Pursued by a bear on the seacoast of Bohemia: Shakespeare and the Czechs

Dr Martin Hilsky

For this edition of Czech Books we are at the Philosophical Faculty of Prague's Charles University to meet one of the most respected professors at the university. Dr Martin Hilsky is a professor of English literature and is very well known in this country for his translations of Shakespeare. He has translated over twenty of Shakespeare's plays and also much of his poetry. Dr Hilsky is a central figure at the annual Summer Shakespeare Festival, which ended recently and is one of the big cultural events of the summer. Many of the productions we see at the festival are in his translations, but that is not where his involvement ends:

Dr Martin Hilsky
"This is very true. I always go to the first rehearsals, where the text is read for the first time and discussed by the actors and directors. Then I go to many re-runs and so on. So I am involved and I usually speak about the language. This is my job. I like this dialogue, because I not only share my experience with the actors, but it works the other way round as well."

Does it happen that someone will tell you they can't read a line and want you to re-translate it?

"Well, this is what happens sometimes."

And you don't mind...

"Not at all. It doesn't happen too often, but when it happens I always try to think about it and find a solution."

Your translations of Shakespeare are controversial. I remember a few years ago there was quite a passionate debate in one of the Czech daily newspapers about whether it is wise to choose, as you have done, modern Czech. How do you defend yourself against the argument that these were plays that were written four hundred years ago and that there should be an element of that archaic language in the Czech too?

"Well, I would use archaic language if necessary, but - if my defence was needed - I would defend myself on several points. The first is that modern Czech is the only language I really know. If I wanted to translate Shakespeare into the Czech of the late 16th and early 17th century, it would be an artificial reconstruction of a language I do not know, however beautiful it is. The second point is that even if I succeeded, people would not understand that language, because simply the English language cannot be compared with the Czech language of that period. The English language was much more developed and Shakespeare developed it in a tremendous way. We had no Shakespeare at that time and it would be absolutely impossible to translate Shakespeare in quibbles and puns. And it would be a pity, because the audiences would simply not get Shakespeare. So my arguments are very simple and fundamental, I would say."

In a sense these problems exist even with modern Czech. For example, in English - and especially British English - there is to this day a great love of puns, and this plays a significant role in English writing. Also I believe that Shakespeare uses a vocabulary of about forty thousand words. Czech does not have the same variations in its vocabulary to choose from. How do you deal with all these problems in translating into modern Czech?

"First of all you are right. I think there are about twenty-five thousand words in Shakespeare, which is a tremendous amount. The vocabulary is miraculously rich. What can you do with all this in Czech? Of course you could give up translating. That would be one possible response to the difficulty of translation. I did it. I gave up once, and then I came back to it, because I think the job of the translator is to translate what is untranslatable. There are many difficulties because the languages are radically different, yet there are some chances, some possibilities offered by the Czech language. For example, as far as the punning goes, it may be translated - but not literally. So I would defend the translation which is true to the meaning and function of words, but not to the words themselves, because that is not possible."

And what about Shakespeare's verse? I'm thinking about such forms as the iambic pentameter. Can that be translated into Czech or does it have to be adapted into another metre?

"It can be translated, although iambic metre is very rare in Czech poetry. But there is some iambic poetry - exquisite poetry. Karel Hynek Macha's 'May', the romantic poem, is written in that metre and it works. It's slightly more artificial in Czech than in English. In English it's natural."

That's because "dee-dum" is a natural rhythm in English?

"Absolutely. The second syllable is very often stressed."

And how would it normally be in spoken Czech?

"Well, in spoken Czech it is the first syllable, always, without exception. Even if you have a preposition it is accented. So the task of the translator is enormously difficult because the English metre is up-rising - it goes up - whereas we go down. So in fact you have to go up though your nature is to go down, and yet you must pretend that it is in fact a pleasure, because the effort must be concealed. It is technically possible. I don't want to go into technical details but it can be done, although it is indeed difficult and different translators have different approaches."

When I look to neighbouring Germany in the 19th century, with the emergence of romanticism and the "Sturm und Drang" movement, Shakespeare was a huge influence. Was that the case in the Czech-speaking world as well?

"It's good that you mentioned Germany, because this is a special case. They declared Shakespeare to be their own poet. So they almost appropriated him! I think Shakespeare played an important role in forming German nationhood. It was really a political issue. In the Czech Lands, Bohemia and Moravia, Shakespeare was very important, but the importance was slightly different because the translators of the 19th century usually wanted to prove that the Czech language is good enough to compete with the German translations of Shakespeare. So the idea was: Here we are, a very small nation in Central Europe, next to Germany, but as far as Shakespeare goes we can handle his language, his plays and his poems as well as the Germans. So the national impulse was there. The 19th century was the century of emerging nationalities. No doubt this was one of the reasons. But I also think it was a love for Shakespeare mediated by the awareness that he is the great spirit and one of the greatest writers, and there was the challenge to render Shakespeare - the gift of Shakespeare - into Czech."

And were there poets and playwrights who were influenced directly by Shakespeare, who took their inspiration from him?

"There are many Czech poets who respond to Shakespeare. Vladimir Holan - who is very well known and I think one of the best Czech poets of the 20th century - wrote 'Night with Hamlet', which has been translated into English, I think, and there are many, many poems responding to Shakespeare. But we do not have a playwright who would write historical plays comparable to the Henrys and the Richards - Richard II, Richard III - and also I don't think that the drama we have would follow Shakespeare's example. The comedy is entirely different, the tragedy is different, even the sonnets until recently were written in the Italian form, not in Shakespeare's form. So these are difficult and complex matters."

There is a famous reference in Shakespeare to the "seacoast of Bohemia". Of course Bohemia doesn't have a seacoast. This is a landlocked country. Are there any other interesting Czech references or links in Shakespeare's work?

"Yes. In the same play 'The Winter's Tale' we have not only the seacoast and the famous bear that devours one of the characters of the play on that Czech seashore, but there is also a character called Autolicus, who is a thief, but a very gifted thief, who also sings. And I must say that with this Bohemian character I simply was reminded of many Czechs nowadays when I read Autolicus. Also in Twelfth Night - and not many people know this - there is a very small, but interesting reference to a Hermit of Prague. He is mentioned by Feste at the end of the play. But I'm afraid that's it!"