Elena Buixaderas: a Spanish poet in Prague

Elena Buixaderas, photo: Isaac Sibecas

At a crossroads in Europe, the Czech capital has always been an international city and has attracted writers from many parts of the world. But, despite the rich historical links between the two countries going back to the 16th century and beyond, we would not normally associate modern Prague with Spain. One person who has been building literary Spanish-Czech bridges for the best part of two decades is the Prague based Spanish poet, Elena Buixaderas. She is David Vaughan’s guest in Czech Books.

Elena Buixaderas, photo: Isaac Sibecas
As a Prague poet, Elena Buixaderas is unusual not just in the fact that she comes from Spain, where she was born 1969 in the southern city of Murcia, but also because of her profession. She is a scientist, working at the Institute of Physics of the Czech Academy of Sciences. Since 2004 she has also been organizing literary evenings in Spanish, she has translated some of the best Czech poets of recent decades into her native language, and she has also seen her own poetry translated into Czech. There really is something universal about Elena Buixaderas. When we met, I began by asking her just how unusual it is for a person in her profession to write poetry.

“Well maybe it isn’t completely usual, but I won’t say it’s unusual, because there are some examples of writers and physicists: for instance Ernesto Sabato, the Argentinian writer. He was a physicist too…”

… and there is also the very famous Czech poet, Miroslav Holub, who was an immunologist. From his poetry you get a sense of his work as a scientist. His knowledge of biology and chemistry comes into his poetry a lot. That is not so much the case with you, is it?

“Well, not much, but in some sense, yes. For me poetry is a study of everything around, including our minds, our feelings, the universe, everything. Poetry is a kind of philosophy and philosophy is physics – or physics is philosophy. In fact, I think that when people are doing science they tend to be too logical, and sometimes, if you want to find something new, you have to be illogical and think in another way.”

You came to the Czech Republic some sixteen years ago. You came here as a scientist, and you’ve been working here at the Academy of Sciences ever since.

“I came, in principle, to spend just a few months here – nine months – but in the end I’m still here…”

Was it pure chance or were you looking for work in this part of Europe?

“No, I wanted to leave Spain, that’s true, and then I was looking for some place to go in Europe. And then the possibility turned up to come to Prague. I said, ‘Why not?’, and just came and liked very much the way of working here, and I stayed.”

Elena Buixaderas, photo: Jan Kroupa
And presumably you didn’t speak Czech.

“No, I didn’t. That was the first barrier. When I came I just spoke English, because in science it is often the case that everyone is speaking English. So I didn’t have any troubles. But, of course, in my everyday life it became very hard and I decided I should try to learn.”

Did you start writing poetry before you came to the Czech Republic, or is it something that you came to?

“I was already writing poetry when I was ten. I was always writing, my whole life. In fact, science came a little bit later.”

And how is it with the Czech language? You mastered the language and some of your poems have been translated into Czech. Have you tried writing poems in Czech, and how do you see the translations of you poetry? Czech is a language that works so differently from Spanish; it is so much more a language based on declensions, conjugations and the very complicated structure of the grammar, whereas Spanish is in that sense a much “lighter” language.

“Yes. I cannot write Czech properly, even now. So I’ve never tried to write a poem in Czech because it would be a catastrophe. And then the only thing I can hope is to find a good translator, as I have found, and then I can compare.”

And you say you’ve found a good translator – that’s in the form of a well-known translator from Spanish into Czech, Denisa Škodová.

“Yes. She is very good.”

When she is translating your poems, do you work with her, or does she just go away and do it?

“She’s doing the work alone, but sometimes if there’s something I don’t like or if I’m surprised by something, I can ask, ‘Why did you use this word?’, but in general she is very good, so I don’t have to correct anything!”

Unfortunately, none of your poetry has been translated into English, but I’d like you to read a very short poem, which is just five lines, and I think that between us we can at least manage a working translation into English:

Nunca creyó
en los amores a primera vista
pero le miró a los ojos
(aquel primer día)
y se sintió en casa

So, let’s have a go at translating it: “She – or he, or the more neutral you – never believed in love at first sight, but you looked into his eyes on that first day and felt at home.” Would that be about right?

“Yes, something like that.”

It’s a poem which, in terms of the language, is simple. It’s also wonderfully upbeat.

“For me it was a kind of – not joke – but a game. I don’t think it’s a poem in the sense of something deep. It’s very light, but it’s speaking about something that’s happening all the time between people, so…”

Where do you find your literary inspiration? Has the Czech context changed your poetry, and have you found new sources of inspiration here?

“Yes. I think I went through some process, some evolution during these years. I remember when I came here I felt completely new things and then I put all these feelings in a collection. All the poems were about this feeling that I don’t belong anywhere. I left my country, I’m here, but I’m not Czech, and so on. And, of course, after that, when I’d got used to everything and I’d learned the language, then I didn’t have this feeling any more. I discovered many other subjects. I became a mother, for instance, and I began to write about that also.”

You also translate Czech poetry into Spanish, so you have clearly gradually built up a bond with Czech poetry.

“Yes. I really remember one of the first Czech poets I read. It was Vladimír Holan [1905-1980] and then I really fell in love with him and all this kind of poetry. And then I decided when I had already been here for several years that I could also try to translate something – not from Holan, but from someone else. I chose this ‘beat’ writer, Václav Hrabě, because I heard one of his poems one day on TV, and it was so wonderful that I decided that people in Spain should know this poet.”

He is the ultimate Czech “beat poet”. And nearly always when his poetry is recited, it is to the accompaniment of a saxophone or some other instrument – syncopated rhythms…

“Yes, it was jazz. Jazz is beneath all his poems, because he was also a musician.”

And he died at the age of just 25 in 1965.

“Yes. Nobody knows if it was an accident or some kind of suicide. It’s not clear.”

And what about other poets you have translated?

“The second poet I chose was Viola Fischerová. I really chose her because for me she is the lady of Czech poetry.”

She is one of the major poets of the last few decades. Sadly, she died a few years ago…

“Yes, and also suddenly and unexpectedly. It was very sad for me, because we became friends during this process of translating her work.”

I’ve always found her poetry wonderful, but very gloomy.

“Well, that’s true. But for me it was fantastic that she was not gloomy at all. She was so lively and full of energy and optimistic. Her life was a tragedy – one after another – and she found the strength to fight against everything and be optimistic. And then I think at the back there were all these gloomy things and when she wrote, she wrote about them. For me, she was using the lowest possible number of words to express deep feeling, and it was amazing.”

And maybe that appeals to the scientist in you – finding an efficient way of using language, a scientific way of using language…

“Maybe. I never thought about that, but maybe you are right.”

You’ve also taken inspiration in the Czech Republic in choosing the themes of some of your poems. There is one poem, which I found very moving, that you wrote about a man called Michal Velíšek, who was a TV cameraman, who just happened to be walking across one of Prague’s squares with his small child in a pushchair, when he saw a man threatening a young woman. He intervened and was shot and later died. You’ve written a poem about him. Tell me a little about this poem.

“It was a kind of shock, because for me it was unbelievable that in the society that we are living in, when you are trying to help someone you end up getting shot. For me it was so unfair. I saw the whole story in my head, when I heard about it, and I couldn’t get it out. And then I knew I had to write about that.”

Could you read a bit from the poem in Spanish? This is from the section at the end called “The Tragedy”:

La tragedia En la plaza de Carlos
A las cinco de la tarde
El caballero pasa junto a un banco
en el que hay una víctima y un bellaco
¿Cuánto tiempo tarda en dejar el cochecito
y acercarse a salvar a la estudiante?
¿Y cómo se rescatan princesas en el siglo XXI?
Acercándose y llamando la atención del cobarde
Perdone que le interrumpa pero secuestrar no está bien visto
Recogiendo el odio y las balas destinadas a otro cuerpo

Let’s try translating a couple of lines from what you’ve just been reading: “On Charles Square at five in the afternoon, the knight goes past a bench…”

“‘…in which there is a victim and a scoundrel…’ and then he is thinking, ‘How should one rescue a princess in the 21st century?’ I think it is a very sad poem, but also this is a kind of criticism of our society, how things are going. Everyone knows in the big cities how it is. Most people just ignore what is happening around. They don’t help much because it could be dangerous. And this is a very sad way of living, I would say.”

You’ve been here for sixteen years now. You have children, who were born here. Do you think that you’re going to stay, or do you dream of the Spanish sunshine?

“Well, I don’t know. In fact, I never knew what I was going to do in my life, so I will see. I don’t plan to go back, especially now it’s a horrible economic situation there, and I am very satisfied with my work here. I plan to stay as long as I can, but who knows? Maybe, one day, when I will be old, I will get fed up with the winter and I will need the sunshine. Who knows?”