Interview with the translator and lecturer Heather Trebatická

HEATHER TREBATICKÁ (née KING, 1942) was born in London and studied English language and literature at Manchester University. Since her marriage in 1967, she has lived in Slovakia and worked as a lecturer in the Department of English at Comenius University (Bratislava). The majority of her translation work published in Slovakia has been in the fields of Slovak literature, culture, history and tourism. Translations published abroad (Canada, UK, USA) have included books on early Slovak history (Ján Dekan: Morava Magna), medicinal plants (Jaroslav Kresánek: Healing Plants), contemporary Slovak short stories (In Search of Homo Sapiens) and traditional fairytales (25 Classic Fairy Tales; 25 Fairy Tales and Fables; Mária Ďuríčková: The White Princess).

INKA MARTINOVÁ: Wasn’t it a rather strange decision – to come to live in Czechoslovakia at a time when many people wanted to leave? Was it easy to get used to life in a different country with a different political system?

HEATHER TREBATICKÁ: Most people can’t understand why we settled here and not in Britain, but it’s really quite simple. My husband is one of those Slovaks who loves travelling, but wouldn’t feel at home anywhere else. With me, it’s home is where your heart is. I was young, politically ignorant and in love – it wasn’t a difficult decision. Of course I experienced culture shock and there were difficult times – but not only for me. However, the people I met or worked with always made me feel so welcome, that I can honestly say I never regretted staying. I’ve also had an interesting career. I love teaching at the university and I’ve had a variety of work opportunities I’d never have had in Britain, such as correcting or contributing to textbooks, reviewing British and American best sellers, writing epilogues to translated novels or articles for magazines, recording texts (a song once!  – not solo, I’m glad to say) and I even spent 7 months as a translator and interpreter in the Czechoslovak pavilion at EXPO ’70 in Japan.

INKA MARTINOVÁ: When and how did you get in touch with Slovak literature? Was there a special moment, event or person that led you to a decision to start translating Slovak authors into English?

HEATHER TREBATICKÁ: From the beginning I had requests for help with translations. At first I just corrected others’ work, but I wanted to learn the language as soon as possible to understand what was going on around me. You never feel so lonely as when you’re with a group of people laughing and enjoying themselves, but you don’t know what it’s all about. My first translations were anything that happened to come along and were hard work. The largest translation dictionary available was just pocket size and my husband spent frustrating evenings trying to get the meaning across to me before I could put it into English. I can’t remember what my first encounter with Slovak literature was, but an early translation I’ll never forget was Milan Rúfus’ short contribution of poetic prose to the first issue of  the magazine “Slovakia”, intended for EXPO ’70. It was that piece that made me realise how beautiful Slovak prose could be.

INKA MARTINOVÁ: You have translated fiction, non-fiction and children’s books. What kind of books do you prefer to translate?

HEATHER TREBATICKÁ: I usually say that non-fiction (mostly magazines about the attractions of Slovakia) is my bread and butter, while fiction is my cake. So the answer is fiction, but I’m glad I’ve learned so much about Slovakia through translation and I really have enjoyed working on some books and films by Slovak explorers (Ladislav Gulik, Pavol Barabáš, František Kele). The children’s books have been fun.

INKA MARTINOVÁ: Which is your favourite translation? Was this book written by your favourite author as well? Who is your favourite author?

HEATHER TREBATICKÁ: I don’t have a favourite translation or a favourite author. My favourite translation is often the translation I happen to be working on at that moment. It’s true some of the texts have a special appeal for me, but they are by a variety of authors.

INKA MARTINOVÁ: Which was your most challenging translation? What are the real difficulties you encounter when translating from Slovak into English?

HEATHER TREBATICKÁ: Translations can be difficult or challenging for a variety of reasons. Anything legal or financial bores me stiff, so I never do these, though I admire those who can. Very abstract texts are particularly difficult to translate into English, which seems to prefer a more down-to-earth approach. What I find pleasantly challenging is prose written by someone with an obvious feeling for words. The little poetic prose introduction by Milan Rúfus to a book on Koloman Sokol took me quite some time, but gave me considerable satisfaction. The same is true of other translations that have forced me to be creative, either because of the play on words in Slovak (Ľubomír Feldek: The Blue Book of Tales; Pavol Janík: Dangerous Comedies; Daniel Hevier: Gurd Land) or for other reasons, such as the poetry in the TV serial “Štúrovci”, or the dialogue in modern plays, where you can’t just translate what the speaker says, but have to think how an English speaker would respond in that particular situation.

INKA MARTINOVÁ: Do you have a secret wish regarding translating?

HEATHER TREBATICKÁ: Although I’ve had the opportunity to translate some really beautiful non-fiction books (e.g. Karol Kállay: Slovak Castles or František Kele-Milan Lučanský: The Tatras), I do wish so many of my literary translations had not “vanished into thin air”. For financial reasons Slovak authors have few opportunities to get their works published abroad and as a translator I share their frustration. It is the reason why most of my literary translations have been no more than extracts, though in the 80s many of them were published in “Meridians” and now in the Slovak Literary Review. In the case of documentary or TV films and radio plays the translations are usually just for a festival jury’s information and although I am always very glad when such entries win prizes, I have nothing lasting to show for my efforts.

Translated by Ina Martinová