Interview with Viliam Turčány, by Helena Dvořáková

HELENA DVOŘÁKOVÁ:  As a man of letters, you enter a world that is truly divine – is that world still any good for today’s people whose lifestyle seems to have drifted away from it?
VILIAM TURČÁNY: It pleases me to begin with the adjective „divine", in an obvious reference to Dante‘s Divine Comedy. Victor Hugo, the greatest of French poets, criticized the greatest of Italian poets for his lack of modesty precisely for that adjective, for that attribute heralding his own work, which, however, Dante himself called only a Comedy. According to its early 18th century French translator Artaud de Montord, it was only the 29th edition of Dante’s opus magnum, in 1516, that appeared entitled „Divine Comedy“, almost two centuries after it had been completed and its author dead. Needless to say, the nice attribute is fully deserved, not only for that work, and not only for Dante. In 16th century, the grantees of the title were several.

VILIAM TURČÁNY: Michelangelo, who happened to be a great poet in its own right, as witnessed by the Slovak translation of his poetry Som ako mesiac (I am Like A Moon) published by Slovenský spisovateľ in 1975, and the immense interest in it. Yet, at the time of Michelangelo, another claimant of that title was the man representing the new, emerging spiritual power of journalism, Pietro Aretino. This self-styled „secretary of the world " made himself a name far and wide. His favor was highly sought after at both principal and royal courts. The French king François I sent him a necklace of gold, and the very emperor Charles V had him at his side in Pescaro. Aretino even had the nerve to request something – I no longer remember what it was, but surely some of his art – from Michelangelo, urging him that, if he, Michelangelo, was divine, then Pietro Aretino must be no less than that.

HELENA DVOŘÁKOVÁ:  Is this world of „divinities“ still reachable today? Through your books, perhaps?
VILIAM TURČÁNY: Through what are „partly“ my books. Such as my poetical rendering of the Book of Job that was published by Tatran last year, the reprinted translation of Dante‘s Inferno illustrated by Marek Ormandík published by the Dante Alighieri Association in Bratislava, or Constantine the Philosopher’s Proglas (aka St. Cyril’s Prologue), the most ancient Slovak and Slavonic poem, a true gem of European poetry, that appeared in the publishing houses HERBA and Perfekt. As for my own poetry, the prospective reader would find it more difficult as these volumes are out of print. This could perhaps be a good beginning for the reader, but surely not the only way. You don’t even need books, especially today! I recall to have learnt the entire four hundred lines of Edison, Vítězslav Nezval’s masterpiece, by heart, from a notebook, which was first used by a fellow-student at the Trnava gymnasium Jožko Watzka to rewrite the whole poem and the entire volume Básne noci. What is important, then, is to learn to know the literary works by the true giants of the past that could be helpful even to fresh authors, not only readers. That is the principle of Klassizismus, and mine. Other may benefit from it, too.

HELENA DVOŘÁKOVÁ:  Poetry has been your life – what were the benefits? Joy? Knowledge? Happiness? What work made you most happy?
VILIAM TURČÁNY: My benefits from poetry were more than plentiful. Yet, my greatest pleasure was to work on Dante‘s Divine Comedy. At a time most unfavorable for anything spiritual, I was able to express things that would be unpublishable, if found in my own poetry. Translating this „last miracle of the world’s poetry ", to borrow from the Italian Nobel prize winner Eugenio Montale, took „only" 27 years of pleasure. Yes, I was happy that Jozef Felix (felix, as surely clear to the reader, means „happy“ in Latin) chose me as his colleague. Together, we translated the first two volumes, Inferno and Purgatorio, and, after his death, I was left to translate the third volume, Paradiso, alone. In fact, I wasn’t alone, as my dear dad was then already my companion, who tried his best to take care of my house and my living in Bratislava, and who, when the translation was completed at Christmas 1983, passed away to Eternity at Twelfth Night 1984.

HELENA DVOŘÁKOVÁ:  Do biblical stories get prettier in a poetical setting?
VILIAM TURČÁNY: Surely, they are beautiful by themselves, and it was the goal of the Ecumenical translation was to make precisely that happen. To show that, in their fresh Slovak beauty, they belong to the treasures of world poetry, just like Dante, Goethe, Shakespeare. The Tatran publishing house engaged two poets for this translation: Rúfus for Psalms and Jeremiah, and me for the Song of Salomon and the Book of Job.

HELENA DVOŘÁKOVÁ:  Do poets change with life marching on? You still seem to possess an almost boyish playfulness. Is that the privilege of the poets? Does experience makes work easier or worse?
VILIAM TURČÁNY: I don’t translate any more, instead, I have been lately interpreting my previous translations, in particular the Philosopher‘s Proglas and Dante‘s Divine Comedy. Yet, I would quote two great poets: „Though I was not born, / to see things thrice and always differently," Boris Pasternak wrote once, and Milan Rúfus, borrowing from these lines, carries on in his preface to my poetry: „Nor was Viliam Turčány born for that." That boyish fondness of play has been my staple since the surrealist manifesto of 22 March 1944 all the way to my inauguration speech at the University of Trnava of 2 May 2005. Receiving the honorary title, I quoted the first stanza of the surrealist anthem. Yet, playfulness is no enemy of serious message. If  the world could only be saved by beauty, as Dostoevsky had it, a similar note can be found the that stanza:
S tými, čo v hrách času krásy milujú, ktorí srdcom krásu asimilujú: ako jedno telo sme tu, búravy nás nerozmetú, trochu krásy priniesť svetu, nech už všetci prijmú ju -na to som tu, na to sme TU.
With those who love in the games of time, who assimilate beauty by their hearts: we are one here, the storms will not scatter us through, to bring a little beauty to the world, let all accept it – that is what I am here for, what we are here for.

                                                                                             Translated by Ľuben Urbánek


The interview was originally published on 29 February 2008 in the Pravda daily.


Viliam Turčány




You had the name of an angel

who drove our forbears from paradise

and through you he is sent down to me

and joined to the earth.


Once his lips would order

to rise from the regions of the earth

even sinners who had repented

despite the many things they’d done.


Let us – close to you also in name –

this archangel will remember

when the last trump will sound


If I was evil – if for a moment

angelically pure, graceful

I was able to love beauty.


At Anchor (1972)



From when I was very young, so young

– just pour! –

one song through my head has run

and runs even more.


What do I prefer? – Oh, which do I prefer?

– Just drink! –

How the vineyard cools in summer,

in winter turns cheeks pink.


This which waits for me with all its might

– down all the way

which I would drink, which would drink me out of sight

from day to day!


A song through my head has run,

that it will wait

that it will wait for me even when waiting is done,

so accurate!


At Anchor (1972)



A wandering minstrel comes

to greet his native land.

Let his hearth and home

give him everything with an open hand!


Peace and honey, song above the hives of bees,

which into every heart stray,

though the land be waste, the land be gloomy

the curse won’t lift any other way.


The wind which from songs has blown to me

has filled the groves with light and grace,

the orchards with winegrowers who gladly

turn to all a cheerful face –


and on Apple – rolls and rolls,

leave it for the pilgrim to eat!

A wandering minstrel calls

and lays lovely days at your feet.


At Anchor (1972)



Only by his statue and his family home,

only in the bright brilliance of a Florentine day,

only then did I understand „dolce lome“.


At last the gate opened for me

and where a house and memorial stood

I entered the famous city.


To him it was my first footsteps led;

„E questa casa di Dante,“ I asked and stared

at a Florentine who smiled „Where indeed.“


Here somewhere he wet the ground with his tears

when his lady denied him greeting.

Here everywhere I drew up strength against my fears


and embraced his work on all sides

so that a welcome in our home it will get

so for him all our gates will be opened wide


and spread abroad will be his sweet light.


I Am Also a Bridge (1977)

                                                                                  Translated by James Sutherland-Smith