Anna Kareninová – leading Czech literary and film translator

Anna Kareninová

Anna Kareninová is a leading Czech literary translator and editor who also does the subtitles for a lot of the films that appear on the country’s cinema and TV screens. Many viewers would no doubt imagine that Anna Kareninová is a nom de plume, as it is the Czech version of Anna Karenina, the heroine of the Tolstoy novel of the same name. In fact, she told me at Prague’s Café Slavia, the name was assumed, not by her but by her father, after he fled from Russia in 1917.

“My father was a Russian aristocrat who left Russia in 1917 after the revolution. Then he became an opera singer and lived around the world. After the second world war he came to Prague and became a professor of singing at the conservatoire.”

I believe he assumed the name Karenin – why did he take that name?

“I didn’t ask him, but I think he was afraid of the Soviets, because all of his family was killed during the revolution. So he was afraid, I think.”

As for your own name Anna Kareninová, did your parents choose that name because they were fans of Tolstoy, or how did you come to have such an interesting name?

“My mother, before meeting my father, wanted to have a daughter called Anna, so it was a coincidence. My name is Anna Kareninová here in the Czech Republic, but in Russia this -ová is -a, so I am Anna Karenina.”

Both your parents were opera singers – did you ever want to become a singer yourself?

“No, but I am happy to have this experience, to have lived in the opera environment, because it’s something really special. For my profession of translator it’s something really precious.”

How did you become a translator?

“First of all I tried to read authors not in translation but in the original language, and I found that some translations were not as good as I would have liked them to be. So I tried to redo them and that’s how it started.”

Is it the case that you are self-taught in French and English?

“Yes, I tried to learn languages by myself, because as you can hear I have some difficulties with speaking, so I didn’t want to go to language school. So I learnt languages by myself, by reading, by listening and so on.”

The English language writer you’re perhaps most closely associated with is the poet Ezra Pound. You’ve also translated the French writer Celine. The former was attracted to fascism and the second was an anti-Semite. Are you able to divorce those writers and their writing from their political views?

“Of course, I have to, otherwise I couldn’t translate them. But I started to translate them because they weren’t translated into Czech enough. I consider those two authors as among the biggest of the 20th century, so I started to do it. Of course I have to deal with their opinions, but in their…high work those opinions are not present, so that helps.”

Literary translation requires a great deal of skill in rendering, in being able to write in your own language. Do literary writers respect translators?

“Some of them, yes. For example my husband, he was an important poet, he appreciated translators very much. Because without them he couldn’t read many of the authors he liked.”

I’ve also read that you have helped translators translate the poems of your late husband Petr Kabeš. In what way do you help them translate his work?

“Well, I have read several translations of Petr’s poems and I found several…not mistakes but misunderstandings. So I spoke about it with the translators. And also with Petr, because I wanted to know whether those mistakes, or misunderstandings, bothered him or not…”

As well as being a literary translator you translate film subtitles and even scripts for dubbing. What led you to that area?

“I like cinema very much. And it’s very good training for literary translation, because film translation is not something which is the most important aspect of the whole thing. You have to serve something else and you have to serve the whole thing with your translation. It helps very much with literary translation, because you have to translate not only words but images even in a literary translation.”

Also I’ve read that you have compared doing the subtitles to doing the lighting on a film. What did you mean by that?

“That’s what I said. The lighting, the translation, the costumes and so on are disciplines which should serve the whole thing. That’s the meaning.”