David Short and Czechoslovakia: love begins with the verb

David Short, photo: David Vaughan

David Short first came to Prague as a student over fifty years ago. He remained for the best part of six years, experiencing at first hand the Prague Spring and then the Soviet-led invasion. He went on to become a mainstay of Czech and Slovak studies in Britain, over nearly four decades giving students at the University of London insights into the quirks of the Czech and Slovak languages. Since his retirement and with a bit more time on his hands David has focused on his work as a literary translator. It was in acknowledgement of his huge contribution to Czech and Slovak studies abroad he has just been given one of the Czech Republic’s most respected literary awards, the George Theiner Prize for 2018. David Vaughan spoke to David Short about his life and work.

David Short,  photo: David Vaughan
In his long career David Short’s work has varied from studies on the complexities of the Czech verb to a teach-yourself textbook of Czech that has helped hundreds of English speakers to negotiate the labyrinth of the language. He has also translated a wide variety of Czech writers, among them Bohumil Hrabal and Vítězslav Nezval, two of the giants of Czech 20th century literature, and both hugely difficult to translate. David Short could not have been a better choice for the George Theiner Prize, as it aims to draw attention to the behind-the-scenes work of people working to translate, publish or promote Czech writing abroad. I met him just before the awards ceremony on the terrace of Prague’s Café Jedna and asked him how it all began.

“It started quite simply because I elected to take a degree in Russian, which brought me to another Slavonic language, Serbo-Croat, and then to comparative Slavonic philology, which I adored. But, to make a proper job of that I needed a third – a west – Slavonic language. I settled for Czech and I applied to the British Council for a one-year grant in Prague, which they gave me… and another… and another.”

When was this?

“This was 1966. In total I was there from October 1966 to December 1972.”

You were here at an interesting and rather dramatic time.

“It was indeed interesting and dramatic. If you’re referring to the Soviet occupation, for instance, that was quite dramatic, because I was out of Prague at the time in the faculty chalet, working with two colleagues on some linguistic textbooks. I was woken by them one morning to be told that the country had been occupied, which I thought was not a very pleasant way to get a lazy Englishman out of bed at six o’clock in the morning.”

You just didn’t believe them…

“I was disinclined to believe initially, because the rumours had been that Soviet manoeuvres on the border were over, that they’d gone home and everything was fine. Clearly there were sceptics who thought that it could turn sour again, and it did. The country was occupied, and off I went home.”

But you came back to Czechoslovakia.

Soviet occupation in August 1968,  photo: archive of Czech Radio
“I came back in October of the same year. My grant still had time to run. Conditions changed somewhat, but my own conditions didn’t change in particular. I was there to study Czech and do the occasional translation for people like ARTIA, the literary agency. My friends were less than happy with what was happening to their country and I sympathized entirely, but life goes on.”

And you met your wife.

“Yes. This was another concomitant of these circumstances. You may recall the name of Jan Palach, the young student who immolated himself. On the day he died, all the students in the university were out in the street on what I can only describe as the most haunting street parade I’ve ever experienced because nobody spoke – no noise, no cheering, no traffic. I happened to be with a friend of mine and he happened to be with his girlfriend and her roommate. That roommate is the one who eventually, the following October, became my wife.”

And nearly fifty years later you’re still together.

“Oh yes.”

So, that deepened your relationship to Czechoslovakia and the Czech language.

“Czech was the language of our household. We had our first child while I was there. Therefore, his first language was Czech.”

And then in 1972 you moved as a family to the United Kingdom.

“Yes. The rest of the family didn’t come till Easter 1973, because I had gone ahead to start a job. I was very lucky that a job that suited me had cropped up. It was the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, which at the time was a Senate Institute of the University of London.”

And your main interests were linguistics and philology.

Photo: Twisted Spoon Press
“It started as Slavonic philology, and I’d wanted the three – the Russian, the Serbian and the Czech. The Russian exposure had been four years at university, the Serbian exposure had been one year at university and a very pleasant week in Belgrade when I went to buy some books one year. But the Czech was a growing number of years non-stop. Russian definitely fell out of favour on the 21st August 1968. The Serbian evaporated as quickly as it had been acquired. So I was left with Czech, which gradually expanded to take on Slovak, because I hoped and knew that if ever I was going to get a job the one would be inseparable from the other, as proved to be the case.”

From looking at your articles, I can see that your greatest interest has been in the verb.

“Yes, I think you’re right. Among the articles I have written I think there has been a predominance concerning the Czech verb.”

You have always been interested in literature, but as translator you have only really come into your own in the last couple of decades.

“Yes. I had non-literary translations published in the 1970s – linguistics, phonetics – but then the first serious literary effort was Nezval’s Valerie a týden divů (Valerie and Her Week of Wonders). That isn’t to say there’d been no literature before. My total bibliography of literary translations runs to page after page, but so many of them are samples of this and that on websites, in anthologies, magazines, all over the place.”

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders must have been very difficult to translate, because Nezval is a difficult writer at the best of times. He is experimental in his language and there are plenty of surreal elements…

“Yes. I think it’s probably the surreal elements that I have the most problem with, because I’m far too down-to-earth and unsurreal myself. But after all those years speaking and using Czech, no matter what genre, I had the confidence to dare to say yes when the proposal came, and I think I can say that I think the outcome wasn’t all that bad.

Chapter 1 A Magic Yard Valerie, an oil lamp in her hand, entered the yard. The moon was full… Her bare feet touched the moonlight. She also detected the scent of the garden. The noise from the poultry was unceasing. With her right hand she clasped her bed jacket to her. “Who’s up there?” she called and took a step up towards the henhouse. A moth circled the lamp, then a second, and a third. “It’s a polecat,” she told herself. But suddenly she noticed that the yard was unrecognizable. “Where’s my apple tree?” But the woodshed had also disappeared, and the wall was twice as high as usual. She thought she heard the well winch squeak.

You’ve translated many Czech writers, including Bohumil Hrabal, one of the legends of 20th century Czech literature. What would you consider to be your most accomplished translation?

Photo: Karolinum Press
“One translation that I think is something of an accomplishment is the first Hrabal translation I did, which is called Kličky na kapesníku (Pirouettes on a Postage Stamp). He describes it as an interview novel. Until you have it in your hands you haven’t a clue what that means. There’s a Slovak journalist, given as co-author, who asks a one-line question, which is followed by a five-page answer, which is one slice of Hrabal’s autobiography. So It’s a kind of autobiographical novel that flies hither and yon within a page, let alone between answers to different questions. And it carries many of the hallmarks of being spoken – in other words this Slovak journalist had recorded it all and then typed it all out. On the other hand, there are places where he has overcome that impression because he did do a lot of corrections ex-post. I consider the translation an accomplishment in that it includes complex editing. It is completely footnoted and indexed – and I treat it as my last serious academic publication as much as a translation.”

Tell me about some of your more recent translations.

“Following the Hrabal line – I was asked by my Prague publisher, the Karolinum Press, to translate a monograph about Hrabal by Jiří Pelán, and that I enjoyed hugely as well. It’s waiting, I think, for the final selection of illustrations to be put in. It’s a very readable book and for anybody who doesn’t know Hrabal yet, this is one way to get to him.”

There was a time when there was a great deal of interest in the English-speaking world in Czech literature. In the 1980s the latest works of writers like Klíma, Hrabal and Kundera were eagerly awaited. Times have changed a lot since then.

“Yes. It’s the same sort of thing that influenced the way one might have one or two applicants for a Czech course at university and the next year there might be as many as three times more – let’s say six or perhaps even eight! It all depended whether the country was in the news, and whether for good or for bad reasons. People seem very capable of forgetting about this funny little country, unless they’re on the brink of getting married and go and have their stag night in Prague. It doesn’t leave a permanent mark. In the 1960s I had people who came to study simply because they were fascinated by the things that had gone on in the Prague Spring. Then you had people coming to study because they had met a beautiful Czech girl who was an involuntary exile, and you had the girls themselves. I had one person who was intrigued by his neighbour’s Czech mother-in-law. Some came because they had a longstanding family interest in Dvořák. Music was often a case in point. But even the composers – Dvořák and Smetana – tend to be played as Dvořák and Smetana, not as Czech composers. And a writer who makes a name for himself, like Hrabal, he will be the writer Hrabal, not necessarily the Czech writer Hrabal. For some people it will be so, but for many not.”

Do you think that one problem at the moment is that there isn’t so much good – or exportable – writing coming out of the Czech Republic?

“No. I think there is. I’m sure there is. I think the reading public is probably shrinking, and if you look at the offerings made by the smaller presses – because the bigger presses don’t get engaged, as they’re looking for money – then the Czech market, such as it is, has to compete with other small markets from Central Europe and increasingly from the Baltic States.”

Are there writers who you would still particularly like to translate? Also, I know that there are several translations that you have already made that haven’t yet been published.

Photo: Host publishing
“If, in my folly or by quirk of fate, I’ve ended up translating something that hasn’t got published, that’s either because there has been a publisher who thought it might be a good idea but just doesn’t have the capacity, or I may have had no particular thought to its being published anyway. And there are one or two very rare occasions when I’ve sat down and translated a book for my pleasure, where the impulse hasn’t come from outside.”

One such case is Bianca Bellová, who is very popular in the Czech Republic and recently won the Magnesia Litera award, the most prestigious literary award in this country. You translated her book Mrtvý muž (Dead Man).

“I translated it because I liked it. It’s one of those instances where I did it for my own sake. I sent it to her and she was pleased – as far as I’m aware. But either she hasn’t had the time to find a publisher, or her agent, if she has one, hasn’t been able to find a publisher. I don’t really understand why, because it’s eminently readable. It’s a good yarn, well told, with a telling twist at the end which is most satisfying.”

If you happen to be in London, there will be a chance to meet David Short at the Slovak Embassy at 25 Kensington Palace Gardens on June 28 from 6.30 pm. He will be joined by the publisher Michael Tate and the Slovak author publishing under the name Richard, whose novel Gaudeamus David has translated.