You were based at the Slavonic Institute, where you embarked on translating. What was your first translation?
When I first came to the faculty and started to look around to see what had already been translated, I discovered that Čapek’s Cesta na sever (A Journey to the North) hadn’t been. This was the first book that I translated together with my students and, eventually, it turned out to be the most successful Czech book to come out in Swedish. Swedish readers happily regressed to the halcyon days of the 1930s with Čapek. Subsequently, I co-edited an anthology on Seifert after he received the Nobel prize with František Janouch entitled Att vara poet – To Be a Poet. Jiří Brabec contributed to it with a voluminous treatise on Seifert, the Czech avant garde and poetry from Seifert‘s beginnings as a writer until his death.
The translation of Dálkový výslech (Long-Distance Interrogation), an interview with Václav Havel by Karel Hvížďala was met with similar success and was actually published in two editions. What I’m perhaps most proud of, however, is that I translated Seifert’s lecture written on the occassion of the Nobel prize award ceremony into Swedish. It was published in an abridged version in a newspaper and in its entirety in the Artes magazine. I also translated a lecture on Seifert into Czech, which was written by the permanent secretary of the Nobel prize jury Lars Gyllensten.
You also taught Czech to young Swedes who helped you with translations. Do your students continue with translating after graduation?
Some of them became Swedish to Czech translators, others even set up their own publishing houses – Per Nilsson founded Perenne in Hässleholm and translates Weil and Poláček. He also published Pecka’s Pasáž (Passage) and Povídání o pejskovi a kočičce (I Had a Dog and a Cat) by Josef Čapek, which I translated together with my student Vikeke Wennerberg. Per Bergström who co-founded the publisher Rámus, brought out Topol and Zajíček, among others. Eva Strömberg Krantzová, the author of the book on Amelia Posse Brázdová, translated Havel’s Dopisy Olze (Letters to Olga) and as the only one, translates poetry – authors such as Juliš, Seifert, Diviš, Skácel, Šiktanc.
Together with the late Alvar Erikson, we co-edited short story anthologies by Hašek and Jiří Marek, which we also translated. The most active translator though, is Karin Mosdal, who’s not my student but a close friend of mine. As a “native speaker” I read all her translations and pondered, how to help her with certain phrases. Translation activity gradually moved from Lund to Stockholm because after a few years following my retirement, Lund University discontinued Czech studies. I spread the awareness about Czech – and also Slovak literature – through the dozens of entries about Czech and Slovak writers, which were commissioned by the Swedish National Encyclopedia.
I assume it was you who introduced Bohumil Hrabal in Sweden.
I didn’t. I would constantly speak about him and write and talk about him during all sorts of lectures and conferences. The Czech-born Pavel Gabriel exquisitely published Hrabal’s Closely Observed Trains Ostře sledované vlaky), Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age (Taneční hodiny pro starší a pokročilé), and Postřižiny (Cutting It Short – the latter two titles were translated by Mats Larsson) in the Lund-based publisher Pegas. What’s more, he also published Fuks’ Spalovač mrtvol (The Cremator). Alas, his publishing house went bankrupt.
Larsson went on to translate several other books – Krasosmutnění a Harlekýnovy miliony (Harlequin’s Millions) – by Bohumil Hrabal that have been published fairly recently and which have been well-received. Last year at the book fair in Göteborg, Mats asked for my recommendations for new translation. My response to him was that it would be great if he could translate some of Hrabal’s autobiographic novels like Svatby v domě (In House Weddings), Vita nuova nebo Proluky (Vacant Lots), as well as Hrabal’s short story anthology.
You also published a theoretical book entitled Hrabalovy literární koláže(Hrabal’s Literary Collages) in Sweden. What are you examining here?
In particular, I studied texts that are relatively unknown and not very “readable” upon first reading. I was interested in their position within Hrabal’s ouvre and why he wrote them. I was preoccupied with Toto město je ve společné péči obyvatel (This City is Mutually Cared After By Its Inhabitants). Hrabal signed it as the author even though not a single sentence is his own. The work is composed of texts written by others – random excerpts which are mostly not even literary texts – if so, then stemming from low-brow literature from Popelka Biliánová’s book.
In my opinion, Hrabal spawned a new genre – pure literary collage derived from artistic collage. I can sense the surrealistic tenet “everybody can make art” behind it. Every artist, who wants to make a painting – “Raphael without hands” in the words of Teige, can grab some scissors, stick something together and create an artwork according to this approach. In Hrabal’s case, it is evident that anybody can assemble a literary collage from existing texts taking cues from Marcel Duchamp, who authored a urinal. Besides, Hrabal was obsessed with art.
I dug deeper and searched for the origins of the sources in the text Toto město je ve společné péči obyvatel (This City is Mutually Cared After By Its Inhabitants). It resembled a detective work. At the Museum of Czech Literature, I came across Hrabal’s diary that contained notes from often unbelievable sources. While I was reading them, I realized that some of them he inserted into his short stories. I consider these also collages, but of another kind: Hrabal implanted these “borrowings” into his narrative texts. In the short story Pan notář (Mr. Notary), for instance, he quotes numerous excerpts from an information leaflet about cremation.
How are Czech authors faring in Sweden these days?
I’ll begin with something a little sad. When I met the aforementioned Mats Larsson last time, he told me a rather depressing story: he went to the library in Vallentuna in the vicinity of Stockholm, where he lives and discovered that Hrabal’s Příliš hlučná samota (Too Loud a Solitude), which he translated approximately three years ago, was on sale for five crowns. He asked them why were they selling such a new book, and they replied that nobody had made a book loan since it’d been there…
Strangely enough, when Czechoslovakia was under Communist regime and books were written by dissidents and persecuted writers, they were read much more voraciously and sold more. We thought that after 1990, it wouldn’t be necessary to publish Voices from Czechoslovakia anymore, but it seems that it’s needed more than ever. Suddenly, Czech Republic is serene, nobody is persecuted anymore – which, in effect, is less interesting to publishers. There hasn’t been a statistical survey of readership and sales of Czech literature in Sweden, per se.
On the other hand, as soon as Swedish translations of Czech books come out, they are reviewed immediately, mostly by leading Swedish critics – and they tend to get very positive reviews. During last year’s huge book fair in Göteborg, there was a lot of space devoted to Czech literature: Jáchym Topol and Jaroslav Rudiš gave talks; there was a lecture on cultural relations between the Czechs and the Swedes (Dagmar Hartlová) and another one focused on the last translation of Hrabal’s Listy Dubence (Total Fears: Letters to Dubenka) with the translator Mats Larsson and me.
Jaroslav Balvín for CzechLit