Czech writer Heda Margolius Kovály, best known for her memoir chronicling her time in Auschwitz (Under a Cruel Star), drew from her later harrowing experiences in 1950s Soviet Prague for her only work of fiction, Innocence. This espionage thriller follows the chilling and stifling atmosphere of political oppression during the post-WWII days of Communist Czechoslovakia. Friends and neighbors are suddenly not to be trusted as informants are hidden everywhere, and innocence begins to lose meaning to those in the government. Innocence is available in an English translation for the first time thanks to award-winning literary translator and co-chair of the PEN America Translation Committee, Alex Zucker. We asked Zucker a few questions about his translation process for Innnocence, the Czech language and more.
In past interviews, you have somewhat jokingly compared translators to dockworkers. Why do you think translators are so underappreciated in the literary world?
I think there are three types of reasons for it: psychological, cultural and legal. 1.) Psychological because many translators are the kind of people who don’t like to call attention to themselves. Some don’t even mind when their name doesn’t appear on the covers of the books they translate. Maybe this has to do with the fact that the ability to subsume your own personality—or, more accurately, your personal preferences—to that of the writer you’re translating is a requirement for a translator to be skillful. Humility is far from the only requirement, but it is fundamental. 2.) Cultural because the idea of authorship is so primary to our understanding of literature. Every work of translated literature has (at least) two authors, and the relationship between them can be hard to wrap your head around. It’s easier just to ignore. As Stephen King told the New York Times, “I actually avoid novels in translation when I can, because I always have the feeling that the author is being filtered through another mind.” (And as a translator friend of mine quipped in response, “Lucky all the other books don't get edited, then!”) 3.) Legal because for a long time literary translation contracts were written as work-for-hire agreements, meaning that translators gave away ownership (copyright) of their work to the publisher. As a result, translators’ names were erased from literary history. This still goes on today, though we don’t have the data to know whether it’s happening more or less than it used to.
Did you ever have a chance to meet Heda Margolius Kovály before her death in 2010?
No. I’m sorry to say I did not. I did meet her son, though, and we corresponded throughout my work on the translation.
When did you start studying Czech, and what drew you to the language?
I began studying Czech in 1988, following my first trip to the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic in 1987. After going there, I decided I wanted to work on human rights in Czechoslovakia, so my interest in the language was initially as a tool to that end. But then I went to get a degree in international affairs and studied Czech with Peter Kussi, one of Milan Kundera’s translators. I was already fluent in French, but had never thought to translate, so Peter gets the credit for inspiring me to go down that path.
What do you love most about Czech literature?
As I said, my initial interest was not in literature, but in human rights, although it was a Milan Kundera novel, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (in Michael Henry Heim’s translation), that introduced me to the political reality of Czechoslovakia in particular and Communist Eastern Europe in general. So from a reader’s perspective, what got my attention was the difference (for lack of a better word) from the mostly U.S. and West European writing that I had read up to then: more black humor, more overt politics, more foregrounding of history. From a translator’s perspective, now, nearly 30 years later, I still appreciate those features of Czech literature, but what I enjoy about translating is more the experience of working with language. The decoding and recoding. And I love the end result of having a book I can touch and hold and share with other people—that matters a lot to me.
How long did you spend on this translation project?
Depends how you count, since I’m always working on multiple projects simultaneously. But, roughly, three months translating and another two months or so editing.
Do you read many mysteries in your off time?
No, none at all.
Was there a section or scene in the novel that was particularly difficult to translate?
Dialogue is always tricky. Readers (and critics) are more willing to suspend their disbelief that a character is Czech yet by some work of magic is “speaking” (or thinking) in English when reading a narrator’s voice. As soon as you put quotation marks around a character’s words, it sets off an alarm, raises a flag. “Wait. Is that how a Czech person in 1950s Prague would say that? In . . . Czech? English? Wait. How are they supposed to sound?” Suddenly the spell is broken, and readers can no longer ignore the fact that they’re reading a translation. They bridle. I think it’s a natural reaction, but it’s just that: a reaction, as opposed to a response involving thought about what options the translator has. If you as a translator ignore the fact that characters are speaking in colloquial language and using slang vocabulary, and portray them as using neutral language, you’re taking away part of what defines them. On the other hand, how far can you push it and still be convincing? I suppose it’s analogous to U.S. actors speaking with a German accent when they play Nazi Germans in Hollywood films about World War II. It would seem strange, wouldn’t it, if they sounded too “American”?
Is there a particular translator whose work you admire and are inspired by?
I already mentioned Peter Kussi. Paul Wilson was also instrumental in my formation as a translator. He was the first experienced translator to edit my work, and for decades now has served as an informal mentor to me. His 1989 translation of Bohumil Hrabal’s I Served the King of England was also the first translation I ever read side by side with the original, an invaluable learning experience that I would recommend to every translator. We probably all do it at some point.
Are you interested in writing a novel of your own some day?
I’ve had ideas for novels—like lots of people I know—but never any real drive to sit down and write one.
What projects are you working on next?
Next year my translation of Tomáš Zmeškal’s first novel, Love Letter in Cuneiform, is coming out with Yale University Press. At the end of June I’ll be turning in a novella from the mid-1950s, Midway Upon the Journey of Our Life, by Josef Jedlička, for Charles University Press. Incredibly, there has been only one Czech work from the ’50s published in English before (Josef Škvorecký’s The Cowards, translated by Jeanne Němcová), so that’s an exciting one. Then I have a novel by Magdaléna Platzová, The Anarchist, for Bellevue Literary Press, due at the end of August, and I’m hoping soon to sign a contract to publish Angel Station, the only work of Jáchym Topol’s that has yet to appear in English. Also, by the end of the year, I’ll be finishing Arnošt Lustig’s novel Colette, a job I’ve been hired to do by the author’s daughter, so there’s no publisher for it yet.