“How could I fail to remember two or three anecdotes…”

An interview with Sergio Corduas, translator of Czech authors into Italian and author of the book Un’altra Praga = Jiná Praha (Another Prague).


Sergio Corduas

Sergio Corduas

You’ve translated into Italian works by Jakub Deml, Jiří Kolář, Jaroslav Hašek and especially Bohumil Hrabal. Do you think you could give us a brief outline of your personal discovery of these authors? Apart from Hrabal, which of them is the best known and most widely read in Italy these days? Which of your translations has attracted the most attention in Italy?
You say: Deml, Kolář, Hašek and Hrabal. In that case, it wouldn’t be about my personal discovery of Czech authors, which began in a quite different and questionable way, e.g. with Hašek, Mukařovský and Holan. It doesn’t matter, as far as possible I’ll give you specific facts. With Deml, who I hadn’t paid much attention to up until then, it was down to Bohumil Hrabal. We already knew each other well and it must have been during the year 1981–82. I came to the pub as I did every Tuesday and Hrabal laid before me the book Bohumil Hrabal presents …: A selection of Czech prose. He held me by the neck and forced me to bow my head. The book was open at the montage of Forgotten Light and Hrabal bellowed at me like a workman who is angry at a stupid apprentice: “Read this, damn it, just read it!” As was almost always the case, I didn’t even blink and read it. Not long afterwards I translated the text in Italy, but because of the perpetual incompetence of Italian publishers it remained in the drawer along with Weiner’s General Meeting… Both texts were ready some time in 1984 and both were finally brought out in 2007 by the newly created pro-Czech publishing house Poldi libri with a foreword by Salvatore Marchese (my former pupil) and my afterword.

With Kolář it was down to Angelo Maria Ripellino, because in 1966 he invited me as a third-year (!) student for dinner at the Alcron, without telling me that Kolář was going to be there too. And then it was also down to me, because on the one hand I modestly kept quiet, but on the other hand I also discovered the absolutely pure truth of Kolář’s eyes. I recognised the text Epikteta as soon as it came out, and that was because of those eyes, and it confirmed for me the necessity of passing on that truth, after all that was the fateful year of 1968… And so some time at the end of the ’70s I translated it for a planned mega-anthology or rather mega-montage, not of Czech literature but of literary and non-literary texts and all manner of treasures from Czech culture. I even put my own texts and also pure flights of fancy into that montage, and the whole thing bore the title Bohemarius. It was supposed to come out as an extra-special extended edition of the elite magazine In forma di parole, which was enthusiastically run by Gianni Scalia, but through our collective fault it didn’t come out in the end. It remained ninety per cent ready. Hašek, Deml and Hrabal were or rather are there, since you mention them, and you could also find there a recipe by Mrs Rettigová, Adolf Hitler, Spartakiáda in the mud, Labyrinth of the World; it’s all there… The idea and also the fact of that montage, all that came about before I knew Hrabal well, and maybe precisely this “montage approach” to things plus the spontaneity of writing, if it can be put like that, were already intrinsic to me and in part that explains why I have such a “feeling” or sympathy for Hrabal, in the positive sense of the word of course.

With Hašek it was down to me and the answer could also be conceived as the answer to the question of “how I came to study Czech studies”. That is to say, after graduating from high school I enrolled for Russian language and literature out of devotion and love for Dostoevsky and Gogol. I had no idea that my professor would be Ripellino and certainly none that I would have a compulsory second Slavonic subject area. Of course all of us loved Ripellino, and he was also responsible for teaching Czech literature, so that’s why I chose Czech as my minor subject and not, for example, Polish or Serbo-Croat… And because it was very difficult to get a scholarship to the Soviet Union, I went to Prague for the Summer School of Slavonic Studies, where I was apparently supposed to have an intensive course in Russian. Instead of Russian I had Czech, and in between times I read Švejk in Italian and got to know Prague as it was then. I suppose we’re talking about the year 1964. After my return to Rome I announced to Ripellino that I had fallen in love with the language and with Prague, that I wanted to take Czech as my major subject and Russian as my minor and that I was going to write my dissertation on  Hašek, etc, only the response was: “Dear Sergio, that won’t do, among the Slavonic languages only Russian can be the major subject and your dissertation also has to be on a Russian theme”. For a while we were in despair together  and then we came to the agreement that although I would somehow graduate with Russian as my major subject, in the meantime I would receive a scholarship to Prague each year. Thanks to special permission from the Dean, which my professor finally managed to “wrest” out of him, in the end I was allowed to write my dissertation on Švejk. During the viva (1967) I was informed that I had apparently written a structuralist study, so then I read up on this structuralism, which I hadn’t known anything about until then, and translated Mukařovský into Italian for the first time (1971 and 1973). That was actually my first literary translation from Czech! The big Hašek collection of stories, which also includes the cycle Bugulma and documents from Strany mírného pokroku etc., all that came about in the year 1974–1975. The Garzanti publishing house only wanted me to translate the Czech book (Dekameron humoru a satiry), but I declined and suggested a different collection, aimed at the Italian context, with an afterword from Italy and for Italy. We argued about it in a nice way for a few months, but in the end the book came out under the title Švejk contro l´Italia (Švejk against Italy). In 2006 the Mondadori publishing house published it for a second time as one of their “Oscar classics” with the title Racconti (Stories). Of course I have never put Hašek out of my thoughts, but I have always put off the desired new translation of Švejk, so now I have been duly punished by a “translation” by someone else which is objectively completely unacceptable… Hrabal would say that “that’s the way it should be”, but this time I would probably put up resistance.

According to Alena Wildová Tosi when translating you have chosen texts which “show Hrabal more as an author with a basic lyrical disposition, an ability to fuse disparate layers of language and thus create sometimes more, sometimes less ironic contrasts”. In your view, is Hrabal interpreted differently in Italy than in the Czech Republic (or elsewhere in Europe)?
First the bare facts. I became acquainted with Hrabal as a writer when I was a student, when we had to read what was then his only translation into Italian, Inzerát. We didn’t understand it at all…

As an author whom I was preparing to translate, I got to know Hrabal in 1980 or 1981, that was about Ostře sledované vlaky. Amazingly, at that time we only had Inzerát and Pábitelein Italian, both books had “sunk” almost without success and I think it was Kundera who had the idea of finally bringing out Vlaky for Collana praghese (Prague series) with e/o, which was then still a small publishing house in Rome. It was only then that Hrabal’s intensive and lengthy Italian trajectory began. I got to know Hrabal as a man just before the publication of Vlaky, it was “love at first sight and forever”, or to put it another way rarely have I had such a precise “feeling” towards someone who as well as feeling also had very long “psychoantennae”, if I can express it that way. We didn’t speak much, with him things were expressed through the eyes and touch. Zuzana Roth, who took me to the Tiger for the first time, had no doubt anticipated all that beforehand.

In 1987 I translated Příliš hlučná samota and because of that I decided I would never translate any Hrabal again, because the deeper meaning of the sentences “nebesa nejsou humánní” and “jsem proti své vůli vzdělán” wouldn’t be found elsewhere. However, as the editor responsible for the enormous Hrabal collection Opere scelte (Selected works, Mondadori 2003), I established that Anglický král really had to be incorporated in a new, at least decent translation and Mrs Colorni, head of the series I Meridiani – a sort of Italian La Pléiade – in which the “Hrabal bible”, as Tomáš Mazal called it, was supposed to come out, didn’t have a hard job getting me to do a second Italian translation of Král… And I am grateful to her for it, even if for myself in secula seculorum I remain the translator of Příliš hlučná samota!

How is contemporary Czech literature received in Italy?
Primarily by a minority readership. Quite a lot is translated, certainly more than in recent decades, but very few books get reviewed, and it’s perhaps only possible to talk about a response from readers in the case of Viewegh. Hrabal and Kundera have clearly had enduring success, Hašek and Čapek to a lesser extent and then Ladislav Fuks, who I personally regard as a great, underrated writer. It’s a strange and problematic situation, small publishers bring out plenty of books, but they don’t get them reviewed, so although the books which are published live on in the consciousness of select groups of readers, they don’t make it into the national context.

I often proceed from the principle, not only for so-called Italian Czech studies, that “he who discriminates too little is lost, and he who discriminates too much is also lost.” I favour those who discriminate as a matter of principle but don’t overdo it. I believe the main fault lies in the fact that the large publishers don’t have competent editors for Czech literature, as they cling to a hundred-year-old illusion that it is enough to have a “Slavist” (which comes to mean: Russianist). And then the choice of text or choice of translator can’t help but be disastrous. One example: Holan’s collection for the best-known poetry series at Mondadori (Edice Lo specchio). An excellent selection of verses (Vladimír Justl), a literal translation carried out by one innocent Czech woman and subsequent “Italian verse” by a certain Italian poet who cannot and does not know a thing about the Czech language (why would he have to know about that too…). So whose fault is it? The result: a collection which doesn’t sound like Holan’s work, a few reviews (that’s true), little response from readers (there would be little in any case) and, most importantly, the market for Holan “killed off” for years. And yet Mondadori knows at least two good experts/translators, only on other series of theirs! That really is the limit. So we favour the smaller publishers, especially those who don’t confuse Central Europe with Russia or even with the offspring of the Third Reich. It is fitting to add that one of them dedicates itself exclusively to Czech literature, so finally we have in Italian Deml, Weiner, Josef Čapek, Kolář-the-poet, though from contemporary authors so far only Marian Palla. I’ll interrupt this reflection here, since many other elements play a role (e.g. so-called globalization and media) and it’s a long story. Another issue worthy of reflection is the perilously bad situation of Czech studies in universities.

What is your opinion of Ripellino’s book Magická Praha, which Peter Demetz, for instance, subjected to severe criticism? What influence did A. M. Ripellino have on the reception of Czech literature in Italy?
A. M. Ripellino clearly doesn’t have an influence on the reception of contemporary Czech literature, apart from the persistent echo of his Magická Praha. In the sixties and seventies he had enormous success not only with Magická Praha, but also with Holan. In both cases it meant literally a discovery, if not a revelation, not only for Italy but for the whole of Europe, for so-called Western Europe.

The credit for this achievement remained with him and lives on, but not without its being called into question, by both Italians and Czechs – and in part by the book itself. At the same time it is true that in Italy he is being rediscovered primarily as an independent poet, and in the Czech Republic he is still celebrated with an almost uncritical approach, without discussion, as a great Slavist and Czech scholar. The former would have pleased him very much, since he considered himself a poet first and foremost, the latter would have made him laugh with his typical sardonic Sicilian laughter, because he totally rejected the definition of “Slavist”, even though in 1969 in Viola he somewhat rashly declared: “I am first and foremost a professor of Russian literature, you know…?Which was the truth of the matter, yet it was necessary to avoid the word “Slavist” ­– but this is an issue for lengthy discussion, just like the question of whether we are or are not “Czech scholars”. I often say, not just for fun, “Czechist”… It is all connected with the fact that the Czech language itself doesn’t distinguish between “Czech” and “Bohemian”, but let’s leave that to one side now…

With Ripellino it occurs to almost nobody to ask the necessary, still open questions: what is the relationship between his translations of poetry, not only Czech poetry, and his poems? Why didn’t he write a novel about Prague or a long academic essay about Czech culture? Although your expression “culturally-historically conceived book” very cleverly paraphrases the matter, it does not resolve it. The expression “novel-essay”, which had already caught on before Ripellino and which he fully accepted – after all, there is a short text devoted to it on the book’s cover, where it is defined in just this way – thus had a long and rich development. However, now it proves to be an important issue of the time, and there is perhaps only occasionally someone who sticks with it, e.g. Eco. It is no wonder that Demetz created a sort of counterbalance and I always give the students both texts as compulsory reading; the students arrive without context and if they have prejudices, as they once did about Kundera and now do about Hrabal,almost nobody knows Magická Praha. By the way, it is extremely difficult reading even in terms of the language itself. Other necessary questions might go something like this: why did he leave the translation of prose to his wife Ela and only check it himself, whilst he himself translated poetry? How is it that of the numerous authors who were published at Einaudi thanks to him – Halas, Holan, Čapek (R.U.R.), the first Hrabal, the first Fuks, J. Fried, Linhartová – only Vladimír Holan was really successful? This is connected primarily with the Italian context and with a certain intention to “test” it with these authors, but also with what his Prague friends (fortunately) advised him.

So if you ask me personally about Magická Praha, how could I fail to remember two or three “anecdotes”…

I think it was 1965 or thereabouts: Ripellino was recuperating in a sanatorium at Dobříš. I went to visit him as a student and he took me to the “writers’ castle”, where we walked through large halls, and there he took hold of me under the arm and said out of the blue: Sergio, listen… Why don’t you write a book about Rudolph II? Of course I froze, how could I do otherwise, I was twenty-two and I was in my third year, which the professor must have recognized. Only many years later did I figure out that my professor was unsure whether he would survive the illness, therefore he wanted to pass on the baton, a future Praha, which he had evidently been thinking about at that time… Then this also transpired: when the book came out I, having then worked as a professor in Venice for two years, sat down on a vaporetto boat and began to devour the first pages. You know how it is, I got off and left my bag on the seat, the bag where I had the whole finished editorial plan for the Hašek collection, I then looked for it all night in the rubbish and of course I found it with the police, at the terminus…

Ad tertium: Jiří Pelikán, who was publishing his Listy in Rome, wanted a review from me and I was reluctant to give it. On the one hand I was embarrassed, and on the other hand I really didn’t want to make public the doubts I had about the concept and language of the book, so the review was passed on to my then wife, and so it went with the eternal Arcimboldo and so on…

So, what for me is missing in Magická Praha? On the one hand Czech history, albeit unconventionally conceived, and then on the other hand the uncompromising choice of a novel about Prague, which is why there is that certain narrative discontinuity. What Ripellino continues to give me is a perhaps still unexhausted amount of knowledge and those fantastic flashes of poetry or humour… It’s by no means a coincidence that these are usually in the incipits of individual chapters, like this for example: “Whoever has the patience to read this whole volume will certainly find in it one welcome thing: the words The End. But what makes the Golem acceptable? (62) I can laugh at that over and over again!


The interview was prepared by Jan Lukavec