didn’t read or speak Latin, either. But the guidance Schafer gave me—and I now think of it as the best intellectual advice I’ve ever been given—was the same: figure it out.

Then there’s the name on the other side of the protocols’ hypen: Slobodan Drakulic. Slobodan was a cherished intellectual companion of mine, and his obituary, to make a long and quite sad story short, is here. In the summer of 1995, he introduced me to a Bosnian poet named Admiral Mahic and asked me to help translate his work. Admiral had been brought to Canada from Sarajevo by PEN, and installed as a kind of informal poet-in-residence at the University of Toronto’s Massey College. Admiral, er, didn’t do well there, for several reasons. Massey, I think, was expecting a scholarly Muslim poet, and Admiral, though ethnically Muslim, was a larger-than-life free spirit who enjoyed women and booze more than was wise or healthy in a country traumatized by an ethnic and religious civil war. He was also the sort of man who couldn’t have a conversation with anyone—male or female—without putting his hands all over them, and this conversational style, with the body-perimeter hysteria that was then mounting at most universities, did not go over well at Massey. When Slobodan brought Admiral to me, he had recently “left” Massey under a cloud, and was in some danger of being expelled from Canada and returned to Bosnia, where his free spirit had made him some political enemies, this time of the sort that carry lethal weapons and don’t mind firing them at others.

Slobodan had found Admiral a place to live off campus, and had, I think, come to some sort of arrangement with Massey that sprung Admiral some of the funds PEN had put up for his accommodation. Slobodan’s question to me was this: Why hadn’t either PEN or Massey College done anything about translating Admiral Mahic’s poetry into English?

I got involved in the translation, partly as an act of cosmopolitan hospitality—I thought that Canada and its writing community had treated Admiral very badly—and partly because Slobodan presented Admiral to me as a kind of Bosnian Jack Kerouac.  Slobodan also put together a group that included himself, Admiral, at least one academic translator—sometimes Milica Babic and sometimes Ralph Bogert, both from the university of Toronto’s Slavic Studies Department, and me, as the English-language “writer”. We spent one or two afternoons a week at a table in Dooney’s Café on Bloor Street from October 1995 until mid-January, translating Admiral’s poetry. It was an utterly Schaferian undertaking, and I often thought about how delicious he’d have found it.

The difficulties of translating Mahic’s poems were three. One is the obvious one, that of transliteration between languages that operate by different habitual and syntactical rules. This turned out to be a difficulty rather easily surmountable by intelligence and labour, which I got unstintingly from all of my three translators.

The second difficulty was the difficulty of translating across cultures that are radically different in custom, political and social experience, and to a lessor degree, theology. If Admiral Mahic was Bosnia’s Jack Kerouac, he was a Jack Kerouac who lived in a world of flying bullets, indiscriminate artillery barrages, and senseless killings. And he was a Jack Kerouac influenced not by Thomas Wolfe and Allen Ginsberg, but by the Koran and by Rumi.

The third difficulty was the traumatic effects of Admiral’s still ongoing exile. His home city, Sarajevo, had been shattered by civil war and ethnic hatred, his lover killed by an anonymous artillery barrage, his library lost and his family dispersed.  Until PEN rescued him from Bosnia, he lived out of suitcases, sometimes as a houseguest, other times as a borderline vagrant. A key element of the translation process—in which Admiral enthusiastically and courageously participated—was to reclaim a degree of order to his thought and experience from the psychological and intellectual effects of his exile. Translation wasn’t quite enough. We had to revise—rigorously, and frequently in invasive ways—the poems in their original formulations. This is a procedure that few poets find pleasant, and many can’t handle. Admiral didn’t flinch from it.

He also brought an astonishing and unexpected gift to the process. No matter what passage we examined, took apart, asked for clarification on or demanded more physical articulation of, he was always able to tell us precisely where his materials came from, and he always knew what it was he had seen, felt, or heard that generated it. I suspect that this is the quality of mind that had allowed him to survive as a poet and as a human being through his ordeal.  For me, as their editor, it made translating them utterly fascinating, more like detective work than conventional editing. Admiral knew where he’d been and seen even if, at times, there has been nowhere to be but the twin prisons built by a civil war and by the terror and grief of an exile with no foreseeable end.

Slobodan Drakulic, throughout all this, was the perfect accomplice: intellectually present and fundamentally merry, pragmatically focused and undaunted by the academic heresy of what we were doing. Like Schafer always was, he was more interested in getting the work done than in whether our tutus were on straight. And he kept Admiral on the straight, which was no small job in itself.

At one point, a few months after Mahic returned to Bosnia taking several hundred pages of pretty good English language poetry with him, Slobodan raised the questions of what we’d learned from the experience. I’d already related to him my experiences with Schafer, and it was one of the reasons he was so comfortable with the ways we worked with Admiral even though we’d broken every academic rule either of us knew about. But as a trained sociologist, he also wanted protocols, so we could do it again for somebody else who needed to be heard. It didn’t take us long to come up with the protocols:

  • Be human and keep your feet on the ground.
  • Remember that what you’re translating is the work of another on-the-ground human being.
  • Do the intellectual work needed without whining.
  • Figure it out.

We left it there. If I were having this conversation with Slobodan now, (and I’d give anything to be able to) I’d insist that there must be a tangible product, and that no one should be allowed to embroider too far on the process.

And as I hope you’re aware, it was a privilege to deploy the protocols on behalf of Olga Togarczuk. And the translation it produced wasn’t bad at all.



  • Brian Fawcett

    Brian Fawcett (1944-2022) is a founding co-editor of He's the author of many books, including "Cambodia: A book for people who find television too slow" (1986), "Gender Wars" (1994), "Virtual Clearcut, or The Way Things Are in My Hometown" (2003), "Local Matters: A Defence of Dooney's Cafe and other Non-Globalized People, Places, and Ideas" (2003) and "Human Happiness" (2011).

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