Mike Baugh and Magor: translating the untranslatable

Ivan Martin Jirous, photo: Tomáš Vodňanský

Last week, Prague hosted a conference devoted to Ivan Martin Jirous, one of the legends of the Czechoslovak underground of the 70s and 80s, who died in November 2011. The poet, better known as Magor, which means “loony” in English, was familiar to many as the artistic director of the Czech rock band The Plastic People of the Universe and as the wild man of the underground scene, but over the years his output as a poet has won ever growing acclaim. Much of his best poetry was written during the eight-and-a-half years he spent in communist jails, but astonishingly little of his output has been translated into English. In Czech Books, David Vaughan meets someone who has taken up the challenge of translating Magor’s work.

Mike Baugh,  photo: David Vaughan
During the conference the Prague-based Irish poet Justin Quinn argued that Magor is pretty much untranslatable, pointing to all the Czech word-play and the very specific cultural and historical references that pervade much of his work. But the American translator and teacher Mike Baugh staged a spirited defence of the idea that Magor can and should be translated into English. Not only does his work take us deeper into Czechoslovakia’s underground, it also reminds us of the power of poetry in the face of a political regime that took pride in reducing everything, including language itself, to the lowest common denominator. So during a break at the conference, I took the opportunity to talk to Mike about his Magor translations.

“I’d seen his picture, I’d heard stories about him, so I always pictured him as the wild man of Czech poetry. But then, when you look as his poetry, it’s not what I would have expected at all. There’s intense spirituality in it, there is a strict attention to the syllables he uses. It was so unexpected to me.”

So, first of all you were attracted by the myth of Jirous and then, when you discovered his poetry, you found out that there was a great deal more behind the myth – that this was a real poet and not just a figure from the shadows of the underground scene.

“He’s such a legendary figure that I was just concentrating on him as this larger-than-life character. Then you see his poetry and it’s incredibly intimate. So that’s one thing I was fascinated about. The other thing that I was attracted to is that my Czech friends adore him and my American friends who studied Czech were devastated when he died. And then nothing happened. Paul Wilson’s obituary that appeared in The Guardian was incredible and moving. I really expected there to be an explosion of Magor studies and translations. A couple of years went by and nobody had translated him, and I was just shocked. I thought, maybe this would be a translation someone would be interested in if I could work on it.”

One of the reasons why no translations have appeared is, as you pointed out just a short while ago in your talk, that you’d have to be crazy – or a ‘magor’, to use a pun on his name – to try to translate his poetry, because it is so difficult: there are so many specific references to the time, there is so much play with words, with names, with the oddities of Czech grammar.

Ivan Martin Jirous,  photo: Tomáš Vodňanský
“Absolutely. He’s so difficult to translate. His poetry is deceptively simple when you look at it. Many of the poems in the ‘Magor Swansongs’ [his most famous collection, published in samizdat in 1985] are two lines long, there’s a rhyme which looks very easy to replicate, but then you try to work on it and when you do carry it over to English, it can sound almost frivolous, while really I think there’s a kind of gravitas to it. They look like fragments from Sappho.“

You’ve got “Magor’s Swansongs” in front of you. Give us an example of what you mean.

“The one that always sticks out for me is so simple:”

Kdybych to nebral religiózně
bylo by mi zde věru hrozně

“I translated it as:”

If I weren’t so devout
I’d have to get out

“It’s humorous, it’s pithy, which is definitely there in the original, but if you look at the context of when this was written in prison, in addition to being witty and clever and humorous, it’s also incredibly sad.”

And if you look at the original Czech, there’s a pun on the word “věru”, meaning “really” and “in faith” at the same time.

“Absolutely, and that’s certainly something that didn’t carry over in the translation. So there are all these little hidden gems in there that you find, which are wonderful in Czech and will be wonderful in English when the right translator can capture it.”

You’re being very modest. You have had a go. Does that mean you are going to give up?

‘Magor Swansongs’,  photo: Torst
“No. I don’t know. I’d like to keep on going with it. I first started working on Magor thirteen years ago because Petr Onufer, who’s a good friend of mine, was working on a collection of Czech poetry to give to a poetry magazine in America. And now, thirteen years later I can’t believe that nobody else has translated him. So, an Anglophone, who is trying to find out what Magor is all about, is really in the dark.”

You have a translation here of one of his poems which rhymes in the original Czech. In the translation you have kept the rhymes.

“It’s a poem from when he was in prison, talking about his friends off in Oxford and the difference in their lives at that point. “

It contrasts his life in prison and the lives of those who went into exile in Britain and were enjoying the academic life of Oxford…

“Absolutely. It rhymes in Czech and sounds almost like a ballad. So I’ve tried to keep that rhyme in English. Whether I was successful or not in conveying the meaning and the beauty of the poem is up to the reader to decide.”

And there are a couple of names here – of fellow writers or academics who had gone into exile…

“Just a moment ago at this conference, Justin Quinn was talking about how important the rhyming of names is in Magor’s poetry. It’s very difficult, because there aren’t a lot of English words that rhyme with Czech names, especially Czech surnames.”

Zatímco Liška s Brikciusem
míří v Oxfordu do pubu
zalykám ja se tady hnusem:
zase jsem dopad na hubu! Zatímco Evžen s Tomášem
míří do pubu v Oxfordu
cpu se vězeňským gulášem:
znova sem dostal na mordu! Zatímco za mne v refektáři
modlí se s Brikciusem Tomáš
smějí se mi dny v kalendáři:
zůstal jsi tady – tak to máš!! So while Liška and Brikcius
are in Oxford going to class
disgust makes me delirious:
life is kicking me in the ass So while Evžen and Tomáš
are in a pub playing cards
I’m choking down prison goulash:
my ass kicked by the guards So while Tomáš says a prayer
and Brikcius lights a candle
the calendar laughs as I stare:
you stayed, how much can you handle?

One interesting thing that came out of the discussion after you gave your talk was the extent to which this poetry is of its time and context. One of the people in the audience, who clearly knew Magor at the time when he was in prison, suggested that we’re losing all those connections with the world that Magor came from and that it’s almost impossible now to understand the poetry, even for Czechs, let alone through translation. Would you agree?

Ivan Martin Jirous | Photo: Tomáš Vodňanský,  Czech Radio
“Yes and no. Thank God the situation in the Czech Republic now is so different from when Magor was writing the bulk of his poetry. There’s some timeliness inherent in any poem or any work that’s written. So it may lose a bit of its power. On the other hand, these situations repeat themselves all over the world. So the fact that the Czech Republic is no longer like Czechoslovakia in the 70s and 80s doesn’t mean that in another place in the world this poetry won’t resonate, where there are political situations that are comparable. Would Magor’s poetry right now, if it were translated beautifully into Russian, be very powerful there? How would it be in Belarus? So I think that to say that Prague and the Czech Republic have moved on from this is absolutely valid, but I don’t think that diminishes from the poetry itself, and I think that it’s really the job of translators to make sure that this type of poetry gets disseminated around the world, so it may hit the bull’s eye somewhere and become really valuable again.”

I think we tend to forget how the communist regime in the period of “normalization” did all it could to take the spirit out of language itself and to make language a kind of bland newspeak. This kind of rebelliousness and playfulness with language, which can sound to us like frivolity, was actually something far more subversive in that context.

“There’s also some subversiveness in the fact that he’s using English. One of the hardest times I had as a translator is in the fact that there are some poems where he uses English. He code switches back between Czech and English. My problem was how to transmit the exoticness of English in the 70s and 80s in Czechoslovakia to English in America now. Everything was subversive about what he was doing.”

And it’s also subversive in the sense that while he was locked up in prison he was travelling in his mind. By using English, for example, he is defiantly “travelling” into other languages, other cultures…

“Absolutely. The fact that he was listening to bands like The Fugs brought New York to him and him to New York in a strange way. Also, he’s giving homages to Paul Verlaine, so you can look at it that he’s travelling through time, through countries that were closed off to him.”

Let’s hear another poem in your translation.

“This is one of the favourites that I got to translate from Czech to English. It’s for Charles Bukowski. I was greatly surprised by how different Magor’s poetry is from Bukowski’s, because when I first heard about Magor, I thought he was a kind of Czech Bukowski. But his poetry comes across as very different. His life was much harder and tougher, I’d say.”

Ch. Bukowskimu Princezny něžné něžná dcera
seděla mlčky na terase
v kalíšku ořechovky zhlížela se
macerovaná zelená
mořská víla
Zelené slupky
skořápek plodů ořešáků
Panna a víla mořská
v akvamarinové vodě
sama se sebe ptala: Jsem já tak krásná nebo ošklivá
když kalíšku ořechovky
podívám se do dna? Pak ocasem šupinatým mávla
do hloubek opět se ponořila For Charles Bukowski The gentle princess’ little princess,
sat silently in a grotto
peering into her glass of amaretto marbled
made green The green skin
of the walnut’s fruit Mermaid and maiden
in aquamarine
she asked herself a question: Am I that pretty or ugly
when I look through the bottom
of this amaretto glass? Then she splashed her scaly green tail
and dove back down

That poem is a nice reminder of how lyrical Magor can be…

“Exactly. And he does so much wordplay. It’s just fascinating. English poetry right now shies away from rhyme and shies away from too much alliteration, and in a translation it would be easy to just leave all that stuff out, while I think it’s really the job of the translator to capture what he was doing and make the original appealing to a new audience.”

Given that so little of Magor’s poetry has been translated into English, let’s have another of his poems in your translation.

“This is one I did with Petr Onufer a long time ago. I think it turned out well. There was a rhyme in there, ‘Vltavy’ and ‘pravý’, where I can’t find anything in English that would rhyme with ‘Vltava’, so I left that out, which is our failing.”

Nevěstka babylonská Franzi Kafkovi Po levé straně Vltavy
je její levý břeh
po pravé straně břeh pravý Oblázky převalují se
laskavě ve vlnách Na pravém břehu Vyšehrad
pahorek vlevo plny Hradčan Z obou míst
to svinské město zapálit Tmavé hrady nad hrdou řekou
hřebeny střibrné na vlnách The Whore of Babylon To Franz Kafka On the left of the Vltava
is her left bank
her right bank is on the right. The pebbles are wallowing
pleasantly in waves Vyšehrad on the right bank
Hradčany filling the left hill
From both sides
burn down the city of swine The dark castles on the proud river
the crests of silver on the waves

“It’s so powerful. It’s unexpected, because the pebbles are wallowing pleasantly in waves – he really lulls you into this sense of beauty and then he hits you with such a punch of ‘burn down the city of swine’.”

You’ve translated some of his poems, but there is so much more that has never been translated and it doesn’t look as though it’s about to be translated. I really think you should keep going and try to introduce English-speaking poetry readers to more of his work.

“I’d love to, but my fear is that it may be hubristic of me to take such an iconic and accomplished poet and try to render him into English, when I’m not an accomplished poet myself. It will be interesting to see the kind of reception I get, if I am moderately successful with some of my translations. And I’d love to keep working on him. Now that I feel I’ve got to know Magor a little, I’m not ready to part with him.”