Dan Duta: Canned quotes and dead lovers from a Romanian poet in Czech

Dan Duta, photo: David Vaughan

It is not unusual to come across poets writing in English even if it is not their mother tongue. But for a non-native speaker to write poetry in Czech is rare indeed, and some might say bordering on the masochistic, given the fiendish complexities of the Czech language. But the process can also be very rewarding, both for the poet and the reader. The Romanian poet, Dan Duta has taken up the challenge, as David Vaughan finds out in this week’s Czech Books.

Dan Duta, photo: David Vaughan
For several years Dan Duta was in charge of the Romanian Cultural Centre here in Prague and during that time he brought many young Romanian artists, musicians and writers to Prague. He played no small part in establishing the reputation of a highly creative generation of Romanian writers beyond the country’s borders. But Dan is also a poet in his own right. His love for the Czech language goes back to when he was a teenager, and it comes quite naturally to him to write his poetry in Czech. His writing is full of humour, irony and a healthy dose of the absurd.

Dan Duta has been visiting Prague to launch his latest collection, as part of the city’s annual poetry festival. The book has an extremely long and peculiar title, which reflects the quirky playfulness of the way in which Dan plays with language. It could be translated roughly as: “Canned quotes, complexes and human rights or married with non-obligations I’m selling a born dead lover (Note: well-worn)”. Well, I think it’s high time to go over to the poet himself to tell us more…

“I’m very much in love with the Czech Republic, with Czech culture. I’m writing my work in Czech. Actually, I’m not translating it from Romanian, I’m writing it directly in Czech…”

And what is it that makes you want to write poetry, one of the most intimate ways in which you can use language, in a language which is not your mother tongue?

“I think that I am able to express myself in the most intimate and personal way – the most private way from the point of view of my soul and my spirit – in Czech. Maybe the Romanian language, my mother tongue, expresses and puts some censorship on me, which the Czech language does not. I feel I’m more free. I feel a greater liberty to express myself in Czech because at the same time it is a way of researching, trying to discover again and again.”

You talk about finding it easier to write in Czech. There a kind of detachment that some people feel when they write in a foreign language, but from what you’re saying, that is not what it’s about in your case.

'Canned quotes, complexes and human rights or married with non-obligations I’m selling a born dead lover (Note: well-worn)', photo: Petr Štengl publishing
“The Czech experience has been very long, very profound, very complex and very important to me. Nevertheless, Czech still remains for me a foreign language. Because of it, or thanks to it – take it the way you want – a word, expression or metaphor I use in my poetry also has a secret dimension, also has a potential to hide something. Maybe this is the challenge, to discover, to search, to find that that metaphor that could also express something else, to use the play of words, which this inspires in me, and which I feel is very attractive to me in Czech. And there’s something else too. Czech is so rich. It has so many possibilities of expression. Two words put together could express so many things and therefore associating two metaphors one could express a lot of things. Maybe this is one of the most important dimensions of poetry. Among other things, poetry is about discovering what the language is able to say, whilst writing it, whilst searching for it.”

And you say that there is a certain richness in the Czech language which you don’t find in Romanian or in English.

“Well, maybe it sounds unpatriotic, but I guess the Czech language is richer than the Romanian language. Romanian has more possibilities of independently associating different words, but not so many prefixes, not so many suffixes, not so many possibilities of changing one or two letters in the same word and inventing, discovering so many senses of the same word. That’s what Romanian doesn’t have and that’s what is a real source of poetry in the Czech language. And I think English doesn’t have this either. English has other possibilities of combining two different independent words concerning the context. In English the context is very important to understand a literary work and especially poetry, whilst in Czech the word is the most powerful thing.”

How did all this start – your love or obsession with the Czech language?

“There were maybe three main things which initially attracted me to the Czech language and culture. It was first of all the Czech cinema of the 1960s, which I discovered when I was a teenager, and which for Romania was something very independent and very new, even if I wasn’t seeing these films till the end of the 1980s, as most of them had been banned even in Czechoslovakia and it was even harder to see them in a foreign country. Then, my first girlfriend when I was sixteen was a very beautiful Czech girl from Moravia and of course this stimulated me even more into coming closer to this culture. And then it was the absurd Czech theatre of the 60s that attracted me very much. Of course it was banned in all the communist countries at that time, except Yugoslavia – Havel could be played normally in Croatia and Slovenia. But nevertheless, there were also clandestine samizdat translations and I had the opportunity to read one translation of Havel in English at that time. It attracted me so much, it was so much like the French-Romanian absurd theatre – like Eugene Ionesco. I was so impressed to discover how Havel managed to develop all this in such an original, complex and charming way.”

Dan Duta, photo: David Vaughan
You are talking about something that you feel the Czech and Romanian literary traditions have in common. Are there more ways in which you think there is a mutual understanding between Czechs and Romanians? There is quite a lot in common in the recent history of the two countries.

“I’m afraid that what the Czechs and Romanians do have in common has more to do with external contexts, with historical contexts. Romanians and Czechs are very different. The spirit is different, the mentality is different and therefore each of those two cultures is attractive for the other one. I was attracted by the Czech culture, by the Czech language mainly because of the fact that I found things there which it wasn’t possible to find in the Romanian culture.”

You have been back in Romania for a year-and-a-half now. You must be missing having the Czech language around you all the time.

“Don’t even ask me about it! You can’t imagine how much I’m missing it. Sometimes I start talking Czech to myself. I’m organizing film cycles in Romania dedicated to the Czech ‘New Wave’. I watch the film I’m going to screen the next week up to five times before the screening. It is a way of feeling the Czech language and Czech culture around myself. I have already invited some Czech poets to various literary festivals in Romania and I am translating a lot. In May I published an anthology of contemporary Czech poetry in Romania. It’s actually the first anthology of contemporary Czech poetry to be published in Romania since 1989. And I am now preparing a much broader anthology of Czech poetry and contemporary short stories in electronic format. I’m not in the middle of things because I’m very far away from the Czech Republic, but at least I can be in the middle of what great Czech poets are writing today.”

And, as a translator, how do you cope with that problem in poetry that you have already mentioned – that Czech poetry is so focused on the word itself?

“There are two extremes. One of them is to translate word by word, but respecting what the poet wrote and counting with the fact that the reader, the observer, the receiver of the art would or should understand what the poet wanted to say. And the opposite extreme is to use the whole sentence in order to express what that word wants to say. How do I cope with this? I try to combine those two extremes. I’m trying not to be an extremist in either of the senses, and above all, I consult everything with the Czech poets themselves. What is happening now in Czech poetry is really great. It’s an explosion of the talents of different generations.”

Could you give me the names of a few of the Czech poets that you particularly admire?

“I very much like the circle of poets around the literary reviews Psí víno and H_aluze. Then we have the most famous and most exported Czech poets, Petr Hruška, Petr Borkovec, Kateřina Rudčenková, we have the poets around the literary review Tvar, and then around the literary review Protimluv we have Jiří Macháček, an excellent poet…”

… and you have translated work by all these poets?

“By all those poets and also by many others.”

So you really are a bridge between the literary worlds of the Czech Republic and Romania.

“I’m trying to do this, but believe me, I’m not the one and only translator from Czech to Romanian. There are a few very good translators, but I have to admit that I am the one who focuses most on contemporary poetry, because the Czech novel is much more popular in Romania than Czech poetry. I think the Romanians should know the contemporary Czech – and also Slovak – poetry.”