Prize winning translator recounts chance Czech conversion

Paddy Phillips, photo: archive of Paddy Phillips

The Czech Centre in Prague is currently hosting a seminar and workshop for the winners of this year’s Susanna Roth Translating Competition. Organised by Czech Centres around Europe in cooperation with the Literary Section of the Arts and Theatre Institute, the competition is open to young translators up to 40 years of age who haven’t yet published a complete work of literature. This year, they were required to translate an extract from a novel by Anna Bolavá, called Do Tmy or Into the Dark. I caught up with one of the winners, Paddy Phillips.

Paddy Phillips, photo: archive of Paddy Phillips
Paddy Phillips is a freelance editor, translator and teacher currently based in Oxford. After studying Japanese at the university, he taught English as a second language first in Tokio and later in Brno. Mr Phillips, who is a great fan of Czech humourist literature, has recently completed an MA course at Bristol University, specialising in Czech to English translation. When I met with him in Prague, I first wanted to know how he got acquainted with the Czech language:

“I was teaching English in Tokio for a year and I wanted some change. I wanted to try going somewhere in Europe, where I had never been before and I remembered that one of my classmates from the course which I did in English teaching had gone to Brno.

“So I applied to the same school in Brno. It’s called ILS International House Brno and has a very good reputation. But they told me they didn’t have any places available and told me to try Prague, but they also didn’t have any places.

“This was in September 2001, than a few days later the attacks happened in NY and a few days after that I had an e-mail from the school in Brno, saying suddenly we have a place available for a teacher.

“What happened was that they had one teacher who was working there the previous year and he was planning to come back to the Czech Republic but after the attacks in New York he decided he didn’t want to fly because nobody knew what was going to happen next. So it was complete kind of fluke that I ended up in the Czech Republic.”

And you stayed in the Czech Republic for three years.

“That’s right. I taught English in Brno for three years.”

And how did you become interested in translating?

“Well, as I said, for the past 14 years I have been trying to improve my Czech and I have been working in Oxford as a dictionary editor. And I started to think that I wanted to do something with my languages, especially with my Czech, because I was really interested in Czech.

“I wondered whether translating might be a way of combining my editorial experience with my interest in languages. So I started to look for university courses that might enable me to do Czech translating and then I found the courses at Bristol University, which has a fantastic Czech department and they offer MA in translation with eight or nine foreign languages, including Czech.

“I think the first Czech novel I read was Švejk, in English translation from 1928, and that really got me hooked on Czech literature.”

So I applied there and I was lucky enough to get accepted onto the master’s course and I really enjoyed it. It’s great to be able to use my Czech for something formally, not just a hobby studying at home.

What kind of texts have you been translating?

On the Bristol MA in translation course you get a range of areas. So you start off with more general texts, for example some tourist texts about different regions in the Czech Republic, a little bit of literary translation and then, in the second semester, you progress to a more specialised translation, so for example Czech legal texts or texts from social sciences.

“So for example I translated some extracts from essays by Tomáš Halík and Václav Havel and then some legal texts as well, such as resolutions from the Czech Constitutional Court. So you get a broad range of text styles.”

So after you finished your studies, have you continued with translating and do you actually make a living by translating texts from Czech into English?

“I have only really been doing it for a year, so at the moment I am not making a living directly from there. But this year I have also been teaching at the Czech department at Oxford University, which has been really enjoyable.

And then on the side I am also doing small pieces of freelance translation work for different Czech companies and a bit of literature as well, and also doing some non-Czech related editing work. I want to develop a career as a freelance translator but it takes time to build it up.”

Why have you decided to participate in the Susana Roth Competition?

“It’s very simple, really. I just need as much practice as I can get. And it came up at the right time. I had recently finished my master’s course and I just wanted some more translation experience. And I thought I had nothing to lose so I’l give it a go and I was lucky.”

How did you like the book that was selected for this years’ competition? Into the Dark by Anna Bolavá?

“It’s not a book, I have to confess, that I would naturally pick off the shelf for myself, because my tastes tend to be more light-hearted. I am a great fan of Czech humourists. So for example for my master’s dissertation I translated part of a book by Arnošt Goldflam, Tatínek není k zahození, which are very enjoyable humourist stories.

Photo: Odeon publishing
“So this book by Anna Bolavá is more serious than normal type of book I would pick for myself. But I was really impressed by her style. Her Czech is very clear, very vivid, so as you are reading it, you can really see the story unfolding in your mind’s eye. I think that’s a real skill to write in this very clear way. This type of writing doesn’t come easy: it takes hours and hours of writing and re-writing. So I really enjoyed that aspect of the book.”

And what was it like translating this type of text? What was the most difficult thing about translating this book?

“I think trying to capture that kind of clear, straightforward, vivid style in English. When I first began to translate it, it just didn’t sound like English. It comes out sounding very kind of garbled. So you have to revise it over and over again and keep trying to find the most natural formulation in English, so that for an English reader it reads as smoothly as the Czech original does for the Czech reader. So I think that was the most difficult aspect of it.”

Interestingly, it is a book about a translator, a translator who is obsessed with collecting medicinal plants. Was that a challenge to find all the English equivalents?

“Yes, of course it was very difficult. I don’t know anything about botany. I spent a lot of time in the library and online trying to find the correct translation, because for some of the plants mentioned in the book there are obviously several possible translations depending on which particular species of plant you are talking about.

Because Czech uses a more general genus name whereas in English you really have to pick a particular species. But it’s very interesting. I think for any subject, the more you learn about it, the more interesting it becomes and it is definitely the case for these. So it wasn’t an impossible challenge but it was an interesting one.”

And in general, what do you find most challenging about translating from Czech to English?

“It really depends on the text. Obviously the goal always is to make an English text that reads smoothly, but it really depends on the subject matter. For example when you are translating a legal or an economic text, the hardest thing is the terminology, because for every term there is a fixed English translation. If you are a generalist like me with no legal background, you have to spend a lot of time making sure you found the right translation.

“But for example when you are translating a literary text, sometimes you really have to be less precise or less faithful to the original, because the goal is that it should readable for the English language reader. So it really depends on the subject matter.

You already told me that you prefer light-hearted books, so who are among your favourite Czech authors?

“I suppose winning the competition is a way of saying thank you to all the people who have helped me.”

“I think the first Czech novel I read was Švejk, in English translation from 1928, and that really got me hooked on Czech literature, so I love Hašek and I love Poláček. Recently there was a really great translation of Bylo nás pět by Mark Corner, a brilliant translator. And like I say, I love Arnošt Goldflam.

“One of my favourites is Zdeněk Svěrák and although his films he has made with his son are known in the English speaking world, none of his stories have been translated yet. So that’s one thing I would love to do one day, possibly, or I would love someone to do it. I really think Svěrák’s povídky should be translated into English, because he is brilliant. He is the master of this kind of tragi-comic, light-hearted comedy.”

What does it mean to you, winning the Susan Roth translating competition?

“I suppose winning the competition is a way of saying thank you to all the people who have helped me, especially to my wife, to my wife’s parents, to my own parents, to my family, who have really supported me.

“And it is also a thank you to my teachers, for example at the University in Bristol, Doctor Rajendra Chitnis and Jana Nahodilová. They run a really great department and they have helped me so much over the last two years. So I like to see winning this competition as a thank you to them for helping me.”

Is there something you are currently working on?

“I am working on various things. Obviously for confidentiality reasons I don’t want to say. I am working on two different literary texts at the moment and I think they have definitely got potential so I am really pleased to be working on something like that.

And also I have been doing some commercial translations for Czech business. So it is nice that as a freelancer you have a bit of variety. You are not only translating the same kind of text every day and that’s great. That makes the job very interesting.”