Anna Blahová-Šikulová: In the recent years, (more specifically, 1996 to 2005) four of your books have been translated and appeared abroad, with the help of the Slolia LIC Commission: Trestajúci zločin (A Punishing Crime) in Hungarian and Arabic, Zločin plachej lesbičky (A Shy Lesbian’s Crime)in Bulgarian and Holomráz in Norway. Can you recall your previous translations?
Ján Johanides: Much earlier, translations of my books appeared in English, German, Hungarian and my essay Rembrandt in French. Only now we are able to continue. Forgive me, my dear and long-time friend, Anka Šikulová (we know each other due to your partner in life, my fellow writer, Vincent, with whom I shared the difficult destiny of a writer – it always saddens me when I can’t see him on the street anymore), but you probably didn’t have information on all my books translated in foreign languages. My very first book (not to mention anthologies) appeared in Federal Republic of Germany in 1966 – Podstata kameňolomu entitled in German „Lamento eines verhinderten Selbstmorders“ in the renowned publishing house Limes – Verlag as the first Slovak book since 1945 – to quote the then editor-in-chief of Slovenský spisovateľ, the poet Ivan Kupec, who went to the Frankfurter Buchmesse (the letter is kept in my archive). I don’t know if German press found anything to say about me, as I have no sources. I can only remember a short notice in the leading Bavarian newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung by the Czech and Slovak scholar Dr. Franz Peter Kunzel – his was a nice, protective shoulder-tapping, but I in my early years of thirty-two was happy to be noticed in what we then, living in a totalitarian regime, saw as a free western world. I being – until today - a non-German speaker, the thank-letter for the Limes, i. e. meaning a frontier (allusion to Limes Romanum), a good name for a publisher in a divided Europe – which makes me think to have crossed this frontier, was written by the late Peter Hrivnák, then editor-in-chief of Mlada tvorba and German scholar. That piece of fiction was translated by Mrs. Aneliese von Gladrow, who had a perfect, written and verbal command of Slovak. I only met her once on some sort of dinner party at the Czechoslovak embassy in v Berlin many years later, after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Her dignified, pale and proud face undiminished by any make-up will always remain in my memory. Further to this question, let me say that Slovak critics themselves found nothing of merit in the Slovak original, from an unnamed editor of Košice‘s Pravda to the old communist D. Okáli, who wrote in Kultúrny život that I am worth the Beckett’s dictum „when will I finally kick the bucket“. Partly as a result of that German translation, I was only able to „go West“ after 1990, both as an author and in person. Additionally, Zločin plachej lesbičky appeared in Bulgaria in one volume together with Holomráz. A lot of my fiction was published in Hungarian (Konikiadó Európa) and Czech, even prior to 1990.
Anna Blahová-Šikulová: Translating literature in foreign languages is often a matter of personal contacts and closer relationships. Ultimately, it is vital for the translator to know its author – a better way to have insight to its verbal idiosyncrasies and its particular world of fiction. How is it with your contacts? Do you meet your translators during their work? Or did you know them in advance?
Ján Johanides: The question has already been partly answered. For me, the first part of the question is inconceivable, as I have never been one to pave its own way to translators, that is, to put it bluntly, I have never worked together with my translators. One exception in this respect is Ľ. Mauer. This concerned only words, neologisms and current slang – Mr. Ľubo Mauer has been living in Norway for more than fifty years. We’ve exchanged letters. Before that, all of my translators were complete strangers to me, and I never knew anything about them. For instance, I only figured out the translator of Kameňolom a couple of weeks before its publication in German. I have no idea who played my card in England when the whole book entitled The Myth of the Magic Unicorn appeared in the New Writing in Czechoslovakia anthology, which, then, only years later, was published also in Czech and Slovak as bibliophilia by Hevi. In England, I didn’t know anybody personally. The first contact with my critic R. B. Pynset happened in Bratislava in the Club of Slovak Writers, having before read his essay on my work called Stálosť krvi (The Permanence of Blood). I was invited to England, but the first signs of my lethal illness already prevented me from going to London.
My second German translator was the wife an of excellent poet, Peter Repka, who was suggested, in fact, emphatically suggested by my then close friend, professor at Humboldt University, academic, literary critic and politician Peter Zajac – to his credit – and Milan Šimečka, who drove me and the poet Mila Haugová to Offenbach to see my future translator Angela Repková and her husband. (All three of us had been on our way to Dortmund for a presentation of Slovak literature.) As we were getting lost in Offenbach (quite a big city), I had the redeeming idea to buy two or three bottles of French wine (not flowers, that I found too snooty to my taste). After several misses, we finally drove our way to the Repka couple, only to see they had been waiting all along – perhaps to the prior announcement of Peter Zajac. There, sipping through nice German fruit wine to be followed by our French bottles we began to talk and I, much to my astonishment, found that Angela would like to translate my book Holomráz, with a view of its publication by the highest echelons of German publishing –Fischer Verlag. I had more than misgivings that one of the greatest German publishers should succeed in publishing my little book, and seeing it in their extensive catalogue as a deal done I couldn’t stop making compliments to both Angela Repková and Peter Zajac. The book received acclaim in major German newspapers: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Zeit, becoming (according to Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung) a book of the month. Angela Repková translated several of my short fiction pieces.
Additionally in the period, the sun began to shine from other western, northwestern to be precise, part of the world. A friend of mine, Katarína Bednárová, daughter of my long-time friend Alfonz Bednár, a teacher and writer who (with Dominik Tatarka) was among the few Slovak writers, who had been sympathetic, wanted me to meet Madame Claudia Ancelot, a connoisseur of both Czech and Slovak and a French translator. Unfortunately, the attempt failed, although Madame Ancelot was at least able to meet (via post office) my works. My thanks go to Michaela Jurovská and Katarína Bednárová. Together with Igor Navrátil they provided the major, decisive momentum for arranging my Rembrandt essay to appear in Flohic edition – Musée secrets, a leading French publisher, translated by Madame Ancelot, and featured in the book fair. I was happy to find that 1,700 copies sold shortly in Paris, and the book later appeared in Slovak, published by K. Bednárová.
MUDr. Mousli, the Arabic translator of my fiction Trestajúci zločin I don’t know at all. Similarly, I don’t know the Bulgarian translator of Holomráz and Zločin plachej lesbičky. The same applies for the Hungarian translation of Trestajúci zločin.
Anna Blahová-Šikulová: Have you become friends with any of your translators?
Ján Johanides: None of them except Ivan Čičmanec, a Norwegian citizen, who contacted me with my Norwegian translator Ľubo Mauer. Initially, our only contact was in letters and telephone calls. With the Repka couple, we have been exchanging seasonal greetings ever since, and Peter Repka never fails to enclose a short poem of his. I am thankful for that.
Anna Blahová-Šikulová: Do you find your translators capable of capturing the essence of your fiction or only do you sometimes find significant subtleties missing?
Ján Johanides: Angela Repková and Ľubo Mauer convinced me that their approach to translating is not only precise but creative. I had no doubt as to Madame Claudia Ancelot’s great feeling for literary subtleties. This was already evident in her next choice of my Previesť cez most (Bridging Over), which is a difficult piece for a translator. Unfortunately, she died and her translation appeared as a fragment in a journal.
Anna Blahová-Šikulová: Do you receive international feedback for translations of your works?
Ján Johanides: Yes. I have been receiving feedback with acclaims from magazines and newspapers, which I am enclosing here. I’ve been also receiving letters, for instance, from the US and Spain.
Anna Blahová-Šikulová: The language of your fiction is not easy to go about; it certainly does not yield to a quick browse-through – the reader would be unable to capture all meanings, all aspects of reality. As a writer, you seem to be forever hovering around your facts before you feel ready to grasp them to correspond with your particular way of seeing things. Your fiction (however realistic it may be) is ultimately metaphorical and always a proof as to how the native tongue is so stubbornly tied with the world of emotions. Do you find it possible to communicate this aspect through into a foreign language?
Ján Johanides: Slovak is not an easy language, just like French. Anyone who has truly mastered the standard literary language, in addition to the spoken language, be it French, German or English or even Spanish (while my works have yet not been translated into the latter), is able to have an understanding of the Slovak sentence, compound sentences, as well as its metaphysical context of rarely used words and the multi-faceted meanings of the rich and plentiful Slovak language. I have no misgivings as to the ability of those translators and readers who wind my Slovak mysterious, complicated and provocative to unearth its underlying essence. Were it not so, they would not be engaging in translating my works at all (although, I am often criticized for my language by Slovaks themselves). I think that every sincere piece of literature carries a sort of universality that can appeal to otherwise foreign readers.
Anna Blahová-Šikulová: Did you find any translation of your work into foreign language surprising? Did you ever worry that foreign readers might not understand this? Or you find that literature is universal in its own way and any piece of writing is as such interesting?
Ján Johanides: I was surprised by the offer to write Rembrandt directly for the French publisher. The Musée secrets edition features writing on painters by writers, no by art historians or critics.
Anna Blahová-Šikulová: Do you have a dream as to what piece of your writing ought to be published abroad? Which of your fictions you find could have the strongest appeal to a foreign reader?
Ján Johanides: I don’t know. Sticking to the opinion of Mr. Čičmanec and Mr. Mauer, it would by my latest work Hmla na našej trpezlivosti (The Fog On Our Patience).
Translated by Ľuben Urbánek