Czechlist: discussing translation issues since 1999

by Zuzka Benešová and Melvyn Clarke

2. 11. 2015

Zuzka Benešová: We have been asked to introduce our beloved Czechlist to Czechlit readers – a tricky task, Melvyn. As the founder, how would you briefly describe the thing to strangers, so they get an idea of who and what Czechlist is for?

Melvyn Clarke: Czechlist is basically an online public discussion group for anybody interested in Czech/Slovak<>English translation issues.

Z: That was brief indeed. Could you elaborate? What are some of the typical issues that are discussed on Czechlist?

M: In any typical week we handle technical terminology, turns of phrase and idioms, neologisms and lexemes too novel for the dictionaries, queries on realia, professional issues plus a little professional chit-chat, which always oils the wheels of cogitation and moves us effortlessly from one “serious” topic to the next. Literary translators and those working in humanities disciplines such as history, arts, sociology and the media are perhaps particularly vocal, but we also have some experienced legal and commercial translator colleagues helping out too.

Corpus linguistics and CAT technical issues are occasionally raised, as are more general IT issues. Translation jobs are regularly offered by translators with heavy workloads, agencies and direct clients. Although we originally started up as a Czech-English discussion group, we are happy to help out with other language combinations and will accept posts in any language that we have a sporting chance of understanding (with apologies to Klingons, as it says in the old Czechlist FAQ). Hence we also have members from Germany, Austria, Poland, France and Iceland, for example.

In the past few weeks, we have discussed the most fitting translations for such tricky expressions in Czech, Slovak and English as “výdejní místo”, “vlnitě kučeravé vlasy”, “sídlisko”, “slivoň bluma”, “čučka”, “ garconka”, “prokrafat”, “ alcopops”, “speck boards” and “turn of the century”; exchanged ideas on UK, US and Czech usage in giving directions, indicating how tall people are and making lists in a text. Some of us met on two recent occasions (including a book reading from a translation by Alex Zucker), and several teaching and translation jobs have been offered. That should give you an idea of typical Czechlist discussions on any given day.

Z: How would you describe the members? Are they all translators or is Czechlist open to others interested in languages too?

M: Typically for an online group of this kind it is attended by a large outer circle of “lurkers”, who sporadically delurk to provide specialist knowledge, ask one-off questions or shoot off an opinion or two before retreating to their outer darkness. Then comes the circle of occasional contributors, who moth-like hover on the fringes of the limelight. And then we have our hardcore of regulars, mostly translators, who have made a virtual home amongst us and happily chat about language issues several times a week. Czechlist currently has over 1,500 members, including many professional translators, occasional translators, language buffs, proofreaders, editors, agency owners, fiction writers, teachers and other language professionals. We have several world-famous literary translators who contribute regularly. Teachers and translators often seem to have plenty to tell each other, so translation students will probably gain a lot from following our discussions too.

Z: Tell us a bit about the history. What made you start Czechist in the first place?

M: I set up Czechlist back in 1999 on what is now Yahoogroups at a time when the technology for discussion lists had already been available for a couple of years. One such list for translators worldwide (Lantra-L) was going from strength to strength, but was getting too large and unwieldy for its own good, so translators with particular language combinations and interests were splitting off and going their own ways…. BTW I have subsequently found that this centrifugal force is all part of the natural life cycle of an online discussion group. If dozens of people are all trying to speak at once then somebody is going to feel left out, so when enough people with a common interest or approach feel that way they will often move on…and best of luck to them. So anyway, I couldn’t understand why nobody else at the time seemed interested in setting up a similar group to discuss Czech and Slovak translation issues, so for a time I became this kind of shadowy figure sleazing around translation agency Christmas parties agitating for the cause. Except we never really had a cause as such. When a Radio Prague interviewer asked me if Czechlist was a “movement” I said well, no more than any other public square. People come and go, disappearing for weeks, months, decades on end sometimes, or chatting a little every day, and if they then want to make private arrangements concerning translation work then that is just fine.

So Czechlist prospered throughout the 2000s, often seeing some 600-800 messages a month from its 400-odd members worldwide. Increasingly, however, Yahoogroups felt clunky and inelegant in comparison with the emerging sleek new social networks, which could handle diacritics much better than their predecessors. To this day, some people have an aversion to Facebook, perhaps due to the knee-jerk reactions that can so easily dominate its rapid-fire exchanges. But with a little effort, a more even-tempered and considered atmosphere can be fostered there IMHO.

Yahoogroups Czechlist is still in operation for the old stalwarts, but in 2013 the great majority of Czechlisters made the move to Facebook, where we now have over 1,500 members, including a generation too young to remember discussion lists like Yahoogroups…which is still bubbling away there all the same for the veterans.

Z: What are the advantages and disadvantages of Facebook for a discussion group like this?

M: Almost everybody seems to have qualms and quibbles about Facebook, but then almost everybody seems to be instantly accessible on it these days. With a little practice you can soon get beyond the stage of smartass one-liners (though these have their place too, especially on Fridays), and exploit its full potential for rapid but considered responses to requests for help.

In comparison with e-mail-based discussion lists, Facebook allows for practically instant messaging with elaborate illustrated back-up. A public group like Czechlist is instantly accessible by other groups and individuals on Facebook. Likewise if we receive e.g. a query on medieval terminology, we can instantly repost it on FB groups for genealogists and historians. The response often comes within a matter of minutes.

Apart from public groups that are visible to anybody, FB also allows private groups to be set up. Czechlisters occasionally need this facility for confidential and more personal matters, so we have set up CzechlistX, a group for anything that is too hush-hush for Czechlist. Who decides? Each individual Czechlister. This group is ably co-administered by veteran editor and proofreader Christi Brooks.

Z: Does Czechlist need heavy policing?

M: To a large extent Czechlist is self-policing. If newbies neglect the basic netiquette that is second nature to most seasoned internet users then rank and file members can be relied upon to politely set them straight. Generally speaking, we co-admins base ourselves on Facebook community guidelines insofar as these reflect commonly accepted human rights. In practice this means e.g. crass racist comments and non-consensual ad hominem attacks get short shrift from us. Of course these issues are rarely black and white, so we do consult where possible, but we normally remove possible offenders first and only then engage in discussion with them, in order to avoid brinksmanship and “trial by social network”. Some private groups on Facebook can be pretty savage places that make Lord of the Flies look like charm school. We take a very dim view of any overspill from them.

Z: What resources can you offer translators?

M: The Facebook search facility is not as efficient as it might be, but we have an archive of all the useful threads to date going back over fifteen years. This can now be found at Yahoogroups and on our own website, which also includes the Czechlist blog and a listing of useful dictionary and corpus resources.

I have been running monthly translation workshops in Prague, which have turned out to be a constant source of interesting translation queries. We plan to carry on this format for Czech/Slovak <> English translators and students worldwide in monthly Skype sessions. Send me a message for details.

Since many translators work in isolation, not in an office, and do not have a chance to meet colleagues in person on a daily basis, Czechlist and other online groups and forums offer something of a substitute. You get a chance not only to discuss professional issues, but sometimes you may also simply need someone to bounce your ideas off, let off steam or simply interact. Imperfect as any virtual environment may be, I think Czechlist has succeeded in creating some sense of community, and many relationships, both professional and personal, have formed amongst us over the years.

Czechlisters also organize ad hoc social events for translators and other language professionals in Prague and Brno. There is no particular procedure involved. Any Czechlister can organize any event anywhere. If we co-admins happen to be around and a free beer is in the offing then you may well see us there.

Z: And what may the future hold?

M: Although Czechlist has always been a broad church IMHO, embracing everyone from seasoned translators to complete neophytes, I think we are increasingly seeing the influence of such “rarefied” spheres as translation studies, literary studies, stylistics, discourse analysis and the like, not as ivory tower pursuits for an academic elite alone, but as practical nuts-and-bolts issues that can be understood and commented upon by any informed layperson. This trend is set to continue…



Czechlist co-admins:

Melvyn Clarke
Zuzka Benešová
Zlata Heller


Christi Brooks

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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.

Zuzka Benešová studied English and Czech at Charles University’s Faculty of Education, then started translating contracts and other legal lingo into Czech. She is currently working towards a diploma in English and EU law. When she’s not reading English case law, baking or crocheting, she helps Melvyn keep an eye on Czechlist.