The loss of translators...
November 12, 2012 8:50 AM   Subscribe

Readers of literature from "small" languages treasure their translators, who are rarely recognized and poorly compensated for their months and sometimes years of lonely labor.

Two of the best translators from Czech died in the last month or so. Michael Heim translated not only from Czech but also Russian, Croatian, Serbian, German, French and Dutch. Less well-known and less polyglotish, Peter Kussi translated Milan Kundera as well as Jiri Grusa, Karel Capek, Josef Skvorecky, Bohumil Hrabal and others whose works might otherwise be lost to English readers.

Still working primarily in Czech: Paul Wilson (best known for his Havel) and, from a somewhat younger generation, Alex_Zucker (who works closely with Jachym Topol and took on Topol's incredibly complex "City Sister Silver" as well as the more accessible short story "A Trip to the Train Station".)

(Apologies for lack of diacritical marks throughout.)
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy (21 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
posted by Earthtopus at 8:51 AM on November 12, 2012

posted by theodolite at 9:03 AM on November 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

posted by Iridic at 9:04 AM on November 12, 2012

I heard an obit for Michael Heim on NPR the other day. I'd never heard of him but the obit made his work sound really, really wonderful. Now on the to-read list.

posted by Doleful Creature at 9:10 AM on November 12, 2012

If you've read The Unbearable Lightness of Being or The Book of Laughter and Forgetting in English, you almost definitely read it in Michael Heim's words.
posted by theodolite at 9:11 AM on November 12, 2012

posted by clockzero at 9:12 AM on November 12, 2012

Catbird Press published some excellent new Czech fiction that was otherwise unrecognized and untranslated in English.
posted by mykescipark at 9:18 AM on November 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

(and I see they're currently making a Kussi translation available for free in his memory.)
posted by mykescipark at 9:19 AM on November 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

I'm getting out of literary translation because I'm afraid it's actually shortening my life.

Limitless respect for anyone who can do it at this level (which is far, far beyond me).

posted by Sokka shot first at 9:34 AM on November 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

Didn't Kundera start writing in French because he was so dissatisfied with his translations?
posted by thelonius at 9:37 AM on November 12, 2012


/that was supposed to be a period with a hacek above.
posted by benito.strauss at 9:47 AM on November 12, 2012 [1 favorite]

posted by at 10:25 AM on November 12, 2012

The redoubtable Michael Kandel deserves mention. I'm still in awe of the hilarious pharmaceuticals in Stanislaw Lem's Futurological Congress; their brand names made the transition from Polish to English with sly drollery and knee-slapping snark. Happily, Kandel still walks among us.
posted by 0rison at 10:33 AM on November 12, 2012

Peter Kussi translated [...], Karel Capek [...] whose works might otherwise be lost to English readers.

I dunno, his translations were always a bit workmanlike to me...
posted by MartinWisse at 10:38 AM on November 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

posted by bettafish at 11:42 AM on November 12, 2012

Paul Wilson's website is so out of date, it's hard to tell if he is still in translation or not. Also mentionable, Andrew Oakland, whose translation of Michal Ajvez's The Golden Age won the 2011 Best Translated Book Award from Three Percent.
posted by Felicity Rilke at 1:00 PM on November 12, 2012

posted by yellowcandy at 3:16 PM on November 12, 2012

Oh, sad news about Messrs Heim and Kussi. They each contributed a lot to my life with their work, because I just cannot get my brain to learn Czech.

Thanks for the pointers to other folks translating from Czech!
posted by Sidhedevil at 3:17 PM on November 12, 2012

Yeah, people who make translation their life's work are amazing. I've done some literary translation from Icelandic into English and vice versa, and it's incredibly hard work. To translate is like performing to a score, and reading a good literary translation is like listening to a master performer playing a complex, difficult piece.
posted by Kattullus at 5:22 PM on November 12, 2012 [2 favorites]

Thank you so much for mentioning Mike Heim. He was not only a fine translator and scholar, he was a extraordinarily generous, gracious, humble man.

I had the honor of working with him on this book, for which he was a consultant and translator. The book collected English translations of hundreds of documents that were originally published in German, Russian, Romanian, Czech, Polish, Serbian/Croatian, Hungarian, Slovakian, and Slovenian (and possibly some Bulgarian and Albanian as well).

One of my tasks, while proofreading final galleys of the book before we went to press, was to make sure that all original-language terms, titles, and phrases were correct in terms of spelling and diacritics. Now, I had the original documents to check (Czech? heh) against, but in a 700+ page book, involving foreign terms from nearly a dozen languages (of which all but German were totally unfamiliar to me), this was no small task. Finding out about the editorial fix I was in, Mike kindly volunteered to help me out.

So one afternoon, he dropped by my office -- friendly, soft-spoken guy with an old-fashioned Lincoln-style beard and a wide smile -- and sat down with my galleys in front of him, and proceeded to methodically go through every single page. Without pause, he went seamlessly from Czech to Polish to Croatian to German to Romanian to Russian as he went from page to page to page -- "that needs a háček" "the d and z are transposed there" "I think that's the wrong declension; let me just fix that for you" -- until all 700+ pages had been corrected.

It was one of the most quietly dazzling feats of brilliance I have ever seen. When I asked him to send me an invoice for his time, he laughed and said payment wouldn't be be necessary. (If memory serves, I had to get a little pushy just so he'd let me buy him a cup of coffee at one point when we took a break.)

Literary translation is one of the great arts that gets so little recognition, so I'm happy to see it get its due here. Thanks again for making this post.
posted by scody at 7:09 PM on November 12, 2012 [3 favorites]

Scody, I may need to get that book!
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 8:03 PM on November 12, 2012

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