Melvyn Clarke
Melvyn Clarke

2. 11. 2015

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Zuzka Benešová and Melvyn Clarke
Czechlist: discussing translation issues since 1999

The present and the prospects



Historically, Czech literature has always been relatively well represented in bookshops throughout the English-speaking world, with “Bad Bohemian” Hašek’s Švejk, the Čapek brothers’ original robots and the unbearable lightness of Kundera, Havel, Hrabal, Škvorecký, Klíma and Lustig, to name just a few (could you name so many recent famous Italian, French or German authors??), now giving way to contemporary successful authors who have built on these solid literary traditions and have been published abroad, such as Ajvaz, Ouředník, Topol, Hůlová, Hakl, Hostovský, Zmeškal, Balabán, Pilátová, Šindelka, Androniková, Brdečková, Kolský, Boučková, Nosková, Pekárková, Ráž, Toman, Bellová, Denemarková, Dousková, Neff, Hájíček, Kratochvil, Němec, Komárek, Soukupová and Viewegh, and that is not to mention genres such as Czech detective fiction (now being exported to Scandinavia), science fiction and fantasy (popular in Central Europe), women’s writing, drama, classic literature, comics and the wonderful Czech (and Slovak) tradition of illustrated children’s and young adults’ fiction.

But how can Anglophone publishers find out more about Czech authors who are doing so well on other markets?

For a long time translated literature was the Cinderella of the book market in the English-speaking world, with large publishers steering clear of it until quite recently. But over the last few years we have seen a plethora of new independent publishers taking up the cause, and the percentage of translated work has been creeping inexorably upwards as readers slowly realize what they have been missing. AmazonCrossing’s recent initiative indicates that this interest is set to continue…

With the densest network of libraries in the world and a cultured readership that is among the largest per capita anywhere to be found, the Czech Republic traditionally has a vibrant literary scene that might make some larger countries appear a little backward. Interest in visiting the Czech Republic has long been on the rise, as tourist figures clearly indicate. Bohemia is for booklovers. But how can Anglophone publishers cash in on this? Why are they missing out on what other European publishers in general and German-speaking publishers in particular have been capitalizing on for years? For example, Europeana by Patrik Ouředník had been published in nine languages (now 29) before it saw the light of day in English, while Sedmikostelí (The Seven Churches) by Miloš Urban has sold some 60,000 copies in Spain. Where are the bottlenecks and how can we unblock them?

The Spanish edition of 'Sedmikostelí' translated by Kepa-Lluís Uharte-Mendikoa

The Spanish edition of ‘Sedmikostelí’ translated by Kepa-Lluís Uharte-Mendikoa

Czech literature in English translation is becoming increasingly accessible. Over the last few years a growing number of award-winning works have been translated, and with the advent of e-books this trend is surely set to continue. In this article we shall briefly describe the resources currently available for those interested in publishing Czech literature of any kind in English (or any other language for that matter), and we shall be discussing the ways that access to this literature in translation is set to improve in the near future.


Present situation

At present, those interested in translated Czech literature have various resources at their disposal and a broad range of specialists ready to deal immediately with enquiries. For example, there are the literary agencies, the translators themselves, the Institute of Czech Literature, CzechLit (formerly the Czech Literature Portal), the literary journals and the literary awards panels.

There are currently several large agencies dealing with Czech authors’ rights. Pluh run by the recent winner of the Letterenfonds Vertaalprijs Award, Dutch Bohemist Edgar de Bruin, Aura-Pont, Dana Blatná’s literary agency and the theatrical agency Dilia. These are all experienced agents in other markets, with a good command of English and a solid knowledge of publishers’ needs and award-winning works.

The Institute of Czech Literature at the Czech Academy of Sciences has for many years been providing detailed information on both contemporary and classic literature. The Institute provides bibliographical and library services to researchers and students of Czech literature and other associated disciplines, and it is a centre of information and inspiration for Bohemists and publishers abroad. The staff all have a good command of English and will go out of their way to steer you in the right direction.

There are quite a few Czech-English literary translators who might be described as “activists” and who are very willing to provide assistance and advice on Czech literature. To name just a few of them, Alex Zucker, Gerry Turner, Andrew Oakland, Václav Pinkava and Stacey Knecht are all experienced and very active on the scene. Check them out at Czechlist, where they interact daily with agents, authors and other translators.

There are several major Czech literary awards, most of which have a website offering details of the latest, most popular works. Magnesia Litera, the Jiří Orten Award, Josef Škvorecký Award, Czech Book Award, Franz Kafka Award (for non-Czechs too), Karel Čapek Award, State Award for Literature and Translation, Lidové Noviny Book of the Year and the Jaroslav Seifert Prize. Although the importance of these awards in publishers’ decision-making is a matter of some debate, the prizewinning works are often snapped up in the German-speaking world and elsewhere. Their websites are some of the first places to look for the latest Czech bestsellers.

Also of great interest is the European Union Prize for Literature, won by Tomáš Zmeškal with his Milostný dopis klínovým písmem (Love Letter in Cuneiform) and by Jan Němec in 2014 with his Dějiny světla (A History of Light), which many European publishers clearly do take very seriously.

The Jiří Theiner Award for Bohemists promoting Czech literature is also worthy of note.

CzechLit (formerly the Czech Literature Portal) is a one-stop virtual shop for all your literary needs. Financed by the Czech Ministry of Culture and managed by the Arts and Theatre Institute, it focuses in detail on books of all genres from Central Europe, particularly newly published ones in Czech and recently published translations, as well as literary events and criticism. There is also a rich seam of classic Czech literature that has not yet been tapped in the English-speaking world. Those Czech, German and Jewish writers who rubbed shoulders with Hašek and Čapek (portrayed marvellously in Derek Sayer’s Prague: Capital of the Twentieth Century), as well as the earlier Decadents and Symbolists, are often still waiting to be discovered by the English-speaking world, though that too is changing by degrees. This wonderful heritage, along with the long legacy of Czechoslovak science-fiction and children’s literature is also examined at CzechLit, as well as at the Museum of Czech Literature, where experts are on hand to assist. Other Czech literary organizations can be found here.


Future situation

How can this situation be improved? What kind of initiatives should we be looking forward to in the near future?

Alex Zucker sums up the situation among translation activists: “There is a *ton* of activism going on, both here [in the US] and in the UK (a little less in Canada, or at any rate it’s less visible). Most of it that I’m aware of has less to do with increasing the proportion of translated literature as such — although there are people who believe that is a worthwhile goal, and even if my energy is focused elsewhere I certainly think we could stand to have more of it — than on increasing the visibility of the translations that exist and on raising awareness of what goes into a literary translation.”

So awareness is so important, but how can awareness in general be raised in future? Translator Julia Sherwood, who is very active on the Slovak scene, has a good overview of the Central European sphere in general and the opportunities that exist for Czech literature within that framework:

“Maybe putting together a more comprehensive version of Finnegan’s List – approaching more writers, literary critics and academics perhaps?”

Here Julia is referring to an initiative from the European Society of Authors, which publishes an annual list of under-translated or forgotten works comprising recommendations from ten prominent writers. These lists are sent out to publishers and cultural institutions worldwide.

Julia brings up some other ideas: “Another thing worth trying longer term might be some kind of Visegrad cooperation – using the Visegrad Fund perhaps, and maybe building on the idea started by Větrné mlýny […] (of publishing a book by an author from these four countries in all four languages in parallel) – and getting those books into English as well.”

“Also more systematic cooperation with outlets such as Visegrad Insight would do no harm, they already review Czech and Slovak books regularly, and I think Polish and Hungarian as well.”

Here Julia is alluding to several other sites that deal with Central European literature, such as Literalab and perhaps literary translation sites with a more open focus, which often include reviews of Czech works, e.g. Asymptote, which also runs an important international translation competition.

“And last but not least – but this is pie in the sky: I’ve been following with great envy the fantastic boost Bulgarian literature has received since it found a rich and influential champion in the US. The writer Elisabeth Kostova has set up a foundation to promote Bulgarian lit, she started by giving Open Letter, an independent US publisher, a grant that enabled them to publish several translations from the Bulgarian. And a few days ago I met a US editor who spent a week at the seaside in Bulgaria, where the Elisabeth Kostova Foundation organized a seminar involving US publishers and translators, and Bulgarian writers.” Pie in the sky? Surely not. There is room on the coast of Bohemia for a Literary Centre to offer hospitality (amongst many other things) to publishers, translators and Bohemists, as we shall see…

Julia Sherwood. Source:

Julia Sherwood. Source:

As for the agencies, these are to be joined by a relative newcomer to the field, the Prague Literary Agency run by Maria Sileny. Prague-born Maria has spent several decades as an editor in Germany, which is often the first port of call for a Czech novel on its way up in the world, but she also has an excellent command of English, which she put to very effective use at the recent Frankfurt Book Fair. She already has several award-winning authors in her stable, such as Tereza Boučková, Věra Nosková, Iva Pekárková, Roman Ráž and Marek Toman, so we shall be hearing a lot more from her in future. She is also involved in promoting short stories in magazines abroad – another avenue to be explored more.

As for the awards, few of the literary award sites currently have an English version of the panelsreasoning behind their findings. This is clearly due to change in the very near future. And do we have enough awards? Julia does not think so: This kind of award is another that might be introduced.

Is CzechLit doing all it can to reflect the vibrant literary scene here in the Czech Republic? Complaints are sometimes heard that its articles can be too critical. Others argue that it is somewhat difficult to fairly present Czech literary criticism without being a little critical, and non-stop positivity might after all get a little tedious. Perhaps a more balanced presentation of critics’ views does always need to be maintained. Maybe its role is yet to be stabilized. We shall see when its new format comes out of beta mode.

It has also been pointed out that CzechLit does not yet have a section focusing on translated Czech literature in foreign publications. This will also be remedied in due course. Another criticism is that information on grants is not readily visible and should be made more accessible. Easily done. Space should also be given over to the possibility of residential stays for translators and plans for a Czech Literary Centre (of which more anon). More information should also be provided on annual meetings of Bohemists arranged by the Czech Ministry of Culture. Some complain that the bios are not updated quickly enough. All this and more is in the pipeline…

Another method of promoting translated literature nowadays is that of reading clubs. For several years now independent publishers And Other Stories have been promoting foreign literature through online and meatspace groups that come together to discuss promising works. Publisher Stefan Tobler says this helps him to get a good idea of what is worth publishing. When I approached him at the European Literature Night Translation Pitch he welcomed the idea of a Czech and/or Slovak group, and others are clearly interested too. Incidentally, competitions of that kind (co-organized by the Czech Centre in London) can be entertaining as well as educational, so they are surely only to be encouraged.

Other ideas raised by translators to improve public awareness include “Czech week“-style campaigns in bookshops and libraries. There is a growing collection of Czech books not a million miles from St. Pancras station in London which might be put to good promotional use at some time.

The quality of translations is an important factor. Alex Zucker stresses the need for translator mentoring programmes, which clearly have an increasing role to play here: “More mentoring would be good. They’ve got a good mentoring program going in the UK. We’re just starting one up here [in the US] ourselves. I think it’s absolutely essential.” These are sometimes funded by national literary foundations , but individual arrangements will often do the trick, as Alex points out. His story is perhaps typical of many experienced translators: “I agree that competence is an issue, particularly for translators who haven’t been edited early in their development by someone who knows both languages and knows what they’re doing. I benefited *enormously* from the edits Paul Wilson did on my contributions to the anthology he put together in 1996. Also, I studied Czech for two years with Peter Kussi, and we did a lot of translating in class, so I got to see and hear how he approached the task, and ask a lot of questions.”

Translator David Livingstone adds: “I think we should always encourage literary translations, even if the results are never published or read by many. I encourage my students to do so, even if it’s not genius work. Poe’s The Raven has been translated into Czech countless times as have Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Why not? […] I read Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky in the Constance Garnett translations as a teenager and they blew my mind. Since then I have read that they are problematic. Still grateful to her though.” He goes on to say: “I think there are plenty of people, me and my colleagues, for example, who would love the opportunity to translate more Czech literature into English if we could get at least paid decently.”

Adequate pay for translators is clearly a vital issue that needs to be addressed. Alex Zucker, who co-chairs the Translation Committee at PEN America, points out: “The rates for literary translation, though somewhat higher in, say, France or the UK than here in the States, are, as far as I know, universally lower than for commercial or technical translation, and certainly not enough for anyone but a select few to make a living from. This is the other area where there is considerable activism. For those who are curious, the organizations besides the ATA that have been involved in all of these issues, to varying degrees at different times, are the American Literary Translators Association and the Translation Committee at PEN America (which I currently cochair). Here is an interview I did earlier this year that covers some of this stuff. Meanwhile I just recently persuaded the Authors Guild here to establish a Translators’ Section, analogous to the Translators Association within the Society of Authors in the UK. The AG has been engaged on issues of authors’ rights, both moral and economic, for over a hundred years, so my hope is that they will be more effective in advocating on our behalf than the other organizations, whose missions are less clear in this regard. (Again, not to be excessively self-promoting, but I also wrote a blog post on this.) For info on the situation in Europe, see this report from CEATL. And for the latest update from the UK, see this report from Literature Across Frontiers, run by Alexandra Büchler.”

Alex Zucker. Photo: Beowulf Sheehan. Source:

Alex Zucker. Photo: Beowulf Sheehan. Source:

Sales of around 5,000 copies have become a yardstick for the successful translation of a foreign novel. Yet this figure has also come to reflect the sad reality of publishing translations in English. In 2002 Christopher MacLehose, formerly director of the Harvill Press, observed that “for the most part now the majority of even the finest books that are translated find their way to sales between 1,500 and 6,000.” This creates a gap which must be bridged, and translation publishers are forced to find this bridge-money from third parties. Translation publishing is very often subsidized publishing. Where does this money come from? Grants and subsidies, e.g. from the Ministry of Culture and the Czech Literary Fund, an independent organisation partly funded by the Ministry of Culture, for the publication of original fiction and translations. The Fund also provides grants to authors. Here are the books supported by the Ministry in recent years. Every year, the Department of Arts and Libraries issues a call for proposals to support the translation and publication of Czech literature abroad. This year the successful proposals include six English translations. Note the special position of Jantar Publishing, who specialize in Czech and other Central European literature. Also watch out for the PEN/Heim Translation Fund, supported by Amazon.

One agent also referred to the possibility of obtaining support from private enterprise. This is certainly an avenue worth exploring further. One example of corporate backing of this kind is the children’s book The House Beyond the Mist, which came out this year thanks to Koh-i-Noor funding. Perhaps this is a sign of things to come. The same agent also referred to the Visegrad Fund site, where an interesting collection of parallel Czech>English translations is kept.

Another option worth considering is that of publishing a translated work on your own. A print run of 2,000 copies of an average-sized novel can cost in the region of 40,000-50,000 Kč. Is this an investment that will ever pay off? Gale A. Kirking thinks it might well…eventually. He translated and published Jiří Hájíček’s award-winning Selský baroko (Rustic Baroque), and believes that if the translator and author are committed to working together on promoting the book then the dividend can be worthwhile:

“A special relationship with a translator and/or publisher can make the difference between that author’s remaining isolated locally or finding an audience in the wider world.

In our case, I originally took on the translation on a speculative basis. There was no advance and no guarantee that I ever would earn a penny of profit on the Rustic Baroque project. I still have no such guarantee, and I ultimately undertook also to publish the novel through my own small press. If I did not feel that the author stood ready to go the distance with promoting the book to make it a success in English, I surely would not have taken this second step.

Fortunately, Rustic Baroque has gotten a good reception since its release in the closing weeks of 2012. Moreover, Jiří Hájíček was recently named to Finnegan’s List 2013 [see above], whereby the European Society of Authors designates those writers whose recent work makes them most worthy of translation into world languages. It is encouraging to know that the keepers of Finnegan’s List now share my view as to the worthiness of the author who is my partner.”

Jiří Hájíček's Rustic Baroque translated by Gale A. Kirking

Jiří Hájíček’s ‘Rustic Baroque’ translated by Gale A. Kirking

Gale says that Czech literature in English has two natural markets to be targeted. Firstly, there are millions of people in America with Czech ancestry. In Nebraska, Texas and Wisconsin, for example, there are Czech communities that go back at least to the 19th century. These people are often interested in anything to do with the homeland, as can be attested by their very vocal online presence in Czech-related forums. Britain has also witnessed several waves of immigration from Czechoslovakia and the descendents must number in the tens of thousands.

Secondly, this is no faraway country of which we know little. Millions of people in the English-speaking world have some connection with the Czech Republic, whether it is through a spouse, a good friend, a neighbour, a holiday, a job or just fleeting curiosity. These links get stronger by the year as inexpensive transport makes even commuting an option, so as time goes by, Czech realia comes to be part of our common European heritage.

I asked Gale a little more about his translation project. Does he expect the financial investment to ever pay off?

“If we mean by paying off to receive back all of my out-of-pocket costs (and those of my company) plus make a reasonable return as a financial investor would see it on my labors, cash costs, and risks undertaken, well, then certainly not in the near, medium (already past) or long term. In the very long term, well, I hope so. I strongly believe in the literary value of Jiří Hájíček’s work. He is a big talent, in my opinion, albeit one that has not yet been much visible and appreciated outside of the former Czechoslovakia. I am optimistic that he will one day be widely recognized. I should note, though, that expectations of potentially great financial return ranked no higher than 3rd place on my list of reasons for translating Selský baroko.”

In conclusion, plans are now afoot to tie up the various loose ends in a new Czech Literary Centre, co-financed by the Ministry of Culture along with other local and national bodies and private organizations. This Centre will bring together all the activities involved in the promotion and presentation of Czech literature, both at home and abroad. It will provide a focus for a nationwide network of “literature houses”, including the literary cafe and bookshop that is being planned by the recently formed Association of Writers for Prague, and it will provide a home for literary organizations, public seminars, lectures and readings. Not least, there will be several apartments for writers, publishers and translators from abroad. The Centre will also serve to operate CzechLit, arrange grants, produce television and radio programmes and coordinate policy on literature.

Here we have barely skimmed the surface of the opportunities available. Readers are invited to send their ideas, brickbats and bouquets to me ( or to Czechlist.


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Melvyn Clarke is a graduate of the School of Slavonic and Eastern European Studies, where he studied Czech and Slovak language and literature for three years under David Short, Robert Pynsent and Karel Brušák, as well as Central European history. He has translated a broad range of Czech and Slovak texts, including fiction, legal, commercial, marketing, journalistic, advertising and tourist literature. In 1999 he created Czechlist, a very active online translators’ discussion forum.

More from this feature
Zuzka Benešová and Melvyn Clarke
Czechlist: discussing translation issues since 1999