Gerry Turner: a translator who has brought some of the best 20th century Czech writing to English-speaking readers

Gerry Turner

In Czech Books today we talk to a man who has translated many Czech writers into English. If you are interested in Czech literature you may well have come across his name in connection with works by Ivan Klima, Vaclav Havel or Ludvik Vaculik and many others. He is Gerry Turner.

Gerry Turner
You have been translating for many years. How did you start in the business?

"I started as a translator full-time when I came to Prague in 1971 as a translator from French for the World Federation of Trade Unions. But I have worked as a freelance translator since 1977 or 1978, when I first translated songs and poems by underground Czech writers."

It must have been an amazing time to be in Prague. It was also a very bleak time in a sense, just after the Soviet invasion, when so-called "normalization" was setting in. But you managed to get to know quite a lot of people in dissident circles at the time.

"Yes. Thanks to pub culture I was soon sucked into a group of people around one particular pub in the Old Town, where the locals consisted of painters, sculptors and people from the university, people who were no longer allowed to teach. It was quite a ferment, although it was a time of a bad hang-over. That's what it felt like most of all."

Let's turn to a short extract from one of your translations. You say that this is going to be from the very first book that you translated.

"Yes. By this time I was back in England. It was around 1981 or 1982. The first book I translated was by the Moravian philosopher Milan Simecka, who lived a great deal of his life in Bratislava in Slovakia, where he lectured and wrote in Slovak, but also in Czech. One of the books he wrote in Czech was an analysis of what he called the 'restoration of order', in other words, the re-institution of a Stalinist-type regime after the Soviet invasion of 1968. It was after 1968 that he was dismissed from his university post and went to work as a bulldozer driver. He went on writing, as a result of which he suffered persecution from the State Police. In this book he recounts the mentality of the State Police."

Much has been written about the interrogations of the 1970s and there will no doubt be still more descriptions as they continue. The methods are many and the interrogators differ greatly. Apart from regional variations, the charges also differ, and so, of course, do those under interrogation. When I read Ludvik Vaculik's 'A Cup of Coffee with my interrogator', I said to myself that nobody could describe it better. It is a perfect description. That special combination of formally correct behaviour, cunning, stupidity, lies, trickery and a unique kind of intimacy. The latter derives from the fact that they know all there is to know about you. They know all about your wife, your children, your relatives and your friends. They have read your books and manuscripts, and your private correspondence. You can imagine them listening to your domestic rows and how they must have picked up every little sigh. For years you thought that nobody could care less about your problems and opinions. Fear not, they care.

They may be uneducated, but in the course of their years of investigating selected representatives of the Czechoslovak intelligentsia they have picked up a thing or two. They are able to appreciate the latest 'samizdat' novel, for example. Nonetheless, their sole aim is to write an exhaustive report, to detect a promising clue to a criminal activity, to discover about a so far unknown contact or even, maybe, what they describe as a 'channel'. They constantly threaten you and try to put the wind up you, because, as they repeat ad nauseam, their chief objective is not to punish crime, but to prevent it. Thus every hearing ends with the reproof: Why do you do it? Can't you see it's senseless, you are just hurting yourself and your family. You've got a flat and a car. You're not hungry. What else do you want? We'll manage to build socialism without writers, journalists and philosophers. Just get what you can out of it like everyone else and we'll leave you alone. And so it goes on, hour after hour.

The recording of 'Guardian Angel' in the studio
This is a world where the surreal has become the real, isn't it? It is an extraordinary cat-and-mouse game, both literally and psychologically. That atmosphere really does permeate a lot of writing of the time, doesn't it?

"Indeed. Listeners to Radio Prague not long ago had the chance to hear a play [Guardian Angel] by Vaclav Havel on exactly the theme which Simecka was dealing with."

In that production of the play, you yourself played Vavak the playwright, who is visited by a menacing figure.

"Yes, if listeners want to go back and listen to that production, if it's still on the website, they will certainly pick up the things that Simecka is saying about the interrogator - as he is obviously in the play - and how he knows everything about the writer."

You mentioned that you translated Milan Simecka when you had already left Czechoslovakia. You were in Britain in the early 1980s. I know there was a lot of dissident writing getting its way out of Czechoslovakia that couldn't be published back home. Were you involved in this process - getting it translated?

"Yes, I was approached by Vilem Precan, who had set up the Documentation Centre for the Promotion of Independent Czechoslovak Literature in West Germany, as it was then. He was bringing out very interesting analyses of the free intellectual activity in this country at that time. Beneath the dreary exterior there were very lively things going on in intellectual and literary life in this country, though the major writers could not be published. It meant that I was also asked by Precan from time to time to translate shorter pieces - feuilletons by Vaculik or Havel, and short stories sometimes by other banned writers, like Karel Pecka. So I was becoming more cognizant of the literary scene, which I knew very little of before I left Czechoslovakia in 1980."

And so let's look at something you were translating at the time. You have one of the publications here from the time that was published in English by the Documentation Centre for the Promotion of Independent Czechoslovak Literature.

"Here's a piece by Vaclav Havel, written on 1st December 1988, a year before the Velvet Revolution. It was when for the first time the opposition issued a very clear statement of demands in terms of civil liberties, and questioning the leading role of the Communist Party. It was called the Movement for Civil Liberties or HOS, and the manifesto was called Democracy for All."

The fact that 1988 saw an end to the taboo about the leading role of the Party (among other things) as well as a call for the rehabilitation of politics may well be important in the long term. However, there is an issue that seems to me even more important for us in the here and now. I refer to a 'leading role' of rather a different kind, namely, what is to gain the upper hand in the immediate future: the awakening spirit of freedom, common sense and civic awareness, or the water-cannon?

It could well be the water-cannon, of course. But its domination will certainly not last for ever. Soaking people to the skin and scaring them is one thing, eliminating civil discontent is another. Water-cannon are more likely to intensify the latter, rather than eliminate it. Above all, there is no way now they will avert the logical consequences of the present political and economic events.

So we should enter the new year without any illusions, but also with the assurance that the prison warder who talked to me in my cell on 28th October was not wrong when he said: You've got truth on your side!

That is fascinating, coming just a year before the fall of communism. He was pretty much right, wasn't he?

"Yes, he was, and maybe he didn't even dare believe that it was as imminent, but it is interesting that we are ready it now. We are in a similar time of year, but it seems such a long time ago now, 1988."

Let's finish by looking at another of your translations. This time it's a work that has nothing to do with the communist era. It goes back to a period slightly before that of the Nazi occupation of the Czech lands, which is in another book that you translated, a compilation that you translated for your friend Paul Wilson, I believe.

"I didn't do all the translations in it but I did three of them. One of them is by Frantisek Langer, who was quite a character in pre-war Czechoslovakia, a soldier, a doctor, and a great writer. This is a charming story, which I recommend to all your listeners, known as The Sword of Saint Wenceslas. It's about a legend that the Sword of Saint Wenceslas will be found, is hidden somewhere, and when the nation is at its lowest ebb, will be brought fourth and will bring out the knights from the Hill of Blanik to save the nation. Here he sets the scene for the story."

It was in 1939 when, as you know, Hitler's Germans soldiers, policemen, and cut-throats - occupied our lands, murdering, jailing, and plundering us and taking away our rights and freedoms and, along with them, our memory of the past and our hope for the future, not to mention our language - the very breath of the nation. It was a time of despair and desolation, and we lived in terror of the future.

Then, during the first Christmas of those dark days, something happened that changed the way the legend will be told in the future. So listen, children! This concerns you.

At that time, the Christmas season brought the unhappy people some consolation and strength, for they were able to get together more easily than at other times. For what could have been more welcome than to feel a true Czech heart beating close to your own? And so the churches of Prague were full for the Christmas midnight mass that year, and the fullest of all, packed to the doors, was the grand cathedral of St. Vitus. People thronged in from every corner of Prague, but unlike other years, the parents, as if in collusion with each other, brought their older children along with them. They had not conspired to do so, they were simply all driven by the same idea: 'What if the Germans ban our ancient midnight ceremony next year? They've banned everything else we're proud of, everything that sustains us. The midnight mass at St. Vitus is held over the tombs of our kings, and we sing our own hymns. The beauty and the history of the place, and the sanctity of the moment, will awaken proud thoughts of our past and strengthen our belief in a future rebirth - the very thoughts our conquerors wish to extinguish from our hearts and minds. Let us take our children with us, and if this is to be the last time, they will have something to remember all of their days.'

"The story continues with some Czech children finding the sword as they play on the Island of Kampa in the snow, and they spirit the sword away somehow, right under the nose of the German guard leaning over the Charles Bridge, and they hide it. Perhaps somebody's got it under his coat. Nobody knows exactly where it is.

Since then the miraculous sword is in hiding again and no one knows where it is. All we know is that Czech children have taken it into their care, and that it is safe with them and will reappear when the right moment comes.

That's why the legend of the miraculous sword in the Charles Bridge will now have to be told in a different way. It is no longer hidden beneath a stone. No longer will we walk across the bridge and say, 'Somewhere here lies our hope and our salvation when things are at their worst.' But whenever we meet a Czech child we will say, 'This is where it is!' And there it will remain hidden until the time is ripe. Then St. Wenceslas will ride out at the head of the Knights of Blanik to save us. But when he gets to the Charles Bridge, his horse won't stumble against the legendary stone. Instead, a child will run out, pull the sword from under his or her coat, and give it to him. The age-old prophecy will come true, and the Czech lands and all their peoples will enjoy peace and tranquillity for ever and ever.