Today we speak to literary translator Kate Webster, recipient of the Emerging Translator Mentorship 2018-19 in Polish to English. Kate has been working on the English translation of Mirabelle, written in Polish by Cezary Harasimowicz (published by Zielona Sowa).
Since its publication in Poland in 2018, Mirabelle has won a number of awards, including the City of Warsaw Literature Prize and a distinction in the literary category for Polish IBBY’s best books of the year.
Kate is currently seeking a publisher for this compelling tale for middle-grade readers, which is set in Warsaw and told by a rather unusual narrator… Publishers, see the sample translation beneath our interview with Kate!
Hi Kate, great to have you here! Tell us about the novel Mirabelle. What’s it about and what kind of reader might it appeal to?
Mirabelle follows four generations of people living in Warsaw between the 1930s and the present day. Set in the area of the wartime Jewish ghetto, the story is told by a rather unusual narrator – a sentient plum tree called Mirabelle. Mirabelle has a charming, childlike way of observing the world around her and trying to explain things she finds hard to understand. She is also able to talk to children and in doing so, she discovers a lot about how they live, their hopes and dreams, and also their fears. As the children in the neighbourhood turn into adults, they lose their ability to hear Mirabelle, but she continues to observe their lives and does her best to help them when they’re in trouble.
Mirabelle survives the destruction of WWII, although many of her human friends disappear. She then witnesses the post-war rebuilding of her beloved neighbourhood, and the political and social turmoil that haunts the city for decades to come. As the twenty-first century begins, Mirabelle faces a new challenge in the form of city developers that threaten to chop her down. Along the way, she makes many new friends and continues to learn about this complex, often baffling world that she’s living in.
The story covers some very poignant topics that are important for children to learn about. It broaches the subject of war and the Holocaust in a sensitive way, but without shielding readers from the truth. Other key themes are ecology, regeneration and the circle of life. Even though the tree itself eventually meets its end, its descendants survive and are replanted, first in the USA, and later again in Warsaw. Mirabelle is based on real events and inspired by an actual plum tree that grew in the courtyard near where the author was born. It is aimed at middle-grade readers, but it has much to offer older children and adults too.
How did you find the book, or did the book find you?
I was in Poland in May 2018 visiting my partner’s family and we went for our regular browse around the bookshops in his hometown. Mirabelle had just been published then and it kind of jumped out at me from the shelves. The lovely cover illustration of the plum tree (by Marta Kurczewska) caught my eye and I picked it up to see what it was about; within a few pages I was hooked. I’d heard of Cezary Harasimowicz as a screenwriter and actor but was unaware he’d written books as well. I continued reading Mirabelle on the journey home and found it to be a really compelling story written with compassion and a touch of humour.
Not long after that, I was preparing my application for the Emerging Translator Mentorship, organised by the UK’s National Centre for Writing, and Mirabelle seemed the perfect book from which to prepare an extract – both uniquely Polish but also with plenty of attributes that make it a strong contender for publishing on the English-speaking market. I was very excited to be awarded the 6-month placement, and above all, to have the opportunity to be mentored by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. She had plenty of ideas for how to proceed with Mirabelle, including meeting the author and the book’s Polish publishers, Zielona Sowa, when we visited Poland in December 2018. They were extremely enthusiastic about the book, and Cezary even took us on a fascinating guided tour around his neighbourhood, where the book is set, showing us the sapling grown from a descendant of the real, original plum tree that had recently been planted by members of the local community.
What are your favourite Polish books in English translation for kids or adults? Which other Polish books do you think should be translated into English?
One of the books I loved reading earlier this year was Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg, translated by Eliza Marciniak. It’s about a girl growing up in a rather dreary village in Poland and the extraordinary things that happen to her. The story is told in such a poetic and enchanting way, it completely captivated me from start to finish. I’ve also very much enjoyed reading Olga Tokarczuk’s books in English translation – especially Flights, translated by Jennifer Croft, winner of the Man Booker International Prize 2018, and Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, which was shortlisted for the MBI in 2019. Olga is a really prolific writer and I hope that more of her repertoire will make it into English translation in the coming years.
In terms of children’s books, I’d highly recommend the beautifully illustrated Maps by Aleksandra Mizielinska and Daniel Mizielinski, translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. The book includes 68 illustrated maps (58 countries and 6 continents), which are annotated with fascinating, bite-sized facts about the cultural heritage, historical figures and natural phenomena associated with each region. One book that I’d like to see translated into English is Justyna Bednarek’s The Incredible Adventures of the Ten Socks (Niesamowite przygody dziesięciu skarpetek), in which ten socks with very different personalities decide to escape from the laundry basket and embark on various adventures in the outside world. It’s really imaginative and full of humour, and has been very successful in Poland.
Thanks for sharing this book and your other top Polish kid lit tips with us!
Excerpt from Mirabelle
Mirabelle, the narrator, has set the scene: a thriving neighbourhood in Warsaw in the late 1930s. We have already met her friend, a local girl called Dorka, and we know that Mirabelle is still too young to grow her first plums.
A little time passed. Well, a little for some, but for me an eternity. You must be wondering why for some, time seems to pass like a lightning flash, while for others, it’s as if the days, nights, months and years stretch like a thread from the spool the Alfus brothers keep in their drawer. For my mother, time flies very quickly, because she’s a grown-up and she’s used to the fact that the years have four seasons. When one ends, another begins. There’s the time when our buds swell and then hatch into leaves, then comes the time when our white petals blossom, then our fruits bulge with sweetness, and later there comes a time when our leaves turn yellow, while our sweet sap gets ready to drain downwards, to our roots, until finally our leaves fall, and we stand all naked and bare, waiting for the cold, frost and snow, and then we doze off, to awaken again in the spring. My mother has been through this cycle many, many times now and she’s become used to the rhythm.
Did you notice that I managed to tell you everything my mother experiences in her soul and memory in a single, though extremely long, sentence? You see? But for me, the whole matter of time is still something new. It divides into important events, big things. And into lots of sentences. The year has its four seasons. And each of them is important, long and special. First there’s the time when our buds swell. Next, our buds hatch into leaves. Then comes the time when our white petals blossom. And then our fruits grow and bulge on our branches. Next, our leaves turn yellow. Our sap drains down to our roots. Our leaves fall. The frost comes, snow falls. We go to sleep. And then spring comes again. That’s ten whole sentences! And for me each one is something new! Time drags for you too when you can’t wait for something to happen – when you’re looking forward to your birthday present, for instance. Then you count the days and hours, until you finally find a box tied with coloured ribbon next to your pillow. Or when you’re waiting for a tram at the tram stop. Many times, I’ve sensed through my bark the irritation of the ladies and gentlemen glancing at their watches, waiting for the tram that’s meant to be coming from Muranów Square towards Castle Square. For them, time drags on and on. But if the tram weren’t late, those ladies and gentlemen wouldn’t even notice that something like time exists. So you see, the passing of seconds, minutes, hours and days is something everyone feels differently. And that’s just how it is for me now. I am young, and time is dragging out endlessly, like a thread from the spool of the Alfus brothers’ carnival costume workshop. You’re probably wondering why time drags quite so slowly for me. All will soon become clear.
“Hello. What’s the word on the street?” says Dorka.
Dorka is growing up. Two small mounds are starting to show under her light dress. It’s summer, very warm this year, which is why Dorka’s wearing this fine dress, white like the petals of our flowers.
“Depends where you put your ear,” I reply, as usual.
“So where should I put my ear?” asks Dorka, although she knows I always give the same reply: “Wherever you like, Dorka.”
And do you know what? This time Dorka doesn’t press her ear to my mother’s trunk, but to mine. My trunk is still thin, but it’s very smooth. The bark on my trunk is velvety, while my mother’s is very wrinkled and cracked in places. I can feel the nice warmth that flows from Dorka’s ear through my bark and all the way to my core. It’s a very pleasant feeling, but also a little scary.
“Oh…” says Dorka, and her “Oh” scares me even more.
“‘Oh’ what?” I ask.
“I can’t hear anything,” says Dorka.
I’m furious with Dorka. I know there’s nothing to hear. I look at my mother and I can see that her branches are coated in sweet, heavy fruits. Now do you know why time drags so terribly slowly for me? That’s right. I can’t wait until my branches start to bow under the weight of sweet, yellow plums. Hell’s bells, I can’t wait for that day! Sorry for using a rude word, but I’m very upset. Because – I don’t know if you’re aware – we trees can feel angry and sad too. So now you know.
Kate Webster is a translator of Polish to English based in London. Recipient of the Emerging Translator Mentorship 2018-19, she has translated various genres including graphic novels, short stories, poetry, academic articles and children’s literature. Recent examples of her work can be found on the websites of Eurozine and Przekrój.