A joint interview with Alex Skovron and Josef Tomáš, who recently collaborated on the translation of a special bilingual Czech > English translation of the Elegies of Jiří Orten.
Alex Skovron was born in Poland, lived briefly in Israel, and emigrated to Australia aged nearly ten. His family settled in Sydney, where he grew up and completed his studies. From the early 1970s he worked as an editor for book publishers in Sydney and (after 1980) Melbourne. His poetry has appeared widely in Australia and overseas, and he has received a number of major awards for his work. The most recent of his poetry collections, Towards the Equator: New & Selected Poems (2014), was shortlisted in the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. Skovron’s collection of stories, The Man who Took to his Bed (2017), and his novella The Poet (2005), have been published in Czech translations; The Attic, a selection of his poetry translated into French, was published in 2013, and a bilingual volume of Chinese translations, Water Music, in 2017. His work has also appeared in Dutch, Macedonian, Polish and Spanish. The numerous public readings he has given have included appearances in China, Serbia, India, Ireland, Macedonia, Portugal, and on Norfolk Island.
Josef Tomáš was born in Polička, Czechoslovakia, in 1933, completed his schooling in 1952, and in 1957 gained a degree in mechanical engineering at the Technical University in Prague. From 1957 to 1962 he was Assistant Professor at Liberec, Bohemia, and then Research Fellow at the Slovak Academy of Sciences at Bratislava until 1968. In 1966 he had been awarded a doctorate in the Theory of Nonlinear Vibrations by the Czech Academy of Sciences. After emigrating to West Germany in 1968, two weeks after the Soviet occupation of his country, he took up an Alexander Humboldt Scholarship (1968–70) at the Technical University, Karlsruhe, and subsequently (1970–71) taught as Assistant Professor at the University of Florida, Gainsville, USA. Returning to West Germany, he worked as a Research Fellow at Volkswagen in Wolfsburg (1971–76), and after moving to Australia was appointed Professor of Mechanical Engineering at RMIT, Melbourne (1976–93). From 1993 until his retirement in 2010, Tomáš was owner and director of the engineering company Advea in Melbourne.
How many languages do you know?
I was born in Poland and spent much of my childhood there, so Polish was my first language. When I was eight I emigrated with my parents to Israel, where I quickly picked up Hebrew. Little more than a year later we moved on to Australia, and English took over. I’ve sometimes remarked that over a period of eighteen months I went to school on three continents in three cultures and three very different languages, two of which I had to learn from scratch. I still speak Polish, but at an everyday level, and most of my once-fluent Hebrew has lapsed or is dormant.
Language always excited me. In high school I took up French, German and Latin, plus two more years of French at university. Hence, I can carry on a rather imperfect conversation in French, and to an even more limited extent in German. As for other languages, I can read Italian better than I can follow it when spoken (though I’ve been endeavouring to improve on both counts); and I can understand some Yiddish but can’t claim to speak it. As an editor, I’ve always enjoyed working on manuscripts that enabled me to utilize my interest in languages.
I was born in Czechoslovakia in 1933, so Czech is my mother tongue. Czechoslovakia was formed as a new country after the end of the First World War, in the historical boundaries of the Kingdom of Bohemia, in which, however, one third of inhabitants were Germans. All government employees had to be fluent in both languages. From March 1939 until May 1945, Czechoslovakia was incorporated as a Protectorate into the German Reich and most school subjects were taught in German. Immediately after liberation, study of the German language was forbidden. In February 1948, the Communists usurped absolute power and practically incorporated my country into the Soviet Empire. Russian now became a compulsory language in schools at all levels. That is how, without much effort, I became fluent in both these languages.
English I started learning soon after the Communist takeover of my country, by taking private lessons in order to be well equipped for a new life in the West, whereto I had always planned escaping. I had to wait twenty years, until the so-called Prague Spring of 1968, when the impenetrably sealed border to the West was opened for a few months before the Soviet invasion closed it again. So my English had enough time to become fluent.
From which languages have you translated?
I have actually translated very little. My next collection of poetry will include (from Italian) my version of the first Canto of The Divine Comedy, and (from Spanish) a sonnet by Jorge Luís Borges, one of three of his sonnets that I’ve translated. There may also have been the odd poem from French and Polish. However, my work on Czech poetry with Josef Tomáš has been of an entirely different order.
Poetry from Czech into English: Jiří Orten, Elegies (2019); Vladimír Holan, Dream (due 2020), Walls (2012), Yet There Is Music (2011) and Dolour (2010); and my two poetry books, The Return of Agnes of Bohemia (due 2020) and The World in my Mouth (with my daughter Katarina, 2000).
Prose from English into Czech: Alex Skovron, The Man who Took to his Bed (stories, 2019) and The Poet (novella, 2014); Michael Heap, Universal Awareness: A Theory of the Soul (2013); John Updike‚ ‘Augustine’s Concubine’ (story, 2016); C. M. Kornbluth, ‘The Little Black Bag’ (story, 2014); and ‘The Big Questions’ (essay) by Paul Davies and Phillip Adams (2015). All these translations were done in collaboration with a Czech linguist and translator, Hana Tomková. (More about her below.)
What prompted you to translate collaboratively?
To clarify the nature of my role: I was not the primary translator – that task was the province of Josef. He is a poet in his native language, with a sizable body of work to his name; his English, while excellent, is not his mother tongue, and he ventured into translation of Czech poetry into English at a comparatively mature age. When Josef set out to translate all nine of Orten’s Elegies, with a view to publishing a bilingual parallel edition, he decided to seek out and collaborate with an English-language poet who could help sharpen and finesse his translation, to realize as faithfully as possible the structure, imagery and musicality of Orten’s masterpiece. Josef made contact with me in 2013, at the suggestion of another poet, and we soon found ourselves working together.
Knowledge of my own first language, although it is Polish not Czech, was greatly useful – thanks to certain similarities between the two – in helping me to ‘tune in’ to Orten’s prosody and rhythms. Josef and I established a close rapport as we slowly progressed – line by line, stanza by stanza, poem by poem – through the remarkable landscape of the nine Elegies. The experience for me was challenging, absorbing, and deeply satisfying.
The extreme differences between Czech and English require a full command of whichever language one translates into. In particular, one faces the extensive vocabulary of the English, and the grammatical complexity of the Czech. And I was lucky to have, on the one hand, Alex Skovron, with his extensive practical experience as an editor and much-published writer of poetry and prose in English; and on the other, the assistance of Hana Tomková (in Prague), a professional translator of Albanian and French fiction, and fluent in English – having spent some years as a correspondent for the Czechoslovak news agency in Nairobi, Kenya – with a number of her translations published.
What drew you to Orten’s Elegies in particular?
These next two are for Josef, as I was not familiar with Orten before our collaboration.
Why have I chosen Orten from among a multitude of well-known Czech poets? I had no idea about his existence at the end of my secondary-school years in 1952; he had never been mentioned by our teachers. So it was an incredible surprise to me when, soon after my arrival in Prague in late summer of that year to commence my mechanical engineering studies at the Technical University, I discovered Jiří Orten on the bookshelves of my friend Karel Růžička. Our common interest was basketball; after coming to Prague I played on his team. One day after training he invited me to his home (the apartment he shared with his wife and parents). When I scanned the titles in a small bookcase, one book, the Diaries of Jiří Orten, caught my eye. I had never seen or heard that name, so I started flipping through the book and was immediately fascinated by the first poem. I asked if I could borrow the book. I read it, over and over, for perhaps two years.
And the year is 1952. The show-trial of a number of Communist leaders is in its final stages: loudspeakers clamour day and night, crowds are stirred up to chant death to the traitors. And at school twice a week, we get an hour of the compulsory subject of Marxism-Leninism, timetabled as ‘Discussion’. But I, whenever possible, disappear as soon as my presence has been recorded, because on my mind is my best friend Jiří Mráz, who at age 19 has been sentenced to fifteen years’ hard labour in the uranium mines in Jáchymov, where I visit him twice …
Such was the atmosphere in which I was reading Orten’s Diaries – reading him like a man possessed. It revived vivid memories of the disappearance of some of my Jewish schoolfriends, as suddenly as if they had been swallowed by the earth; and of the transports, a few years later, of Jewish prisoners on open train wagons in the freezing January of 1945. It’s no surprise that I ended up in a profound depression, which clung to me pretty much all of that year – and that life for me seemed to have lost all meaning. A number of the poems I learnt by heart, and can still recite most of them.
Can you tell us more about Orten himself and his significance as a poet?
For me, Orten represents the tragedy of the Czech nation, where for centuries three ethnicities used to live together: Czechs, Germans and Jews. Orten’s proper surname was Ohrenstein, because his predecessors considered themselves German; as, for example, in the case of Franz Kafka. However, Jiří Orten was born in the new Czech state – Czechoslovakia – and belonged to the first Jewish generation speaking and writing in Czech. If he had not been accidentally killed (at the age of 22), he would very probably have perished in Auschwitz. During 1939–45, the Nazis murdered more than 100,000 Czech and Slovak Jews, and after the war the Czech Communists expelled some three million Germans. Such sudden and radical change to the country’s population can still be felt today, in both its cultural and its political life.
Can you give us an idea of how your collaboration works in practice? For example, if you had a few days to translate a poem, what would they look like?
Assuming the original poem is in Czech, I would first obtain from Josef his English translation and read through it carefully, flagging any words, expressions or images that I want to question or discuss. Next, I would sit down with Joe, with the rough translation up on the computer screen in front of us and the original Czech poem beside us, and we would proceed line by line, addressing all my queries, while at the same time unpacking the whole poem in detail. Going through the poem, we might agree on certain provisional changes there and then, or I might type several alternative solutions into the document for consideration later. Any structural or formal issues, such as lineation, metre and rhyme, would be discussed and our decisions modified or confirmed.
At this point, armed for the moment with the information I need, we would separate, so that I could spend time on my own to work quietly through the problems to be solved, in order (1) to try to do optimum justice to the original poem’s intent, meaning, imagery and (crucially) music; and (2) to try to ensure that the translation works smoothly (in its vocabulary, syntax, rhythm, momentum) as a poem in English. Usually I would endeavour to replicate the rhyme-scheme and, where appropriate, the metrical patterns of the original. All told, I would strive for a translation which is as faithful as possible to the original yet able to stand as a poem in its own right in English.
Alex has answered this question for both of us. I would only add that I always insisted on the rhyming being preserved when the original poem was rhymed.
You have also completed an English translation of Josef’s Prague verse-fantasy The Return of Agnes of Bohemia, as well as Czech translations of Alex’s novella The Poet, and his volume of short stories The Man who Took to his Bed. How do you find working in both language directions?
In essence, our work on Agnes of Bohemia was similar to the Orten process, though more straightforward, as the language in Agnes is less complex and the verse freer, unconfined by considerations of metre or rhyme. With regard to my own novella and short stories, I largely had to trust the translator, and my input then focused on discussing and addressing any specific points that Josef needed to clarify; plus (importantly) pinpointing particular words, phrases and images that were culturally specific and that I knew would be tricky to render for Czech readers (see Josef’s next answer for a few examples). Also, of course, there was the issue of handling the different registers of narration and dialogue across the collection of stories.
As for gauging my broader sense of Josef’s translation: I would often ask him to read out a particular passage, so that I could hear the rhythm and trajectory of the prose in Czech as compared with my original. But this may be a better question for Joe to answer.
Fascinating and mind-boggling, because English and Czech are positioned at opposite ends of the language spectrum: English as an extremely analytical language and Czech a very synthetic one.
Most of Orten’s Elegies are written in alexandrines, lines of twelve syllables, which for some reason are rarely used in English poetry. Therefore, before I started with translation, I studied how English translators handled a typical French ‘alexandrinist’ – Racine – and it was always in pentameter; so I pre-translated for Alex mostly in pentameter. To cite another difficulty, since in English so many syllables are ‘wasted’ on articles, it is really difficult to keep metre, rhyme and rhythm while preserving meaning. On the other hand, free-verse translation can cause problems in bilingual parallel-text editions when it comes to keeping to the same number of lines.
When translating prose from English into Czech, I was helped very much by Hana Tomková. Her command of Czech was invaluable when trying to find the best Czech expression for an English idiom, or when reordering a Czech sentence while adhering to the meaning and sense of the English original.
One standout example concerned the actual title of Alex’s book of short stories, The Man who Took to his Bed. Our struggle to find the appropriate Czech translation of the phrase was so intense that the whole project was held up for several weeks. Hana absolutely refused the version I considered the best, insisting that although it was appropriate, it was so archaic that readers would not understand it; while Hana’s version lacked for me the nuance and gentle ambiguity of the English idiom. In the end we arrived at an acceptable compromise.
A few more examples of the potential pitfalls of idiom: How to translate ‘the lineup for the First Test’ (a common cricket expression), or ‘grandfather clock’ (the Czech term for which translates as ‘tall standing clock’)? Even an innocent statement such as ‘he boiled the kettle’, translated literally, becomes in Czech hilariously absurd.
Has your own poetic practice been influenced by your translation practice?
As an editor working with language in its many varieties over nearly fifty years, I’ve always maintained that my own writing (whether poetry or prose) and my editing of other writers can’t help but feed into each other, in both directions, even when the two activities are kept professionally separate. The same can be said for translation, where all the resources of the target language are harnessed in the quest for the most appropriate and satisfying resolutions among a range of often extremely thorny issues fraught with all manner of traps. It demands a discipline, a concentration of thought, but also a flexible and imaginative openness to the possibilities presented by any given piece of text. The practice of poetry involves a similarly intensive encounter with the creatively possible – except that the poet’s inner ‘source language’ and outer ‘target language’, as it were, interpenetrate; and from somewhere within that dialectic, there can arise the unique mystery that is poetry.
Not at all, because I started writing poems at the age of 47 and continued doing so for just twenty-four years – including a break of eight years in the middle, when I was writing in English under the guidance of the late Australian poet Philip Martin during 1986–89. At this time I was not translating, and didn’t start doing so until I had completely stopped writing poems in Czech.
Have you considered writing poetry collaboratively?
In a sense, our co-translations are a kind of collaborative writing, since we are (re)creating something that has not previously existed! But strictly speaking, no: our collaborations on Orten, Agnes and Holan (see below) never extended to the notion of actually composing new poems collaboratively.
No. I had started writing poetry in Melbourne in 1981, but only out of homesickness, as letters to my mother, being sure we would never see each other again. This developed into an intensive ‘learning’ period: in the five years to 1986 I wrote more than 500 poems, mostly on the train from Glen Waverley to the City and back. After the liberation of Czechoslovakia in 1989, I continued writing, for my friends, impressions collected during my frequent visits home. Between 1991 and 2004 I published eight books of poetry in Czech; and in January 2004, following the death of a close family friend, I put into verse her diary and published it under the title From the Diary of a Woman. After that I stopped writing completely, as suddenly as I had started in 1981. Since then I have not found any reason to write a single verse.
Can you tell us about any upcoming collaborative projects?
Our third collaboration, virtually completed but as yet unpublished, is a new translation of the verse-sequence Dream by another Czech poet, Vladimír Holan (1905–1980). Dream is a suite comprising 36 ten-line poems, each poem following the same strict metre and rhyme-scheme. It was written in April 1939, the month after the Nazi invasion of Czechoslovakia and a year before Orten produced his nine Elegies. Holan’s Dream is an extraordinary work: vivid, powerful, elusive, surreal, even delirious, an apt testament to the ‘passionate intensity’ of the times.
Our already completed translation of Holan’s Dream should appear later this year (whether in parallel text will depend on the reception of our bilingual Elegies). And I have still not given up hope that Alex might find more time to revise my translations of two other outstanding Holans: The First Testament and A Night with Hamlet.
Many thanks to Alex and Josef for sharing your insights with us!
Elegies, Author: JIŘÍ ORTEN. Translation: Josef Tomáš and Alex Skovron. First edition: 2019. Pages: 112. Language: Czech and English. ISBN 978-80-88050-09-4