Lubomír Dorůžka: Legendary music journalist and translator of Western literature

Lubomír Dorůžka, photo: Tomáš Vodňanský

Lubomír Dorůžka first began writing about music seven decades ago when, during WWII, he produced a clandestine magazine on his greatest passion, jazz. The quintessential American art form was frowned upon by the Communists after their 1948 takeover of Czechoslovakia. However, in the relatively liberal 1960s Mr. Dorůžka was able to edit music magazines and play a very active role in international jazz organisations. As well as being a music journalist, he is also a renowned translator of American and British writers – and as a young man did many translations with his lifelong friend, the novelist Josef Škvorecký.

Lubomír Dorůžka,  photo: Tomáš Vodňanský
When I met Lubomír Dorůžka, who turned 88 last month, I first asked him if his interest in Western literature was of a piece with his love of jazz.

"Oh yes, partly, certainly. But I was always interested in literature all the same. I translated especially books by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and together with Josef Škvorecký we did ‘A Fable’ by William Faulkner - that was really a piece of work, with sentences which run over one page, and a lot of terms and things that we didn't know much about. Škvorecký and I did a lot of things like that at the time."

You were a kind of tandem team? You translated together?

"Yes, in quite a funny way, because we got one copy only and sometimes we did such barbaric acts, really, just cutting a book into three or four parts. Each of us took one part, 50 pages or so, did his own translation, and passed it to the partner, who worked on it late on, and so on. So the book was really cut into sections of 50 pages, but we managed somehow."

As translators could you consult with anybody? Say, if you came across a word you that didn't know, how could you find out what it meant?

"That was very difficult, especially if it had some historical background. You really had to find somebody who lived at that time, and who worked in that field. With Faulkner's ‘A Fable’ we were lucky enough to find a pilot who flew those machines in the First World War, and he helped us with things that we probably couldn't have solved any other way.

"Other translations were sometimes more trouble. Our colleagues at [state publishing house] Odeon translated something which dealt with the Stock Exchange in the 1930s. There were a lot of technical terms which they didn't understand. And finally they found a man who had been employed at the Prague Stock Exchange at that time.

“He accepted them very kindly and asked what he could do for them. They told him what they needed and gave him some examples of what it was. And he said, I'm very sorry, I probably can't help you in this respect - you see, we called all these things by German names [laughs]."

Tell us about your relationship with Josef Škvorecký, the writer and of course publisher who started 68 Publishers when he left for Canada. When did you first meet?

"We met at the Philosophical Faculty. We both attended a seminar on American literature. That was in 1946, when the first stipendists who went to America had already returned. I had a paper on Fitzgerald, Škvorecký on Hemmingway. In a discussion, one of these students who had returned from the U.S. just said, in Czech, Já myslím, že ty papery byli velmi zajímavé [I think the papers are very interesting] - just to show he had been in America and he knew what a paper was!"

You and Škvorecký shared a love of jazz?

Josef Škvorecký - 'Cowards'
"Oh yes, certainly. I tried to finish my studies with a doctor's degree, and I didn't even go for my last document which enabled me to teach, to become a teacher. Because teachers were at gymnaziums, at high schools, were sent out of Prague. Škvorecký was sent out of Prague and he spent a few years under very difficult conditions in Northern Bohemia.

"Then there was a place at the state publishing house of literature and music, where I was employed. I wrote what was at the time necessary, a sort of recommendation, so he came to Prague and he got the post, where he was at the centre of literary life at that time."

How did you too manage to stay in contact during the years when was in North America [before 1989]?

"I was working at the international section at Supraphon at that time, and I very often could go on business trips abroad. I always found some way of telling him where I was going to be, and he sent me letters post restante or directly to the hotel, but I usually didn't know at what hotel I'd be staying. But usually it was post restante at the main post office somewhere in Germany or Belgium. And I wrote my letters at hotels, at airports, and on trains."

And he sent you his drafts of novels?

"Yes, certainly. He also sent me the books that they published in Toronto. They were paperbacks, so the only thing I could do was to rip off the cover and replace it with some cover of an innocent American detective story or story crime or something like that. I put it into my baggage and I was lucky enough that the officers weren't so interested in crime stories."

Gerry Mulligan,  photo: Heinrich Klaffs,  CC 1.0 license
You mentioned travelling for Supraphon - did you get to meet any of your jazz heroes on your travels?

"Oh yes. But it wasn't only for Supraphon that I was travelling. In 1968 we founded the first European Jazz Federation, then the International Jazz Federation, which became a member of UNESCO. UNESCO was an organisation that was recognised by the government here, so that got me to a lot of festivals.

"In 1975, right on my birthday in March, I went to a concert in Bergamo where Gerry Mulligan played. After the concert we sat in a cafe or wine bar and got to talking. After some time, he asked me where exactly I came from. I told him Czechoslovakia.

"He said, that's unbelievable. Half a year ago I practically didn't know that such a country existed. But then a book came into my hands, telling the story of young musicians playing this music in 1944 or '45. And I suddenly discovered that these young people exactly the same kind of music as us, and thought in the way we thought, and talked in the way we talked, about everything - about life, about girls, and so on. If you perhaps know the author, give him my best regards [laughs]."

This was The Cowards by Škvorecký.

"Yes, it was The Cowards."

Did many international jazz stars come here? I know for instance Louis Armstrong played here at Lucerna [in 1965].

"Yes, Louis Armstrong played here, nine concerts, which was quite unusual - he never stayed as long in a city. And Lucerna was packed all the time. I was serving as his guide practically for those 10 days.

Louis Armstrong
"We went to Prague Castle, too, we visited a gallery there with pictures of all the Czech kings and counts and nobility. There was a girl guide who spoke decent English and she explained everything to him, and all the names. So he turned to me and said, she knows 'em all! [laughs] Then it went on and on, and there were a lot of other names that he didn't know, of course. And he turned to me again and said, why the hell don't they have George Washington here?! [laughs]"

What was he like? His image was as a real gentleman.

"Certainly. But of course all the people that came here were rather cautious. Because these were the socialist, the communist countries, and probably they were warned by their managers or somebody. He was very polite and tried to please everybody, but you could see that he was keeping on his guard."

You're 88 years old now, but your most recent book came out only six months ago. Are you still working?

"Well, I write reviews for [best-selling newspaper] Mladá fronta Dnes and for Harmonie, which is a music monthly. And I do some radio programmes still from time to time. But I don't think I'll have enough energy and enough material to write a book again. This is probably my last book, really."

One final question. You've been listening to jazz for I guess 70 years, more - have you changed as a listener in that period? Do you listen differently?

Lubomir,  David and Petr Doruzka
"Well, just because I was in touch with music, jazz, with the way it's changed I was trying to keep in contact with music all the time. Here I differ from very many of my contemporaries, because for them jazz was the music of their youth. That was swing, and partly perhaps bebop. But they don't go on in their tastes any further than that. As I was doing these things professionally, I had to keep in touch with them, and some of the things that are happening now I like very much.

"And besides, I have it at home. I have a grandson who is the first in our family who really plays music professionally. So of course I am in touch with what is happening."

Mr. Dorůžka’s grandson is the renowned jazz guitarist David Dorůžka. His son Petr Dorůžka will be to familiar to many Radio Prague listeners as the voice of the music programme Magic Carpet, which he presented for several years.