Tribute to top Czech translator Pavel Medek

Pavel Medek, photo: CTK

We pay tribute to one of the leading Czech translators from English, Pavel Medek, who died on Tuesday at the age of 63. Mr Medek was best known for translating all seven books of the Harry Potter series, together with his brother Vladimír. Jan Velinger spoke to the translator back in 2003 and began by asking him if he recalled the first time he was introduced to the Harry Potter world:

Pavel Medek,  photo: CTK
"My first encounter was actually with the Czech translation of the first book, after my brother finished it. I remember from the very beginning I would say, it drew me in with the magic and the atmosphere. I... I liked it very much."

Were children's books, as a genre, something that you'd translated in the past?

"Harry Potter is really the first children's book I translated. In the past - I don't know if I can call it a specialisation - mostly I did science fiction and fantasy books. This is first real children's book I did."

Would you characterise the Harry Potter books as fantasy or is it a kind of combination of fantasy and something else?

"First of all it's a children's book of course. Children's books, in my opinion, can combine anything. On the other hand it really is a pure fantasy."

When I was discussing it with some friends we came to the conclusion it was the English schoolboy tradition - he goes off to the school, where they have those different 'houses' within the school, where they compete among themselves... There is actually a lot which is quite realistic.

"That's right. Definitely it's in the tradition of Rudyard Kipling and other 'boarding school' books. But, as I said, at the same time it is a very good fantasy book as well."

You yourself translated the third book in the series - 'Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban' - it's one of the favourites when you look at some of the bookseller sites on the internet.

"Well, maybe the reason is that the third book is an adventurous story, it's almost, I would say, a thriller. I have the same experience because I have a lot of friends and acquaintances who say that the third book is really the best."

If I recall correctly, it's been some time, there was also quite a cathartic moment because there's the Hippogriff, known as Buckbeak, who is supposed to be executed but is saved by magic. How did you translate the name of this animal in the Czech edition?

"In the Czech edition his name is Klofan." {laughs}

This is something that I think will interest very many of our listeners and that is the sort of play of language, the game with language. Everybody today knows the names from 'Harry Potter', the settings. Could you just recall a couple of these names to show how the language is playful?

"Most of these basic names came from the first and second book and that means that my brother had the task of finding good equivalents. The Hogwarts houses: there we have Gryffindor, which in Czech is Nebelvir, Slytherin is Zmijozel, Hufflepuff is Mrzimor, and Ravenclaw is Havraspar, for instance."

At the moment you've developed a system with your brother where you do every other book. Now, because he did the first two books, and because he set in motion the original translations, the names, the place names... do you consult with him? Do you go back and work together? Or do you work separately?

"Well, mostly separately but sometimes of course it's necessary to come back to something. In that case we are in touch quite regularly. And, besides, we have a common dictionary. In electronic form of course, we are adding new expressions from the new books and are sending them to each other. So, we already have a very special, special 'Harry Potter' dictionary. I have to say that there is close co-operation."

We all witnessed very recently the release of the fifth book. Did you find yourself anticipating the release with all the secrecy surrounding it, and when did you get your hands on the new copy for the new translation?

"I was looking forward to it and bought myself a copy immediately on Saturday, June 21st, if my memory serves me correctly. I hadn't yet received my translator's copy, so I just bought it here in one of the bookshops. Immediately, on the first day."

Was it a case where you sat up for three nights and finished it straight through?

{laughs} "Almost! I spent the whole weekend with it. I bought it Saturday morning and by evening I was already on page 500. So, Monday, Tuesday, Tuesday I finished it, and Wednesday I started with the translation."

Do you have a favourite moment, a favourite scene, in any of the books?

"Well, favourite scene... definitely I have a favourite character in the books. For me my favourite character is Hagrid the keeper of the keys from Hogwarts, because he's a fantastic person, a fantastically described person, who makes a very straight difference between good ands evil. And all the time he is in all kinds of trouble, he has a very hard life at Hogwarts, but always he comes out victorious and always he comes out good. He is a special friend of mine I would say, Hagrid!"

All along we've been talking about 'Harry Potter' as a children's book, which it is first and foremost but part of the whole phenomenon, the whole mystique, is the fact that it's read and equally loved by many, many adults. Is 'Harry Potter' appreciated as much by Czech adults?

"Well, I think so. Again, I have many friends who say they started reading the book aloud to their children and found themselves continuing, reading, reading, reading, after their children fell asleep. Because they wanted to know how it would end. I've met many, many Czech adults who are in love with Harry Potter."

'Peacock's Eye'
Let me ask you this - the Harry Potter world - it's full of magic, wizards, strange creatures. Is there an equivalent, an analogue in Czech storytelling, in children's writing here?

"I can't really recall any book like this in Czech literature, but then I can't think of an equivalent in any language among any other writers. I think 'Harry Potter' is in a category by itself."

When you were a small boy, did you have a favourite Czech book?

"I think everybody from my generation because my generation was still a generation of book readers and I had many of them. But, from Czech writers, when I was very small, I loved books by Bohumila Sílová about a small African boy called Paví očko - Peacock's Eye. They were fantastic adventure books, full of exotic animals and full of adventures. I loved them very much."

When we take characters like this to our hearts - it can be Harry, Hermione, or as you mentioned, Hagrid - we want things to work out for them in the end. Do you find yourself thinking about that as well, and possible fates for Harry and his friends?

{satisfied chuckle} "Definitely, yes! Once with my brother we spent a whole evening speculating about what will probably happen, what could happen what we hope won't happen! Myself, I think there are some characters that cannot die. That's Harry, Hermione of course, Ron, and, in my opinion, the wizard Dumbledore."

The episode featured today was first broadcast on August 26, 2003.