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Two-way translation – with Julia and Peter Sherwood

Sioned Puw Rowlands interviews linguistic duo Julia and Peter Sherwood on working together, translating in both directions, and bringing different perspectives to readers the world over.

Julia Sherwood was born and grew up in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia (now the Slovak Republic). She translates from Slovak, Czech, Polish, Russian and German into English (with Peter Sherwood), as well as into Slovak. In addition to book-length publications, her work has appeared in BODYLiteratureWords Without BordersOpenDemocracy, and salon.eu.sk. She is editor-at-large for Slovakia for Asymptotethe international online literary journal, administers the group Slovak Literature in English Translation and co-curates the website SlovakLiterature.com. She lives in London.

Peter Sherwood is a translator and a former academic who taught in universities in the UK and the USA till his retirement in 2014. He has been awarded for his work widely and most recently, the Árpád Tóth Prize for Translation in 2020. He has reviewed for the TLS as well as the e-journal Hungarian Cultural Studies (Pittsburgh) and other scholarly journals. In addition to book-length publications, he has translated from a wide range of genres, including shorter prose which has appeared online in AsymptoteWords Without Borders, and BODYLiterature. He lives in London.

Sioned Puw Rowlands read Philosophy and Modern Languages at New College, Oxford. After a year learning Czech in Brno, Moravia, she then studied for an M.St. in Slavonic Studies at St. Antony’s College, Oxford and subsequently completed a doctorate there in comparative literature. She initially worked as Arts Council of Wales’s Literary Translation Development Officer before joining Mercator where she helped establish Wales Literature Exchange. She is the editor of the Welsh-language review of books,  O’r Pedwar Gwynt.


Hana by Alena Mornštajnová, translated by Julia and Peter Sherwood (Parthian, 2020)

With the support of the Creative Europe Programme of the European Union


S: You grew up in Bratislava, Julia, a city which, historically, has had a close relationship with a number of other quite different languages and cultures. Your work in recent years, translating between so many languages – Slovak, Czech, Polish, Russian, German, English … have I named them all? – must foster a peculiar sensitivity, creating a multiple echo chamber, due to your instinctive awareness of how a particular element would take shape in each of these languages?

J: A multiple echo chamber sounds nice but it doesn’t really work like that for me. It’s hard to describe but you’re right that it operates on an instinctive level: I tend to immerse myself in the language I’m reading or speaking and the other languages stay somehow shut out. Although sometimes, when I’m searching for a word in one language, it comes to me in one of the others, which can be a bit annoying, and it took some training to be able to switch between a second and a third language, for example, Polish and Russian.

S: In the case of your mother tongue, Slovak, and the language of your adopted city, London, you translate in both directions. Are there differences you particularly relish in these roles in contrary movement? Does it feel refreshing sometimes when you change direction, when you can relinquish your duty as the ‘conveyor’ who works to bring Slovak literature to English readers and lose yourself in a ‘foreign’ text, such as Tony Judt’s The Memory Chalet, which you translated into Slovak not long ago?

J: Yes, I do translate in both directions but not with equal ease. I grew up in Bratislava and lived there until the age of 24 and only moved to London after several years in Germany. Most of my formative reading was done in Slovak (and Czech) so that’s where my linguistic roots are, with English going that little bit less deep. I have now lived in London most of my life, but even after all those years translating into Slovak still comes more easily, even though I have the disadvantage of not living in that environment and not living and breathing the way the language develops. But I have always kept in touch with friends, and read Slovak books and newspapers and, after 1989, visited Slovakia more and more frequently. The translation of Tony Judt’s The Memory Chalet grew out of a series of beautiful and poignant articles he wrote – or rather, dictated, as he was slowly succumbing to Lou Gehrig’s disease – for the New York Review of Books, and I translated a few of them for a wonderful online project, salon.eu.sk, run by two friends of mine in Bratislava. And they loved them so much that they decided to publish the entire book in Slovak.

S: What about your relationship with the Hungarian language, Peter? How did it develop and what made you decide to study Hungarian as an undergraduate at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London?

P: I was, in fact, born in Hungary and ­– like the poet and translator George Szirtes – came to the UK at the age of eight. The story behind my decision to study Hungarian, together with general linguistics, at the University of London (the only place that offered a first degree in Hungarian) is that one of my teachers at Manchester Grammar School asked me to help him learn a bit of the language for his visit there in the mid-1960s. It felt quite strange for the callow youth that I then was to be teaching my teacher, and it was then that it first occurred to me that I might be able to make use of this rare gift of having two mother tongues. After graduation, I spent a (quite lazy, though uncomfortable) year in coldest cold-war Hungary, and on my return was offered a job at my alma mater, the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, now part of University College London. I taught there for 35 years, before moving to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the USA for the final few years of my academic career. 

The whole point of literary translation is to bring this different perspective to readers in another culture and thus expand their horizons.

S: When I read your joint translation of Hana by Alena Mornštajnová, (published just last year by Parthian), although I did not have the original to hand, I could hear the Czech voice in parallel, distinctive, a necessary shadow to the English text. It enriched my reading. How does what your translation offers an English reader differ from what the original offers Czech readers?

J: I hope it doesn’t differ from the original too much. We tried to capture the different voices: that of Mira, the child narrator in part 1, which switches to a more standard, neutral voice in the middle of the book where Mira pieces together the family history and then takes on a dark and sombre tone in part 3, as Mira’s aunt Hana narrates her harrowing experience during and after the war. The only slight differences are a few glosses we added, which explain – in a non-intrusive way, I hope – some of the terms and concepts that have to do with Czech culture and recent history.

S: What about Walter Benjamin’s assertion in his well-known essay, ‘The Task of the Translator’: ‘If the original does not exist for the reader’s sake, how could the translation be understood on the basis of this premise?’ How do you respond to that? Does it depend on what you are translating?

J: At the risk of seeming sacrilegious, I have to say that I don’t agree with Walter Benjamin. In the essay you quote from, he argues that no work of art is there for the beholder, that it basically exists for its own sake. But works of literature are deeply embedded in a country’s culture, geography and history, and for me, the whole point of literary translation is to bring this different perspective to readers in another culture and thus expand their horizons. Otherwise, there would be little point in translating literary works, other than perhaps making the author feel good about seeing their work published in another country.

S: ‘It was hell, all of it. It always is, or at least should be, if the writer is worthwhile.’ This is a compelling description of translation (and writing) for me. Is this how you would describe your ideal (or utopian?) measurement of whether a translation is worth doing or not?

P: I said this in an interview and was referring more specifically to the translation of serious non-fiction, such as literary essays, which – perhaps surprisingly – is, in my view, in some respects more difficult than that of fiction or poetry as there is less wiggle room for ‘creative solutions’:  you really have to convey exactly what the author means. In general, I enjoy tackling more ‘difficult’ writing: it tends to be better literature and also, more selfishly, it provides a better mental workout for the translator. 

…translations have been an integral part of the process of developing a literary language and culture.

S: In spite of the fact that more and more people go on to higher education – at least in the UK – how does the deepening poverty of a British education, the lack of a historical perspective and an understanding of wider literary cultural references impact your work as translators? Do you see a similar impoverishment at work in the readerships of the countries whose literatures you translate? 

J: Translation has played a particularly important role in the case of Slovak, a language that has existed in written form for a relatively short time, having been codified only in the mid-nineteenth century, and translations have been an integral part of the process of developing a literary language and culture. While translations still account for about 50% of the book market in Slovakia, this sector has come to be dominated by works written in English – sadly, some publishers, driven by commercial considerations, churn out vast quantities of books that are not always of the highest quality, or hire inexperienced translators willing to work for peanuts (undercutting the rates that are quite miserable in Slovakia as it is) and who deliver poorly translated texts. As a result, the market is flooded with shoddily translated trash and that does lead to an impoverishment.

S: What about machine translation? Are you curious about such developments? Is there a disturbing echo here for the literary translator (as some are now arguing) of what photography was for the painter in the 19th century? 

P: I have taught translation for many decades, and I have also taught translation theory (theories). I also regard holistic translation criticism (that is, the scholarly treatment of entire literary works) as an important counterweight to ad hoc (and often ad hominem) journalistic remarks ­– often no more than an adjective or two – about translated works by those who tend not to know the language of the original work; this applies, of course, especially in the case of a language like Hungarian. In the light of these experiences, I am inclined to say that of the discussion of translation there will never be an end, and that while much of it is often interesting, little of it will ever be definitive and conclusive. As far as I am concerned ‘machine translation’ will be most useful when machines need to talk to each other. (This is, of course, already happening).

J: I find it scary to read about the latest progress made by, say, Google Translate, but I am convinced that the time when machines will be able to cope with literary translation is still a long way off. Having said that, some of my translator friends find machine translation tools useful in their work, at the earlier stages of the process, but don’t trust them with the final editing and refining.

For me the greatest challenge is…how to convey humour that works differently in different cultures or… regional dialect.

S: Do you have a particular translation regime – a way of working in which you have faith and in which you take pleasure? What would your typical day be like?

P: I have been translating for more than fifty years, but I don’t have a particular translation regime and therefore a typical day. I work most of the time, though I also continue with my research. My guiding principle is summed up in the Rabbinical saying: ‘It is not incumbent upon you to complete the work, but neither are you at liberty to desist from it.’ (Mishna, Pirkei Avot/The Ethics of the Fathers, 2:21).

J: My daily routine varies but on the whole, my brain gets more fired up as the day progresses, so I usually start by doing some exercise, Pilates, or going for a run, then deal with admin and social media (the latter is not just an indulgence but often has to do with promoting Slovak literature), and then slowly get going on translation in the afternoon. I’m usually in full flow just as it’s time to make dinner so we often don’t get to eat until quite late.

S: What about challenges particular to your various languages? Some of these languages are quite different morphologically. What are some of the difficulties we might not be aware of as innocent readers, difficulties which require persistence but also imagination in order to be resolved sufficiently?

P: As far as Hungarian is concerned, a language I taught at universities for more than 40 years, I would say that it’s not its unusual but rather systematic agglutinating morphology that is the main difficulty (there are many far more morphologically complex languages in the world), but its core vocabulary, which consists of a large number of words that resemble nothing else in the main European languages, and its syntax, which has spent more than 1100 years intertwining with that of its (Indo-) European neighbours and thus creating a truly unique melding.  

J: For me the greatest challenge is not so much connected to translating words and sentences as such, as other aspects of translation, for example: how to convey humour that works differently in different cultures, or how to find an appropriate way of expressing regional dialect or a folksy way of speaking. Finding an English equivalent for certain idiomatic expressions can also be tricky but there I have the advantage of living with a lexicographer. Not only does Peter have a vast vocabulary and depth of knowledge but there are also many similarities between Slovak and Hungarian in terms of cultural references and idioms, despite the fact that in terms of their grammar and morphology the two languages are very different. 

The translation of serious non-fiction is…more difficult than that of fiction or poetry as there is less wiggle room for ‘creative solutions’.

S: I am curious to learn more about Slovak and Hungarian essayists. You translated the work of Béla Hamvas (1897-1968), Peter, from Hungarian. What is the most refreshing aspect of his contribution for you as someone who grew up in the UK? I was struck by the spiritual and synaesthetic sensibility of the little I have read so far (is it an accurate impression?) and how difficult it might be to convey that to a British reader – a reader who stereotypically doesn’t like to be caught taking anything too seriously.

P: Hamvas is a mysterious and Marmite writer: there are many in Hungary who simply think he writes a load of twaddle, and perhaps just as many who find his profound oriental spirituality very affecting. As so often in Hungary, there is also a lot of baggage: the communists hated him, of course, and forced him to leave his job as a librarian and work in a warehouse for many years. His home, along with his library and manuscripts, was bombed to smithereens in the war. I must admit I was commissioned to translate his essays and did the work more as a challenge than out of conviction or admiration. The Philosophy of Wine is an unclassifiable piece that ‘real’ philosophers of wine regard as frivolous (it is also, in places, not very PC), but it has a great following in Hungary. It was quite impossible to translate, though I was pleased with the only serious notice it received, from Cain Todd of the University of Lancaster, who concluded, quite fairly: ‘Putting aside the anti-communist heroic glamour attached for decades to Hamvas’s work and memory, it would be tempting to conclude that this puzzling little book is almost entirely pointless, and yet some may find here a peculiar charm, as well as some insight into a long-past sensual world that has been lovingly recaptured by Sherwood’s eloquent translation.’ More accessible and enjoyable, I think, for an English-reading audience are the essays in his Trees. Sadly, this beautifully produced little volume has long been out of print. (A pdf is available from me). And I hope you’ll forgive me if I take this opportunity to plug the exceptional literary essays of Antal Szerb (who enjoys a niche following for Len Rix’s superb version of his Journey by Moonlight), which I translated a few years ago as Reflections in the Library. Now that was tough – I had to do six drafts of the essay on Blake!

S: You have also published a collection of essay translations, Julia, The Eastern Connection, including essays by Andrey Kurkov and Andrzej Stasiuk. Which voices stood out for you amongst these Slovak, Czech, Russian, German and Polish essayists? What about Jochen Schmidt?

J: This collection was the outcome of ‘Mirrors of Europe’, an exciting and innovative project dreamt up and organised by my Slovak friends at salon.eu.sk, Marta Šimečková and Andrea Puková: they arranged for twenty authors from twenty European countries to spend some time visiting another country and write about their experiences, each in their own inimitable style. The texts were then sent to translators and Peter and I then edited the whole volume. I was very privileged to be assigned several great texts. They include an amusing piece on the UK by Andrey Kurkov, whose two Penguin novels I had read and loved. Jochen Schmidt’s essay on Hungary was great fun to translate, as he combined it with his recollection of the heady days of the summer of 1989 that preceded the fall of the Berlin Wall. Slovak writer Jana Beňová’s poetic essay, with its many references to the poetry of Fernando Pessoa, was quite a challenge. But the one I enjoyed most was probably Andrzej Stasiuk’s journey through Moldova described in his inimitable style – magnetic, almost delirious.

S: If we were more widely read, and if more Hungarian literature were available to us in Welsh and English, I wonder how our image of Hungarian aesthetics would evolve from those stark yet magnificent stills some of us will always hold in our minds, based on Béla Tarr’s adaptations of László Krasznahorkai’s novels. Is it to the benefit or the detriment of Slovak literature’s contemporary dissemination abroad that it does not hold such arresting images for the uninitiated?

J: It’s true that Slovak literature is not sufficiently well-known in the English-speaking world but that is due more to the fact that compared with, say, Czech literature, it cannot boast star names such as Hašek, Čapek, Kundera or Hrabal. However, Slovak writers have certainly produced many arresting images. Some of them can be found in the works we have translated: for example, the wildly surreal imagery of Uršula Kovalyk in her two books published by Parthian – the novel The Equestrienne and the short story collection The Night Circus and other stories, or the bizarre maze-like cellar built for some mysterious purpose by the narrator’s brother in Balla’s In the Name of the Father.

S: How do you see your work as literary diplomats (as you are frequently branded) evolving in our current zeitgeist?

J: I don’t really know how I fell into this ‘literary diplomacy’ business. It started with trying to spread the word about my first translation and has expanded to establishing contacts with other translators and promoting Slovak literature – and also, to some extent, Czech and Polish literature, through my work with Asymptote, the international journal of literary translation. I’ve been doing this for over ten years now and find that it has become easier: one reason is the use of social media, where the literature translating community has a very vocal and mutually supportive presence. This, in turn, has raised the profile of translated literature in general and has helped draw attention to work that may otherwise have remained obscure. As a result, more and more publishers are willing to take the risk of publishing authors writing in lesser-known languages. Parthian Books’ championing of Slovak literature is one great example. Nevertheless, a lot more remains to be done as many great works of literature still await translation and publication. 

Julia and Peter Sherwood’s translation of Hana by Alena Mornštajnová was published last year by Parthian and you can order it here.

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