Without Translating I Wouldn’t Be a Slovak Author Anymore

„This is the prize I’ve always wanted to win,“ says Ivana Dobrakovová, the new laureate of the European Union Prize for Literature. 

Congratulations on the EU Prize for Literature. How did you react when you found out you won?

It probably sounds strange but I’ve always wanted to win this prize so I was very happy. My friend Paľo Rankov had received it in the past so I knew it meant more translations into different languages and subsequently, more readers. And that’s what matters.  

The prize means a greater focus on your work as well as translations into various languages. That means traveling and presentations. How do you feel about the promotional activities?

Well, not so great. I don’t have a problem with presentations; I’ve stopped worrying about what I say at these occasions. Traveling, however, is more and more stressful. The EU Prize wrote to us, the laureates, whether we would be interested in attending book fairs in Mexico or in India but I don’t think I am able to leave Europe anymore, not even for a short trip. 

What is the universal aspect in the stories of the four women in your book Mothers and Lorry Drivers?

I don’t think I write exclusive stories of exclusive people. I believe these are ordinary tales of women, ordinary thinking, ordinary problems – this is true for at least some of the characters. From what I read, however, the critics tend to see severe psychological problems there and an insane view of the world. So I’m not sure. 

Maria Modrovich (Flešbek) and Richard Pupala (Čierny zošit) were nominated for the prize along with you. Did you read the books and if yes, what did you think?

Yes, I enjoy reading Slovak literature. I’ve read Rišo Pupala – we have the same publisher, PT Marenčin – and I really liked his collection of social horror stories, especially the first short story about Ivana who is having a breakdown on her maternity leave. He mentions Malá Čausa where I used to go on holidays as a child, and my cousin. I also read Mária Modrovich, her book has some very strong moments and again, there’s the topic of maternity. She is an author who speaks to me. 

Stefan Zweig said that writers who are starting out should concentrate on translations that will give them lessons in style. Do you agree?

Well yes, I agree. It’s an advantage we translators have; we are bound to fight a daily fight with texts and styles of different authors. We can learn a lot when we work with a language and we can also see which road not to take. But what about writers who are not translators? If I worked at an office and could only write at night, I guess my own writing would be my main focus. And what about authors who don’t speak any languages? Then again, why should I concern myself with that?

How was it for you?

I can confirm that translating played – and still plays – a vital role in my own writing. It saves me in a way. I’m a Slovak who has lived in Italy for fourteen years and sometimes – out of laziness –, I talk Italian, I think in Italian, I write my shopping list in Italian, I speak with my daughter in Italian. Were it not for my hours-long work with the Slovak language, I wouldn’t be a Slovak author anymore. Not in this situation and not here. 

You are one of the few female Slovak authors who also translate. Elena Ferrante took a lot of your time that you could have spent writing. What did she give you in return?

Elena Ferrante gave me a lot. There aren’t many authors who can stand the test of the months-long scrutiny that translating really is. It is the most detailed reading where everything comes to attention, especially the things the author isn’t aware of. It highlights each clumsiness, tic, nonsense, all that comes – as we poetically say – from the subconscious. (I would never dare to translate myself). I have been translating Elena Ferrante for three years and she had more than passed the test! The work on the Neapolitan Saga gave me so much joy that at times, I forgot to do the translating and I just kept reading a portion of the text over and over. I want to translate; I wouldn’t like to give it up. There’s nothing more joyous than translating a good writer. 

How would you characterize contemporary Slovak fiction from where you stand?

It’s alive and it doesn’t suffer from an inferiority complex. Less artificial. Often times more striking. Adolescent authors like Niccolò Ammaniti or Amélie Nothomb would never pass here. 


Ivana Dobrakovová works as a freelance translator from French and Italian. Since 2005 she lives in Torino. She is the author of the books The First Death in the Family (2009), Bellevue (2010), Toxo (2013) and Mothers and Lorry Drivers(2018). All four titles have made the finalists’ list of the Anasoft Litera Award. In May 2019, she was awarded the European Union Prize for Literature for Mothers and Lorry Drivers. The other authors nominated for the EU Prize for Literature 2019 were Mária Modrovich with her book Flešbek and Richard Pupala for Čierny zošit