Kateřina Rudčenková: the waves of the Caribbean break on the shores of Lake Balaton

Kateřina Rudčenková, photo: David Vaughan

What happens when five women poets writing in five different languages meet on the edge of a Hungarian lake? As we find out now in Czech Books, the experience can offer rich insights into what different languages and cultures have in common, and where they differ. David Vaughan talks to the poet Kateřina Rudčenková.

Kateřina Rudčenková,  photo: David Vaughan
In April, a group of women poets took part in a workshop to translate each other’s work. The project was funded by the International Visegrad Fund that groups the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland, so it is no surprise that the event had a strong Central European flavour. One of the participants was the Prague poet, Kateřina Rudčenková, and a few days ago we met to discuss this experiment in poetry translation. I also took the opportunity to ask Kateřina about her own career as one of the most acclaimed younger Czech poets.

“I started to write poetry when I was seven. Seriously I started to write when I was a teenager, but then I tried theatre players and prose writing…”

… which you do to this day. You still write poetry, prose and plays.

“Yes, I’m trying to write everything at the same time.”

And where to you feel most at home? I have the feeling that you are above all a poet.

“I don’t know.”

Certainly your poetry has been very much praised. In your use of language you have been compared with Samuel Beckett, which is a complement to any writer.

“That’s true, but I would also be very happy if I was compared to Beckett as a playwright!”

Let’s start with one of your poems. It’s a poem without a title. Can you tell us a little about it?

“I wrote it when I was in the Caribbean, sitting by the seashore, and it was so exciting.”

It’s about as un-Czech a context as you can have.

“It’s about the Czech desire for the ocean, yes.”

Slavila jsem život na pobřeží
v příboji vzrušení a slunce
sdírali mi z těla
dávnou zahořklost Mé sny se přitom opíraly o kameny
a splývaly mi po slabých prstech
v bílé pěně Mezi stehny se mi zvedalo
moře jako ohňostroj
a trsy šneků přisáté k útesu
seděly pevně po mém boku Nebyla jsem ve vlnách sama
zálivem hýbal příští čas
hebké tkanivo vody
vědělo o mé krvi By the shore, I celebrated life
in excitable spume and sun,
sloughing my body
of old bitterness. As dreams leaned on stone,
flowed to my weak fingers
in white foam, between my thighs rose
sea, its fireworks,
and snails clumps stuck to cliff
clamped firm beside me. In waves, I wasn’t alone.
The bay moved with what will be,
and the smooth webbed water
knew my blood. [Trans.: Clare Pollard]

And that poem was in a translation by another poet, Clare Pollard, who’s an English poet. The translation came into being as part of a broader project, didn’t it?

“It was a project called ‘Visegrad Poetesse’, a translating project initiated by the Hungarian university professor Éva Karádi. Together with the Hungarian poet Anna Szabó. We came to Balatonfüred, a small town on the bank of Lake Balaton…”

Not quite like the Caribbean scene you’ve just described, but still a very beautiful spot…

“Yes, also very beautiful. Not so moving as the ocean but… And we stayed there for three days. Besides me it was Katarína Kucbelová from Slovakia and Anna Szabó from Hungary, Agnieszka Wolny-Hamkało from Poland, and then the English poet Clare Pollard. We stayed there for three days and each of us brought three poems in the original and English versions, and we translated every poem into our languages.”

I should imagine that could work very interestingly and quite easily between Czech, Slovak and Polish, because the three languages have a lot in common, but with Hungarian or English it is a much bigger leap, isn’t it?

Anna Szabó
“Paradoxically, it was quite difficult for me to translate a Slovak poem, because it’s so similar that I had to check almost every word, if, by chance, this particular word doesn’t happen to have a slightly different meaning. With Hungarian, I don’t understand it at all. I could only translate it through the use of English, so it was somehow easier.”

And were you able to talk to Anna Szabó and compare the English with what she said about the meaning in Hungarian?

“Yes, we discussed almost every word, explaining what we meant. So I think the result is quite precise.”

Here is one of the poems by Anna Szabó in English translation by Clare Pollard.

Witch-Chant If you hear in the leaves there’s a roar
-blast, wind, don’t let them see -
on the roof stand and undo your hair
-blast, wind, nobody sees – If the wind grabs at hands of the leaves
-blast, wind, don’t let them see -
and the petals of meadows drift loose
-blast, wind, nobody sees - If the dark, if it swells, if a groan
-blast, wind, don’t let them see -
you will feel the wind bang on your bones
-blast, wind, nobody sees - Let it bring what it brings let it snatch
-fly, wind, don’t let them see -
you will fall to a wind that will catch
-fly, fly, nobody sees! [Trans.: Clare Pollard]

When you translate a poem, does it, in a way, become your own?

“Yes, definitely. It was quite difficult, for example, to translate Anna Szabó’s poems because they are so different from what I’m writing. She uses a lot of rhyme and rhythm. The poet and the translator in me were struggling with one another, but I had to be truthful to what they wrote. But I was fighting the temptation to ‘correct’ their poems, because I would write in a different way. But in the end I was so satisfied with it that I really felt like I wrote it myself.”

And what about the other way round? When you saw your own poems in English, Slovak or Polish, you could probably more or less see what they had done with them – in Hungarian it would be a bit more difficult, because it’s such a different language. Were there times when you thought: that’s not quite what I wanted to say, or when you thought: I wish I’d said it that way?

“It was interesting what Anna Szabó said, when she was translating one of my poems. There is this quite erotic image, and she said that in the Hungarian context it would sound too strong. So she asked me if she could change it, because there is a verse like ‘milostné přirážení’ – something like ‘thrusts of love’, and she was afraid to use this term. So she used something like ‘the hitting of the marital bed against the wall’…”

…which is rather more euphemistic!

“Yes! But I like it too.”

I noticed one thing with the English translations of your poems. In the Czech, so much works through the grammar, because Czech is such a wonderfully complex grammatical language. The poetry implies a lot through the grammar – cases etc. We were looking at one of your poems just before we started recording this interview, where there’s a masculine plural verb ending which implies that there’s something masculine and plural outside the poem that we don’t know about. It’s impossible to get that sort of thing across in English, which is a less inflected and in a sense a more ‘pedestrian’ language.

“It’s true that during the workshop I got a little bit depressed because of how much must necessarily disappear.”

What do you think is the main thing to be gained from workshops like this?

“During those days I got a deep respect for translators, especially poetry translators, because it’s so, so difficult – and it’s almost invisible work. At the same time I thought that this is maybe the only way to make poetry translations – to consult every verse and never without the author.”

Here is another of your own poems, Popel a slast – Ash and Lust.

Popel a slast Klid je v umírání,
které nás halí. Mlha
nad lesem, pozvolný rozhovor,
volná chůze, my. Společné noci,
v nichž nasloucháš oddechování
a pozoruješ tvář stopenou
v myšlenkách plujícího mozku.
Vše širé nás konejší:
pole, nebe, hladiny jezer a moří. Noří se do tebe. Rozkoš, blesk.
Zvedá se na kolenou a pažích. Dávno už nevíš,
zda jde o slastný vzdech, nebo úpění,
rytmický pochod za rakví,
nebo milostné přirážení. Ash and Lust We’re covered by
death’s calm. Mist
over forest, slow talk
a slow walk, us. Nights together
you listen for breathing,
watch a face sunk
in the brain’s floating thought.
Everything open consoles:
land, sky, surface of lake or sea, sinking into you, rapture, lightning,
rising on hand and knee. For a long time, you haven’t known
if it’s bliss that gasps, or a groan,
the thud of steps behind a coffin
from love’s thrusts. [Trans.: Clare Pollard]

So there are the “love’s thrusts” which Hungarian readers will never find out about.

“[laughs] Yes.”

This workshop took place in the spring. Are you planning further such projects? It’s a great idea – translating poetry not just from “smaller” languages to the “big” languages like English and German, but also between languages that are spoken by smaller numbers of people. Are you going to take this further?

“Yes. There were already several presentations of this project. We were in Brno, in Krakow, even on a boat from Bratislava to Vienna. There will be more in Bratislava and in Krems in Austria next year. So we are gathering often and reading these translations.”

And to end, do you think that people in the Czech Republic today – and throughout Central Europe, given that you have been working with other poets from Central Europe – are still seeking poetry, reading poetry and buying poetry? Is there still a wide appeal, as there was before the fall of communism?

“Not for mass readerships. There will always be readers of poetry, but mainly in the circle of poets themselves. But it’s enough for me.”

And it’s important for the language itself, isn’t it?

“Yes. I think poetry is a place where language can be free, somehow, and more rich than in the mass media or bureaucracy or newspaper language.”