The Week in Translation

SUBMIT what: Beltway Poetry Quarterly's Translation Issue submission deadline: November 30 more info: http://ow.ly/E4VYI what: Call for Papers: Translating the Literatures of Small European Nations (International Conference, University of Bristol, September 8th-10th, 2015) submission deadline:…...read more »

Dispatch from ALTA: Politics and Translation: No Easy Answers

What are the links between literary translation and politics? Do literary translators have obligations in the political sphere? If you wanted more questions than answers, then this weekend’s annual conference of the American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin was the…...read more »

The Week in Translation

GO what: Jenny Erpenbeck in Conversation with Susan Bernofsky about Erpenbeck's new novel, The End of Days when: Monday. November 17, 7pm where: McNally Jackson Books more info: http://ow.ly/Ep8fV what: Ari Larissa Heinrich, the translator of Last Words from Montmartre by Qiu Miaojin,…...read more »
Image of The City and the Writer: In A Coruña with Marta López Luaces

The City and the Writer: In A Coruña with Marta López Luaces

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains. —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities Can you describe the mood of A Coruña as you feel/see it? It is a melancholic…...read more »

Ayotzinapa

On October 26, 2014, a national assembly of Morena (Movement for National Regeneration) was held at the Zócalo in Mexico City, marking one month of the disappearance of the forty-three students of the rural teachers’ college of Ayotzinapa. Amid the crowds chanting “Vivos se los llevaron,…...read more »

The Week in Translation

GO what: Esmeralda Santiago: A Writing Life when: Wednesday, November 12, 7pm where: Americas Society, 680 Park Avenue, New York, NY  more info: http://ow.ly/E4VBG SUBMIT what: Beltway Poetry Quarterly's Translation Issue submission deadline: November 30 more info: http://ow.ly/E4VYI…...read more »
Image of Where the Sidewalk Bends: Translation History in the Capital of the Future

Where the Sidewalk Bends: Translation History in the Capital of the Future

The Third Annual Seminar on the History of Translation, organized by University of Brasília professor Germana Pereira, took place from October 6-8 on the UnB campus, inside a moat-rimmed, mushroom-shaped silver building. The speakers included graduate students and professors from Brazil, the US,…...read more »

The Week in Translation

APPLY what: Banff International Literary Translation Centre when: June 8, 2015 - June 27, 2015 where: Banff. Canada application deadline: February 18, 2015 more info: http://ow.ly/Dohfw
Image of The City and the Writer: In Kyoto with Brian Turner

The City and the Writer: In Kyoto with Brian Turner

If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains. —Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities   Can you describe the mood of Kyoto as you feel/see it? I was surprised to…...read more »

Celebrating WWB and Carol Brown Janeway: Our 2014 Gala and First Annual Globe Trot

Tuesday night WWB staff, board, contributors, supporters, and readers gathered at Tribeca 360, where the panoramic view mirrored the sweep of our content, to celebrate our eleventh anniversary and present the second James H. Ottaway Jr. Award for the Promotion of International Literature…...read more »

Most Recent Entry

Where Is My Home?

When I was looking for my aunt’s grave a couple of years back in the New Jewish Cemetery in Prague, I came across a section of maybe eight or nine recent burial mounds. I felt a sudden burst of gladness because, for all its oddness as a reaction, these recent deaths meant that there was still an active Jewish community. I’d visited the graveyard a few times; it’s where Kafka’s buried. What had struck me each time before was that the years of death on the tombstones all ended by 1938 (these were the lucky ones), and that most of the names, including my own family’s, were German.

German-speaking Jews were a separate community from German-speaking Czechs, who were themselves a separate community from the Czech-speaking Czechs. But all were part of the vibrant new republic in the inter-war years. It was the Nazi invasion that put an end, so tragically and ironically, to the presence of the German language in Czech identity. The Czechs, too, had their hand in it, through the expulsion and murder of German Czechs after the war, an episode no one likes to talk about.

Jakuba Katalpa, whose novel is simply—but also, not so simply—called Germans / Němci, thinks about these different “Germans” through the search by a young Czech woman for her “German” grandmother, Klára, after her father’s death. The unnamed narrator never met her grandmother, who was sent back to Germany, but left her son behind in Czechoslovakia; throughout the Cold War, he received parcels full of Gummi bears. Klára’s story brings the narrator through German and Czech history, moving backward and forward in time, uncovering individual histories and the linguistic and social interconnections between the different identities. Katalpa is not just interested in the past, but in how these complicated identities still impact Czechness now. Like the recent burial mounds in the New Jewish cemetery, her stories suggest a certain vitality to the remnants of this multilingual past.

What strikes you first about Katalpa’s style is its deliberate simplicity. Each short chapter has a one-word title, something that seems straightforward until the minute you try and translate it. Two instances spring to mind: the title, Němci, and one of the chapter titles, “Ras.” Czech has no definitive articles, so it might make sense to call the novel The Germans except the very heart of the book is the issue of the differences within German identity: Germans seemed more fitting. The old-fashioned term “Ras” can be translated by similarly old-fashioned “Knacker,” someone who would slaughter old horses for glue and dog-meat. The problem was on my end: “knacker” is a Dublin pejorative term with tones, in my Irish ear, of the bully (I grew up in Ireland, a child of Czech and Irish parents). I went with “Slaughterer,” though “Horse-Slaughterer” is more accurate, in order to keep the complex simplicity of the one-word title.

That surprising complexity is also evident in the seemingly forthright, quite declarative, language. There is little fuss about it, little of the obvious playfulness of some of the other writers in Words Without Borders’ Contemporary Czech Prose issue. The plainness of the prose implies transparency and a matter-of-factness about the past, as if to emphasize a clear narrative about a muddied history. Of course, at the same time, it leaves a lot unsaid; the characters and narrator use an unadorned language so as not to speak of awkward things. This sleight of hand is seen in Klára’s uneasy visits to the parents (which are all about the suppression of language) and in the more humorous, and quite delightful, face-off of the principal and the deacon (which is all about the attempted suppression of ideas). It’s perhaps worth saying, regarding that last chapter, that part of the popularity of puppets in the Czech lands lies in the history of puppet theatre. Under Habsburg and Austro-Hungarian rule (from the seventeenth until the Czech renaissance in the nineteenth century), when the Czech language was seen as a dying language, puppet theatre was performed in Czech. That the principal chooses the very contemporary Antonín Dvořák’s The Devil and Kate is also a statement; Dvořák would have been associated with a national pride in his use of the Czech language and Czech folk music in the high-art of his classical compositions.

Němci / Germans opens in contemporary Prague and also hints at the future of Czech identity, not only in a recognizably European (and not merely post-communist) present, but also in a recognizably European diaspora: the narrator lives in England and one of her brothers is in California. It’s not an “Other Europe,” a constructed “East” within Europe but, like in Marek Šindelka’s story, a discernibly human location. “Where is my home?” is the title of the Czech national anthem: here, amongst us all, might be the answer.


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