Danish historian Peter Bugge on his fascination with Czech culture and memories of Velvet Revolution

Peter Bugge, photo: archive of Czech Foreign Ministry

Danish historian and translator Peter Bugge has played a significant role in promoting Czech language, literature and culture in his homeland. Among other things, he helped to create an independent Bohemian Studies program at the University of Aarhus and translated works by Václav Havel and Karel Čapek into Danish.

Last month, Peter Bugge received the Gratias Agit Award from the Czech Foreign Ministry for promoting the good name of the Czech Republic. I caught up with him on the occasion to discuss his ties to the Czech Republic and I started by asking him about his impressions of Czechoslovakia when he first visited the country back in 1976.

“I was fascinated by the country and slightly mystified. On the one hand I noticed that at a certain level things were similar to Denmark. People were relatively accessible, easy to talk to, to the extent that they spoke some English and German.

“We visited Prague and also Southern Bohemia, because my father had a great interest in Jaroslav Hašek and wanted to follow Švejk’s anabasis in Southern Bohemia.

“We also visited Slovakia, where we had a car at our disposal with a driver because my father worked in the Ministry of Transportation.

“His Slovak colleagues obviously had access to cars with drivers, which to me was a complete oddity. That’s not the normal standard for civil servants in Denmark, I can tell you, then or now.

“Attending those big manifestations on Wenceslas Square and seeing Havel speaking to the masses was an overwhelming experience.”

“So there was this on the one hand a relatively familiar culture and on the other hand some strange phenomena that made me curious.

“This was called socialism and yet I noticed hierarchies that we didn’t have in Denmark. Of course to some extent you are always blind to your own implicit hierarchies, but still this was a riddle to me and one that kept fascinating me.”

So was it this riddle that you are talking about that triggered your interest in Czech history and Czech language?

“Yes it was. I started out in my university studies doing political science. I was generally interested in Eastern Europe and Russia. Later I found out that doing political science was not enough for me. I wanted to dig deeper into history and language.

“I think you cannot understand a culture of a given country without access to the language. So I moved from political science to history and Bohemistic, as we call it, the study of Czech language and literature.

“So it was a general interest in Eastern Europe and in the world of Communism. I also spent half a year in Moscow in the bad old days before Gorbatchev.

“And then, as I was to specialise, this visit to Czechoslovakia resurfaced and made me give Czech a go. I more or less by chance decided to try to learn the Czech language in 1984, a decision I have not regretted.”

Velvet Revolution | Photo: Peter Turnley,  public domain

I know you visited Czechoslovakia regularly before 1989 and you actually witnessed the first week of the Velvet Revolution. What are your memories of that event?

“Euphoria and joy. It would be unfair to call it carnivalesque, because it also had a serious dimension and there were moments of anxiety, where we didn’t know if the people’s militia would intervene and so on.

“But the overwhelming feeling was that of joy and fascination with how disciplined people were in the circumstances. Attending those big manifestations on Wenceslas Square and seeing Havel standing at the balcony of the newspaper house Svobodné slovo speaking to the masses was an overwhelming experience.

“One incident really stuck with me. Havel at some point saying: The old men at the castle are afraid. And the crowds immediately began shouting a bit like at football stadiums: ‘Bojte se! Bojte se! Be afraid, be afraid!’

“And then Havel waved his hand and everyone was quiet and he said: ‘But they have nothing to fear, because we are not like them.’ And we immediately started shouting: ‘We are not like them, we are not like them!’

“And this shift from ‘Be afraid’ to ‘We are not like them’ for me encapsulates the whole atmosphere of the first week of the Velvet Revolution. It was evident that people wanted the change and they wanted it peacefully.

“What struck me when I started doing Czech was how familiar Czech culture seemed to me.”

“So I was actually quite sad to leave Czechoslovakia. My visa expired so I had to return home to Denmark. And I did all I could to come back as soon as possible shortly after New Year to see how events unfolded.”

How did you perceive the changes the country went through in the years following the Velvet Revolution?

“One of the things that I noticed very much at a personal level was that all of a sudden my friends no longer had time. In the Communist years from 1984 until 1989 when I was also a frequent visitor to Czechoslovakia, people had time.

“People could basically leave their workplaces and go out have a beer or a cup of coffee with me whenever I arrived. There was not all that much pressure. There was relatively little to do otherwise.

“Now all of a sudden people had serious jobs. Things were faster. For most of my friends, the younger ones, the change was one of increased opportunity, both professionally and carrier-wise.”

You served as head of the department of Slavic Studies at Aarhus University. Is there an interest among Danish students in Slavic studies? I know that the instruction of Czech was terminated due to lack of interest.

November 1989 in Prague,  photo: archive of Czech Radio

“That is true, and sadly so. We tried, and it worked for a while, to redesign the traditional Slavic philologies as language-based area studies. There really was no market for conventional philology and, importantly for young people, nor were there any jobs afterwards.

“So we did area-studies and that worked reasonably well in the 1990s but I must to say that in the last 10 or 15 years the interest in the smaller Slavic languages and cultures has declined.

“We have seen the closing of Czech in all of Denmark. What we have left now in Denmark is of course Russian which still remains, for obvious reasons, relevant and also big enough to attract a sufficient number of students.

“Copenhagen has Polish and Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian, but that’s about it. But in general, we have seen this trend that young students look elsewhere when they select their fields of study.

“To some extent I think in the Czech case it has to do with something positive. It is no longer exotic from the Danish perspective.

“No big political upheavals, no big drama. You have become a normal European country of a medium size and these countries generally do not attract all that much attention from young Danes looking for things to study at a university.”

Apart from your research you also work as a translator. You translated for instance works by Václav Havel and Karel Čapek into Danish.  What is the awareness of Czech literature in Denmark today?

Bianca Bellová - 'Jezero',  photo: Adam Kebrt / Czech Radio

“Modest. I don’t think readers in Denmark have any sort of idea of trends in Czech literature as such. The interest was I would say bigger in the 1980s and 1990s where authors like Kundera or Klíma or Kohout were read also in that political context of dissidents and life behind the Iron Curtain and so on.

“I would say the last 15 or 20 years it has been rather scarce. I was happy to get a chance to do a new translation of War with the Newts by Karel Čapek, since the Old Danish translation was a bit outdated.

“And, of course, to do his travelogue Travels in the North which covers briefly but fascinatingly Denmark in the opening parts.

“Mostly I would say it depends on whether an individual publisher comes across a Czech author. You cannot say that we follow and monitor Czech literature as such.”

You recently translated Bianca Bellová’s The Lake. Is there any other Czech contemporary author whose work you would like to translate into Danish or are you actually working on any translation at the moment?

“Right now I do not have a contract on anything big, like a novel. I am translating a few essays by Milena Jesenská for a small Danish journal specialising in art history.

Milena Jesenská,  photo: Czech Television

“Again the editor of that journal came across Jesenská more or less by chance and was fascinated by her writings. And he was so fascinated by her story and by her style that we agreed that I should do a few essays for publication in that art journal.

“If we talk contemporary authors, I would like to see Petra Soukupová, or perhaps Kateřina Tučková or Alena Morštajnová translated into Danish, so I will try to persuade some publishers.

“Everything has been a little bit quiet recently due to the coronavirus situation. However, the publisher who did publish The Lake by Bellová would very much like to do other Czech literature so I will talk to them about the names that I mentioned to you to see if we can agree on a contract and a plan.”

You said there isn’t much awareness of Czech literature in Denmark today. Would you say there are any similarities between the Czech and Danish cultures? Would you say we have more in common than just beer?

“Oh yes, I think we have quite a lot in common: good things and sometimes also problematic things. In fact what struck me when I started doing Czech was how familiar Czech culture seemed to me, how easily I adapted and fell at home in Prague or Brno or in Czech culture as such.

“I think it has to do in both cases with this self-perception that we are small nations and that we are middle-class or plebeian nations, nations without a strong, prominent nobility, which also gives a sense of humour and irony and disrespect for anything grand and pompous.  And we like beer, as you said, in both cases. Czech beer is better, I would say.

“The other side of this is that both Danish and Czech culture can tend to become a little bit tribal, self-contained, smug and not very open to foreigners. That I find at times problematic.

“So I think for relatively small but politically and culturally secure nations like ours, both Danes and Czechs, finding a balance between a legitimate pride in one’s own challenge and an openness towards the bigger world, that’s the challenge.”