Karel Jaromír Erben: a not quite so grim fairytale

Karel Jaromír Erben

If you are drawn to the rich Czech tradition of legend and fairytale, Marcela Sulak’s new translation of one of the classics of 19th century Czech poetry is a must. Karel Jaromír Erben’s collection of ballads, “A Bouquet” was first published in 1853, and since then has been read by generations of Czech children and parents alike. David Vaughan talks to Marcela Sulak about a translation that brings out the freshness, sensitivity and humanity of Erben’s poetic world of spinning wheels, water-sprites and witches.

Marcela Sulak,  photo: Amalia Sulak
Despite being one of the most important works of 19th century Czech poetry, “A Bouquet” remains remarkably little known outside the Czech Republic. Karel Jaromír Erben was writing at the height of the Czech national revival and his language is rich – both inventive and, at times, archaic. The thirteen ballads that make up the collection are steeped in Czech folk legend, but they also draw from the Grimm brothers and folk traditions across Europe. Erben is also linked strongly with the European Romantic Movement. For Marcela Sulak, translating the collection was a daunting task, but she has risen to the occasion with enthusiasm and immense craftsmanship and it comes as no surprise that the translator is herself a published poet. On her recent visit to Prague from Israel, where she is currently teaching at Bar-Ilan University, we met to talk about the translation.

“I had been working in South Bohemia in the late ‘90s, teaching at a high school called Biskupské gymnázium in České Budějovice. I wanted to read what my students were reading and I wanted to read some of the literature that they had grown up with. There wasn’t anything available in English at the time. Originally I was given ‘May’ by Karel Hynek Mácha to read. When I was finished I wanted to read something else and so I was given this book, ‘Kytice’ or ‘A Bouquet’ by Erben, and I began to read it. My colleagues, friends and students were so excited that I was reading it that they generously helped me out. I spent many days at their houses going over arcane words and trying to figure out what was written. The vocabulary is very difficult, so I found that I was keeping so many notes that it ended up being the basis of the translation.”

This is the most famous work of Karel Jaromír Erben. It is a collection of thirteen ballads in total. What immediately comes to mind are Grimm’s fairytales, and that is no coincidence, is it?

Karel Jaromír Erben
“No, not at all. Erben was an archivist and a librarian. He had access to all of the Central European fairytales. He also had access to Greek myths. He collected some of the stories in the countryside in Bohemia as well. A lot of them have a common source. There are some great differences, though, between Grimm, for example, and Erben’s fairytales and folk stories. I think that what struck me when I was reading them and translating them is that characters in Erben have an inner life. They have personal conflicts. They aren’t just stock figures that have to act so that fate can occur. So it’s really interesting to me to see how they struggle personally. They make bad decisions sometimes; they often have a chance to recover or repent, and they allow us to get a glimpse into their inner lives as well.”

You have chosen a short extract from one of the ballads for us.

“This one is from ‘The Golden Spinning Wheel’, from the very beginning:”

Around the wood a sprawling field,
a lord comes riding from the wood,
he rides a fine black fiery steed,
how merrily its horseshoes ring.
He rides alone. The steed is at the cottage: hop!
And on that cottage door: rap rap!
“Open the door to me, hey, hey!
pursuing game I lost my way,
Bring me some water!” Out comes a girl like a flower,
from the well she draws him water;
he’s never seen in all his life
such a beauty. She sits at her distaff
spinning, spinning flax. The lord is standing, not knowing what
he wanted; he’s even forgot
his great thirst. He sees the slender
even thread. He can’t take his eyes off her,
the pretty spinner.

Photo: Amalia Sulak
Here we can already see all the elements of the fairytale. The plot develops, and as with Grimm you don’t always have a happy ending.

“No, but this one does have a happy ending. I don’t want to ruin the plot, but I think this one is really illustrative of the difference between Grimm and Erben. In Grimm, the reward for being a good housewife is that you marry a prince and never have to work again. In this story, the thing that saves the heroine is her ability to spin and to create fine thread. After she’s married, she’s expected to continue doing this, but she gets great pleasure from it, and obviously we see from the very beginning that the king also gets pleasure from her spinning.”

And so you could say that Erben is rather more modern in his attitude towards matters of gender.

“Absolutely. Women in the workplace!”

It must have been quite a challenge translating Erben’s in part deliberately archaic Czech, including the rhymes and the rhythms into English – and into English that is readable and accessible to a modern reader.

“It was a great challenge, but I decided to keep the rhyme and to keep the meter. Usually I kept the ballad meters which means that you have a certain number of stresses per line, usually four. And I did keep the rhyme. Sometimes, though, I didn’t want to twist the English sentence very much. I wanted to keep the subject-verb order, so that it sounds normal, the way we speak today in English. So, what I did was that I sometimes broke the line in places where Erben would not have broken it. This is called enjambment. So, usually Erben’s lines end with the sentence, and my sentences continuing on, just so as not to damage the syntax of English.”

And there’s a total of thirteen ballads in the collection. Tell us about some of the others.

“Often they are about raising children, they are about people’s relationship to God and people’s relationship to one another. They are often also about love and faithfulness. They’re not completely romantic. Most of them are – I suppose – written in order to teach people how to behave, and teach people how to behave with one another in relationships to one another, their families and their religion.”

But there are also a lot of ambiguities and subtleties, aren’t there? You’ve already pointed out that this is probably more so than with the Grimm brothers.

“Absolutely. Some of them, in fact, feel a little bit sadistic, because, even though they end happily, there’s a little bit of torture in the middle. The difference, I think, with Grimm, is that Grimm really is set on teaching lessons, and here we suffer and agonize with the main characters, because we get inside their heads.”

So let’s have another short extract from one of the ballads.

“This one is from ‘The Wedding Shirts’ and in it a girl has been orphaned and she’s lost her entire family. She’s waiting for her beloved to come back. He’s promised her that he’ll return for her and she needs to spin and make shirts and be ready for him. She’s done that and now, suddenly, he’s returned. They have started to go on a journey in the middle of the night and she doesn’t know where they’re going. He speaks to her like this:

“Clear, beautiful night – I’ve heard it said
it’s the time graves open and the dead
could be closer than you think – my dear,
does that thought cause you any fear?” “Why should I be afraid? You’re with me
and God’s eye is above me. –
But tell me, my dear, do tell,
is your father alive and well?
Your dear father, and your mother,
will she be as glad as I to meet her?” “Too many questions, doll, for me,
just come quickly – you will see.
Let’s get going – time won’t wait,
our journey is a long one yet.
But what’s that in your right hand, dear?” “I’m carrying some books of prayer.”
“Throw them out, those kind of books
are heavier than piles of rocks!
Throw them out and walk with ease,
if you want to keep up with me.” He takes and tosses them to the side,
then leaps with her a good ten miles.

Where does the story go from there?

Karel Jaromír Erben
“As I said in the beginning, she’s praying and she’s lamenting the fact that she’s alone in the world, and she’s willing to give anything if she could just hear from her beloved again. When she makes that bargain, suddenly the candles that she’s praying to go out and the picture of Mary and the Holy Family shakes, and there’s a knock on the door! Her beloved has come back and he encourages her to go on this remarkable night journey through the Czech countryside. And they do travel all through the Czech countryside, until they finally get to his home, which actually is a cemetery. She tricks him. He wants her to leap over the cemetery wall with the wedding shirts, but she tricks him into leaping first. She finds shelter in a mortuary and then there’s a battle between the dead and God. And she keeps begging God to save her and begging Mary, the Mother of God to save her. In the end, she is saved, but the shirts are ripped and torn and spread out all over the graves, and the people of the village comment that it’s a good thing she turned to God or else she would have been shredded and torn up as well. So it is a happy ending in that she’s alive, but it’s an unhappy ending in that her love is gone.”

Karel Jaromír Erben has a huge place in the Czech literary canon…

“He does. He’s one of the three big ones – with Božena Němcová and Karel Hynek Mácha, and he and Němcová were actually friends. I think this story itself was based on a story which she’d written, and he asked to borrow it. He revised it and turned it into poetry.”

As your name lets on, you are of Czech origin. Is part of the process of translating this collection a search for your own identity, as someone with Czech roots?

“All of my grandparents came from Moravia, so we have Moravian tales rather than the Bohemian ones. I heard Czech spoken at home. My parents learned English in school. I grew up in Texas. So I found a resonance with some of the fairytales, also the emphasis on housework!”

How can our listeners – and people reading our website – get hold of the book?

“If you are in Europe, especially the Czech Republic, the book is available in most bookstores in Prague. You can order it through the website of Twisted Spoon Press and you can also order it through Amazon.”

And I should add that Marcela Sulak’s translation of “A Bouquet” comes with a beautifully written and informative introduction, as well as illustrations by Alén Diviš, an important Czech artist who died in 1956, almost forgotten and totally marginalized by the communist regime. Look out also for Marcela’s translation of Karel Hynek Mácha’s romantic epic poem ‘May’, also published by Twisted Spoon Press.