Julia Sherwood on discovering Czech comics and on translating in tandem
Julia Sherwood, an award-winning translator and literary organiser, was born in Bratislava, but spent most of her life in the UK, where she settled after emigrating from Czechoslovakia in 1978. Today, she lives in London with her husband, linguist and translator Peter Sherwood, with whom she translates mainly Slovak but also Czech authors, including Alena Mornštajnová and Radka Denemarková. Julia Sherwood spent the last weeks in Prague on a residency organised by the Czech Literary Centre. I caught up with her just before her return to London to discuss her work and I started by asking her what she was working on during her month-long stay in the Czech capital.
“I was not actually working on any Czech translation but I have used this time, I believe very fruitfully, to make some new contacts in the Czech literary world and to deepen some existing contacts.
“The fact that the book festival Svět Knihy (Book World Prague) took place during my stay was wonderful. I also attended Knihex, where I met several publishers of graphic novels and comic books, which is a new genre I have been slowly easing myself into.
“At Svět Knihy I also attended some of the presentations and I participated in a panel on translation in tandem.”
You have recently translated a couple of Czech graphic novels, Vojtěch Mašek’s horror detective story The Sisters Dietl and Lucie Lomová’s Savages, into English. What made you change your attitude towards the genre?
“Several factors played into it. One was that for quite a few years now I started noticing that graphic novels and comic books have really acquired a completely new status.
“They were regarded as something secondary, trashy, solely for children or very commercial, but they have become acknowledged or recognised as a literary genre in its own right.
“And then I started noticing that there have been quite a few really interesting graphic novels published in this country. So I started looking around and the first book that really caught my interest was Saint Barbara, which is a collaboration between Marek Šindelka, Vojtěch Mašek and Marek Pokorný.
“I really would love to translate this book, because it fascinated me. It’s such a great story. It is mysterious and it is also one that I believe would resonate with the readers in the English-speaking world.”
You also translated an excerpt from Marek Šindelka’s graphic novel Saint Barbara inspired by a highly publicised child-abuse case that happened here in the Czech Republic…
“Yes. It happened about ten years ago and it was a very mysterious case that was never fully resolved about a child involved in an abuse case and then turned out not to have been a child but a grown woman who later reappeared somewhere in Scandinavia as a young boy and then all traces vanished. The story is cast as a story of a journalist who becomes obsessed with researching this mystery.
“I loved everything about it - the way it was done artistically as well as the story itself. And so, through the Czech Literary Centre, I got a permission to translate a sample, which was published. So far it has not been possible to find a publisher for the whole book, but I haven’t given up hope.
“And then one thing led to another and I was offered the translation of Vojtěch Mašek’s horror story The Sisters Dietl, which was quite different but fascinating as well in its own right, and I very much hope that it will be out this autumn.
“After that translation was completed, I got another offer, and that was Lucie Lomová’s Savages. It is based on a real story of a Czech explorer Vojtěch Frič, who travelled around South America collecting cacti.
“He befriended the indigenous people there and ended up bringing on of these American Indians back to Prague and he lived here for a year. So it is based on facts, but of course the author, Lucie Lomová, added something of her own imagination.”
I know it hasn’t been easy for Czech comics authors to win recognition in the English-speaking countries. Do you think that these translations might signal some change?
“I very much hope so. I think generally graphic novels and comic books are only slowly getting that recognition in the English-speaking world as they have in France or Belgium, where they enjoy almost a cult status.
“There are a few publishing houses that specialize in translations, but then I think, in the case of the English-speaking market, there is the other problem, which is the problem of translation in general. It just generally is not very welcoming to translated literature.
“Another reason why I also was drawn to graphic novels was not to fall into a rut, to push the envelope, to have a challenge and to do something different.”
“And only a very small percentage of books that are published every year are translated books. The estimates vary. There used to be the famous three percent, and now it may have edged up to five percent, but it is still infinitesimal. And out of that, a language such as Czech is only a fraction.
“So it’s an uphill struggle, but we mustn’t give up. And just to come back to your original question - another reason why I also was drawn to graphic novels was just basically to not to fall into a rut, to push the envelope, to have a challenge and to do something different.”
The book you are working on right now will be issued by the Karolinum Press as the first title of their new edition of Modern Slovak Classic, which is a sort of continuation of the Czech Modern Classics. Can you tell us a little bit more about it?
“The Modern Czech Classics is a fantastic series that Karolinum press has been publishing for at least a few decades. So I was really happy when I learned that they were considering starting a similar edition for modern Slovak classics.
“It took a few years to choose the first book and the translation that we have just completed, my husband and I, is in fact the first book that has inaugurated the series.
“It’s a short novel by Jan Johanides, a highly acclaimed Slovak writer, who is rightly regarded as a modern classic. He published many books but when we were trying to choose something by him, it was hard to find a book that would appeal to English-speaking readers.
“So we settled on this one, which in Slovak is called Trestajúcí zločin and the English title is But Crime Does Punish. It is a kind of an existential exploration of the crimes of communism and it is a very unusual and a very impressive book, in my view.
“So I hope it will find its readers and that it would be a good start for the Modern Slovak Classics Series. The book is actually out now, in time for the Book Festival here in Prague, so we were able to talk about it at the panel where we discussed translating in tandems.”
So what is it like, translating in tandem? What are the advantages and the perils?
“As I said on that panel, I don’t really see any drawbacks. From my point of view, I see only advantages. I translate with my husband, for whom English is a much more natural language. He wasn’t actually born in the UK; he came to England when he was eight years old, so his entire education was in English.
“Whereas I, although I had studied English, didn’t come to London until I was 28. So although I am fairly fluent in English, I don’t feel that I have the absolute confidence to encompass all the registers and nuances of the language.
“So I usually do a couple of drafts and then pass the translation on to my husband, who does some brushing and polishing, and then we pass it to and fro discussing some passages. Sometimes we have some disagreements, which we always manage to settle amicably.
“And then when we have the final draft, we usually read it out aloud to each other, because that also helps to pick up anything that may sound unnatural. So this is our process.”
While attending the Book World Prague, did you have a chance to take a look at the current literary production? And have you come across any title that you would like to translate in the future?
“I did have a good look around and when it comes to Slovak literature I haven’t actually seen anything new because I go to Bratislava fairly often. But I had a much longer gap between my visits to Prague. Last time I was here was in September 2019 and then the pandemic struck.
“I know that Dora Kaprálová has a new book out, Utrpení a jiné žánry (Suffering and Other Genres). I translated a short story from her previous collection, Ostrovy or Islands. I was interested in Magdalena Platzová’s new book, Život po Kafkovi, about Felice Bauer.
“Then there are several books that I have been looking at for a while. There are some that I have translated excerpts from, for example Ann Cima’s Probudím se na Šibuji, which I think is a really fun book and it would be really great if a publisher could be found for that.
“And then there is Radka Denemarková, with whom I have been trying to find a publisher for several years now. She is really one of the greatest Czech contemporary writers, but has only had one book published in English, Money from Hitler.
“Unfortunately, it appeared in a very small publishing house in Canada, which went bankrupt. And the book just disappeared, it’s impossible to get hold off and so she really hasn’t got that recognition she deserves.
“So together with her agent and with several other people we keep trying and I have translated lots of excerpts from several of her novels and I have basically committed myself now to translating one of her books, probably Příspěvek k dějinám radosti or A Contribution to the History of Joy, next year, maybe before we even find a publisher.”
So what exactly attracts you to Radka Denemarková’s books?
“First of all, the fact that she tackles really difficult subjects, subjects that many writers avoid. She has a kind of sixth sense of writing about things that are really relevant.
“Radka Denemarková is one of those writers who doesn’t believe in making it easy for the reader and I quite enjoy the challenge of trying to bring that out in English.”
“So for example the book that I have mentioned, A Contribution to the History of Joy, anticipated the MeToo movement. One of the main subjects there is sexualised violence, which is actually kind of a refrain that appears in many of her books.
“She also tackles political issues. But it’s also her style, which is difficult. She is one of those writers who doesn’t believe in making it easy for the reader and I quite enjoy the challenge of trying to bring that out in English.”
After you emigrated from Czechoslovakia you spent many years working for human rights organisations, including Amnesty International. What attracted you to literary translation?
“Actually, I wanted to become a literary translator probably very early on. My first attempt to study at university was at the department of translating and interpreting. That was in Bratislava, I wanted to study English and Russian there, but it wasn’t to be.
“And then after emigrating, when I finally was able to get a higher education in Germany and spent a year in England, I was still interested in literature but because of my experience, as a daughter of parents who had been oppressed under the communist regime I was drawn to human rights.
“They were in fact both imprisoned and they had been adopted by Amnesty International as prisoners of conscience, so that was how I ended up with Amnesty. But after having worked there for over twenty years, I wanted a change, so I spent another year and a half working for another NGO, Save the Children.
“And then my husband got a position as professor at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. So I ended up there, in the United States, on a spouse visa, which I hadn’t realised before we got there how strict it was. So I wasn’t allowed to have any paid income there unless I found employment or an employer.
“And I didn’t really want to start working for another NGO. I felt it was time to do something different. So I started translating first mainly journalism for some friends in Slovakia and then I thought I would try my hand at literary translation.
“So that’s really how it started and when we returned to England after about seven years I just never looked back and continued doing this as a freelance translator.”
So what is it that you like about your current job and what does it entail?
“It’s really enjoyable being my own boss, choosing the books that I want to translate and I also have time to promote Slovak as well as Czech literature.
“I cooperate with the international online journal Asymptote for which I try to source translations by other people, not just things that I translate.
“I also try to help drum up reviews, because it’s one thing to have a book published but another is to make sure that it’s noticed and that is sometimes maybe even more of a hurdle.”