Catfood at the Corner Shop: the challenges of translating Louis de Bernieres

Kostelec nad Černými lesy, photo: Zdeněk Fiedler, CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported

Our report this week comes from the third Literature Seminar in the town of Kostelec. For the last three years the British Council has organised this three-day event which provides an opportunity for visiting British writers to meet Czech academics, as well as budding young translators and students of literature. Kostelec is a small historical town about an hour outside Prague. Reporting from there for Radio Prague was Bernie Higgins.

To find out more about the seminar, I'm talking to Helena Kovarikova, who's the literature officer for the British Council here in Prague.

"This year we were able to organise the seminar, not just for lecturers but for all the people we work with who are involved with literary projects, and that's journalists, translators, reviewers, well, people engaged in literature, so it's a very nice mixture of people and they all seem to be enjoying it, so we think every second year this might be organised for the people from Czech universities."

What changes have you noticed in terms of Czech interest in British literature over the past years?

"Well for me as a middle-aged lady who has experienced people queuing up for books and smuggling books, English books, across the border, it's a fantastic thing that the books are available here, that they are part of the libraries, and that the level of English is that high. The young Czech people are able to read in English even in the original. That's the big achievement I think. I am very glad."

I have with me now one of the finalists in the British Council translators' competition which involved translating a short story called 'Labels' by Louis de Bernieres, and the award ceremony tomorrow will be the highlight of the day I think. So I'm delighted to have one of the finalists, Jana Vorechovska who is a translation student at the translation faculty of Charles University in Prague. So I'd like to ask you, Jana, what inspired you to enter this competition?

"I studied translation studies at the Charles faculty and also Czech language and literature, and I always find other notice boards more interesting than the ones of my subjects, like translation studies and Czech language and literature, and I was walking along past the noticeboard of 'Anglistika', that is English language and literature, and I simply saw the notice, that the British Council is having this competition and I saw the name Louis de Bernieres. Because I've read his book 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin' and I really liked it I decided to go for it and translate the story. I also heard him reading this book, two years ago probably, in Prague Library, and at that time I was thinking 'Oh God this is untranslatable!' I really, really liked it because he read it in a very beautiful way and it was very, very nice, and when I saw that this is the story, the 'Labels' one, I thought 'Well I can't translate it, I'm not doing it' but then I translated the first page, and really, really liked it and simply went on and on and that was it."

I'd like you to briefly describe the story if you can.

"So it's about a man who wants to have a hobby and he decides to collect cat food, or tins of cat food, and this almost ruins his life. I will not go into details, but then the cat food will save him and he becomes very successful and a very happy man."

" Like everyone else, I was reduced to extreme torpor and inactivity by the advent of television, but found that I was becoming increasingly depressed and irritable. After a couple of years I realised that I was suffering from frustration of having no interests in life and searched around for something to do.

"I was in our corner shop one day when I was most forcibly struck by the appealing eyes of a cat depicted on the label of a tin of catfood, and it occurred to me that a comprehensive collection of cat food labels might one day be of considerable interest to historians of industry, and that to be a connoisseur of cat food labels would surely be a sufficiently rare phenomenon for me to be able to become an eminent authority in a comparatively short time. Instantly I dismissed the idea from my mind as intrinsically absurd, and returned home."

"What was very difficult I think was that there were many cultural items, cultural things, that were typically British, or even some French words like 'terrine' or 'paté', and 'pies' and 'corner shop', and all these words which are simply unknown to Czech readers, and it is difficult to translate it so that they know what it is all about."

So I'm intrigued, how did you translate 'corner shop'?

"I just wrote something like 'u nas v potravinach'!"

And in terms of your future as a translator, are there any other British authors who are attractive to you or have your studies pointed you in any particular direction so far?

Kostelec nad Černými lesy,  photo: Zdeněk Fiedler,  CC BY-SA 3.0 Unported
"I actually study both translation and interpreting and like both, so I would like to work as an interpreter as well and as a translator, and I particularly think a translator should choose his author, somebody who is like a soul mate maybe I would say, and that's what was interesting for me in terms of Louis de Bernieres' short story, because it was funny - the story was funny and also the language was funny - and I think I would like to go for these kinds of authors who are not too serious, but funny and entertaining."

And in terms of the seminar, which is quite an amazing experience because these are really well known writers in Britain who come over to the Czech Republic and spend three days having seminars and discussions, including poets like Alan Jenkins who's a very famous poet in Britain, what do you hope to get out of this seminar?

"I have to say I don't really know many contemporary British authors simply because they are probably not translated that much, so I hope I will simply learn more about the British contemporary literature scene and I will be able to talk to the authors personally - that's what's fascinating about it."

Do you ever worry that Czech language and Czech literature might be threatened by too much English?

"Not at all! I think it's good, the more books from abroad and the more quality translations the better, definitely."

Thank you very much and good luck with the competition.

"Thank you very much indeed. It's my pleasure."

[And I should add that Jana Vorechovska, who spoke with Bernie, went on to win first prize in the translation competition.]

Books for this programme supplied by Shakespeare and Sons.