The Translator Should Be the Ultimate Servant of the Author and Poetry

An interview with the Translator Jana Boxberger

MV: What does translating, especially translating poetry mean to you?

Jana Boxberger: For me translating is a creative process. When I read poetry, first of all I try to see the text from within, I want make clear the poet's reasons for writing, his way of writing, what he felt, what he wanted to say, I don't pay too much attention to form, although of course I can't ignore it, I try to plunge deeper and identify with the text, of course only if the text I'm reading means something to me. If I don't like it and I can't identify with the author, then I don't even make an attempt at translation. However, when I get the feeling that I understand the author, I am able to empathize to the extent that I feel as if we wrote it together. And then when I start translating, I do my best to create the impression as if the author was using the target language. So you see, it is a creative process and when I'm finished I feel the same satisfaction as if I wrote it by myself. I am not saying that I am satisfied with myself. The feeling doesn't last long because questions start to come up and I go back to the translation looking for misunderstandings and I keep rewriting it. When I finish the translation I experience a few moments of satisfaction but after doing the tenth version I am not satisfied at all. I don't think that translation is treason -- as Italians often say -- but it certainly demands concessions because the poetic text consists of numerous layers related to form, meaning and perception and it rarely happens that the translator is able to express them all adequately. Sometimes it is not possible for language reasons, sometimes the reader is not acquainted with realia of the source language and so one has to make revisions -- I hate the word because I don't want revise let alone correct anyone but without revisions the poem would not be understood. However, to get back to your question, translating means creating something and that can bring you even greater satisfaction than when you actually write the text. Modesty is most important. The translator should remain unseen, hidden behind the author, he should never try to make improvements though he often has to pay the highest price because the reader won't notice or remember his name. The translator has to become the ultimate servant of the author and poetry, he has to be utterly selfless and I think that I have managed to do so. It's not a question of who translates something but how he does it.

M.V. I would like to know your opinion on the formal side of translating poetry: what about rhymes, internal rhymes and rhythm?

J.B. I think that a translator should respect the formal side of the text as much as possible. Afterall it is the integral part of the text and sometimes -- especially in older poetry -- the form is predominant. Even now some of the contemporary authors use classical style of writing where one rhyme leads to another and so on, which is why I feel it would be treason to use free verse instead of stricter rhymes. Of course it is impossible to capture all attributes of the original in the target language. French poetry for instance doesn't use iambic or trochaic verse but alexandrine verse is not unknown. It is therefore possible to translate classical form using another classical form without giving up rhythm and internal rhyme that can be almost always created in the target language. Rhythm is the most important attribute even in free verse. Poetry lacking these attributes is very rare and anyway, is it still poetry? No rhythm and no musicality -- what is it based on? Of course this is a question for further discussion.

M.V. French translators don't respect these formal attributes and they use only free verse.

J.B. Unfortunately this is true. But the Italians respect them absolutely. The other day I was watching preparations for the Shakespearean Festival in Sicily on television. I almost believed that the texts are in English but they were in Italian. I bow to them. The French say this is impossible. I don't think so but it means hard work and for some reason they don't try hard enough. For instance they use free verse in translations of Josip Brodskij ignoring the original verse and it's not him anymore.

M.V. You are a poetess. What about your own work, do you translate it or do you write in French?

J.B. I do it both ways actually. I live in France most of the time and when I am there I write in French. But back in Prague I naturally write in Czech a I translate my poems into French. I have to admit that I like those translated into Czech better. I usually rewrite poems that have been translated from Czech into French because I am never satisfied with them.

M.V. Can you tell us what the situation is like regarding poetry in France? Does it have its own readers, how is it published, what is the publishers' attitude to poetry and maybe you could spare a few words about publishing translated poetry.

J.B. A lot of poetry is being published in France. From the large publishing houses practically only Gallimard publishes poetry but there are many smaller houses and the number of titles is really incredible. Usually there are no more than five hundred copies in one edition, sometimes less than that, only the most important author gets maybe a thousand copies. I would like to point out that the situation is improving because poetry is getting better. To you it may seem like a paradox but there was a time when the French stopped reading poetry because it was simply unreadable. That was during the sixties, seventies and at the beginning of the eighties but after that authors suddenly realized that if they want people to read their poems they have to come up with a message, they have to write for the readers not for other poets or pseudopoets. At that time someone bought a book of poems and after reading the first one he thought to himself, I must be stupid because I don't get it, but when he read the tenth poem in the book and still had the same feelings, he started to ask whether the author really wants to share with him. Fortunately, this situation is history now. Some of the older generation poets haven't given up this kind of writing but the younger ones write for the reader again and poetry is experiencing its renaissance though we can't speak of poetical boom. On the French radio station France culture you can listen to poetry that is easily understandable. In the past you'd hear monotonous voices reciting clusters of words and after three verses you simply lost track. The situation in publishing poetry translated from foreign languages has also improved as France is beginning to open up. It wasn't like this always. For a long time France was self-sufficient. At this year's book fair Salon du livre the guest of honour is Portugal, the home of the great poet Fernando Pessoa and others, last year it was French speaking Quebec but still a foreign country... In the past the focus was always on France. There are translations from East European literatures and I don't mean only Russian. Actually, I even saw an anthology of Persian poetry.

M.V. What is the status of the translator in France, has it changed in any way and what is the difference between the translator in France and for example in the Czech republic?

J.B. There is a notable difference. In our countries you can make a living as a translator. It was never possible in France. Apart from a few top translators -- one of them, whom I'd rather not name, is now translating the whole work of Dostoevsky -- you can't make a living as a translator in this country. He is an exception. As a rule, translators don't get paid for their work, the publishers give them some books and that's all. Sometimes they are less lucky and have to buy their own translations for half the price or even at normal price. My translation of the anthology of Czech exile poetry was published in a Belgian literary magazine and I had to subscribe to the magazine if I wanted to have my translations and then I had to buy quite a number of copies of the anthology. To make it short, I invested two thousand francs plus my work just to see Czech exile poetry published at last. And that's how it has been for years. I don't make any money from translating, on the contrary I have lost quite a lot of it. I am sorry to say that things are beginning to be like that in the Czech Republic too. For instance a publisher applies for a translation grant and if he receives it he won't give it to the translator but use it for other purposes like printing fees. But the grant was officially given to the translator and he has to sign the receipt although he never gets a penny.

M.V. It has been said many times that you are a blessing for Slovak poetry because you translate it into French without being assisted by another linguist. You are familiar with French, Czech and Slovak poetry. What is the difference between them in reflecting the world rationally, emotionally and imaginatively?

J.B. The differences are enormous. If I wanted to speak about how close Slovak and Czech poetry is to French poetry, I would refer to francophonic poetry from Belgium or Quebec. Francophonic poetry of Belgian or Quebec origin and French poetry is comparable with Czech and Slovak poetry an its relation to poetry in neighbouring countries. It's born from it and yet stands in opposition to it. We have to prove that we are equally good, that we don't fall behind. The French never had to assert themselves in any way and that is why French poetry is self-sufficient and self-centred. Of course there is a great difference in mentality and in the fact that French poetry always stems from thought which is then applied to life whereas our Czech and Slovak poetry and Russian and Slavonic poetry as such stems from life which leads to great ideas, or to be more precise, inspires the reader. And that is a great difference. French poetry is much more abstract while Slavonic poetry tends to be concrete and the outcome is abstract.

M.V. Can you tell us about your future plans?

J.B. I have a lot of plans actually. I only hope that I'll have enough time and energy to fulfil them. I am speaking about my translations, not writing. In collaboration with the Prague publishing house Protis I am preparing a collection of poems by André Schmitz, a Belgian poet. I have selected some of his poems for the anthology of Belgian poetry called Na krídlach modrého vtáka (On Wings of a Blue Bird). I've dedicated ten pages to him but I am afraid it's not nearly enough for a poet of his rank. The collection called Trochu da§Ôa medzi zubami (A Bit of Rain Between Your Teeth) will be published shortly in both languages. I am also working on a collection of poems by Claudine Bertrand from Quebec under the title Posledná žena (The Last Woman). I am preparing an anthology of Slovak poetry to be published this year in June by Le temps des cerises. I am translating an anthology of Quebec poetry containing thirty authors from the end of 19th century up to present day which will be also published this year. And I am doing a short anthology of Slovak feminine poetry for the Quebec literary magazine Arcade. But I have other plans too.

M.V. You have written several books of poetry in Czech and in French. Are you working on a new one?

J.B. In cooperation with the publishing house Protis I'd like to publish a collection of poems in prose called Mal‚ podobenstvá (Short Parables).

M.V. Who are your favourite Slovak, Czech and French authors?

J.B. I have to start with the Slovak poetess Lýdia Vadkerti Gavorníková, a wonderful and ingenious writer. I have deep respect for Mila Haugová. I like Štefan Žáry very much, I simply adore Ján Ondruš, I enjoy reading Marenčin, Stacho, Buzássy, Štrpka, Štrasser, Švantner, Hevier, Groch and Kolenič. Marta Podhradská is one of my favourite poetesses. Among Czech authors I like Jaroslav Seifert and of course the younger poets such as Miroslav Holub, Karel Šiktanc and Emil Juliš. In French poetry I prefer the older authors but thanks to translations of Francophonic poetry I have discovered others like Hector Saint Denis or Emile Neligan. They lived at the beginning of this century and their work is comparable with that of Baudelaire or Verlaine but until recently they were virtually unknown in France only because they were removed from the centre. I'd say that these poets, living away from the centres whose work exceeds all borders, are most promising for the future of francophone poetry.

M.V. My last question is not directly related to poetry. How do you perceive globalization which is so strongly opposed in France as a threat to culture? Do you agree with the French idea of humanizing the process of globalization?

J.B. I think the threat is real and I have a feeling that for example the Czechs have more effective ways of protecting themselves because you can still watch their television. It's out of the question here. I would never turn it on if it weren't for the French-German channel Arte. I saw Shakespeare's Henry IV. on Czech television in English with Czech subtitles and it was prime time on a Saturday night! Something like that is unthinkable in France. Yes, the threat exists but dealing with it is not up to those who are making it. It should become an issue of utmost importance to those who are at risk and who accept it all -- the seemingly mindless consumers. We have to fight back. After all, original creative work still exists.

M.V. And now the final question: What should translators do to gain more respect and improve their status?

J.B. I really think that the translator should not strive to be famous. He should remain the faithful servant of the author. There are but a few translators of poetry who are not authors themselves. Let them deserve fame and glory with their own work and when translating let them be humble servants of literature.

Interviewed by Miroslava Vallová