How did you get in touch with Czech and Slovak literature, where did you learn the languages?
- In 1934 the Baťa company founded factories in Romania and there was a need for chemists. I applied through a competition and got a grant for professional studies in Zlín. I could make a choice of studying in English, German, French or Czech. Although French was more familiar for me I chose Czech. Once my classmates and I had a bet to see who could drink the most wine, with the winner not having to pay, and me, a stupid fool, won the bet. I ended up in hospital with alcohol poisoning. I felt horrible and the next day I was depressed because I thought they would throw me out of school. But the doc was very kind and did not sent a note to the school, but gave me a book instead. You know which book? Stories of The Good Soldier Švejk (Osudy dobrého vojaka Švejka). I was laughing so loudly while I was reading it, the nurses were wondering what was going on. Indeed the day before they couldn’t give me a blood test, I was so weak. They called the doctor, but he only waved his hand: he is allright. That’s how I read Švejk for the first time. This book was published in Romania, but incomplete, only a selection of maybe 110 to 120 pages and they titled it The Struggles of an Idiot. I thought that it was necessary to improve this so that the book could be published unabridged in Romanian. At this time I did not even imagine that I would translate that great work. Švejk changed my life totally, from this time I became interested in Czech literature and I noticed that there was a large amount of notable works and authors.
We are glad, that beside the great Czech writers some Slovak writers found a place in your life too. In this case who spoke the magic word to open the doors to the treasure of Slovak literature?
In 1949 I met Peter Karvaš, who was working for the Czechoslovak Embassy in Bucharest. It was clear to me, even from our first meeting, that he was indeed a major European intellectual. We became friends, he gave me his short stories to read and then his theatre plays and, because I was fascinated, I started to translate them one by one. The Karvaš theatre plays were extremely successful in Romania, several of them had long runs at pre-eminent Romanian theatres. It was Marie Majerová who, during a translators meeting of Czech and Slovak literature and writers in Prague, called my attention to an important new work. She told me that there was an excellent novel by Ladislav Mňačko called Death‘s name is Engelchen (Smrť sa volá Engelchen, 1959). I was introduced to the author and he invited me to the area the novel was set in around Zlín. The translation of this book was published in 1962 in an incredible 40,000 copies and they honoured me with a state award for this. However, there was no publicity about this in Slovakia, because by this time Mňačko had fallen out of favour. In Bucharest I became friends with Ladislav Ťažký. I published the translation of his novel Amenmary (Amenmária), firstly in a magazine and later the book. Step by step I got in touch with further Slovak writers.
What place does Slovak literature have in the mind of today‘s Romanian readers?
You have got me in an awkward position now. I have to admit, that there was only a little translated from Slovak in recent years. Slovak literature does not have an ace like Kundera or Hrabal. When I am talking about ace I do not mean the quality, but how famous that writer is in the world. There is not even a big interest in other excellent, Czech writers. That’s the way it is at the moment, it’s a catch 22: they do not know them, thatś why they do not translate them. But when they translate them, the books do not get published, so they stay unknown. However, it is necessary to mention that the Ivan Krasko Foundation in Nadlak is doing really good work for Slovak literature.
You are talking about „in recent years“ ... Was it different in the past?
Already during a conference of Bohemists and Slovakists in Prague in 1960 I described a really interesting and very special phenomena: in Bucharest most of the literature translated was Czech not Slovak, but paradoxically most Romanian literature was not translated in Prague, as you might expect, but in Bratislava. I mentioned the interesting fact, that Dilia regularly sent us a list of Czecho-Slovak literature. But Czecho-Slovak literature has never existed, there is only a Czech literature and a Slovak literature. Jiří Hajek made a positive comment in the newspapers about my statement, saying that it was the only critical opinion about that issue. I would really appreciate it if they would also translate Romanian literature in Prague like they did in Bratislava. Romania owed and owes Slovakia a lot in connection with literature.
What is your favourite and your most difficult translation from Slovak literature?
The short stories of Nataša Tanská Postscripts (Postskriptá). They were published in a large print run shortly before the 1989 revolution, now the book will be reprinted.
What about the situation of the culture of books and the book market in Romania? How did the Romanian book trade cope with the new free market system? Is it easy to sell books?
It is easy to sell translations of Kundera and Hrabal, they are among the favourite authors in Romania. To publish original Romanian literature it is necessary to find sponsors; poetry is usually published in editions of 300 to 500 copies; for novels and short stories, if they are extremely good, you can get an edition of up to 3000 copies. In comparison: before the 1989 revolution the Švejk book was printed in its fifth edition on the 100th anniversary of Jaroslav Hašek’s birth with 150 000 copies!
What do you think about the task of the state related to culture, should the state support culture and to what extent?
The Secretary of culture supports book publishing with grants, but there is not enough money to support writers too. It supports literature publishing magazines and at least a few writers are employed in this way.
What about your credo for translation?
The most important thing is to know how to make a choice about excellent authors and to promote them. I have never translated a book if I was not sure about its intrinsic worth as literature, and that is the reason I am going to translate Wickerchairs from your excellent writer and dissident Dominik Tatarka.
Marta Bábiková, Miroslava Vallová
Translated by Andrea Koch and Andrew Reynolds