Canadian translator Mark Landry preparing collection of Nohavica songs in English

Jaromir Nohavica, photo: CTK

The folk singer Jaromir Nohavica is immensely popular in the Czech Republic, where many are very familiar with his songs. Nohavica’s lyrics are perhaps his strongest point as an artist, though that is largely lost on English speakers who do not have a strong grasp of the Czech language. Now, however, a Canadian translator and teacher called Mark Landry is preparing English translations of Nohavica songs, which should make the singer’s poetic lyrics accessible to non-Czech speakers.

For almost two decades now, Landry has been living in “Nohavica country” – Ostrava, north Moravia. On the phone from there, he explained that his involvement with the singer began some years ago, following the translation of a collection of folk songs from Bohemia, Moravia and Slovakia.

“We distributed it here, Canada and in the United States. At the same time I heard a few songs from my students by Jarek Nohavica. I sent my translations to him, and that was basically our first contact.”

How many songs have you translated and how do you select them?

“I’ve translated about 200 songs, to various degrees. When I first met him I asked him what songs he had a preference for. I started with his first album called Darmodej. Then I went to the second CD, third CD and then from CD to CD. When I ran out of CDs he gave me a copy of his book and I went through the book and I went through the songs…and I’m up to about 200 songs at this time.”

What are you going to do with all of these translations?

“His original idea was to publish a book of his songs in English. Because if you go to his concerts most of the people are Czech or Slovak, but there’s a small group of people who don’t speak Czech or Slovak and don’t know what the songs are about…His idea was, probably when he’s on tour I think, that for that minority of people this book would help them to understand what his songs are about.”

Translating the work of one of the Czech Republic’s best loved singer-songwriters is quite an undertaking by any standards. But is there anything particularly difficult about translating Nohavica?

Jaromir Nohavica,  photo: CTK
“The biggest problem for me is there’s a lot of poetry in his text. I had to consider that the translations were not only from the poetry but I had to make them singable. Sometimes Jarek Nohavica uses some local dialect, many foreign expressions and slang from this region. The dialect in the Ostrava region uses a combination of Polish, Slovak and German, and they have certain words that they don’t have in other parts of the republic.”

Nohavica I suppose is extremely popular all around the country, but I imagine especially in Ostrava. Were you perhaps daunted by taking on these translations of songs that everybody knows? Many of the people who like them will also speak English as well – were you daunted at all?

“As I said, I had a little experience of translating the folk songs. I took it more as a challenge than something daunting. I discovered that it is great fun to try to put these songs into English.

“Since we first started with this project we’ve gone to a club in Ostrava called the Sofia club and we’ve been there two or three times. We’ve performed the songs in front of 30 or 50 people in a small room. Once Jarek Nohavica came and after I performed he performed. He gave me a copy of some of his books and he seemed to be quite satisfied. So after performing for him and getting his approval it didn’t seem so daunting.”

A number of song lyrics in English are to be found at though no date has yet been set for the publication of a book of Nohavica’s songs translated by Mark Landry. You can hear snippets of some of Mark's renditions if you listen this edition of the Arts.