“Like night and day”

This is how the translator Tatjana Jamnik (1976) explains the differences between the Polish and Czech languages.


Tatjana Jamnik

Tatjana Jamnik

On 24 November, 2009 she received an award for up-and-coming translators under 35 years of age (priznanje za mladega prevajalca) at the 25th Slovenian Book Fair in Ljublana for her translation of Ladislav Fuks’ The Cremator.

You also write the foreword and afterword to accompany your translations from Czech to Slovenian. What did you write about in The Cremator?
Fuks placed his story in a period just before the onset of WWII and directly afterwards. I described the historical events of the years 1938 and 1939, the context of German occupation, emergence of the Protectorate and primarily, the issue of Sudeten-Germans and the SdP politics. These circumstances are not very familiar to Slovenian readers; we haven’t learnt about this in our schools.

The message of the book, nevertheless, is definitely broader and more universal – valid for all periods in history and all countries. Fuks wrote a book about how totalitarianism can emerge almost inconspicuously, how anyone can essentially become a perpetrator and how easy it is to transgress this thin line and violate the rights of others. Mr. Kopfrkingl is outwardly a decent person, a paragon of a First-Republic citizen. Gradually, the writer gives us some hints implying that there’s something rotten behind this disguise. When the government changes and therefore, at the same time the values in society, Kopfrkingl follows suit and alters his identity. He knows what he is doing, even if he tries to convince himself otherwise in order to justify his wrongdoings.

What’s more, I’ve described the life and work of Ladislav Fuks at some length. I learnt a lot from the biography Moje zrcadlo a co bylo za zrcadlem (My Mirror and That What Lingered Behind the Mirror, 2007) published by his close friend Jiří Tušl. This helped me enormously during translations as I was better able to grasp what Fuks wanted to say, as well as the reasons for choosing a certain musical composition, and so forth. I decided that this information would be important to Slovenian readers. I must add that apart from The Cremator, only one other Fuks‘ novel has come out in Slovenia – Myši Natálie Mooshabrové (The Mice of Natálie Mooshabrová, 1985), brilliantly translated by Zdenka Škerlj Jerman. František Benhart wrote an extensive study on this book: placing Fuks into a wider context among contemporary writers and providing an introduction to his books. He did not, however, write much about Fuks’ life and opinions – it is widely-known that Fuks did not reveal much publicly about his private life during his life. Even Czech readers first learnt about him from My Mirror.

In a recent interview with CzechLit, your colleague Nives Vidrih mentioned that these days it is not overly difficult to push ahead a translation of a Czech book with Slovenian publishers. Do you share her opinion? Can you come to a Slovenian publisher armed with any book you like?
Yes, I have the same experience. Among other things, it’s probably caused by the European grants programme, Culture 2007–2013, where publishers can apply for translators’ fees. An interest from publishers to a large extent rests on what kind of author is being considered. It is fairly easy to push through writers who received some Czech literary award or are somehow renowned or celebrated in Europe.

What do you enjoy more – translating from Polish or from Czech? And how do you stand now with these translations in terms of the quantity you’ve done?
These are two very different languages, each has its own sentence structure and language logic…Each language poses a challenge. I enjoy converting either of them into Slovenian, creating a Slovenian equivalent of a text written in a foreign language: what it would sound like if it were written by a Slovenian writer.

As for quantity, it is half and half. Up to now, I have more Czech book titles, even though I have more translations from Polish under my belt, especially Polish poetry that has been published in magazines. This is partly caused by the fact that I’m more connected to Poland. I’ve been living in Krakow for several years.

You know both the Polish and Czech language very well. What sort of idea does this conjure up about Czechs and Polish or the Czech Republic and Poland, and the differences between them?
I think the differences are huge – like day and night. I find the Czech language more elaborate, more logical. It is important to express oneself briefly and precisely and hence I can connect with it better because it is similar to Slovenian stylistics. Polish seems a little more “Baroque-like”, everything is described sluggishly and at great length…I will most probably never be able to correctly use Polish complimentary expressions. These are composed of entire chains of expressions – “you’re welcome” and “thank you” simply do not suffice.

If I started to describe the national traits, I could easily slip into making widely-known stereotypes. For instance, from the language perspective, it is interesting what is said when you want to invite somebody for a drink. In the Czech Republic, even girls say: “Let’s go for a beer”, whereas in Poland you get invited for a tea, in Slovenia for a coffee.

Are you currently working on a Czech translation? What would you like to translate in future?
Right now, I’m translating the novel Peníze od Hitlera (Money from Hitler) by Radka Denemarková, which brims with opulent language and allusions, synonyms and repetitions and variations of parts of the text – all this is making it a laborious process that requires attention to detail. This translation will be published in the first half of 2010 by the publisher Modrijan, who also brought out The Cremator. In the autumn, I’ll start translating Fuks’ short story collection entitled Mí černovlasí bratři (My Raven-Haired Brothers). That should come out by the end of the year in Literatura. Naturally, I would also like to translate other writings by Fuks – and this I find hard to grasp – Fuks, even though a classic figure in Czech literature, is fairly difficult to get hold of. Publishing houses are more interested in contemporary living writers.

I’m also looking for publishers for other books but I would rather not speak about this yet. I don’t want to jinx it.