Jan Cermak - translator of the first Czech version of Beowulf

Jan Cermak, photo: Martin Frouz

My guest today is Jan Cermak, who has translated the first ever Czech version of the important Old English epic poem Beowulf. It was a mammoth task, which took him the best part of a decade to complete. When I visited Mr Cermak in his office at Prague's Charles University, I asked him why - given the long history of English studies in this country - a Czech version of Beowulf had not appeared before.

"For decades the language [Old English], and the literature written in the language, had been on the periphery of interest, as it were, simply because it was ill-accessible. Few professors could read the language and even fewer could expound it to students and make them feel attracted to it."

So it was simply too obscure?

"Too obscure perhaps, and lying far off the beaten track."

I've read that it's your first big translation. Were you daunted by such a huge task?

"There was not time to be daunted. I was invited to join in and then I took over as THE translator. I took a long, long time, perhaps to make up for the difficulty of the task. If it had been my choice I would have postponed Beowulf until the very last stages of my career as a translator, and perhaps never would have come to grips with the text at all."

It's 3,000 lines or more of difficult Old English - how long did it take you?

"That's hard to assess, because in terms of years that elapsed between the commencing and the book coming out it is nine or ten. Regardless of the technical difficulties and other problems on the way, I needed some four or five years all together to produce the translation as it stands."

Did you ever at any point think 'I'm sick of this, I want to leave it and do something else'?

"That happened at a time when the publisher told me that the first version was far too academic to meet his purposes; that was something I could not take very easily in the first moments. But on second thoughts and in retrospect I must say they were right and the book profited from being reworked."

Obviously it's a very difficult and specialist subject - were you able to consult with anybody or were you essentially on your own?

"It's the latter rather than the former. But I don't think I ever minded really, because I'm self-taught as a specialist in English medieval stuff. Apart from the few forerunners I had at my disposal to resort to, I was perfectly prepared to, and happy with, working on my own."

Is your translation into contemporary Czech or Old Czech?

"There is no Old Czech in existence that could be used as a target language for the Old English Beowulf, simply because the Czech literary documents only start in the Middle Ages of chivalry, much later than anything comparable with Beowulf. Which means you must look for a compromise for something that would sound archaic and majestic enough, and yet be intelligible, not perhaps put the reader off the track for being abstruse."

I presume it was a big responsibility for you, translating Beowulf. Because surely your version will be THE version for, God knows, a hundred years?

"That's not the way I ever thought about it. Most of the poem I believe I translated while pushing the pram with my two sons - that's more like the perspective I adopted when doing it."

Tell us more about the pram and the two sons.

"Well, we used to live downtown in the centre of Prague, much polluted, and the only way to resurface, to get away from it was taking long strolls, long pram rides up to the hill of Vysehrad. So that's I suppose when most of the Czech Beowulf came to light, to existence."

You mean you were translating it in your head and when you got home you wrote it down.

"Yes, I always left with a dozen verses in my head and if everything went well I descended down the hill with some kind of Czech rendering of it in my head as well."

Has Beowulf been translated into for instance Polish or Slovak?

"As far as I know there is no Slovak translation as yet; I'm not quite sure about Polish. But for sure most of the neighbouring countries and the Slavonic countries have their Beowulfs."

Who's going to read your translation of Beowulf? Students? Or are you hoping for a wider readership?

"I'm hoping for a wider readership. With that aim we tried to put the book together. It should be both for students of literature, students of English and intellectuals eager to know more about the roots of European literatures."

Has "Lord of the Rings" mania had any influence on sales of the book, or interest among students?

"I don't really know. The links are immediate but more tenuous than they may seem at first sight. Back to your question - I think that to some extent yes. After all those delays and the many years the book took to prepare, this was not a bad time to publish it after all."