Alex Zucker: the challenge of making translations visible

Alex Zucker, photo: David Vaughan

We have featured plenty of contemporary Czech novelists in this programme over the last decade, but we should spare a thought for their translators, patiently working at home alone, struggling at a craft every bit as challenging as alchemy. In Czech Books this week, David Vaughan talks to a translator who has done more than any other to bring the middle and younger generation of Czech novelists to English-speaking readers.

Alex Zucker, photo: David Vaughan
I’m joined in one of my favourite Prague cafés, the Café Louvre in Národní třída, by the translator Alex Zucker. Defying the weather, he has managed to come over from New York for a short visit to Prague. So, how does it feel to be back?

“It’s always a treat to be here. It feels very familiar.”

And you’ve been coming here since the mid-1980s…

“The first time I came was in spring 1987. I was here for most of the summer 1989, still before the fall of communism, and then I moved here for five years in the fall of 1990.”

And how did your career as a translator from Czech into English begin?

“I would cite one man in particular, Peter Kussi, who recently passed away. He was born here and emigrated with his parents in 1939, I believe. They were Jewish and saw the writing on the wall, so they got out of town. Peter was teaching Czech at Columbia University when I went there in the fall of 1988 to do a Master’s in International Affairs. At the very first class we had with Peter, he brought in a poem by Miroslav Holub and had us translate it. At the time he was translating ‘Immortality’ by Kundera – ‘Nesmrtelnost’ – so he was really the person who turned me on to the fact that there was such a thing as translation.”

And you’ve been translating ever since. I know that a good few years ago you undertook the mammoth task of translating Jáchym Topol’s epic novel “Sestra”, which you translated as “City Sister Silver”. I have no end of admiration for you for undertaking that translation, because it must have been extremely difficult.

Photo: CatBird Press
“It was hard. I just want to say where the title comes from. The thing about ‘Sestra’, and this will tell people a little bit about what it’s like to translate, is that in Czech it means sister in the sense of family relation, but it also means ‘nurse’ and ‘nun’. And it doesn’t have all those meanings in English. So we went through a whole bunch of alternative titles before I came up with this one. Jáchym loved it [in the original, ‘City’, ‘Sister’ and ‘Silver’ are the titles of the three sections that make up the book], because it reminded him of ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’.”

The novel is epic in scale. It takes you through the Velvet Revolution, it takes you through the Holocaust. There is quite a lot for an American reader to digest in there.

“Yes, that’s true, though it’s interesting that you point out that it talks about the Holocaust. There’s a whole chapter dedicated to it – Chapter 6 – which I think in a way is the most powerful chapter in the book, although very funny too in a very dark way, but that chapter, which I thought was the part of the book which would be most familiar to a US audience was virtually unmentioned in reviews in the US.”

This also brings us to the more recent book by Jáchym Topol that you’ve translated, “The Devil’s Workshop”, which again returns to the Holocaust. It takes place partly in Terezín, the wartime ghetto north of Prague, and partly also in Belarus.

“One of the main themes of the book is genocide, as it was in ‘City Sister Silver’, so the genocides that are compared and contrasted in this novel are the Holocaust, though in this book it’s a couple of generations down the line from the people who were either murdered or survived the Holocaust. These young people come to Terezín in search of the past, but also to heal the trauma that they still feel in the present. But the second half of the book is about the fact that Belarus has more unmarked mass graves than any other country in Europe and that people in Belarus were really massacred on a level almost higher than any other country in Europe, except maybe Poland.”

We’re talking about around a third of the population of the country…

Photo: Portobello Books
“Yes. Killed by both sides, the Germans and the Russians. The second half of the book has the narrator come into contact with a group of people who are trying to create an Auschwitz-style memorial in Belarus to draw tourists, but the way they want to do it is particularly sick. But that’s all I’m going to say about it right now.”

So, to find out more, buy the book when it comes out next year – published by Portobello Books in the UK. Let’s now hear a short extract from the book.

“The set-up here is this character named Sara, who is from Sweden and whose grandparents died in the Holocaust. She has come to Terezín and become a leading member of this healing community called the Comenium. It’s a sort of commune. And she’s talking to the narrator about how she came to Eastern Europe to figure out where the real East was. The first town she’s talking about is Košice, which is a town in the far east of Slovakia. I’ll take it from there…

My grandpa's from Košice, Sara said, all right then, Slovakia's got railroads and cell phones, I'll start there, and I set out for Košice, and I took a look around there, at the stores and the cafes and the little shops on main street, and the train station waiting rooms where it's probably the same hard wooden seats as seventy years ago. I wanted to figure out what Eastern Europe really was, since we may look the same but culturally we're different. So where is the real East? I wondered. The Slovaks all told me I'd stopped too soon, they were Central Europe, not Eastern! Same as those stupid Czechs back there, sorry to say, not to mention the Hungarians, they aren't even really in Europe, I wouldn't go there if I were you, they won't understand a word you say, they explained at the train station information window in Bratislava. Yes, they took pity on me, and when I insisted, they admitted that the real Eastern Europe was actually not far from Slovakia, of course I'd have to make it past the wolves and bears of Subcarpathian Rus, ah, the Carpathians, Sara said, so you look at the map and off you go. But then the people in Subcarpathian Rus get mad when you ask if they're in the East, they say that's nonsense and send you packing to the real East, to Galicia! But the locals there, like all the Poles, say: We're Europe, but not Eastern, we're the center of Central Europe! And they wave their hand, You want the East, you gotta go to Ukraine, that's a bit of a ways still, they spit, bitterly and knowingly, Listen here, the East is poor and broken! People from the East go to the West to work, not the other way round! Sara said, spitting too. The Ukrainians send you farther still, to Russia. But the Russians don't think they're in the East, to them that's an insult, seeing as they're the center of the entire civilized world, though they do allow that the true East might be in Siberia, right, so I ride all the way through Siberia, thousands of miles on the Trans-Siberian Railway, and at the end station, in Vladivostok, I climb out, all broken-boned, and the locals there tell me: East, missie, are you out of your mind? Why this is the West, the honest-to-God end of the West, this right here is the end of Europe!

Photo: Dalkey Archive Press
Everything is relative…

“Yes. She actually ends up all the way at the Sea of Japan!”

I’d like to talk to you about another contemporary Czech writer, whom you’ve translated, called Patrik Ouředník, who is astonishingly little known here in the Czech Republic itself, given how much of his work has been translated.

“I don’t know exactly what the reasons for that are. It might have something to do with the fact that although he writes in Czech he lives in France – not in Paris, but in a small town where he has set up a small university.”

It is an interesting phenomenon, because Milan Kundera, who also lives in France, has a similar problem. Ouředník tends to get labeled as “post-modern”, with all the derogatory baggage that tends to go with that.

“Yes. I’ve read interviews with Jáchym Topol, where he’s talked about how he was hoping that with the fall of communism it would ease the burden on Czech writers as having to represent the nation and being the conscience of the nation, which is a long Czech tradition, going back to the national revival, I guess. I know that Ouředník himself has a similar view that Czech critics feel that Czech literature means a very specific thing – it means representing Czech values, but also Czech sense of humour, and on the one hand, if you are published abroad and successful there, it must mean that you are not adequately Czech, because if you were adequately Czech, then nobody would really understand your writing outside the Czech Republic. But on the other hand of course it means you’re Czech because you’re representing the best of Czech culture and therefore you’re successful abroad.”

You’ve translated two novels by Patrik Ouředník. Can you tell me a bit about them?

Petra Hůlová, photo: David Vaughan
“Yes. I guess I would actually call them novellas. The first one I translated was called ‘Case Closed’. In Czech it was called ‘Ad Acta’, which means ‘for the archives’. It’s a sort of take-off on the detective genre, with a lot of loose ends. In fact, I guess you could call the whole book one giant ball of loose ends. There is a murder, there is a murder mystery, and other than that there is a lot of commentary on Czechs and Czech culture, and the way people treat each other, and the stupidity of humankind, which is a major recurring theme in Ouředník’s writing. The other book by him that I translated, called ‘The Opportune Moment, 1855’, takes the form of a series of entries in a diary by an Italian man who’s on board a ship from Europe to Brazil in the mid-19th century to found a Utopian colony.“

One translation you did a few years ago, which I haven’t mentioned yet is a novel by the young Czech writer Petra Hůlová, which you translated into English as “All This Belongs to Me”. It’s probably her best known novel, about three generations of a family in Mongolia. I want to draw attention to this translation partly because you won an award for it, but also because I think it’s one of the most interesting books to come out of the Czech Republic in the last ten years.

“In 2010 I did get the National Translator’s Award from the American Literary Translators’ Association for the book, which was amazing and a huge honour, and I’m very grateful for that. The book was published by Northwestern University Press and I would love to do another novel by her. I think the one I’d like to do is the one called ‘Umělohmotný třípokoj‘ or ‘Plastic Three Bedroom’, which is told from the point of view of a young prostitute in Prague, who’s very savvy, very intelligent and writes about issues of culture as well as different kinds of clients she gets in her profession.”

I would like to ask you generally about the state of translation of Czech literature into English, because, before we started recording this interview, we talked about the lack not just of translations of contemporary Czech writing into English, but also the lack of translators.

“There are about three or four books a year translated from Czech into English, and I know that I alone in the past six or eight months have turned down two novels, and the big problem is that there aren’t enough people who are native speakers of English who know Czech and, of course, are able and willing to translate. So three or four books a year in my opinion is not enough, given the level and amount of production coming out of the Czech Republic right now.”

And there is also a problem in the English-speaking world, that there isn’t a sufficient desire to read literature from smaller languages.

“I think the bigger challenge right now for people who translate and people who are interested in translation is to make the books more visible, not necessarily just to make more of them – I known this kind of contradicts what I just said – but I think certain languages need more representation. Beyond that is the challenge of how to make translations more visible and publicize them more.”

And to end with, what are you working on right now?

“Right now, I’m translating a Czech classic from 1931, called Markéta Lazarová, which was written by Vladislav Vančura. It’s coming along very slowly. That’s all I can say about it right now.”