Interview with Author & Translator Tina Oziewicz

This month Pushkin Press releases the gorgeous picture book What Feelings Do When No One’s Looking. Originally published in Poland, it’s now making its way to readers’ hands and hearts around the world. World Kid Lit co-editor Jackie Friedman Mighdoll speaks with author and translator Tina Oziewicz…

World Kid Lit: You’ve written many books for children. Can you tell us a little about what inspires you? Are there themes that you return to?

Tina Oziewicz: It’s always difficult to give an answer to a question “Why do you do what you love?” Why indeed? 😉 I think that writing for children has always been a respite for me, my “time off”, a bit like sneaking away through the wardrobe door into Narnia – if only for a few hours. By Narnia I mean something bigger, more vast and more divergent than a 3-dimensional world of normal adult daily grind. Maybe it is my resistance to the widespread narrative that a part of growing up into adulthood is leaving behind the playfulness, the tenderness, the sensitivity, the trust, the wonder, and that to be adult means to be tough, brisk, cynical and disillusioned. We all know adults like that (whose mission is to change children into the likes of them). As an HSP (highly sensitive person) I could never develop this kind of thick skin. I think that writing books for children was my way to stay true to myself despite being an adult, a way to cultivate all these inner dimensions that I was supposed to brick off and forget.

Each of my books is different, but If there is a common theme or motive it is breathing life into inanimate things, something James Hillman called “ensouling the world”. It also encapsulates seeing animals as people. I did it in several books, recently in Awaria elektrowni, a book depicting how various animals feel on a summer night when there was a failure at the power plant and the whole area was plunged into darkness. They could relax, feel free and in a sense recognize the world again because the natural night was back. Putting a reader “in their paws” and making them see the night through the eyes and ears of a hedgehog, a moth, a frog, and a curlew is my way to practice sensitivity, a way to shrink the ego. I think that the (mainly Western) view that the world is an inanimate matter given to us to use is skewed and poisonous, and it drives greed and exploitation. I think we should practice looking at the world from a different perspective, with respect, tenderness and compassion. You can mostly find this kind of perspective and all-encompassing narratives in children’s literature, so no wonder I am drawn to it.

WKL: I am in love with your recent picture book What Feelings Do When No One’s Looking? I first read this book when I was grieving – an emotion I had trouble parsing. Your book, although it didn’t deal with grief directly, was exactly what I needed. By seeing our emotions as whimsical creatures, we can somehow acknowledge how simultaneously powerful, fun, and complex they can be. Can you tell us how this book came about?

TO: When I started to write down these short lines, I didn’t know at first that I was writing a book. The idea that this text could be turned into a picture book arrived at the end, when I looked down at the notes – while cleaning my table – and saw that they created a sort of poetic composition. But as far as I can recall, how it started was simply by thinking about various feelings and states of mind, the way we think about old friends, you know, the kind of thoughts that cross your mind when you think of someone close and dear to you whom you haven’t seen for a while: “Where is he now?” “Is she OK?” “I wonder what she’s doing?” And I reassured myself that they’re fine, even when I don’t see them, that they’re happy, alive and in their element. I liked the ideas I came up with about their whereabouts and what they’re busy doing when they’re on their own. When I look back now I think that this book started as a kind of a message to someone you miss or a tribute to emotions and feelings.

In a sense, it’s also a tribute to ourselves, a loving message to our humanity. I think we often forget that “as human beings we can only experience life emotionally”, to quote Eduardo Bericat. Even when it comes to grief, one of the most shattering feelings of all, we wouldn’t be fully human without experiencing it. A wise person said that “grief is the price of love” and that it is “love left without its object”. Grief always comes when love was real. What I’m trying to say is that emotions and feelings make our life experience real. Without them life would be senseless and empty. Perhaps painless too, but also meaningless and bland. Our feelings are an essential part of our inner compass, pointing to important things in life. Without them, we wouldn’t know what was important, what mattered to us, what we were looking for, what nourished us, and who we really are. 

WKL: The illustrations are stunning. Did you work together with Aleksandra Zając? How much input did you have? Were there any surprises? 

TO: I believe that Ola (it’s an abbreviation for Aleksandra) is the true star of this picture book, and it’s mostly due to her illustrations that this book is so successful. I frankly can’t believe that it is her debut and often jokingly ask her where she was hiding for so long? I was very lucky that the publisher noticed her illustrations during one of the competitions they organized and sent this text to her. Her inventiveness is stunning, especially with an abstract text like this. Every illustration she sent back was the most gleeful surprise. Basically she worked on her own and sent us results. My input was small and occasional. Ola was always very accommodating and cooperative when I asked for something, but the credit goes to her and her only.    

WKL: The book has been published in 14 languages and it’s coming out in 6 more! It’s resonating around the world. How did that come about? And how does it make you feel?

TO: It feels amazing. All the more because we didn’t expect that when the book was in the making – we rather felt that we were creating something personal and intimate, a book that in its form and content might appeal to a relatively small group of readers. The feedback was like an unexpected litmus test showing how much we need to embrace our complexity, humanity and sensitivity. It turned out that our playful way to show the invisible inhabitants of our hearts resonated with both children and adults. It gives me hope.      

WKL: Have you worked with the translators of any of the versions? I know there are fine differences in the way different languages differentiate different emotions. As a translator, I imagine that you’re familiar with these kinds of difficult language choices. Did you have insight into any of the translator challenges? 

TO: We are sent every pdf to review before publication, but I’ve never felt like checking the whole text using Google translate – I could if I were a control freak but I’m definitely not. Besides, how could I really know which of the terms for emotions in all these different languages captures the one I had in mind? So I choose to trust the translators’ decisions. The only line I check is the one at the end, the one about love. I had thought that Miłość jest elektrykiem (Love is an electrician) would be very easy to translate into every language, but I’ve noticed that sometimes it’s translated as “Love illuminates”. If I notice it, I usually ask to change Love into an electrician again, but some translators say that it doesn’t sound natural in their language (for whatever reason), and then I leave it like this, although with a slight regret.

WKL: There are 2 English versions – one for the American audience published by Elsewhere and translated by Jennifer Croft and one that you translated that is coming out from Pushkin. As someone who has been asked to edit for UK vs American English, I’m fascinated by this. Can you talk about why there are two versions and the differences between them?

TO: My version was originally an English sample for foreign publishers. Daniel Seton from Pushkin Press decided that it sounded good to them and that they would use my translation. The American publisher, Elsewhere Editions, (who bought and published the book earlier) entrusted translation to the acclaimed translator Jennifer Croft so I was in good hands there, too. There are some differences between these two versions but I honestly can’t decide which one I like more. I rather feel that both of us did our best and rendered it the best we could.  Some may say that obviously I should like my own translation more, but to be honest I found translating this book challenging. Maybe it’s always like that when you translate your own words? I don’t know, what I know is that I love translating – but not my own things! The lines are super short but they’re also supercharged with meaning so it’s easy to miss the mark. Daniel Seton (the British editor) can confirm how I struggled with some lines and how some (very simple) sentences had 3 different versions while I was looking for something as strong and clear as what I had captured in Polish.

WKL: Do you have any favorite Polish children’s books – either from your childhood or new ones –  that you would love to see reach a wider market? Will you tell us about them?

TO: I have many, but I’ll try to focus on a few. One of my favourite childhood reads, perfect for the dreamers like me, was Dom pod kasztanami [A House Under the Chestnut Trees] by Helena Bechlerowa in which the interplay / mix of reality and fantasy is as ingenious as Peter Pan. Every chapter is another adventure in a kind of hidden little world coiled inside this one. Then, when the children “come back” to a “normal reality”, in time for tea, there’s always a slight change in the house and its surroundings – a result of what has just happened in one of the imaginary places. It makes you wonder “Wait, was it real? What is real?” and it connects these different realities in funny and subtle ways. Another Polish children’s author I admire is Maciej Wojtyszko. My favourite book of his is Tajemnica szyfru Marabuta [The Secret of the Marabut’s Code] which is a blood-curdling thriller (yes, you heard that right). It is for children, but it’s really dark, featuring a malignant psychopathic stalker as a villain. This is the kind of villain you would naturally expect in crime novels and thrillers for an adult audience but not in children’s books, so kudos to the author for depicting a real evil, and not an imaginary monster that doesn’t exist. It still gives me creeps, but it is a superb read – the plot, the cast of characters, the atmosphere, and the ending. And speaking about the most striking Polish children’s books, I must mention picture books by Marta Ignerska (whom I often think of as a probable reincarnation of Picasso). My favourite is Wielkie marzenia [Big Dreams”]. It is truly a work of art. I have no idea if it’s translated into other languages, but the artwork will stand out everywhere.      

WKL: What’s next for you? 

TO: At the moment I am writing another book about feelings, because there’s so much more to tell than what’s in the first one. The continuation of What Feelings Do titled Co lubią uczucia? [What Feelings Like Best] has just been published in Polish. We didn’t want to make a carbon copy of What Feelings Do? so there’s more text and colorful illustrations. We also spend more time with each feeling, for example, we are in a room with Nostalgia when she opens the box of the Christmas decorations and is flooded by memories of previous winters, we see Curiosity who visits Anxiety in his tin under the wardrobe and they become friends, we spend an afternoon with Patience who makes strawberry jam and waits for Calm and his dog… Again each feeling is in their element and we get a glimpse of their private life. Writing it was very relaxing, maybe less so when I was describing what Malice likes best (working in her poison factory where she makes toxic concoctions to poison Joy and Happiness). But it was fun to spend some time with Stubbornness who glued himself to a ceiling (to the dismay of Common Sense) and to accompany Gratitude who walks the corridors of Memory. She has a steaming mug of hot cocoa and looks for the treasure crammed in all these little nooks and corners. Again this book is an invitation to spend more time with your own feelings and to get to know them better.     

WKL: That sounds wonderful. Now I’m wondering what Anticipation looks like! Thank you for spending time with us.