In February 2020, the British publishing house Arc Publications published Mila Haugová’s book Eternal Traffic. The poetry collection came out in a bilingual English / Slovak edition and it was translated by James Sutherland-Smith. Eternal Traffic was inspired by the German book Schlaflied wilder Tiere (2011, published by Edition Korrespondenzen). Arc Publications, having collaborated with Haugová before, liked the selection of poems from the collections Biele rukopisy (2007) and Miznutie anjelov (2008) that had appeared in the German book. LIC talked with the translator James Sutherland-Smith and with the publishers from Arc Publications, Angela Jarman and Tony Ward, about how Eternal Traffic came to be.
We asked James Sutherland-Smith about his translation.
First of all, how did you pick Mila Haugová and why this particular selection of poems? (Have you seen/read the German version of the book?)
James Sutherland-Smith: We’d already translated a selection for Arc Publications, Scent of the Unseen, which was published in 2003. Viera (Sutherland-Smith) and I worked on a second selection in the middle of the last decade with poems from Orfea (2003) and Targets / Terče (2005). I still have the draft translation selection on file. Arc had expressed an interest in a second book, but then seemed to lose interest and as I find the business of sending out poems, either my own or translations, both time-consuming and frustrating, the translations remained gathering dust and on a USB. Then both Arc and Mila contacted me in 2018 with a new project where Arc wanted the same selection as had appeared in the German selection, Schlaflied wilder Tiere, which featured a selection from Miznutie anjelov and Biele rukopisy. I actually received a copy of the German selection, but I already had copies of Mila’s original books. This time the translation was all my own work as my Slovak has improved a little over the last thirty years.
To sum up I didn’t choose the poems. I was commissioned by Arc to produce an English version of the German selection.
Why did you choose to translate Mila the first time?
JS-S: I was bowled over by her collections of the 1990s, Praláska and Nostalgia in particular. I simply had to translate her as she seemed to be the best poet in Slovakia at the time, even better than Laučík.
Were there any parts of Eternal Traffic you would describe as particularly difficult to translate?
JS-S: I actually found the poems relatively easy to translate. There were the usual issues of transposing lines in a translation of the original, but the surface of Mila’s poems is fairly straightforward. In the earlier book there were issues with punctuation, which had to do with a phenomenological bracketing of experience or events. Mila seems to have abandoned that as a poetic device.
Would you compare Mila's poetry to the work of a British poet? In what way is her writing interesting for English-speaking readers?
JS-S: British poets tend to write individual poems which stand by themselves in a collection except, of course, in style and a poet’s thematic obsessions. At worst this means that Anglophone poets often produce a little poem about a little theme which has little direct personal connection with the poet. Mila, on the other hand, seems to quarry her life, particularly her relationships and connect them with her spiritual and sensuous perception of the world almost as if a book of poems were the equivalent of a series of takes from a film where Mila is the main protagonist. But it isn’t autobiography or ‘dear diary’: the nature of memory and feeling are constantly interrogated. Mila is her own subject, but without egoism or self-pity.
How did you come up with the title Eternal Traffic?
JS-S: I didn’t. The publishers took the title from a line in the short, but key poem ‘Levitation.’
Here is an interview with Tony Ward from Arc Publishing.
Since this is not the first time you have published Mila Haugová, what is it about her poetry that you find appealing (perhaps even in comparison with other Slovak poets - some of whom have appeared in the Arc Publications' Six Slovak Poets Anthology)?
Tony Ward: Right from the start of our association with Mila Haugová she has shown herself to be personable and charismatic. At the same time her poems speak loud and clear, she has a touch of eccentricity that assists in the appreciation of her somewhat unorthodox style. She is unafraid to declare herself, her fears, her secrets, her loves, her frailties and desires in a language that allows a universality that is a rare gift.
There are other poets of course that are very interesting but I'm afraid it is purely a question of space, time and money that prevents us from searching for other Slovak writers. It is a real shame, but in common with most independent publishers in the UK, our list is practically full for three years.
What can Haugová’s writing offer to British readers?
TW: Mila offers an extensive perspective on many situations that have a recognisable common base, enhanced by a particular slant that is foreign and fascinating to the English mind. Her work is particularly captivating as it presents many different views and even, on occasions, conundrums. This approach makes her work intriguing and at the same time challenging and exciting for the reader.
When Mila is able to present her work in person, she reveals herself as a superb communicator, both in the way she introduces her poems and how she recites them in Slovak. Of course, the quality of the translation is paramount in these live performances and there's no doubt that James Sutherland-Smith performs the task with masterly craftsmanship and great empathy.
How was the book received (reviews, articles, reactions, etc.)? Did you plan any readings with the author before the pandemic hit?
TW: We were hoping that we would have been able to tour Mila in the UK, but I'm afraid Covid-19 had other plans. As a matter of course, all titles are sent for review to all the main reviewers and journals but at present there appears to be a log-jam and consequently we have not been been successful in getting Eternal Traffic the publicity it undoubtedly deserves.
What do British readers gravitate toward?
TW: This is a very interesting question because of the swings in fashion. The older generation still holds great store by the classics and with well-translated verse as well as the more traditional English poetry. The younger generation appears to gravitate towards their peers writing in English with an emphasis on the more exotic end of the market. I believe this has a lot to do with the present political situation in the UK, with our government's negative attitude towards Europe and also with the current debate on the historical effects of Britain's colonial past.
Consequently it does appear that less interest is paid to poetry in translation than to translated fiction. There are, I'm sure, some good reasons for this, not least that poetry is linguistically more complicated to translate and to be understood in its target language. But times change and sooner or later poetry will again realise its vital place within our culture.
What does Arc Publications gravitate toward? How do you choose your authors and how many books do you publish annually?
TW: We publish 15-16 new titles annually, of which up to 60% are translations, 27% are poets from UK and Ireland and 13% are poets resident elsewhere in the world but have English as their first language.
We do tend to gravitate towards translations and this is mainly historic. We published our fist translated text in 1974 and have, with one or two exceptions, produced bilingual texts ever since. Consequently a lot of our authors are presented to us by their translators. The English-speaking authors are either recommended by our editors or just send in unsolicited manuscripts. Occasionally we will make enquiries at performances (in any language) where we have been attracted by political, social or environmental content of the poetry, or compelling delivery.
Would you be able to compare Mila Haugová to any British poets?
To compare Mila with a British poet is very difficult. The effectiveness of Mila is her uniqueness which, even when translated, shines through in spite of cultural differences. Certainly the poets who wouldn't fight shy of tackling subjects in a similar fashion to Mila are mostly women. So I shall confine my choice to two female poets, Jackie Wills (UK) and Eva Kilpi (Finland). Both come as close to Mila as one could expect in their fluency and use of language, and above all, their authenticity.