In the last decade, 13 books of Czech poetry have appeared in English translation. This number hasn’t significantly changed in comparison to the 1990s and 2000s, but is already showing a palpable increase in the 2020s. During the 1990s, several Czech poets saw the publication of selections from their work in English translation, but the turn of the millennium heralded a rise in the publication of Czech poets’ individual poetry collections in English as well as anthologies of Czech poetry (see for reference the updated overview of Czech literature in English translation published 1987-2021, maintained by translator Alex Zucker). There has also been a steady increase of mostly contemporary Czech poets featured in prominent international literary journals. The new decade is a promising start, with 2020 and 2021 alone bringing the book publication of six Czech poets in English translation.
Still, Czech poetry in English translation is a niche endeavor, operating within a niche market, catering to a niche audience. As translators, publishers, and scholars have frequently confirmed, there is little demand for Czech literature in the USA and UK, relative to literatures translated from major languages (most frequently French, German, Spanish, Japanese, and Italian). There is the oft-cited “three-percent problem” to take into account, which posits that only 3–5% of all publications in the English-language book market comprise literature in translation. This is a stark contrast to the situation in the Czech Republic, where foreign language titles translated into Czech make up roughly 40% of all publications.
While the character of the English-language publishing world may disadvantage Czech poetry in translation, the number of outstanding publications appearing since 1990 is a testament to the sheer enthusiasm of publishers, editors, and translators who have strived to situate Czech poetry on the map of global literature and make it accessible to English-speaking audiences.
The 1990s: The Prevailing Popularity of Miroslav Holub
Following the fall of the Iron Curtain, publication efforts in Czechoslovakia focused on catching up with a forty-year backlog of censored or banned works. This created an anachronistic representation of the poetry scene at odds with the poetry written by younger poets. Publications coming out in the early 1990s were often the collected works of Czech poets silenced or exiled during the Communist era, reflecting a different zeitgeist. Works of established popular poets (like the Nobel Prize winner Jaroslav Seifert) were published as well, leaving less room for the new generation of poets to break through.
English-speaking publishers and translators seemed to follow this trend—in the 1990s, those few Czech poets already recognized by international readers before the Velvet Revolution received more attention than emerging voices. Of the Czech poets most frequently translated into English since the Velvet Revolution, Miroslav Holub tops the list with six book publications (two in 1990, two in 1996, one in 1997, and one expanded edition in 2006), followed by Vítězslav Nezval (five individual collections in 2001, 2009, 2016, 2020, 2021), Sylva Fischerová (four book publications in 1990, 2010, 2014, 2019), and Jaroslav Seifert (two collections in 1997 and 1998).
Miroslav Holub is a prime example of how canonical recognition of poets at home and abroad does not necessarily correspond. Being the most translated Czech poet of all time, while remaining virtually unknown to his domestic readership, Holub’s continued popularity abroad can be traced to an interplay of various factors. Penguin’s series on modern European poets, which published a selection of Holub’s poetry in 1967, is what put Holub on the radar of the English-speaking world. Working as an immunologist, he combined scientific imagery and medical jargon with deadpan humor in his usually free-verse poems, which were relatively simple to translate into English.
From the 1960s onward, Holub traveled to English-speaking countries, often for work-related reasons, and perhaps it was his activities abroad and his interaction with the British and American poetry scenes which led to his decision to start writing poetry that reflected his anticipation of it being translated into English. He later also wrote poems in both Czech and English versions. Holub’s affinity to the English-speaking world and to the English language itself, his active participation in the translations, and support from influential admirers (such as Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney) all appear to be important factors lending to the popularity of his poetry in English during the latter part of the 20th century.
The 2000s: Two Anthologies of Czech Poetry
In the 2000s, the English-speaking publishing industry began to orientate more toward publishing Czech writers and poets banned and exiled during the Communist era. A fitting example of this is Ivan Blatný, whose selected poems (from the late 1940s and late 1970s) were published in The Drug of Art (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2007), edited by Veronika Tuckerová. In the addenda texts of the book, translators, publishers, and scholars of Blatný offer insight into the poet’s life story and explain what makes his poetics so unique and potentially appealing to international audiences.
A talented and already recognized poet at home, Blatný went into exile to England in 1948 and spoke out against the Communist coup d’état in Czechoslovakia. He was immediately condemned by the Communist regime, stripped of his citizenship, and never returned to Czechoslovakia. He spent the remaining 35 years of his life in several psychiatric institutions where he continued writing poetry which only saw publication due to a string of fortunate events (one manuscript made its way via Jiří Kolář in Paris to Prague to samizdat publication, another via émigré poet Antonín Brousek to Josef Škvorecký’s Toronto imprint ‘68 Publishers). Having mastered the English language in exile, Blatný wrote in a linguistically nomadic vein, marked by a poetics of collage. Seamlessly switching between Czech, English, and more rarely German allowed the poet to engage in unique multilingual wordplay.
Apart from several poetry collections of older generation poets appearing in English (Ladislav Novák, Vladimír Holan, Ivan Diviš), the 2000s also saw two prominent contemporary poets published—the selected poems of Petr Borkovec in From the Interior: Poems 1995-2005 (Seren Books, 2008), translated by Irish poet and critic Justin Quinn, and Ivan Wernisch’s poetry In the Puppet Gardens: Selected Poems, 1963-2005 (Michigan Slavic Publications, 2007), translated by Jonathan Bolton who teaches Czech literature at Harvard University.
The first two comprehensive post-1989 anthologies of Czech poetry in English didn’t appear until nearly two decades after the Velvet Revolution. The bilingual anthology Six Czech Poets, edited by Alexandra Büchler, was published by Arc Publications in 2007 as part of their New Voices from Europe and Beyond series. The book includes the poetry of Petr Borkovec, Viola Fischerová, Petr Halmay, Pavel Kolmačka, Kateřina Rudčenková, and Zbyněk Hejda in translations by Justin Quinn, James Naughton, Alexandra Büchler, and Bernard O’Donoghue with Šimon Daníček. While Hejda and Fischerová belong to a generation of poets politically repressed or exiled by the Communist regime, the other four poets represent the younger generation that began publishing in the 1990s. In her introduction, Büchler discusses, for example, how Borkovec’s poetry has been influenced by the Russian poets he translates, and she highlights the role translation can play in influencing poetic output. This openness to other poetic traditions outside of the Czech one is a quality that English-speaking readers may appreciate.
The second anthology which came out only a year after Six Czech Poets is titled Up the Devil’s Back: A Bilingual Anthology of 20th-Century Czech Poetry, published by Slavica Publishers, co-translated and edited by Bronislava Volková and Clarice Cloutier, both university lecturers. This ambitious anthology features a selection of Czech poetry ranging from fin-de-siècle Symbolism and Decadence, through Proletariat poets, Poetism and Surrealism, “philosophical lyricism,” Catholic poets, Group 42, representatives of dissent, exiled, and prison poets, Generation 68, up until the end of the century. In contrast to Six Czech Poets, which features a wider selection of each poet’s work (on average 15 poems each), each of the 56 male and 9 female Czech poets in Up the Devil’s Back is represented by two to five poems. The editorial aim was to provide a comprehensive survey of twentieth-century Czech poetry and a resource for comparative readings rather than a detailed focus on individual poets.
The 2010s: Czech and Anglophone Poetry, Side by Side
At the beginning of the 2010s, Litteraria Pragensia Books published two anthologies that map the literary scene of cosmopolitan Prague: The Return of Král Majáles: Prague’s International Literary Renaissance 1990-2010 (2010, ed. Louis Armand) and From a Terrace in Prague: A Prague Poetry Anthology (2011, ed. Stephan Delbos). Both editors are expat writers based in Prague and their anthologies present international and local writing connected by the geography or the poetic subject of Prague.
From a Terrace in Prague, “intended as a poetic guidebook to the city,”1Stephan Delbos, From a Terrace in Prague: A Prague Poetry Anthology (Prague: Litteraria Pragensia, 2011) 8. showcases 120 poems about Prague of which roughly one third are by Czech poets, ranging from the fin de siècle to 2010 and including, among others, the local voices of František Gellner, Josef Hora, Jiří Wolker, František Halas, Vladimír Holan, Kamil Bouška, Kateřina Rudčenková, and Viola Fischerová. Every featured poem is provided with an explanatory editor’s note, contextualizing and clarifying its cultural particularities. With the singular subject giving rise to a diversity of poetry from all over the world and from different eras, the book constitutes, as one reviewer described it, “an anthology of many Pragues.”2Ryan Scott, “Hundred-spired muse: A review of ‘From a Terrace in Prague: A Prague Poetry Anthology,’” Jacket2, 6 Mar 2012, 28 Feb 2021, <https://jacket2.org/reviews/hundred-spired-muse>.
The Return of Král Majáles contains the works of over 90 writers and poets, including Czech poets Petr Borkovec, Sylva Fischerová, Ivan Martin Jirous, Vít Kremlička, Tomáš Míka, Kateřina Piňosová, Martin Reiner, Kateřina Rudčenková, Jáchym Topol, and Jaromír Typlt. It is enhanced by archival materials and photographs, a bibliography of English-language literary journals and book publications, and an insightful, comprehensive introduction about the diverse literary scene in post-1989 Prague—one that was “both newly central and yet fundamentally decentred; both singular and radically plural”3Louis Armand, The Return of Král Majáles: Prague’s International Literary Renaissance 1990-2010 (Prague: Litteraria Pragensia, 2010) 1. due to a rapid influx of newly arriving artists, writers, and translators from Anglophone countries as well as returning Czech émigrés.
Some of the important players who emerged on Prague’s “left bank of the nineties” are active on the literary scene to this day, such as Howard Sidenberg, the founder and editor-in-chief of the publishing house Twisted Spoon Press. Founded in 1992, it specializes in publishing avant-garde, Surrealist, and underground literature from Central and Eastern Europe in English, putting emphasis on producing well-designed books and high-quality translations. In the vanguard of English publications of Czech literature, Twisted Spoon is the most prolific and consistent of the few presses which programmatically publish Czech poets. Notable publications include The Transformations of Mr. Hadlíz (2002) by Ladislav Novák, a pioneer of concrete and sound poetry, translated by Jed Slast, Jiří Kolář’s A User’s Manual (2019), translated by Ryan Scott, and Vítězslav Nezval’s two Surrealist poetry collections, The Absolute Gravedigger (2016) and Woman in the Plural (2021), translated by Stephan Delbos and Tereza Novická.
Another Prague-based publishing house that brings out translations of Czech poetry is Karolinum Press. Its Modern Czech Classics series, led by editor Martin Janeček, is committed to making works recognized as classics by Czech readers available in English to an international readership. In 2017, Bohuslav Reynek’s The Well at Morning. Selected Poems and Graphic Artworks, 1925–1971, translated by Justin Quinn, was published as part of this series. In his essay that accompanies the book, the translator describes his attempt to naturalize Reynek’s poetry, making the poems in English echo the likes of Robert Frost and Edward Thomas. Praising the book in LA Review of Books, Michael Tate pointed out Reynek’s poetry in English “feels more like transubstantiation than translation.”4Michael Tate, “‘A Single Wand of Rusted Quince’: On the Visionary Poetry of Bohuslav Reynek,” LA Review of Books, 15 Jan 2018, 28 Feb, 2021, <https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/a-single-wand-of-rusted-quince-on-the-visionary-poetry-of-bohuslav-reynek/>.
It would be a mistake to overlook the importance of Czech poets published in international literary magazines—an achievement which can pave the way for them gaining recognition abroad. Several of the poets discussed so far, whose selected poems or entire collections are now available in English, first appeared in prominent magazines—Blatný and Borkovec in the autumn 2002 issue of Metre, Reynek in the Sept 19, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.
Selected poems by eight Czech poets in English have been featured by Berlin-based Lyrikline, an online cultural platform publishing poetry in the original, in translation, and as audio recordings done by the poets themselves, “making poetry accessible and understandable for all, above and beyond national borders and language barriers.”5“Lyrikline – Listen to the Poet,” Lyrikline, 2021, 26 Feb 2021, <https://www.lyrikline.org/en/about/>. Other previously unmentioned poets like Ondřej Hanus, Petr Hruška, and Pavel Kolmačka have appeared in the Czech issue of Apofenie literary journal, while Kamil Bouška’s poems have been published in eight English-language magazines, most notably Guernica.
Perhaps the most complete survey of contemporary Czech poetry can be located in the online literary magazine B O D Y, founded in 2012 and publishing works by emerging and established writers and poets from all over the world in English (or in English translation). All of the journal’s editors are active on the Prague literary scene. November 2015 saw the publication of the Czech issue, curated by Jan Zikmund, showcasing the works of 14 Czech poets (in addition to two fiction writers), some of them appearing in English for the first time. In total, B O D Y has published 84 poems by 26 Czech poets to date.
The 2020s: Looking Ahead
Modern Poetry in Translation, the world-renowned literary magazine, was founded by Ted Hughes and Daniel Weissbort in 1965 with the intention of introducing poets from behind the Iron Curtain to the English-speaking world, fighting against the cultural isolationism brought on by the East-West political map and allowing for a cross-cultural dialogue to take place. Incidentally, its first issue included the work of Miroslav Holub. Currently edited by poet and translator Clare Pollard, Modern Poetry in Translation devoted their summer 2020 issue The World for a Moment to Czech poetry, featuring works by contemporary poets Tereza Riedlbauchová, Olga Słowik, Kateřina Rudčenková, Petr Hruška, Olga Stehlíková, Milan Děžinský, Adam Borzič, Sylva Fischerová, as well as deceased poets Jan Skácel and Jan Zábrana. The poems of each featured Czech poet are preceded by a translators’ note, contextualizing the translation as well as the poet’s life and work.
Of the featured contemporary Czech poets, three have English debuts of their poetry either published in 2020 or forthcoming in 2021/2022—Tereza Riedlbauchová’s Paris Notebook (The Visible Spectrum, 2020), translated by Stephan Delbos; Milan Děžinský’s A Secret Life (Blue Diode Press, forthcoming), translated by Nathan Fields; and Kateřina Rudčenková’s Selected Poems (Parthian Books, forthcoming), translated by Alexandra Büchler. Riedlbauchová’s Paris Notebook was recently reviewed in Modern Poetry in Translation, which praised her poems in the collection as “pleasingly, vigorously on the move.”6Charlotte Wetton, “On the Move,” Modern Poetry in Translation, 2021, 27 Feb 2021, <https://www.modernpoetryintranslation.com/on-the-move/>. The Czech Literary Centre shot a mini-documentary introducing these three poets. The short film premiered at this year’s StAnza Poetry Festival.
Other publications in the making include Project Plume’s pilot Issue Zero of 26 Czech women fiction writers and poets. Furthermore, a selection of Jan Zábrana’s poetry, translated by Justin Quinn, is forthcoming in spring 2022 from Karolinum. The same press will soon publish Ivan Jirous’s End of the World: Poetry and Prose, translated by Paul Wilson, Justin Quinn, and Timothy West. Jantar Publishing has just published the expanded edition of Karel Jaromír Erben’s Kytice, translated by Susan Reynolds and illustrated by Míla Fürstová, to mark the tenth anniversary of the publishing house. With two Nezval collections appearing in 2020 and 2021, and 2019 seeing Sylva Fischerová’s fifth poetry publication in English, there has never been a more prolific time for Czech poetry in English translation.