Alex Zucker: I don’t want to translate books, I want to translate authors

Alex Zucker, photo: Ian Willoughby

New York-based Alex Zucker is one of the most highly-regarded translators of Czech literature into English and works regularly with leading writers such as Jáchym Topol and Petra Hůlová. When we spoke on a park bench in Manhattan in late September, the conversation took in Zucker’s time in Prague in the early 1990s, his long relationships with authors and his criteria for choosing projects. But first he told me how he had started translating Czech literature – via an interest in human rights.

Alex Zucker,  photo: Ian Willoughby
“I guess I first became aware of Czech really through literature, and I have to confess it was through the novels of Milan Kundera.

“But that did not lead me to want to translate – that led me to want to work on human rights.

“I did a master’s programme here in New York at Columbia University in international affairs in the late ‘80s which was intended to make me qualified to work in human rights.

“That was of course still under communism.

“But what happened there was my Czech professor was Peter Kussi, who was Kundera’s translator at that time.

“So I got into translating thanks to him.”

Specifically what were you hoping to do in the human rights area?

“The main group that was working on human rights in Czechoslovakia at that time was Helsinki Watch, the forerunner of today’s Human Rights Watch.

“They were doing research and writing reports. They were interviewing people in Czechoslovakia about what was going on and what they were doing and publicising their cases.

“So I guess that’s what I would have wanted to do – the research and the writing of reports and travelling and meeting with people to the extent possible.”

Communism ended, of course, and you moved to Prague for several years. I was reading that you worked for a number of media outlets. What are your strongest memories of those days, the Wild East, early days?

“I worked for two years for the English section of the foreign department at ČTK, the Czechoslovakia News Agency, as it was called at the time, or Press Agency, I guess technically.

“I was translating Czech and Slovak wire reports into English and I still remember that very strongly.

“The English section of the foreign department at ČTK was really my translating school.”

“That was really my translating school. That was where I learned to translate, I would say, because we did so much rewriting of the news stories, and editing, moving things around.

“It gave me two full years of working with people, Czechs, who were either bilingual or at least skilled enough in both Czech and English to be able to talk in depth about how to translate things, when do you need to go farther away from the Czech, when can you stick closer to it.

“It was really great in that respect.”

Apart from working at ČTK and other outlets, what was your life experience of living in Prague in those days?

“I would say in some ways those were the best years of my life, in the sense that I was in my mid-twenties and had a job that gave me all the money I needed.

“And really I had an incredible core group of Czech friends, most of whom were connected in some way with the literary review Revolver Revue, and some of them at that point were also writing as journalists for the investigative weekly Respekt.

“So that was kind of my anchor there.

“Those people are all spread in all sorts of different places now, but they gave me an amazing entrée into Czech culture – art and music and I guess literature – that I really wouldn’t have had otherwise.

“And that was partly also thanks to the fact that some of them I had met in New York City, here, already in the spring of 1990, at a conference on Czech literature.”

Would among those people have been Jáchym Topol, who you later translated?

“That’s right, yes, he was one of them.

“I think he still is like this… although I know in some ways he’s very reserved and shy, he also is a great connector of people.

Jáchym Topol,  photo: Vojtěch Havlík / Czech Radio
“He is, or at least was for a long time, always interested in introducing people to other people.

“And he was really great that way.”

What was your first major commission as a translator?

“It depends what you mean by major.”

Your first significant commission.

“I usually talk about my first book-length literary translation, which was a long short story by Jáchym Topol that was initially published in Revolver Revue: Výlet k nádražní hale, A Trip to the Train Station, I called it in English.

“That was published originally in Revolver Revue in ‘93 and then came out as a book in ’95.

“It was published as a bilingual edition, in Czech and with my translation, by Petrov in Brno, which was under Martin Reiner.

“Then my first book-length translation in the US was for Northwestern University Press in 1999, a book called More than One Life by Miloslava Holubová.

“Peter Kussi asked me to do it as a sort of favour to him, because Holubová was a friend of his.”

You’ve translated several books by Topol and also by Petra Hůlová. What does it mean to a translator to work with one writer over several books and over several years?

“Actually for me it’s pretty moving to have these relationships with these authors.

“There’s a lot of trust on the author’s part that’s involved in allowing somebody to translate a book of yours.

“Even if you’re the kind of person who knows English and reviews it very closely, like Patrik Ouředník, for instance.

“Or even more so, if you don’t, obviously.

“I think part of the reason that I have these relationships is that I realised at a certain point that the authors who are known in English are the ones who’ve had multiple books published.

“I realised that the authors who are known in English are the ones who’ve had multiple books published. For an author to be successful, that’s the way it has to work.”

“And that really for an author to be successful, that’s the way it has to work.

“I have any number of authors and agents come to me and say, This is a great book, this book won a prize, do you want to translate this book?

“And my answer is, No, I don’t want to translate books, I want to translate authors.

“Because that’s how they break through.”

I was surprised in an old interview with you that there are too few literary translators capable of translating Czech literature. Why is that?

“Well, there aren’t that many people who know Czech.

“I’m not sure which interview you’re talking about, or what I said exactly, but that’s still true.

“I was thinking on the way over here to meet you what we would talk about and I do feel like there’s an awful lot of great books being written right now by Czechs and not enough translators to do the work.

“Although it’s not just about the number of translators, of course; it’s really about finding the publishers.

“That’s the part where things get stuck – finding publishers where the books fit in and make sense.”

If you take on a writer or a book that you haven’t worked on before, what are your criteria? What are you looking for? Because you must be turning down a lot of projects.

“I guess the bottom line is I have to like something about a book, to want to translate it.

“Although I have done books basically just for money. But even then there has to be something about it I like.

“I just translated a book over the summer, not for publication but for an author, who self-published a book of horror stories.

“He contacted me through my website and we negotiated about the price and terms and all of that.

“I did it for him and I don’t know if he’ll find a publisher for it or not, but I did enjoy doing it.

“Working in a genre required me to use some vocabulary and phraseology that I don’t get to use otherwise.

Petra Hůlová | Photo: Petr Vidomus,  Czech Radio
“And kind of operating more in the realm of clichés as opposed to avoiding clichés is also challenging in a way – to be able to work with cliché is mastering genre.

“But more recently I guess what I would say is that I’m much more conscious… I feel torn in two different directions.

“On one hand, I would like to translate anything that I like and I think is a good book.

“But on the other hand, I want to get paid, and I do have some ideas about what’s missing in Czech literature in English, which partly comes just from my own ideas, but partly from seeing what translations from other languages have that Czech is missing.

“And one of the things that I’ve been talking about in the last few years is the disparity between the number of women translated from Czech into English and men.

“The disparity is there in every language, but the disparity is especially great in Czech literature.

“So apart from what other criteria I have, right now I am very interested in specifically translating women, to do my part to help correct that disparity.”

A few years ago in Prague I went to an event at which you went through various versions of your translations of the beginning of a book – I think it was possibly Markéta Lazarová – and you showed how you chose different tones, essentially. When you’re working on something like that, do you kind of weigh up the tone at the beginning and then kind of stick with it? Because at the speed you seemed to be going at, really considering so many different options, you would never get anything done if you didn’t decide on a tone and go with it.

“Yeah. I also didn’t finish translating that book, partly because it was so difficult, but mainly because I discovered somebody else had already done a translation of it.

“Carleton Bulkin, it turns out, had already done a translation for Twisted Spoon Press.

“Well, my experience, and I think other translators have said the same, is that the beginning of the book is the part that you end up redoing the most.

“Because it’s really impossible, even if you’ve read the book more than once, to get the tone right from the beginning.

“There’s an awful lot of great books being written right now by Czechs and not enough translators to do the work.”

“I guess I can imagine it happening, but I’m always more comfortable and have a clearer idea of what a book is supposed to sound like by the end than I am at the beginning.

“So the revisions I do in later drafts are always heavier on the opening of the book and the earlier chapters than the ones at the end.”

Obviously you have fantastic Czech. But who do you turn to if you get stuck on something and simply don’t understand it? You’re here in New York – who do you turn to?

“I’ve got two informants, friends of mine: Ivana Husáková, who lives here in Queens, and Irena Kovářová, who lives here in Manhattan.

“They’re both long-time friends of mine and I thank them in my acknowledgements, always. They are the two people I turn to most often when I have a question about the Czech.”

Otherwise how do you keep your Czech up?

“My spoken Czech has deteriorated, I would say, pretty significantly, living here and not getting back to the Czech Republic as much as I’d like.

“But my written Czech has gotten much better, because of all the emailing I do.

“One of the authors I translate was complimenting me not too long ago about how good my Czech is [laughs].

“It’s all the email.”

Last year [2017] in Prague you appeared at an event at the Václav Havel Library that was entitled Our Man in New York. I was wondering if you feel in a certain way that you represent Czech literature here? Because you really do a lot for it here.

“I always have mixed feelings about that.

“I guess I would say Czech literature is obviously a big interest of mine, but it’s not my only interest.

“It’s not as though my entire life is devoted to Czech literature.

“I’m not a scholar, so I’m not like an academic who spends all of his time reading Czech literature, reading articles about Czech literature, reading Czech history, teaching it.

“My life does not revolve around Czech literature in that sense.

“So I don’t, for instance, know as much about Czech literature, in a way, as somebody like Jonathon Bolton, who’s at Harvard, or Christopher Harwood, who’s at Columbia and teaches Czech there.

“The disparity between the number of women and men translated is there in every language, but it’s especially great in Czech literature.”

“These are both people who read more than I do and I’m sure have a greater knowledge of Czech literature, all the different styles, the history, the trends.

“I have a different kind of knowledge, obviously, that comes from working on the granular level.

“But it’s also I think not a bad thing to have that responsibility, which is part of the reason why I think about what has been translated and what hasn’t.

“What I imagine Czech literature to be is of course not necessarily always the same as what Czechs imagine it to be.

“I think that came up with my discussion with Jáchym Topol [who hosted the Havel Library event] last year [2017], when he asked me to say what is the main characteristic of Czech literature.

“I think I said something, which was kind of tongue in cheek, which was that the main characteristic of Czech literature is that it’s written in Czech.

“By which I meant only that there are a lot of different trends and types of literature being written in Czech and not that many of them have been represented so far in English.

“We could have a much broader representation, and I’m in favour of that.”