Raising the Curtain on Slovak Literature

Radoslav Passia interviews translator Julia Sherwood

From October 22nd to November 27th 2019, to mark the 30th anniversary of the fall of communism in Central and Eastern Europe, a series of events entitled Raising the Velvet Curtain brought a new generation of contemporary Slovak writers, artists and performers to UK audiences. The programme featured talks and discussions with award-winning writers and filmmakers, a one-day conference on Slovak literature, as well theatre and dance performances.  We have taken this opportunity to talk to Julia Sherwood, a translator and promoter of Slovak literature in the British Isles, who organised the events and whose personal history is closely interwoven with the political events in Czechoslovakia before and after 1989.

You emigrated from Czechoslovakia in 1978 with your parents as a young adult, with your own experience of the communist regime. How did you experience November 1989 and the developments following the Velvet Revolution?


Throughout the eleven years of exile I was convinced that the regime would last forever and that I would never be able to return to the country of my birth. Then came Gorbachov’s policy of glasnost’ and perestroika, bringing the first rays of hope, followed by the first, almost free and democratic, elections in Poland in June 1989. Only in Czechoslovakia nothing was stirring, not even after Hungary opened its borders. But after the fall of the Berlin Wall it was obvious that it was just a matter of time before something would happen in my home country as well. I spent most of November glued to the TV set – until then I had no idea that so many news bulletins were broadcast each day. When the Velvet Revolution began, I was overjoyed not just at the changes that were happening but also because I spotted so many of my friends among the leaders of the rallies in Bratislava.


When were you sure that this change was going to be radical and that things wouldn’t end the way they ended in 1968?


As this was such a huge upheaval, really a tectonic shift affecting the entire region, it never even occurred to me we could relive the trauma of 1968. By then the Soviet regime was on its last legs and the dominoes were falling in one country after another.


Not turning her back on the past

You spent many years working for human rights organisations. What role did your personal experience of life in a totalitarian regime play in this?


I wasn’t able to simply leave my past behind. I wanted to do something meaningful, something that would help those who, unlike me, were still deprived of their freedom, and yet had the courage to fight for change by non-violent means. That is why I started working at the International Secretariat of Amnesty International in London. Apart from everything else, this gave me an opportunity to repay my debt to the organisation that had campaigned on behalf of my parents, adopting them as prisoners of conscience when they were imprisoned in Czechoslovakia for political reasons. My team was dealing with the Soviet Union and as Gorbachov started his reforms, so I had a chance to follow the trickle of releases of political prisoners. Later, after the fall of the regime, I switched to organisational work and was involved with setting up Amnesty International groups and activities throughout Central and Eastern Europe. It was really gratifying to see the first Amnesty group in Slovakia come into being. 


It was partly your personal experience of exile that led you to take on the mantle of translator and also promoter of Slovak literature. Your contribution was recognized when you received the 2018 Pavol Országh Hviezdoslav Prize, awarded to translators of Slovak literature into other languages. Do you have any other plans or unfulfilled dreams in this area?


My dream is to prove to the English-speaking public that Slovak literature is at least as interesting as the literatures of other smaller European nations and, indeed, to contribute to the effort to bury the notion of “smaller literatures”. It is to convince a wider range of British and also American publishers that it is worth publishing works by Slovak authors who are not yet well known. I am not a megalomaniac and am not fooling myself that this is something I could achieve on my own – it can be done only in cooperation with other translators and enthusiasts. And it won’t be possible without the kind of institutional help provided, for example, by Bratislava's Literary Information Center.


Will Brexit be a disaster from the cultural point of view?

The events marking the raising of the Velvet Curtain are taking place against the anti-current of a turbulent Brexit. What does this mean from your perspective as a translator and long-term champion of Slovak and Central European culture in the British Isles?


Although the decision to leave the European Union doesn’t necessarily reflect the views of the overwhelming majority of Britons, the referendum has revealed that a large part of the population of this country, which I had regarded as tolerant and open, leans towards nationalism, xenophobia, and even racism. Until recently these feelings had been bubbling under the surface but lately they have come to the fore and the general atmosphere has become quite toxic. And that doesn’t augur well for Slovak or Central European culture.


Is it possible to predict at this stage what impact Brexit will have on translated literature and the promotion of Slovak culture in general?


Some people are concerned that it will make the position of translated literature in the UK much more difficult. That would be a real disaster since, even at the best of times, translations amount for only a fraction (3 to 5 per cent) of the Anglophone book market. However, being an incurable optimist I hope that people with broader horizons who are interested in the world and literature – and let’s face it, people like that will probably never be in the majority anywhere in the world – will be motivated to seek out lesser-known writers from other countries to stop the UK retreating into isolation. I think this is precisely why we must redouble our efforts to introduce the British public to other cultures. As long as there are independent publishers willing to take the risk, there is a chance that they will be interested in books by Slovak writers.


Seeking a new audience for Slovak literature

The events you have organised are quite varied and go beyond literature. How did the programming come about and to what extent does its final shape accord with your original plans?   


My main aim was to introduce the British public to a new generation of Slovak artists. Apart from literature I focused on those cultural areas I am most familiar with: film, theatre, dance and music. My choices were based on information gathered during my frequent visits to Slovakia, and I also consulted some experts and was guided by my personal taste. Another factor I had to take into consideration was linguistic accessibility and a universal message. The artists who I felt met these criteria were Sláva Daubnerová and her monodrama Solo Lamentoso, and Everywhen, a modern dance performance by Soňa Ferienčíková. Both were shown at Rich Mix, a venue in East London, which also hosted Dash Café, a discussion event planned and organised jointly with Dash Arts and the Czech Centre London. It featured two Czech participants – the activist Monika MacMonagh Pajerová and the screenwriter and novelist Ondřej Štindl – while Slovakia was represented by the writer Zuzana Kepplová and filmmaker Tereza Nvotová. The only part of the original plan that didn’t quite work out was the concert.  A joint Visegrad Four event was planned but it ended up focusing on electronic music, which I don’t really follow. That is why I wasn’t involved in the organisation of the concert, but I was pleased that a Slovak musician, Stroon, did take part after all.


Which Slovak and British institutions did you cooperate with?


First and foremost, the Literary Information Center, that co-organised and funded the October tour of three Slovak writers – Ivana Dobrakovová, Balla and Uršuľa Kovalyk. The Institute of Slovak Literature of the Slovak Academy of Science was involved in the planning and organisation of a one-day conference on contemporary Slovak literature held in London on November 5th.  The Institute’s director Ivana Taranenková and I drew up the programme, and Slovak literature scholars from the Slovak Academy of Sciences and universities in Bratislava and Prešov, as well as British and American academics, presented papers.


On the British side, there was the conference host, the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London, and thanks to all these institutions we were able to organise the first conference on Slovak literature in the Anglophone world in thirty years. I also have to mention the arts centre Rich Mix, the innovative small organisation, Dash Arts and the Czech Centre London. I also cooperated with the European Literature Network and the publishers behind the most recent translations of works by Slovak authors – Jantar Publishing and Parthian Books. And none of this would have been possible without funding from Fond na podporu umenia (the Slovak Arts Counci), Arts Council England, and the Embassy of the Slovak Republic in Great Britain.


Academic reflection

What is the state of British Slovak studies? Do they even exist?


In recent years at British universities the situation of humanities in general and of foreign languages and literatures in particular has become quite difficult. This has been exacerbated by the decline in the teaching of foreign languages at primary and secondary school level. The impact has been felt not only by Slovak language and literature – the teaching of Baltic languages or the languages of former Yugoslavia has suffered just as much. It should also be noted that Slovak studies have never really existed in the UK as an independent subject, although a few people did cover it in a systematic way as part of Czech studies.  For a long time, the School of Slavonic and East European Studies (SSEES UCL) in London was the only place where Czech/Slovak studies could be pursued as a subject in its own right. This was primarily thanks to Professor Robert Pynsent. To give just one example, in London in 1988 he organised the first international conference on Slovak literature ever, anywhere in the world.


In the 1990s all universities in the UK suffered budget cuts and departments of Slavonic studies were among the hardest hit. Paradoxically, this happened exactly at the time of EU enlargement, when one might have expected a growing interest in the new member states. Since then students at SSEES have been able to study Czech and Slovak, but also Polish and Hungarian, only as a subsidiary subject, as part of courses in economics, sociology or political science. Dr Tim Beasley-Murray initially held an appointment that focused on Slovak literature but he gradually drifted away into general cultural studies. Fortunately, he has never entirely lost interest in Slovak literature and did give a paper at our conference. Professor Pynsent's successor, Peter Zusi, is also making an effort to cover Slovak literature but it is not his central interest.


The person currently pursuing Slovak studies most seriously in the UK is Dr Rajendra Chitnis. While he was the head of the department of Czech at Bristol University, he offered his students an optional overview course on Slovak literature. In September 2019 he became Associate Professor of Czech at the University of Oxford and we hope that he will generate interest in Slovak literature at this venerable institution. He has already made a start with the Slovak writers’ tour: he chaired the presentation in Oxford and brought several of his students along.


As part of Raising the Velvet Curtain you have also launched a new portal, Slovak Literature in English Translation. What purpose will it serve?


The portal is an extension of a Facebook group of the same name that I have administered with a fellow translator, Magdaléna Mullek, for several years, aimed at sharing information on English translations of works by Slovak authors, reviews and news of Slovak literary life. Magdaléna and I cooperated on an anthology of contemporary Slovak fiction, Into the Spotlight (2017), and the portal is another joint effort. It was launched as part of the Raising the Velvet Curtain project but it will continue beyond this series of events, serving as a kind of shop window where anyone interested in Slovak literature will be able to find information on authors and translations of their works available in English. We started by featuring profiles of authors who took part in the writers’ tour in October, reviews of their books, excerpts and interviews. We plan to gradually add more author profiles and in the longer term also to feature excerpts from books that have yet to find a publisher. [All author profiles were completed in February 2020 and the portal now includes information on 18 writers and details of 26 individual books by Slovak writers and 5 anthologies in English translation. Ed.]

Once the English version of the LIC website is launched, the two portals will complement one another.


Julia Sherwood (née Kalinová) was born in Bratislava in 1954. After emigrating in 1978 she studied English and Slavonic studies at universities in Cologne and Munich. She has lived in London since 1983, where she worked for the International Secretariat of Amnesty International for over 20 years. While living in the US from 2008 to 2014 she started translating fiction and non-fiction from various languages into Slovak and, jointly with her husband Peter Sherwood, from Slovak and other Slavonic languages into English. For her translation work she received the 2018 P.O. Hviezdoslav Prize from the Association of the Organisation of Slovak writers.