Ewald Osers: “a certain talent for languages”

Ewald Osers

Last month we heard the sad news of the death of Ewald Osers at his home in England at the age of 94. Born in Prague at a time when it was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Osers was an outstanding linguist and a brilliant translator. Over the decades he translated dozens of Czech writers and poets into English, and was equally well known for his translations from German. David Vaughan looks back at a fascinating life.

Ewald Osers
I was lucky enough to meet Ewald Osers on several occasions in Prague, and each time I was struck by his boyish enthusiasm, even though at the time he was then already well into his eighties. He simply adored languages, picking them up, as one fellow translator put it, “as easily as catching a cold”, and he simply relished the twists and turns that languages take in the course of the years. But what I have always found most extraordinary about Ewald Osers is that he built his career on translating from his second into his third language.

He grew up in a middle class German-speaking Jewish family, at home in the multilingual, cosmopolitan, but uneasy environment of the city between the wars and, had it not been for Hitler, that was probably where he would have stayed. Instead he left for London in 1938, becoming a refugee when Hitler occupied Prague a few months later. During the war he enrolled in the BBC Monitoring Service at the same time studying Russian at the University of London. In the following six decades, he went on to translate many of the best modern Czech writers and poets, including poets Jaroslav Seifert, Miroslav Holub and Jan Skácel, and the novelist Ivan Klíma. In 2007, he published his autobiography, “Snows of Yesteryear – a Translator’s Story”. Here is an interview that I recorded with Ewald Osers in Prague’s Café Slavia in 2001.

“I was born in Prague in 1917 and I lived in Prague until the summer of 1938, when, about two weeks before Munich [the signing of the Munich Agreement, 30 September 1938], I went to England.”

And you were born into a German-speaking family…

“Yes. My mother was an Austrian from Linz and my father, although he came from a Prague Jewish family, belonged to the generation which had gone to German schools and mostly spoke German. He knew Czech but we spoke German at home and went to German schools.”

Very often people talk about the cosmopolitan Prague of the 1930s, when you were a young man – this Czech, Jewish, German mix. What was it really like? There is a lot of mythologizing about it.

“I think it existed, alright, and there was a fourth stream – the German Jewish refugees who came to escape pre-war Hitlerite Germany. Yes, these different cultures existed, but I think in the generation of my parents, they did not mix very much. They each lived in their own sphere. But my generation made a deliberate effort for integration, and I remember, for instance, that although I have no acting talent, I belonged to a dramatic group called the German “Studentenbühne” and we made contact with a Czech student theatrical group which was then led by Pavel Tigrid [writer, journalist, politician, died 2003]. I think we really worked towards a kind of integration of these different strands of Prague tradition.”

And we’re sitting today in the Café Slavia. Often, when you think of Prague in the 1930s, you imagine café culture. Was it really like that, and did you come here, to the Café Slavia?

“Not often to the Café Slavia. I think once or twice. More often to the Café Continental on Příkopy or the Café Alfa on Václavské náměstí or the Café Juliš, which had a very good selection of foreign newspapers. It was perfectly alright for young students to order a small black coffee and to spend the next four hours sitting in the café, reading the international press or studying for exams. This was an accepted pattern.”

As a young man, you believed in this meeting of cultures – Czech, German and Jewish. At what point did you realise that things were going to go wrong and decide to leave the country?

“Well, of course one realised that things were getting worse in Germany, especially after Kristallnacht. I was studying chemistry then at the German University and I was the only Jewish student in my year. The rest of the students were not only not Jewish, but nearly all of them were also Nazis, members of the Henlein party [Konrad Henlein’s Sudeten German Party], and I had a fairly miserable life there towards the end. They would turn off my Bunsen burners or pour something into my experiments, and I realised that certainly I couldn’t continue there. So I decided to work on my dissertation in London and then submit it here in Prague at the German University and get my degree. But then came Munich and six months later the occupation of the rest of Czechoslovakia, and so I became a refugee in England at that time. I didn’t leave Czechoslovakia as a refugee yet, but I turned into one in March 1939.”

And how did you go from being a refugee and a chemist to becoming one of the foremost translators of Czech literature into English?

“Well, I realised during my first few months at University College London that I would never be an outstanding chemist. Also, of course, my money supply from Czechoslovakia had stopped in March 1939 and I had to look for a job. I found a post at the BBC and so I stopped studying chemistry and after a while returned to my original love, and studied Russian and Comparative Slavonic Linguistics at the University of London.”

And you married an Englishwoman…

Ewald Osers
“And I married an Englishwoman, who was also a chemist then at the university. So by now I’ve had sixty years of built-in English conversation, which is how I managed to become a translator and, maybe, in a small way, a writer of English prose and poetry.”

And after the Second World War you decided not to return to Czechoslovakia. Why was that?

“Well, I had an English wife and two monolingual English children, and by then I had really come to feel comfortable in England. So I decided not to return.”

And how on earth did you achieve becoming an accomplished translator into a language that you only really learned to master as an adult?

“Well, this is a difficult question. I don’t quite know how one achieves mastery of a language. It was the language I spoke every day and I think perhaps I have a certain talent for languages. As a teenager I learned English and French and I was a very good Latinist at school. And I had been translating ever since my teens. I began translating contemporary Czech and to a lesser degree Slovak poetry into German then, and it was published in the Sunday cultural supplement of Prager Presse. So translation seemed to me a perfectly natural activity and, more importantly, I enjoyed doing it.”

You’ve translated many of the foremost Czech writers of the second half of the twentieth century. Who have you most enjoyed translating?

“I enjoyed translating Jaroslav Seifert [1901-1986] from the start and in fact two of my volumes of translations of Seifert’s poetry were published before he even became a candidate for the Nobel Prize [Seifert won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1984] and I enjoyed translating Miroslav Holub [1923-1998] because he was very easy to translate. His kind of humour, tongue-in-cheek writing, appealed to me. I think perhaps I have the same kind of sense of humour as he had.”

And what are you working on at the moment?

“At the moment I’m working on Jan Skácel [1922-1989] – a very much more difficult poet than Holub, very difficult in terms of interpretation. Even when I ask native Czech speakers to tell me what a particular passage means, I find that they are almost as baffled as I am. But I think I’ll get there.”

How do you feel about the contemporary state of Czech literature? It doesn’t seem to be thriving at the moment, does it?

“Well, so people say, but I’m really in no position to form an opinion. I don’t read nearly enough, and I read very little contemporary Czech prose.”

Why is that?

“Time, I think. Somebody told me years ago, you’ll have to make up your mind whether you wish to spend your life reading or writing. There isn’t time to do both. And I think they were right.”

Where do you feel at home – in which country?

“I feel at home in Europe. I spent all my childhood holidays in Austria and I love the mountains. I was a skier until aged 72. Then my cardiologist said it was time for me to hang up my skis. I regret having followed his advice to this day. I always went skiing in the Austrian Tyrol and I love it. I feel at home in Prague for a limited period. I love coming to Prague, it still takes my breath away, but although I’m very happy in Prague and I come to Prague three or four times a year, I don’t think I would like to live here permanently – up to a month or six weeks, perhaps, but I think that I would miss the openness to the world that you get in England.”

That was the translator, Ewald Osers, who died last month at the age of 94. To end, here is his translation of Miroslav Holub’s short poem, Death of a Sparrow. Ewald Osers had a sparrow-like sprightliness himself that I think makes this poem rather apt.

Death of a Sparrow A sparrow’s death
is quite tiny,
with minute
wiry claws. And dust
and the end of hopping
is calling now.
And the empty air
is closing its eyes and
calling now.
Mother is picking over
the thinnest good-night squeak and
a shadow is flying up and
surely we’re not staying here,
roars the setting sun,
quick, soon there’ll be decay,
all the world’s tenderness
instantly requests,
let’s go! And at that moment
it just isn’t