The latest German translations of Czech prose
Borders divide territories, but if seen in a different light they can also unite. Geographical proximity necessarily entails shared historical experiences, economic contacts and vibrant cultural ties.
The importance of translations within Czech literature - the literature of a minor language and small nation - is enormous. Translated titles account for one third of all books published in the Czech literary industry. More than half of the translations are from English (each year some three thousand titles are translated from English), while for a number of years German has maintained a stable position in second place (in total more than one thousand books are translated from German annually, including works of non-fiction, which understandably tend to dominate). 1
Much of the credit for this is due to the active and systematic cultural policies of Germany and Austria which support the publication of German literature both financially and institutionally
A comprehensive overview of titles published in Czech translation since 1989, complete with profiles of the authors, was recently made available on the website of the Goethe Institute in Prague. At first sight the database points to an extremely lively cultural exchange. Czech, along with Polish, Russian and Chinese make up the target languages into which German fiction is translated the most.
How does it appear, however, if we change the viewpoint and look at the Czech books translated into German? These include books published in Austria and Switzerland as well as in Germany, for just as different languages can form barriers, common languages can destroy borders.
In Germany the prevailing situation is fundamentally different from that in the Czech Republic. Translated titles do not exceed 10% of annual book production (compared to less than 3% in Great Britain and around 1% in the USA). Most of the translations are from English (over 60%), with French, Italian and Spanish also being popular. The German Association of Booksellers does not even record how many titles are translated from Czech. 2
At the same time, a translation into German often opens the doors to the West for Czech authors. This was the case for Markéta Pilátová, whose book Žluté oči vedou domů [Yellow Eyes Which Lead Home] was translated into German by Michael Stvarič (under the title Wir müssen uns irgendwie ähnlich sein – “We have to be somehow similar” – because the colour yellow had too strong an association with the Star of David). During one of her readings at the Goethe Institute in Prague, Pilátová herself said that the favourable reviews of the German translation led to interest in translations of the book into Dutch, Spanish and French.
Whilst there are clear signals from Germany that there is an interest in Czech literature, it does not receive the corresponding support from the Czech partner institutions.
If we can turn once more to numbers: of the 76 books which were supported by the Czech Republic Ministry of Culture in 2009, only one of them was published in Germany and three in Austria. One book which failed to receive support was Magdalena Platzová’s novel Aaronův skok [Aaron’s Leap] (2006), which tells the story of the Jewish-Austrian artist Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, who was gassed in Auschwitz. Without any state support, the book was translated by Kathrin Janka as Aarons Sprung and published by Büchergilde, which promoted it with the participation of the author at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2009. And one more example: of 63 books which received the support of the Ministry of Culture in 2010, two were published in Germany and four in Austria. That does not make for much more optimistic reading than the previous year. Pilátová’s Žluté oči vedou domů was also published without state support by the Austrian publishers Residenz. 3
In response to this unsatisfactory state of affairs, in May of this year at the Svět knihy book fair a project was organised by Eva Profousová and Šárka Krtková entitled So nah, so fremd – Tak blízcí, tak cizí [So Near, So Foreign]. The initiators and partners of the project were the Munich Literary House, the Prague Literary House of German-writing Authors,the Robert Bosch Foundation and the Czech-German Fund for the Future. Merely listing those involved demonstrates that the will for co-operation exists on both sides – perhaps this points to better times ahead?
The aim of the project was for Czech authors, literary agents and publishers to meet with German, Austrian and Swiss specialist academics and translators of Czech. Ten Czech authors were introduced: Michal Ajvaz, Antonín Bajaja, Jan Balabán, Bára Gregorová, Jiří Hájíček, Jakuba Katalpa, Jan Novák, Marek Šindelka, Jana Šrámková and Vlastimil Třešňák. These names represented fresh, award-winning talent alongside more established authors. The common denominator for all of them was that they had already made an impact abroad and so could be considered as being ripe for the German market.
Translators were also brought into the project – Kathrin Janka, who lives in Berlin and has translated into German the prose work of Magdaléna Platzová, as well as the scientific-literary work of Milan Jankovič (Dílo jako dění smyslu, in German Das Werk als Sinngeschehen [The Work as the Events of Reason], awaiting publication); Bettina Kaibach, who also translates modern Czech poetry into German (e.g. in the anthology Höhlentief im Wörterbuch which was compiled by Urs Heftrich and Michael Špirit, 2006); and Kristina Kallert, who is a lecturer in Czech at the University of Regensburg and has translated both contemporary Czech writers and the works of writers from the 19th century. The trio of female translators was complemented by the Dresden resident Mirko Kraetsch, who not only translates from Czech (Dousková, Komárek, Hakl), but also from Slovak (Hvorecký). All of them systematically follow contemporary Czech literature and they translated short extracts from the recommended prose works. A list of extracts with links to them can be found at the end of this text. Even though a whole team has usually participated in the publication of the books, the largest piece of work falls to the translators, who are of course often overlooked. Among the leading translators of Czech books into German, besides those already mentioned, undoubtedly belongs the experienced Czech scholar Eva Profousová, who comes from Prague and is currently working at the University of Hamburg. She has translated from Czech the books of Jáchym Topol (from the newest titles, for example, Cesta do Bugulmy, in German Die Reise nach Bugulma, 2006; Chladnou zemí, in German Die Teufelswerkstatt / “The Devil’s Workshop”/, 2010), Radka Denemarková (Peníze od Hitlera, in German – again, because of the undesirable association, as in the case of Pilátová’s Žluté oči – under the different title of Ein herrlicher Flecken der Erde / “A Beautiful Patch of the Earth”/, 2009), Jaroslav Rudiš (Nebe pod Berlínem, in German Der Himmel unter Berlin, 2004) and Michal Viewegh (e.g. Případ nevěrné Kláry, in German Der Fall untreue Klara, 2007; Andělé všedního dne, in German Engel des letzten Tages, 2010), but also Miloš Urban, Václav Havel and Tereza Boučková.
The Austrian-Czech writer Michael Stavarič is also actively engaged in translations of contemporary Czech prose. He was born in Brno and emigrated to Austria with his parents as a seven-year-old. In Vienna he graduated in Czech studies and journalism and he brought out several novels and shorter experimental prose works in German. He has translated into German, for example, the prose of Patrik Ouředník (for example: Europeana. Stručné dějiny dvacátého věku, in German also Europeana, 2003; Příhodná chvíle, 1855, in German Die Gunst der Stunde. 1855, pub. 2007) and Petra Hůlová (Cirkus Les Mémoires, in German Manches wird geschehen, 2009; Stanice Tajga, in German Endstation Taiga, 2010) and the aforementioned novel by Markéta Pilátová (Žluté oči vedou domů, in German Wir müssen uns irgendwie ähnlich sein, 2010).
From the older generation of translators we should not neglect to mention the Austrian Czech-scholar Christa Rothmeier, winner of the Austrian State Prize for Literary Translation and the Gratias Agit Award, which is awarded by the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs for services to the promotion of the good name of the Czech Republic abroad. Christa Rothmeier has worked at the University of Vienna since the mid-seventies and, apart from a number of scientific titles, she can be credited with translating the works of Jakub Demel, Jan Skácel, Petr Borkovec, Ivan Binar, Bohumila Grögerová and Jan Neruda. She also translated Paměť mojí babičce by Petra Hůlová (in German the novel came out under the periphrastic title Kurzer Abriss meines Lebens in der mongolischen Steppe / “A Brief Outline of My Life in the Mongolian Steppes”/, 2007) and recently, together with Julia Hansen-Löve, Kratochvil’s Slib (in German Das Versprechen des Architekten, 2010).
The last-named novel was brought out by the traditional Viennese publishing house Braumüller, which since last autumn has begun to take a systematic interest in so-called “Osteuropa-Literatur” or “Eastern European” literature. “Eastern Europe” is a rather loaded term which also reflects different perceptions of borders, as discussed in the introduction to this text. According to one interpretation of this concept it encompasses the part of Europe which is populated by Slavs. For us, however, what is more interesting is that the output of the Braumüller publishing house from this year and last year has already featured five titles from contemporary Czech literature: Edgar Dutka’s novel Slečno, ras přichází (in Julie Hansen-Löve’s translation Fräulein, der Hundefänger kommt, 2009), two titles by Kratochvil – Brněnské povídky (translated by Johanna Posset as Brünner Erzählungen, 2009) and the aforementioned Slib (translated by Christa Rothmeier and Julie Hansen-Löve as Das Versprechen des Architekten, 2010), Hakl’s prose work O rodičích a dětech (in German Treffpunkt Pinguinhaus. Spaziergänge mit dem Vater, 2010) and Stanislav Komárek’s novel Černý domeček (Das schwarze Häuschen, 2010) – the last two books both translated by Mirko Kraetsch.
There is a generally observable tendency for the large publishing firms to “hold onto” their authors, and if they are successful it doesn’t stop at one book. An excellent example is Jáchym Topol, whose prose works have been published for years by the renowned publisher Suhrkamp. Topol’s books also score points with literary critics. For example, in June of this year his latest translated prose work Die Teufelswerkstatt found itself among dozens of the most interesting world titles which are recommended to readers every month by independent literary critics from the whole of the German speaking area.4
The author is an editor for the portal iLiteratura.cz
Translations of extracts from the works of Czech authors which came about through the project So nah, so fremd – Tak blízcí, tak cizí
Michal Ajvaz: Druhé město (Mladá fronta 1993, Petrov 2005) / Die andere Stadt, t. Kristina Kallert
Antonín Bajaja: Na krásné modré Dřevnici (Host 2009) / An der schönen blauen Dřevnice, t. Bettina Kaibach
Jan Balabán: Kudy šel anděl (Vetus Via 2003, Host, přeprac. 2005) / Wo der Engel ging, t. Mirko Kraetsch
Bára Gregorová: Kámen – hora – papír (Labyrint 2008) / Berge, Stein, Papier, t. Kathrin Janka
Jiří Hájíček: Selský baroko (Host, 2005, 2009) / Bauernbarock, t. Mirko Kraetsch
Jakuba Katalpa: Je hlína k snědku (Paseka 2006) / Kann man Erde essen?, t. Kathrin Janka
Jan Novák: Zatím dobrý (Petrov 2004) / So weit so gut, t. Bettina Kaibach
Marek Šindelka: Chyba (Pistorius & Olšanská 2008) / Der Fehler, t. Kristina Kallert
Jana Šrámková: Hruškadóttir (Labyrint 2009) / Hruškadóttir, t. Mirko Kraetsch
Vlastimil Třešňák: Klíč je pod rohožkou (Torst 1995) / Der Schlüssel liegt unter der Matte, t. Kristina Kallert