Ewald Osers and the chemistry of translation

Photo: Elliott & Thompson

When the translator Ewald Osers died five years ago, it marked the end of an era. This year would have been his hundredth birthday, so with a bit of quick mathematics we can work out that he was already a young adult when the Second World War brought an end to the multi-lingual and uneasily cosmopolitan Prague in which he had grown up. From 1938 until his death, Osers lived in England, where he translated much of the best twentieth century Czech prose and poetry into English. Remarkably, he was translating from his second to his third language, as his mother tongue was German. In this week’s Czech Books David Vaughan remembers the life and work of Ewald Osers.

Photo: Elliott & Thompson
“When I was born on 13 May 1917, I was a subject of His Apostolic Majesty Charles I, by the Grace of God Emperor of Austria, King of Hungary and Bohemia, of Dalmatia, Croatia, Slovenia, Galicia, Lodomeria and Illyria….”

The list of all the titles of the Austrian Emperor goes on for another ten lines, quite filling the opening paragraph of Ewald Osers memoirs “Snows of Yesteryear”. We are reminded that he was a product of another era and of a Mitteleuropa that is long since lost and forgotten. But Ewald Osers was no museum piece. The last time I met him, when he was already in his nineties, we had a long chat about the latest Prague slang, and he told me with great enthusiasm that he was just embarking on a new translation of the notoriously difficult Moravian poet, Jan Skácel. It was clear that he had no intention of hanging up his dictionary. Ivana Bozděchová translated Ewald Osers‘ memoirs into Czech. She remembers her friend.

“I have known him for several decades and he was one of the greatest personalities I ever met. I still have great respect for him as a professional translator, and especially a translator of fiction and poetry. I have a picture of him in my mind as a person with a great sense of humour. I also admired his broad knowledge, his limitless horizons. He was an educated intellectual person and I was very amazed at what he knew not only about literature, but also about classical music, and also flowers and animals. I remember once when we were working together on some translation of English poetry, for some reason we started to name flowers, and he knew all the flowers, all the botanical terms, not only in English but of course in Latin and many of them in Czech. I was amazed because I didn’t know anything at all. He had a wonderful memory, and an absolutely wonderful memory for poetry. I will never forget him walking down the street or somewhere in the park, when he would recite by heart long poems in English, Russian, Czech, whatever language you can imagine.”

He was a remarkable polyglot. He had three languages that he spoke at native level – German, Czech and English – and he had a handful of other languages as well.

“Yes he did. Learning foreign languages became not only a professional necessity for him, but also a hobby. He was very interested in it and he was very proud that he knew almost all Slavonic languages. He spoke brilliant Russian, but he was very proud that he was fluent in Bulgarian…”

Ivana Bozděchová,  photo: David Vaughan
… and I think he also translated Macedonian poetry.

“Indeed, and when you listened to him or watched him working, he was always so excited. Languages were fun for him.”

He translated so many of the best Czech writers of the twentieth century. Do you have any particular favourites among his translations?

“It’s really hard to say, but it seems to me that he did a good job for Karel Čapek, Ivan Klíma and also Arnošt Lustig. As for the two last ones, I think it has a lot to do with the fact that he not only knew both Ivan Klíma and Arnošt Lustig, but he loved them very much.”

And he also translated much of the work of one of the great Czech poets of the second half of the twentieth century, Miroslav Holub, who, thanks to Ewald Osers’ translations of his poems, became very well known, especially in the United Kingdom.

“And Miroslav Holub was a very special person. I am very grateful to Ewald Osers that he introduced me to this great gentleman of Czech poetry. I remember that they had long discussions about poetry, about translations, but also that they read together – Miroslav in his Czech originals and Ewald in his English translations, and they had so much fun together. I realized what a great sense of poetry and humour and language they both had. There was something, I would even say a chemistry, between them. “

Which is rather nice, because Holub was an immunologist and Osers originally studied chemistry, before he became a translator…

“You’ve got it. That’s what I had in mind!”

Here is Ewald Osers’ translation of Miroslav Holub’s poem “The Last Night Bus”, from an anthology published by Bloodaxe Books in 1990:

The last bus echoes away
in the depth
of night’s
spinal canal. The stars tremble
unless they explode. There are no other civilisations.
Only a gentle
galactic fear
on a methane base.

I interviewed Ewald Osers several times during his regular visits to Prague, but for me the most memorable occasion was in the Café Slavia in 2001. Here is part of that interview.

“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.”

Café Slavia,  photo: Ian Willoughby
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.”

Photo: Bundesarchiv Bild 183-H13160,  Beim Einmarsch deutscher Truppen in Eger / CC BY-SA-3.0-de
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…

“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?

Jaroslav Seifert | Photo: Hana Hamplová,  Wikimedia Commons,  CC BY-SA 3.0
“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.”

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.”

And to end, here is another short poem by Miroslav Holub, in Ewald Osers’ translation.

Burning The fire was creeping along the logs,
whispering curses and incantations.
Then it settled in a corner
and began to grow and to sing.
It found its language
in an old letter
from mother. Orestes’ fire. Antigone’s fire.
The terrible fire: it is hot
and the smoke rises to heaven.