The importance of the translator and changes within Czech literature – with Alex Zucker

Alexandra Büchler talks to Alex Zucker about his translation of the award-winning Czech novel The Lake by Bianca Bellová and his work as an advocate for recognition of translators within literature.

Alexandra Büchler talks to Alex Zucker about his translation of the award-winning Czech novel The Lake by Bianca Bellová and his work as an advocate for recognition of translators within literature.

Alex Zucker is a prolific translator of Czech fiction, as well as having translated plays, subtitles, song lyrics, essays, poems, philosophy, and art history. He also maintains a list of Czech literature translated into English, from 1987 to the present, and is an advocate for literary translators’ rights and working conditions.

Alexandra Büchler is the director of Literature Across Frontiers. A cultural manager, translator and editor and a tireless advocate for the translation of literature from Wales in both English and Welsh into languages across Europe. Her translation of Czech poet Kateřina Rudčenková’s collection Dream of a Journey has been long-listed for the Oxford-Weidenfeld Prize.

Büchler: First things first: how long have you been translating Czech literature and what made you want to become a literary translator in the first place?

Zucker: Technically, I did my very first literary translations in the late 1980s while I was a graduate student in international affairs, taking Czech with Peter Kussi, at Columbia University. Kussi, who most famously translated Milan Kundera and Jiří Gruša, had us doing translations, in class, practically from day one. Professionally, though, I began translating in 1990, when I moved from New York City to Prague to work for the Czechoslovak Press Agency (ČTK), and I did my first paid literary translations while living there, so I’ve been translating Czech literature for more than thirty years. But I had been translating for nearly ten years before I translated my first novel, which was More Than One Life, by Miloslava Holubová, a job Kussi recommended me for—that was published in 1999. 

What made me want to become a literary translator was probably, initially and at bottom, the way it made my brain feel. I just enjoyed it.

What made me want to become a literary translator was probably, initially and at bottom, the way it made my brain feel. I just enjoyed it. Besides that, it’s work you do alone, and I had a difficult time working in offices with other people. I mean, I was able to do it, and in Prague I really enjoyed and I think did well in both of the jobs I had working with other people—at ČTK and at Prognosis, the country’s first English-language newspaper. But I returned to New York City in 1995, and in the jobs I had here I often got upset about the way workers were treated by bosses, as well as by the way workers treated one another. It ended up having a negative effect on my health. So when I had a chance to move into translating full-time, thanks to offers of multiple projects at once, I took it.

The Lake stands out for the incisiveness of its style and the evocativeness of its setting.

Büchler: The Lake was awarded the prestigious Magnesia Litera Prize and the EU Prize for Literature in 2017 and has been translated into over twenty languages. What makes this book stand out and where do you place it in the context of recent Czech writing? Is the label ‘dystopian’ accurate or should we rather see it as a realistic depiction of post-Soviet devastation, all the more relevant as we watch the brutal Ukraine war unfold?

Zucker: Considering it as a work of literature, I would say Bianca Bellová’s The Lake stands out for the incisiveness of its style and the evocativeness of its setting. Czech critics praised it as an archetypal coming-of-age story, drawing attention to the contrast between the sensuous language and imagery of the novel and the brutality of the world that Nami, the main character, inhabits. The fact that The Lake isn’t set in the Czech Republic nor are the characters Czech distinguished it from Bellová’s previous novels, and its winning the European Union Prize for Literature, which is awarded in part to spur readers’ (and publishers’) interest in what it calls “non-national literary works,” was a recognition of that. On the other hand, in the context of recent Czech writing, this actually doesn’t make it an anomaly, since although most Czech novels take place in Czechia (or the former Czechoslovakia), it’s hardly rare for them to be set elsewhere—nearly half of the novels I’ve translated are set in whole or in part outside of the Czech Republic or Czechoslovakia. So in that sense I would even say The Lake belongs to a particular subset of Czech literature. 

Whether The Lake is more rightly described as dystopian or realistic, I suppose depends on one’s opinion about the state of the world and what can be done about it. Certainly all of the worst things that happen in the novel—from rape and child abuse to environmental destruction and labor exploitation—are things that have actually happened, and continue to happen to people all over the world every day. There’s nothing imagined about it; it’s very real. The author herself has even said she doesn’t think of it as a dystopia, because it was inspired by the story of the Aral Sea in central Asia, and the actual story of what happened there “is so much worse than what happens in my book.” On the other hand, it could be argued that the lack of collective resistance to life’s horrors in the novel is dystopian rather than realistic, since in reality there is always collective resistance to oppressive conditions, to some degree. In The Lake, people acting collectively are portrayed almost exclusively doing harm rather than good, and the only refuge seems to be on the individual level. 

For that matter, I’ve noticed this to be true in every one of the last three novels I’ve translated: not only The Lake, but also Petra Hůlová’s The Movement, published last year, and Jáchym Topol’s A Sensitive Person, which will be published in 2023. And when I look at the dates they were published in Czech—Bellová’s in 2016, Topol’s in 2017, Hůlová’s in 2018—I can’t help wondering whether this was a mood, reflecting what was going on in those years, or if these books’ negative portrayals of people acting collectively reflects a deeper, underlying feeling in Czech society as a whole. Of course three novels is nowhere near enough evidence to come to a conclusion one way or another. 

Büchler: How would you characterise contemporary writing by Czech women authors, several of whom, for example Petra Hůlová and Magdaléna Platzová, you have translated?

Zucker: That’s such a broad question, I’m not sure I can give a satisfactory answer. Given how much I translate, my reading time is limited, and of course I read other things besides Czech literature, so I simply haven’t read enough contemporary Czech fiction, by authors of any gender, to make that kind of generalization based on my own experience. However, to help keep me up to date, I do talk with friends and colleagues, including Czech writers themselves and academics who study Czech literature. And beyond that, I do my best to read about contemporary writing. For instance, last year I read a very interesting thesis by a student named Dana Kristlová at Masaryk University, titled “The Phenomenon of Women’s Writing and the Authors Petra Hůlová, Petra Soukupová and Kateřina Tučková.” I can’t remember anymore how I stumbled onto it, but two of the authors are writers I’ve worked on (though I haven’t yet done a novel by Soukupová, I like her writing and have translated excerpts), so I was curious to see what it said. Kristlová’s thesis, obviously, goes into great detail, but the upshot, as far as our interview here is concerned, is that even among these three authors, who are all women, critically acclaimed, and of the same generation, the differences between them, in terms of style, plot, characters, subject matter, and genre, are substantial enough that one would be hard-pressed to group them together on the basis of anything other than their gender and generation. Beyond that, the one clear commonality they have is their centering of women characters (“strong and self-sufficient,” as Kristlová says), women’s perspectives, women’s trauma, and women’s lived experience. This was also true, however, of writing by Czech women of earlier generations, so I don’t think it would be accurate to characterize this specifically as a trait of contemporary writing by Czech women, though I feel confident in saying that it does signal a difference between their writing and, in general, that of Czech men.

Czech is a more economical language than English…so, given The Lake’s relatively thrifty style, it was important not to let too many extra words sneak in.

Büchler: We first met when you started translating Jáchym Topol, a brilliant author, whose style, like Hrabal’s, is not easy to reproduce. You translate a range of genres, from fiction, poetry and drama to nonfiction, including philosophy and art history. What were the specific challenges of translating the The Lake and how helpful is it to work with an author who is fluent in English?

Zucker: Most of the authors I’ve worked with have not been fluent in English, at least not to the point that they would intervene concerning specific words and phrases, let alone rewrite or edit my translation as a whole. (Though this has happened to translators I know.) Generally, when I don’t understand something, I ask the author to elucidate further in Czech. Or I might share the English alternatives I’m considering, but even then I translate them into Czech, rather than expecting the author to understand the differences between them. That was how I posed my questions to Bellová.  As far as specific challenges of translating this novel, I think the primary one was avoiding bloat. Czech is a more economical language than English—in general, translations from Czech come out with 25 to 30 percent more words in English—so, given The Lake’s relatively thrifty style, it was important not to let too many extra words sneak in. Apart from that, I had to make a lot of decisions about whether or not to break longer sentences into shorter ones—this is another issue that comes often in translating Czech, which has a higher tolerance for sentences that in English are considered run-on. And there is a character in the novel who is from the United States, a young man from Texas, so I was extra careful in writing his dialogue to try to make it sound plausible.

Author of The Lake, Bianca Bellová was born in Prague and grew up in the communist regime of Czechoslovakia. Bellová’s first novel Sentimental Novel, was largely influenced by her upbringing. She has since gone on to write four further novels, The Lake which was published in Czech in 2016 and went on to win the Czech national Magnesia Litera Book of the Year Award and the European Prize for Literature. It has been published in over 20 languages and is out now with Parthian Books.

Büchler: Czech literature was at one point seen—at least by those in the English-speaking world who read translated literature—as an ‘overachiever’. Is that still true? Others, like the Czech literary critic Petr Bílek, analyse the reasons why Czech literature is under-represented in translation. How much awareness of Czech writing, or Eastern European writing in general, is there among English-language readers?

Zucker: I used that word myself, overachiever, in an introduction I wrote for an issue of Words Without Borders on contemporary Czech prose in 2014. So I may be in part responsible for people having that view. I’m not sure if it’s still true today. Whether or not Czech literature can be described as “under-represented,” though, depends on our yardstick. Do we measure how many books a year are published in translation from a language or country, then calculate their BPC (books per capita)? Or do we measure “visibility,” based on the number of reviews the books receive and the circulations of the publications where those reviews appear? I don’t know. In 2013 I began keeping track of the books published in English from Czech every year, and it’s very clear from these data that there is far more Czech literature in English translation now than there was in its “heyday,” in the Cold War days of the ’80s, but compared to the big names of Czech literature—like Bohumil Hrabal, Václav Havel, Milan Kundera, Ivan Klíma; maybe Josef Škvorecký and Arnošt Lustig as well—the books are published by smaller presses and reviewed in less prominent venues. I don’t think this is worse; it’s just different. And the diversity of themes and authors published is certainly much better. Readers can see, based on the list of names I’ve given above, how overwhelmingly male-dominated Czech literature in translation used to be. That has slowly but steadily, and I believe irrevocably, changed.

Büchler: You are also active as a translators’ rights advocate. What would you say have been the recent gains in terms of translator visibility and working conditions?

Zucker: Like the increasing proportion of women authors translated into English from Czech, this is another area where I see the change as slow but steady and irrevocable. But there has been more progress in visibility—names on covers, profiles of translators, events featuring translators—than in working conditions is my impression. I doubt pay has increased in proportion to the rising cost of living in recent years. Right now, Jessica Cohen, Julia Sanches, and I are working with Umair Kazi of the Authors Guild on the second edition of the survey of working conditions for literary translators in the US, to follow up on the first one we conducted, in 2017. Our plan is to get that out to translators later this year. Then we’ll see. 

Bianca Bellová’s The Lake translated from Czech by Alex Zucker is out now with Parthian Books. You can order your copy here.

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