The Shareable Loneliness of Translating

By Charles Sabatos

Literary translation is a rather lonely enterprise: not only because, like writing, it requires long periods of hermitic concentration, but because one is never sure if a translated text will find readers.  For Anglophone readers, literature in translation is a specialized taste, at best exotic, at worst pretentious.  Nonetheless, fiction from major languages can be assured of a stream of educated readers and perhaps a few book reviews, while writing from small nations struggles for visibility.  But not all small nations are created equal.  In Central Europe, Hungarian, Polish, and Czech literature has been relatively well translated since the late nineteenth century, producing a handful of internationally known literary figures, from Jókai, Sienkiewicz, and Čapek to Krasznahorkai, Konwicki, and Kundera.  These literatures overshadow those of neighboring countries like Slovenia and Slovakia, which were “minor” within the larger states of which they were formerly members.  Even for Western readers sophisticated enough to appreciate Márai or Cărtărescu, it may seem hard to justify investing time in yet another “far-away country of which we know nothing.”

This was the situation facing me when I began my first book-length Slovak translation, Pavel Vilikovský’s Ever Green is. . . , in 1998.  After two years in the Czech and Slovak Republics, I had discovered that, besides a few obscure anthologies, Slovak fiction was almost unavailable in English, and I hoped to remedy that, at least to a modest extent.  I was fortunate to receive encouragement from a brief conversation with the renowned translator Michael Henry Heim, support from the editors at Northwestern University Press, who accepted the book for their “Writing from an Unbound Europe” series and hands-on editing help from several native speakers.  I also had the privilege of working directly with Pavel Vilikovský, discussing the complexities of his short but challenging text in the ideal setting of a wine cellar in central Bratislava. 

Later, the translation was my stepping-stone into Slovak academic circles, including an international conference at the now-defunct House of Slovak Writers in 2004, attended by translators of Slovak from various languages such as French, German, and Spanish, where I was the only North American translator (except for the Canadian Peter Petro).  Other than the work I translated for the children’s author Jan Uličiansky, who had become a personal friend, I did not pursue any major projects for the next few years.

Things changed in 2010, when I attended the American Literary Translator’s Association (ALTA) national conference in Philadelphia.  While I was waiting for my panel on children’s literature to begin, I saw two women looking at the program, one of whom said, “There’s somebody talking about Slovak!”  “Yes, that’s me,” I interposed, and in this way I met two other translators: Julia Sherwood and Magdalena Mullek.  Both were working on writers I had considered translating, which was not only unexpected but felt almost uncanny.  After several interesting conversations during the conference, we kept in touch by email, which led to the formation of a Facebook page on Slovak literature in translation.  Suddenly my solitary vocation had become a social network.  Along with Janet Livingstone, then based in Bratislava, we had a critical mass of Slovak-English translators, with native speakers from both languages.

Within a short period, Julia has been not only prolific but effective in the difficult task of getting Slovak writers published in English.  Since Slovak women writers have been overlooked by Western publishers (as she has described in her own essay), Julia’s efforts were aimed at rectifying this situation.  Last year, she proposed a feature on “new Slovak women’s writing” for Words without Borders, and invited Magdalena, Janet, and me to contribute.  Of the writers Julia suggested, I was most interested in the work of Svetlana Žuchová, whose novella, Yesim (2006), told from the perspective of a Turkish woman in Austria, was relevant to my research on immigrant literature and Turkish relations with Europe.  Julia recommended translating something more recent, so we agreed on the 2013 novel Scenes from the Life of M., which was written in a similar stream-of-consciousness style, but featured a Slovak narrator.

Unlike Pavel Vilikovský’s text, which had posed linguistic challenges on almost every page, Svetlana Žuchová’s was quite straightforward, with a few exceptions.  The hospital staff taking care of the narrator M.’s mother refers to her bed with the word lôžko (which might be translated as “berth”) rather than the standard Slovak postel, and M. reflects that this term is used “only in the hospital and on a sleeper train” (len v nemocnici a v lôžkovom vlaku).  The seeming irrelevance of a minor language issue reveals the narrator’s deeper disorientation, in which her mother has been removed from the everyday life of “beds” to the transient existence of patients and travelers in “berths.”  I wanted to keep the artificiality of the hospital term, but “berth” is not used in this setting, so I came up with “bedside,” which like lôžko is used by doctors (such as the term “bedside manner”) and, somewhat incongruously, for furniture.  My compromise solution was: “They don’t say ‘bedside’ anywhere else but at the hospital, except maybe in a furniture catalog that sells ‘bedside lamps,’ otherwise people just call it a bed.”  While the allusion to an overnight journey on a wagon-lit could not be preserved, I hope that the banal image of a “bedside lamp” can add the necessary contrast with ordinary existence that the narrator faces upon learning of her mother’s death.

This issue of “new Slovak women’s writing” was not only the result of a fortuitous meeting five years ago; it was also a reunion of sorts with Words without Borders editorial director Susan Harris, who had supervised my first full translation at Northwestern.  From the lonely pursuit I first experienced over a decade ago, the field of Slovak translation has grown into a fruitful international collaboration among those devoted to bringing this small territory of world literature to readers in English.















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