Interview with Štefan Žáry by Viera Prokešová

Viera Prokešová: The poetry of your young and younger days (Srdcia na mozaike /Hearts on a mosaic/, Stigmatizovaný vek /Stigmatized Age/) is characteristic with the notion of anxiety from the time yet to come, from the day-to-day living and tomorrows. Do the themes of death and downfall belong to our youth, even though we never manage to get rid of them?

Štefan Žáry: The legendary youthful anxiety and flirting with death is a common phenomenon of the Freudian type (trauma) which gradually disappears by the time of adulthood. Or it may be active latently. Whether this phenomenon is inherited or simulated, it is cultivated intentionally. It stimulates creation and makes it more interesting, more mysterious. It was so in my case, too - at times more obvious and at others more subtle - from my first publication Zvieratník /Zodiac/ to Orchidea nostalgis /Orchidea nostalgis/. I did not act or pretend, my seeping into the text was spontaneous. Perhaps a touch of romance of surrealism? What is interesting though is that this phenomenon avoided my prose. 

Viera Prokešová: Autobiographical memories mark your poetry and prose significantly; you write about your childhood and youth spent in the Bystrica region, and later also about your trips to Italy.  Besides memory and imagination, what is the most present when writing this kind of work, is it mostly (let’s call on the writer Ján Smrek for help) the collection Iba oči /Eyes Only/?

Štefan Žáry: Autobiographical elements appear in the book like weed in a field of wheat. They pop up, even though you do not want them to. It is up to the reader whether he takes this as a positive or a complete demise. The variety of monotony, however, cannot be denied. There is no Berlin wall between the motherland, unique in any kind of way, and the whole wide world. At least for me, it was not there between Bystrica and Paris, Havana or Beijing. They mix freely in my prose and poetry. Does the author need just Smrek’s Iba oči /Eyes Only/ when collecting his impressions? No! Just so he needs Midas’ ears, Tantalus‘ punishment, Augian-stables – but most of all some kind of magical devil’s rock, Lapis infernalis, which connects sense with magma.

Viera Prokešová: In your expansive series of books you present us with portraits of your artist friends, as well as the portrait of the bohemian Bratislava. Is it Orchidea nostalgis, a kind of sadness for what had been lost, or perhaps also a joy that a different Bratislava is now being discovered by young poets? Is there a similar opportunity for them, or has it ceased to exist with the fast passage of time and we bring a happier Bratislava back, you – by writing and we – by reading?

Štefan Žáry: I am often reproached for not publishing the obligatory Memoirs. So, then, are the four books of memories of my peers complemented by an Anecdotical dictionary and a Small literary museum, not connected volumes of Memoirs? I smuggled myself into each one of those essays, so apocryphally, I revel in the text almost blatantly. Some things I did not want to let in, some I forgot and for others I did not have enough time. Cohabitation, rivalry and arguments over taste remain. They happen also today. Neither has the bohemian Bratislava ceased to exist. It is a different Bratislava and a different kind of bohemian expression though. To me, they are unfamiliar, I do not like them. And even though they terrify me, the historical mind tries to understand them.

Viera Prokešová: A substantial part of your creative activities consists of translations. How do you choose the authors, whose works you want to translate, what do they have to posses in order to interest you? You also watch how other work of “your” authors is translated (for instance, after you, Federico Garcia Lorca’s poems were translated by Ján Šimonovič and not too long ago by Ján Zambor).

Štefan Žáry: Simultaneously with my own attempts of work I became interested in foreign language poetry. In higher high school grades we were introduced to an excellent array of excerpts of French literature – from René to Rimbaud, even to the threshold of surrealism. I fell in love with it and tried to translate Rimbaud’s Le Dormeur du Val /The Sleeper in the Valley/ and Appolinaire’s Les Cloches /The Bells/. Shortly after, I came across Čapek’s Francouzská poesie /French Poetry/ and my interests were sealed. The later and more difficult effort to translate the complete work of Rimbaud was more impertinent rather than courageous. In any case, till today  there has not been any translation to succeed this effort till today (more than 60 years): it beatifies Slovakia, Slovak identity and the Slovak language.

Translation of world literature, continuously, became a balanced part of my work. As a Latino-French translator I was also offered Italian and Spanish literature. First were the Hispanics: Lorca, Guillén and Pablo Neruda. I knew Pablo personnally because he spent a longer period of time here. My military service and a work-related visit in Italy were full of friendships and personal contacts. Ungaretti, Montale, Pavese and Pasolini. The Nobel prize winner Quasimodo – whom I was translating for the upcoming mass edition - and I, worked as consultees. Personal contact can bring people together as well as set them apart. It is more beneficial when it comes to personal charisma than in work-related disputes. In the final work, however, it may not appear.

This kind of rivalry is inspiring. For instance, there is a dozen Slovak translations of Rimbaud’s Le Dormeur du Val /The Sleeper in the Valley/. Which one is the best? When I delivered my newest version of one of Rimbaud’s poems for Výber /Selection/ to the editor, Feldek, he gave preference to my ancient translation from before the 1950s. Supposedly it sounds lovelier; perhaps it is so because as a high school student he recited it at the Hviezdoslavov Kubín recital contest.

There are also numerous translations of F.G. Lorca. We can compare. I often quarelled with my competitor, Ján Šimonovič (who later became a good friend of mine). The last translation by Zambor is true to the original and smooth. I appreciate it. Either way, though, I consider my translation of Lorca to be the best. Does this make me an outrageous snob? No, ladies and gentlemen! But it is my step-child and I think it flows lightly, does not act all too literary, and it has the most euphonic sound for the Slovak ear and soul.

                                                                                                                                                                            Translated by Saskia Hudecová