Éric, what has it been like to be longlisted?
Writing aims to be universal. But it can only become accessible to everyone through choices made by someone else: the translator. Thanks to Mark Polizzotti’s keen sensitivity, The War of the Poor has been made available to a large number of readers. The International Booker Prize allows the books it honors to move closer to that universality to which all literary works aspire.
How would you summarise The War of the Poor in one sentence?
It’s 1524, the poor are rising up, insurrection is spreading, and, from out of the crowd, a man emerges from the chaos. His name is Thomas Müntzer, and his life is terrible and fantastic: it was worth living, so it is worth relating.
Why do you think Thomas Muntzer is so little-known?
Thomas Müntzer died by beheading. The peasants, artisans, and small shopkeepers who had revolted were put down, and tens of thousands of them were massacred. They were unable to leave a record of their struggles and their ideas — aside from which, most of them couldn’t write. History is written by the victors. The common people do not leave archives.
There is a kind of comprehension specific to narrative, to writing with its countless registers. Numbers are cold, and lead to a distant form of knowledge that neglects pain and suffering. It seemed to me that, by relating the life of Thomas Müntzer, tracing the course of his tumultuous existence and of human precariousness, I could — through this fanatical, talented preacher — evoke the anonymous crowds that surrounded him. The masses, the ones we used to call “the wretched,” are what we always know least about.
What lessons about equality can we learn from him for our times?
These days, for literature to be more than just a frivolous, parasitical activity, it cannot ignore the flagrant compromises of those in power, nor the ever-increasing inequities, nor the concentration of wealth among a handful of individuals. And that’s exactly what Thomas Müntzer was talking about. Literature must pursue the emancipatory task it set for itself ever since Jean-Jacques Rousseau said, “You are undone if you once forget that the fruits of the earth belong to us all, and the earth itself to nobody.”
Mark, what has it been like to be longlisted?
I’m delighted at the recognition for Éric’s book, and for the relevance of its message at a time when the same questions of social justice, equity, income disparity, privilege, and repression are again making their urgency felt. If part of the nomination results from my translation having helped carry that message, then I’m even more delighted.
What did you like most about translating The War of the Poor?
Éric’s writing beautifully balances moral authority with controlled rage, passionate conviction, and, when appropriate, acid irony. Finding the right voice in English with which to convey these shifting registers was a stimulating challenge (one I had already experienced with The Order of the Day), even as I felt honoured to help bring the story of Thomas Müntzer to an English-speaking audience.
You have published a translation manifesto: Sympathy for the Traitor. What do you think the general reader has to learn about translation?
That in the best of cases, it is a collaborative creative act between two authors, working in two languages, cultures, and, often, time periods, to produce a literary work that honours the original by standing shoulder-to-shoulder with it. And also that, as the particular expression of a particular reading, a given translation of a text will, necessarily and fortunately, differ from any other translation of the same text.
Did you do any research to translate such a historically based novel?
Absolutely: into Thomas Müntzer’s letters and sermons, the Reformation, the Great Schism, the Peasants’ War in Germany, the Peasants’ Revolt in England, Engels’s historical writings, and more. But I tend to research virtually every translation I undertake, fiction or nonfiction: there’s always something to familiarize myself with, terminology to get right, context to understand. It’s one of the great pleasures of translation: each one is an education.