Susan Reynolds and the music of Karel Jaromír Erben’s poetry

Susan Reynolds, photo: David Vaughan

Until last year Karel Jaromír Erben’s celebrated collection of ballads, Kytice – The Bouquet – had never been published in a full English translation. Now we are lucky enough to have no less than two fresh translations of this classic of 19th century Czech poetry. Last summer we spoke to the translator of one of the new editions, Marcela Sulak, and this time it is the turn of Susan Reynolds, whose translation appeared in a bilingual edition just before Christmas. She talks to David Vaughan.

Susan Reynolds,  photo: David Vaughan
We have been lucky with both the new translations of Erben’s Kytice, as in both cases the translator is herself not just an accomplished linguist, but also a poet in her own right. The fact of having two such excellent and imaginative new versions brings the most famous collection of poems in the Czech language a far closer to the English-speaking reader. Erben is to Czechs what the Brothers Grimm are to German literature, and every Czech child can recite extracts from these ballads of water sprites, witches and maidens at the spinning wheel. I spoke to Susan Reynolds at the British Library in London, where she curates the Czech and Slovak Collections, and I asked her about this renewed interest in Erben.

“There has always been an interest in him, but until now he has not been accessible. It’s often said that a classic is something that everyone wants to have read but no one wants to read, but in this case it’s a classic that not everyone has been able to read, because until recently there were no complete translations.”

That is surprising, given how important Kytice is to the Czech literary canon.

“Yes, that’s what I thought. When I came to it from a musical background, I was amazed that there were no complete translations…”

… from a musical background. Tell us more.

“Yes. People think that they know nothing about Czech poetry at all, but may be familiar with four of these ballads or perhaps five: the four which Dvořák based his symphonic ballads, The Golden Spinning Wheel, The Noonday Witch, The Water Goblin and the Wild Dove, and the cantata, which was given its premiere in Birmingham under the title The Spectre’s Bride, which is based on The Wedding Shirts. So, people may be familiar with the stories, but not actually with the poems themselves.”

And you say that The Wedding Shirts or Spectre’s Bride had its premiere in Birmingham. How did that come about?

“Well, Dvořák had a long and very affectionate relationship with England and he was invited to write a work for the Birmingham Choral Festival, and this was the result.”

The tradition on which Erben is building is a tradition of both poetry and song.

Photo: Jantar publishing
“Yes, it is, because he started to write poetry as a young man – nothing very distinguished – but then he was taken up by František Palacký and given a commission to travel around provincial towns, scouring archives for historical documents. In his spare time he wandered through the villages and collected folk songs, folk poetry and, of course, the music to which these songs were sung. He always believed, not only as Herder thinks, that the soul of the people is enshrined in the music, but also that the music comes first and the words come later. So the songs were the important thing for him. The words were not incidental, but certainly came second.”

So, in a sense, by sitting down and reading Kytice, we’re going the wrong way about it!

“That’s why I’ve been very careful in doing these translations to try as far as possible to preserve the music of the words. They all have different rhyme schemes and different rhythms, and for translation into English this is a particular challenge, because the stress falls always quite firmly on the first syllable in Czech. We don’t have the same effect in English. But if you look at the Dvořák scores, you’ll see that quite often he will set a phrase and then take the words away, when he comes to present the final version. So I felt it was very important to try to preserve the melody of the poetry and not to sacrifice that, as far as I could.”

Did you find yourself humming along as you were translating?

“Yes. When I was doing the translation originally, I’d sometimes find it a help to get up and walk around, see how it sounded, if it’s spoken out loud. And I enormously enjoyed at the launch here in London doing a reading of some of the poems, because I think these are very much poems which benefit from being read aloud. Of course, they can exist on the page, but because they’re derived from folk poetry, which is oral, then they’re much better, I think, read aloud.”

Which is a good cue for you to read an extract from one of the thirteen ballads in the Kytice collection. What have you chosen?

“To begin with, because the Dvořák ballads are a starting point for so many readers, I thought I would begin with part of The Golden Spinning Wheel – Zlatý kolovrat – because anyone who knows the opening of the Dvořák, where you hear the fanfares and the galloping horse, will recognize that, which I’ve tried to capture in my translation.”

Around the woods, broad acres lie;
A lord comes riding, riding by.
He rides a fiery jet-black steed,
Whose shoes ring merrily indeed,
And all alone he rides. Dismounting at a cottage—hop!
He knocks upon the door—clop, clop!
‘Hello there! Open up, I say!
Out hunting, I have lost my way.
Give me water, do!’ Out comes a girl, a flower so fair
She has no equal anywhere.
She fetches water from the spring;
Sits at her distaff, modest thing,
Spinning, spinning flax. There stands the lord, thoughts all awry,
Forgetting that his mouth is dry.
So fine and straight the thread she plies,
He cannot turn away his eyes
From the fair spinning-maid. ‘Now if your heart and hand are free,
my wedded wife you’ll surely be!’
He draws the maiden to his side—
‘Ah, sir, I really can’t decide
without my mother’s will.’ ‘Where is your mother, maiden fair?
I cannot see her anywhere.’—
‘My stepmother comes home, good sir,
tomorrow, and her girl with her,
for they have gone to town.’

Karel Jaromír Erben
“So, that’s the first section, which sets the scene and those of us who know the poem will realize that there are going to be dirty deeds afoot before too long.”

This is very much the stuff of fairytale across Europe, but it is also very specifically Czech, isn’t it?

“Yes, that is one of the great charms of these poems, that they are all located very precisely in a Czech setting. Many of the stories do have parallels in different cultures. For example, later on, this heroine does come to a very sticky, although temporary, end. She ends up having her hands and feet chopped off and her eyes torn out by her wicked stepmother and wicked stepsister. But don’t worry! All turns out well. In Finland, we find in the legend of Lemminkäinen. He meets a similar fate and various bits and pieces are thrown into the river that goes round the underworld. His mother realizes, by seeing blood flowing from his comb, that something terrible has happened. She goes down to the river and reassembles the pieces. He is brought back to life, just as Dornička is here. But this is a very specific Czech setting and I’ve been for a walk in the countryside around Erben’s birthplace in Miletín and you can picture a horseman, just like this one here, galloping through the woods and fields.”

Whereabouts is Miletín?

“It’s in North-East Bohemia. It’s still quite a small community, but very proud of its Erben associations.”

You mentioned that Erben put these stories in a very specifically Czech context. Are there any other things that make them stand out as being particularly Bohemian or Central European?

“Well, even in the most supernatural poems, we always find they’re in a very homely setting, full of artefacts that are immediately recognizable. For example, in The Noonday Witch, another of the poems which is famous from Dvořák, the mother is in the kitchen trying to cook lunch – the husband is coming home – and the child is disrupting this and the fire goes out. She tries to get him to play with his toys. He has a little wooden hussar and a cockerel and a cart, simple peasant toys of the kind that would have been immediately recognizable from the local setting. This locates it precisely in this context, as do the activities which people undertake. For example spinning is very important.

“In Christmas Eve the action starts just before Christmas, during Advent, and the girls are sitting together spinning thread. There’s one of the old village wives dozing by the fire and the girls are all trying to outdo one another in spinning industriously, because they know this is the way to win a bridegroom. Two of them go out on Christmas Eve, to practise an old folk ritual of hacking a hole in the ices with an axe to see their fate reflected in the waters, to see if they can see the face of their beloved. And sure enough, the first one, Hana, does. There’s Václav and she’s overjoyed. There he is in his green coat and his jaunty hat with a flower tied, just as any peasant boy would be. But then her friend Marie leans down to look into the water and she sees something very different. I won’t spoil the poem for those who are going to read this, but certainly these little details of folk customs and peasant costumes are very Bohemian indeed.”

Miletín,  photo: Kristýna Maková
You’ve already mentioned the difficulties in translating Erben, because of the different rhythms and rhymes in English. What about getting across this sense of rural Bohemia, which is very different from the experience of people in the English-speaking world?

“On the other hand, though, the theme of many of these poems is universal, and if the immediate setting may not be familiar, then that adds to the appeal of the poems. We see these universal situations and legends in different settings. So the author was thinking very closely of where he’d found the legends. But I think a reader who is familiar, for example, with the old Scots ballad of Edward and then reads the Daughter’s Curse, that will immediately ring a lot of bells. Here the dialogue is between mother and daughter rather than mother and son, but the structure and the rhythm are very much the same, and the shocking outcome as well, that the daughter has murdered her infant – the son has murdered his father in the Scottish ballad – brings the two together. The horror of the situation is universal, just as the form and the diction are.”

I think it’s high time we had another extract from one of the ballads…

“Yes, having heard one which may be familiar to readers who know Dvořák, I thought we should now look at one of the poems which would not be in the same way. This is Záhoř’s Bed, one of the longest in the collection and the last one I translated. It picks up a motif, which again is familiar from many other cultures, that of a child, whose life has been signed over to the devil by his or her father. In this one we find ourselves in the middle of the Bohemian forest in autumn and we see a mysterious figure, making his way towards us through the woods.”

Over the forests, mists are flowing grey,
Like ghostly forms in procession drifting by;
To another country the crane flies away—
Bleak and unwelcoming fields and orchards lie.
Out of the west the wind is blowing chill,
And yellowed leaves are singing a song soft and still.
Well-known is that song; for every autumn season
Leaves upon the oak-tree whisper it anew:
Yet those who understand its words are but few,
And he who understands, to smile has no reason. Unknown pilgrim in your sombre habit, say,
With that long staff in your hand, and that rosary,
And the cross upon your staff—who might you be,
Where are you going to so late in the day?
Where are you hurrying? Your feet are bare,
Autumn is chilly, and cold dew lies there:
Stay here with us, for good people are we,
Everyone’s happy a good guest to see. Ah, you dear pilgrim— as yet you’re only young,
And no beard as yet to hide your chin has sprung,
Your cheek’s just like that of a pretty maiden—
But how pale and sadly faded and shrunken,
Deep in their sockets, too, your eyes are sunken!
Is your heart perhaps with secret sorrow laden?
Does unhappiness on your body prey?
Pressing it earthwards with the years so grey? Handsome young man, don’t go into the night;
We’d gladly help you, if only we might,
Maybe at least some aid we could provide.
Come, don’t pass by; rest that body of yours:
There is no grief that no remedy cures,
Potent balsam rests in the trust to confide.— Not once he lifts his eyes—unhearing, unaware;
Out of his dreaming there’s no way to draw him!
On now he makes his way through the brushwood there:
God give him strength for the pilgrimage before him!

And this is one of the less known of the thirteen ballads in the collection, isn’t it?

“Yes, it is, and I think it does deserve to be better known. We find that, particularly in this one, there is a strong Christian message, but you can also detect much older, pagan overtones running throughout it, and the nature description of autumn in the Bohemian forest is, I think, very haunting, very evocative.”

Erben is very important to Czechs. I think there is no Czech poet subsequently who has written without having Erben somewhere in the back of his or her mind. How important do you think Karel Jaromír Erben is to the Czech poetic canon?

“Well, I think he has been absorbed, consciously or unconsciously, so deep into the mentality of so many poets that the influence is inescapable. Not only has he inspired poets, he has inspired sculptors, painters, parodies and recently a film.”

And finally, could you say something about the edition, published by Jantar Publishing?

“Mike Tate at Jantar has done a brilliant job with this. It’s a bilingual edition, which I think is going to be very valuable not only for students of Czech, but those who want to see how the music of the original words is reflected in subsequent settings and compositions inspired by them. And there is an introduction, which will help to place it in its context.”