Lucie Mikolajková: the translator as a restorer of paintings

Lucie Mikolajková, photo: David Vaughan

Lucie Mikolajková is an unsung hero of Czech writing today. She is one of a number of untiring and underpaid translators, working quietly and out of the public gaze to bring Czech literature to English speakers and vice versa. As a literary translator Lucie has taken up some pretty tough challenges. How do you translate Los Angeles Hispanic English into Czech without sounding absurdly artificial or bring the delicacy of lyric poetry from Moravia to English readers without resorting to the sickly sweet? Lucie answers these questions and more in conversation with David Vaughan in this week’s Czech Books.

Lucie Mikolajková,  photo: David Vaughan
Lucie Mikolajková is unusual in being completely bilingual, equally at home translating from Czech into English and in the other direction. She has a strong sense for different registers of language, moving freely from one to the other in both poetry and prose. How she came to be bilingual is a remarkable and unusual story, as she told me at the beginning of our conversation.

“It was all a bit of a coincidence because I was born in the years of the baby boom in the 1970s in Czechoslovakia, when so many children were born that there weren’t enough facilities for them to go to. By happy accident, my mother happened to place me in a facility with mostly English-speaking children, so I started learning English when I was about three-and-a-half years old.”

This was during the period of “normalization”. That must have been pretty unusual for that time.

“It was just one of those coincidences that happen and it’s pretty strange to explain to people how it comes that I’m bilingual, when my parents don’t actually speak a word of English. But it’s just one of those things, you know.”

So you ended up at a bilingual kindergarten and that’s where it all started...

“Exactly. Then, when my mother realized I picked up language fairly quickly, she found me a teacher, who taught me throughout my time at primary school. I think that by the time I was fourteen I was pretty much fully bilingual.”

And by that time the Iron Curtain had opened and you could travel.

“I remember the first time, I think it was 1990, when my mother and I went to London. I remember being amazed that I was actually in a country where everyone could understand me and I could finally use the language that I was fluent in but that I actually didn’t have an opportunity to use before.”

The fact that you’re bilingual has served you well in your career because you work as a literary translator – which is why we’re sitting here today, talking about your translations, both from English into Czech and from Czech into English. Do you prefer translating into Czech or into English?

Jiří Kamen - 'Hugo',  photo: Prostor publishing
“I really prefer translating into English. I am an English studies major – I have an English studies degree and I read all the books in the Anglo-American literary canon, so I have all the stylistic registers. So translating into English is more natural for me – it’s pretty much instinctive. My English flows better than my Czech and I actually had to practise more, I had to learn translating into Czech. I had to work on it far more than on my translations into English.”

I know that a big problem in translating from Czech into English is that there is often such a difference of register and such a difference of context that a lot of fantastic Czech books, when they’re translated into English, seem slightly inaccessible. How do you deal with this problem when you’re working?

“It’s really an art of balancing. You want to retain the slightly exotic feel, because you’re translating a book that is foreign and you want to maintain that, but at the same time you want to make it accessible to the English reader. Sometimes you take some things out that would be incomprehensible to the English reader and you replace them by something that they understand better. Names, obviously, are a problem, because foreign-sounding names, I think, make the text a bit intimidating for the English reader.”

But when I first started reading Russian novels, I always loved those complicated names…

“I think with Russian it’s a little different, because you have this English-looking transcription for Russian names that makes them look at the same time foreign but accessible, but there is no such transcription for Czech names. So you either take out the diacritic marks [the various accents used in Czech] or you maintain them. Both have their pitfalls, because English readers are not familiar with diacritic marks – they won’t know what they mean anyway – but if you take them out the names are no longer authentic.”

Let’s have a taste of one of your translations from Czech into English. This is a contemporary novel – or fictional biography – by Jiří Kamen that you have translated into English.

“Yes, it’s a fictional biography of a Czech Jewish poet and politician, an anarchist, a very interesting person from the first half of the 20th century.”

So, although it is a fictional biography, it is a person who really existed.

“His name was Hugo Sonnenschein. He wrote under the name Sonka. He actually wrote in German, like Kafka, for example. This is a first-person narrative, composed as a letter, and in this extract he describes his childhood in the Moravian town of Kyjov. There was a mine and he describes the feelings that the mine evoked in him.

We run past a little miner’s cottage, with a closet where miners pray before the Crucifix and a painting of St. Barbara before they go on shift. The cottage does not look particularly scary in the dark. It’s different during the day. This odd place has a peculiar attraction for all the Kyjov boys. All of them: Czechs, Germans, Jews and Gypsies alike. In their games, children are segregated by language and ethnicity. Czechs play separately from Germans, and so on; every group pays cautious attention to the others. Just like their fathers. Should one of the groups gain the upper hand, the rest will start considering temporary alliances. The Gypsies are forever excluded from such pacts; no one wants to have anything to do with them. All children are united in their fear of the mysterious underground of the lignite mine: such a heat and stench can only be exuded by the nether world. If there is a hellish air permeating the town, the miner’s cottage stinks like a gateway to hell. The Sahara in Kyjov embodied the image of a Jewish hell. The mutterings of the miners in prayer strengthened my feeling that there was an underworld stockroom full of souls somewhere beneath my feet. The spirits of the dead – the elohim; you have heard of those, no? – gradually lose their voices, and end up quietly muttering strange words down there. The further down from the surface of the earth, the more incomprehensible are their mutterings. Those elohim who fall all the way to the bottom of the nether world are the worst off. They open and close their mouths silently like fish. The cottage with the prayer chamber is the gehinnom, the fiery pit of torment – a place where sinners will be judged. The rabbi told me: be mindful of three things, Hugo, and you will not end up a sinner. Consider that which is above: the seeing eye, the hearing ear, and all your deeds recorded in a book. The bottom of the gehinnom is the home of the voiceless sinners: condemned to endure ridicule and eternal shame are all those who fornicate with a married woman, humiliate their neighbor in public, or call their neighbor derisive names. You can hear the sighs of those who have committed lesser offences, and those will rise up healed. Be mindful of your voice and words, Hugo.

In terms of translating you have lots of things to deal with. You have the context of Kyjov, a small town in Moravia. Then there are all the specific Jewish references, so it must have been quite a challenge to work out how best to get all this across.

“Yes. I especially wanted to get across this sort of Jewish mystique, so that was a bit of a challenge as you have to choose a particular style – meditative language that flows as if someone was actually sitting and praying and talking of those mystical Jewish things.”

Photo: Host publishing
You also translate from English into Czech. There’s one recent translation that you’ve made of a novel called All Involved, by Ryan Gattis. There you have a very different challenge in getting across the original register in the Czech language, because you have different variants of American English.

“The book, All Involved, takes place in 1992 during the famous race riots in Los Angeles. A lot of gangsters took advantage of the fact that the police, the fire department, the National Guard, were all busy with subduing the riots, and started settling their own accounts.”

There is a lot of Hispanic English in the book.

“Yes, because most of the book takes place in Lynnwood, a part of Los Angeles which is almost completely Hispanic.”

And so, what does Hispanic Czech look like?

“There’s really no Hispanic Czech! It’s mostly colloquial Czech with a few Spanish words thrown in for more authenticity.”

I know that you also translate poetry. You’ve translated poems by several of the best known 20th century Czech poets into English. Could you read us one of these translations?

“Definitely. There is a fairly famous poem by Jan Skácel, a very prominent Czech poet of the 20th century, which I call ‘The Song of Innate Guilt’ in English.

The Song of Innate Guilt There is a spring with blood for water
And we have all once drunk our fill
And someone shot a tiny sparrow
And someone thought it good to kill. And then he hung his head in sorrow
And scooped the water, palms outspread
And watched the droplets gleam in sunlight
And dreaded with not enough dread And held it but could hold no further
Oh God, he felt the water drain
And quarried stones in empty quarry
And asked to be stoned, but in vain And begged but then could beg no further
And dreaded with not enough dread
And still the spring has blood for water
And we have all got our hands red.

That is a beautiful and moving translation. Jan Skácel is a difficult poet to translate. He is very lyrical, very musical, and at times he also comes close to the border of kitsch.

“Yes, but this poem is actually easy, because it has a beautiful structure, which repeats. So you have something to depart from. You have a starting point. You have the structure. Once you follow the structure it’s fairly easy.”

Can you give us a taste of the Czech – maybe just the first four lines?

Je studánka a plná krve
a každý z ní už jednou pil
a někdo zabil moudivláčka
a kdosi strašně ublížil

“So you can see that the structure is always the same. It always starts with ‘a’, which is ‘and’ in English and it repeats throughout the poem except for one or two lines. So it’s really easy to hold onto the structure. Then you can just hang the words onto it.”

Are you working on something interesting at the moment?

“I’m working on a book called Purity which came out last year, by Jonathan Franzen, who is a contemporary American writer. Jonathan Franzen is coming to the Prague Writers’ Festival in the fall, so hopefully I’ll get to meet him, which I’m looking forward to very much, because I love meeting the authors that I translate. It’s always a wonderful experience.”

Photo: Farrar,  Straus and Giroux publishing
Do you communicate with your writers as you’re translating? Do they not mind if you ask them what they were actually trying to say?

“I do communicate with the authors quite frequently and most of them don’t mind at all. In fact, Jonathan Franzen even has a forum set up for his translators into all sorts of languages. Anybody can ask him a question, and he’s very patient.”

So often we hear people say that there’s a lot that is lost in translation. Actually there is quite often quite a lot that is gained in translation as well, because the translator works so closely with the original text and – more often than we think – actually ends up improving elements of it.

“Yes, but what you also gain in translation is actually a new text entirely. Every year I teach a translation workshop at a literary festival in Sobotka in Central Bohemia. I usually have about six to eight students and we work on something that hasn’t been translated into Czech yet. One of the exercises I give them is to give every one of them the same passage to translate. It’s really nice to see their surprise when we put the translations on screen all together and then they’re surprised to see that there are actually six or seven completely different texts. As a translator you’re actually creating a new book. I’m not saying that I’m a writer, but I think of myself as a restorer of paintings, a craftsman who takes something and makes it into something else which is accessible to people who otherwise wouldn’t have been able to look at the original thing.”