Melvyn Clarke - creating an on-line community of Czech-English translators

In this week's One on One I'm joined by Melvyn Clarke, a Czech-English translator from the British city of Manchester. Melvyn's grandfather was a Czech who settled in the UK before World War I after meeting an English girl in rather unusual circumstances. Throughout the 1980s Melvyn visited Czechoslovakia and he has been living here permanently since 1990. In our interview he discusses the Czech language, translating former president Vaclav Havel's farewell speech, translating into a language which is not one's mother tongue and the internet forum for translators he set up four years ago.

Could you tell us what first brought you to this part of the world?

"I first came here in 1979, actually. My grandfather was Czech, and that was the original reason for my interest. I came over on holiday, on spec...I found it quite easy to make friends even in the bad old days, when quite a few people were kind of paranoid about westerners. You still got to meet people in the pubs and the bars; they started inviting me over and it became a regular thing I suppose."

Could you tell us also a bit about your grandfather and his story?

"Before the First World War he came over to Britain for a rather strange reason - he was studying haute cuisine, he was a chef. Basically, he had to learn his trade in the hotels. It was the done thing in those days for people to come over to Britain and learn it the hard way. So there he was at the Leeds Midland Hotel, I believe, when there was an outbreak of cholera. The whole hotel was closed off to the world, put in quarantine for two weeks. They needed a violinist for the orchestra, to keep the guests entertained. My grandmother was the pianist and my Czech grandfather, like a lot of Czechs, was a musician, he played the violin when he wasn't cooking. And that's how he met up with my grandmother and the rest is perhaps history."

What was it that made you yourself come and decide to live here?

"Well, the original plan, Plan A, was to do a course in TEFL, teaching English as a foreign language, use my knowledge of Czech which had built up quite a bit by that time - I actually went to the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London and took a degree in Czech and Slovak - so I had the basics, I had enough to start translating, basically. I wanted to use that knowledge to get a bit of experience with TEFL and then go somewhere more lucrative like Japan or one of the Arab countries. But then I met my girlfriend Hanka, and again the rest is history."

I presume you must actually like the Czech language.

"It's funny, I don't think anybody's ever asked me that it or not like it...I suppose I do rather like it. I remember my sister came over, she was asking about the Czech language and I showed her some of the tables of declensions, all the endings and that. She said good heavens, I'm sure they simplify it when they actually speak, and I was saying well, in colloquial language they add a couple of bits on sometimes, just for good luck. In the written language you get something like 'with the chickens' - 's kuraty', but in spoken Czech there are a couple of extra syllables - 's kuratama'. You get a whole new set of ending sometimes for the spoken language. There's something intricate and complicated and interesting about all that."

I see that you have translated some speeches by Vaclav Havel. Some people say that Havel is particularly hard to translate because some of his sentences don't really lead anywhere. Is that your experience?

"I wouldn't say his sentences don't lead anywhere. After you've translated a lot of annual reports, texts written by middle managers who are trying to say three or four things at once, then you appreciate a guy like Havel who can certainly be complex in his thought but there's always that pulse of logic running through it, even if he does digress. There's a lucidity there, you appreciate that when you're translating. I'd say he's difficult, he's not your average politician making an average politician's speech. There are a lot of literary words in there and you've got to deal with them very sensitively. I remember in his farewell speech he referred to the period of communism as 'desetileti bezcasi', literally, word for word, 'the decades of timelessness'. And, yeah, it's a lovely concept but does it go neatly into a speech? I ended up translating it as 'the years when time stood still', which probably sounds like something out of an American B movie, but it just seemed to flow better. Was I sensitive with his original ideas? I don't know."

You mentioned business reports. Is it the case that you also do literary translations?

"I've given it a bash, I've given it a bash. There's a guy I know who wrote a collection of aphorisms, that was quite a laugh. But I still feel in a way I'm serving my apprenticeship. The first twenty years are the worst, I think. Give me another ten years."

Do you, as I've heard, also translate into Czech? That's almost unheard of.

"I don't know if it's unheard of. I've done a couple of books together with Hana. The question does often come up on our translators mailing list - should native speakers only translate into their mother tongue. I think it's a bit unfair to stipulate that. If it's your language of habitual use then you've got the basics. But the most important thing is to work together as a close team with somebody from the other language. I think most translations have some input from both sides."

I take it you speak Czech at home with your girlfriend.

"Who told you that (laughs)?"

You just did - habitual use you said.

"Did I give it away? Well, we've tried different systems actually. We have English in the living room and Czech in the bedroom. It varies...English on Wednesday and Czech on Friday..."

Tell us about your mailing list, which is called Czechlist. If one of your members, so to speak, has a translating problem they can ask the others for help.

"Yes, yes, that's the basic idea behind it. It's a great bunch of people, we've got about 250 translators from all over the world. Any terminology problem, language problem, questions about what goes on in everyday life in Britain, Ireland, the Czech Republic, there's always somebody on hand. When you're staring at a screen twelve hours a day sometimes your mind goes blank, if you need a quick response then come on over to Czechlist."

I understand you have a second website as well as Czechlist.

"It's all combined, actually. You find a lot of Czechlisters will volunteer information on resources they've found, useful glossaries they've found on the internet. All the useful resources get put on the Czechlist resources site at and you have hundreds of on-line Czech-English glossaries, plus translators' tricks of the trade, plus several parallel translations, plus a translators' database. Have a look!"

The addresses for those websites are and On top of all that, Melvyn Clarke has a web journal (in Czech) at