Martin Hilsky - translator - on the energy of language

Martin Hilsky

In today's edition of One on One Jan Velinger talks to Professor Martin Hilsky, who teaches at the Department of English and American Studies at the Faculty of Philosophy in Prague. Mr Hilsky is among the most progressive translators of Shakespeare's works in the Czech Republic today - to date he has translated 23 of Shakespeare's plays into Czech, including a much acclaimed version of King Lear just last year. Martin Hilsky has been named an honorary holder of the Order of the British Empire, and just last week in Prague, was given the prestigious Tom Stoppard award in recognition of his translations as well as his many essays and criticism on modern British and American literature.

I'd like to begin by asking you - you studied English at Charles University in the mid-Sixties: what inspired you to study English at that time? Surely, Russian then would have been more the choice 'de rigeur'...

"Well, this is one of the reasons, because Russian was a choice that was almost mandatory, I decided to study English. And, also, the other reason was that I loved English literature. My main reason was literature and language, yes, both."

You received a stipend to study at Oxford for one year in 1968... Did that come before the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia?

"I was interviewed by the cultural section of the British Embassy before the intervention, in May or June '68, and then I completely forgot about it. It was highly competitive because there was only one position and many natural scientists applied. Then the Russians came on August 21st and at the beginning of September I received a note from the British Embassy that I was selected for one academic year of study and research at Linacre College, Oxford."

What kind of a decision was it, given the upheaval? It must have been difficult to leave...

"It was difficult to leave but, on the other hand, it was a great opportunity."

What were some of the differences between studying in Britain and studying in Prague?

"The first significant difference was that the libraries at Oxford are superb, and that I could find anything I wanted on the shelves, and that was a miracle. You must imagine that here in Prague we had some small library, which was good enough for teaching classes but absolutely useless for research because there simply weren't enough books. So this is the first thing. The second thing was the atmosphere. To be in '68 - in 1968 - in Oxford!... was indeed fantastic, because it was the time of upheavals all over the world. The student revolution in Paris, and elsewhere. The possibility to discuss politics and whatever with people from France, United States, Britain - was absolutely incredible. This was, I would say the most important - these two things."

Since we're talking about politics and you were watching events unfold from afar, how did you expect things would develop in Czechoslovakia?

"Uh, although I was warned by my Canadian, British, and American colleagues that Dubcek was out, that it was only a matter of days before he would be out of power, I didn't believe it, I still thought I still thought there was a chance for survival of the political regime that was in power before the invasion. I was wrong in that and I'm afraid what my colleagues said was fulfilled to the letter. What followed were indeed dark ages, especially the first half of the 1970s - that was a truly difficult time. But, I must say I'm not sorry I came back. I think it's a very personal decision, and I have many friends who decided to emigrate, and I could have emigrated because from Oxford it would have been possible to go to the States... I was in Oxford for one year almost, but I went back in October '69 because I knew the next month the border would be closed completely and I knew it was either emigration or coming home. I decided to come home. Already at that time I thought I would be more useful here."

When you did come back and, as you say, the situation got far worse, how did that work? Did you begin working in your field?

"No, not at all, that was not possible. I was still at the university but I had only a temporary contract. And also, because my thesis was not accepted I began sort of looking around and I was fortunate to get some translation jobs, mainly of American and British fiction and I wrote essays, and as a teacher I could teach only practical language, which means 'conversation'. And, I was a librarian and a secretary... I did all kinds of jobs, I really started from scratch {laughs} at that time..."

It was in 1984 that you completed your first translation of Shakespeare... that was Love's Labours Lost...

"No, no. It was A Midsummer Night's Dream - Love's Labours Lost was second, in 1987. A Midsummer Night's Dream was the first."

How had you felt about Shakespeare up until that point?

"Well, I must say, he was too difficult for me when I was an undergraduate and it took me a long time to understand his plays. Quite frankly, it never occurred to me that I would end up translating Shakespeare. But it happened after I had translated some British and American plays and one director became interested in my work, so he asked me to do it because he wanted a new performance which would use a new translation. But, I was terribly afraid because this play has been translated many, many times, and I sketched it for half a year or so and I almost wanted to give it up. But then it began to take shape and I realised that the translation was indeed different. And that the meaning of the play in this translation was different. The director liked it, and the performance was fine, and this is how my Shakespearean career began. Surprisingly, I must say."

Conceptually, from what I've read, is it fair to say that your style in terms of dialogue is based on more common language or vernacular, for a modern audience?

"I think it's one part of the truth because I think to translate Shakespeare now means to use the language people speak now. I could not reconstruct the language of the Renaissance, for example, because that is not the language I know... But, my other objective was to be as faithful to Shakespeare as possible, which means in matter of verse, whenever there is blank verse there should be blank verse, a rhyme should have a rhyme in Czech, puns are difficult and I thought when Shakespeare uses his puns, more or less, at the same places Czech puns should be used... And this is really, really difficult. But, it worked. I was also really interested in the music of language. But, you are right, my first endeavor was to present A Midsummer Night's Dream - Shakespeare - in a natural language, which would be easy to perform, but which would still be 'poetic'. It was not exactly 'everyday' language, because it was heightened. It was heightened through rhythmical devices and metaphor and images and so on. My main approach was to give as much Shakespearean energy to the Czech translation as possible. This word 'energy', the 'energy of language' became extremely important to me."

Is there a character in Shakespeare that holds your imagination more than the others?

"Well, there are several I must say, but King Lear, certainly, is one of the characters that really holds my imagination very, very strongly. Falstaff would perhaps come next and Hamlet - Hamlet came first! But, you know, when I started translating Shakespeare I loved the comedy language and the Fools were always a great challenge - the whole gallery of Shakespearean fools - and they still interest me very much. The fool is a kind of commentator, an observer of human behaviour and so on. It's not merely a 'funny' character, it's much more than that. And these are all matters of interpretation - it's fascinating to shape - by words - the characters, because they are after all, made of words. All of them."