Magdalena Mullek and Julia Sherwood are the editors and translators of the recently released anthology of contemporary Slovak fiction Into the Spotlight. They spoke with WWB about the anthology’s inspiration, the talented up-and-coming writers it features, and the vast diversity of Slovak fiction.
Words Without Borders (WWB): What was the inspiration for Into the Spotlight?
Magdalena Mullek (MM): The seed of the idea was planted by Jeff Ankrom, a colleague from Indiana, when we met at an American Literary Translators Association conference in 2010. We were talking during one of the breaks, and when I told him I translate from Slovak, he admitted he had never read any Slovak authors and had no idea what Slovak literature was about. He encouraged me to do an anthology as a way to introduce this literature to the English-speaking world. In 2014 I was invited to work on The Dedalus Book of Slovak Literature, and it seemed like the perfect opportunity to do what I had been thinking about for several years. But after completing that project it still felt like there was a great void that needed to be filled, because while The Dedalus Book has a lot of breadth, covering works from 1888 to 2013, the natural consequence of this breadth is that it shows very little contemporary writing.
My own interests in translation lean heavily toward contemporary authors, so when I met with Mirka Vallová, the director of the Slovak Centre for Information on Literature, in the summer of 2015, and she suggested that I do another anthology, showcasing contemporary writers was an ideal fit. I contacted George Fowler, the director of Slavica Publishers at Indiana University, to see if they might be interested in such a volume, and he responded within a few hours. Our timing was just right, as they were starting a new imprint devoted to literary works and belles-lettres from central and eastern Europe, Three String Books. Once I had the concept and a publisher, I invited my friend and colleague Julia Sherwood to join me on the project.
Julia Sherwood (JS): I was more than happy to come on board as my focus as a translator has also been mostly on contemporary writing. And, like Magdalena, I had felt for a long time that Slovak literature didn’t get enough exposure in the English-speaking world. Just to check I hadn’t missed anything, a few years ago I decided to find out what was available and, building on a list put together by Martin Votruba of the University of Pittsburgh, I compiled a list of Slovak books in English translation. This exercise resembled detective work at times and the outcome confirmed my suspicions: between 1989 and 2010 only seven books by five different Slovak writers appeared in the UK and US. The situation was slightly better when it came to poetry, with eight collections featuring seven different poets, and excerpts of Slovak prose works in two fiction anthologies and two mixed anthologies.
This seemed totally inadequate given the richness of Slovak writing, and so I resolved to do something about that and put my energy into championing the work of my favorite writers, working together with my husband, Peter Sherwood. Other translators have also been hard at it and I’m glad to report that since 2010 nine books of fiction and two anthologies have appeared in English, including the Dedalus anthology Magdalena mentioned (an updated version of the list is available here). And in February 2015, when I had the opportunity to edit a special feature for Words Without Borders and showcase the work of four women writers, I invited three other translators, including Magdalena, to join me in this project. It was great to continue our cooperation with Into the Spotlight.
Our aim was to give a window into the living, breathing Slovak literature, not all of which may withstand the test of time, but which reflects the current social, political, and cultural milieu.
WWB: How did you go about building the anthology and how did you select the featured writers?
MM: Very early on we decided that we would include only living authors, because we wanted to have the sense of a dialogue between author, translator, and reader, and also to give a voice to authors who are likely to be writing for decades to come. Although a few of the authors we included are older, we did set ourselves the additional delimiter that any work included had to be written in the year 2000 or later. Our aim was to give a window into the living, breathing Slovak literature, not all of which may withstand the test of time, but which reflects the current social, political, and cultural milieu.
JS: That’s right, we didn’t want to focus exclusively on highbrow literary writing but felt that it was important to also include some popular and widely read writers—although we did stop short of including genre fiction. And as the emergence of a cohort of strong women authors has been a particularly striking feature of contemporary Slovak literature, we set out to give them the representation they deserve. We ended up with nine men and seven women, which I think is a good balance.
MM: At the start of the project we each spent months reading a lot of contemporary Slovak works as well as reviews; we looked at the shortlists of Anasoft Litera, the most prestigious literary award in Slovakia; and we spoke with critics, booksellers, and academics. We assembled a nice long list of authors that would have been worthy of inclusion, and then we had to get onto the process of narrowing that list down, since we did not want to end up with a 600-page compendium. We decided on sixteen authors, which seemed like a number that would give a good representation yet not be overwhelming to readers.
JS: Of course, we also followed our own personal taste, and we chose authors with whom we feel an affinity. Some of the writers we had worked with before and had already established a great relationship with, while others were new to us and we had to attune ourselves to their styles and find the right voice for them in English. One thing we wanted to avoid at all costs was homogenizing them, making them all sound the same, and I very much hope that we have succeeded.
Most of the authors included in Into the Spotlight haven’t even had an extract, let alone a whole book, published in English before and are completely new to Anglophone readers. Our hope is that the anthology will attract the attention of publishers and whet their appetite for Slovak writing.
WWB: Was there anything in particular with regard to theme or aesthetic that you were looking for? And did any commonalities emerge as you were editing the collection?
MM: We wanted to showcase the diversity of Slovak literature, so in fact, we were specifically aiming for variety rather than a particular theme. We were so successful at this that when we later looked at all of the selected works, and spent hours discussing and diagramming them, we came to the conclusion that the defining feature of contemporary Slovak literature is that it has no defining feature.
JS: Or to put it slightly differently—that it has a huge number of defining features and covers a wide variety of themes, reflecting the fact that Slovakia is a modern European country.
MM: The other part of our overall vision for the anthology was to make it as local as possible, and showcase Slovak art and culture. This led us to invite the Slovak artist Ivana Šáteková to do the cover art and illustrations, and the Slovak photographer Lucia Gardin to photograph the authors.
JS: Yes, this was really important to us. We wanted to put Slovakia on the map—or put a spotlight on it, as the title suggests. We also wanted to bring Slovak literature out of the shadow of its older, Czech cousin, which is much better known. We wanted to demonstrate that Slovakia is not some sort of rural backwater and that it is also very much part of the modern globalized world with all its problems and preoccupations, and that it also has its own distinctive traditions and history that it needs to come to terms with. This is neatly encapsulated in Ivana Šáteková’s cover art, an ironic take on tradition both in terms of form (the folk embroidery style) and design: it shows a little man and woman in traditional folk costumes, sitting under a tree and typing away on laptops.
WWB: As translators, are you noticing trends in contemporary Slovak literature?
MM: It is difficult to speak of trends in Slovak literature, precisely because of the diversity mentioned. In 2014, a group of Slovak literary scholars attempted to give an overview of the state of Slovak literature in a book entitled Searching for the Present. Under the heading of prose they offered no less than ten categories and then further subdivided each of those. And while a few authors fit neatly into just one of the proposed categories, most names appeared in two or more, depending on which book was being referenced. It may be a slight exaggeration, but there were more categories describing the trends in Slovak literature than there were works cited.
To give you a sense of the diversity I’m talking about, here are just a few examples of the selections you will find in the book: Víťo Staviarsky offers a fly-on-the-wall view of contemporary Roma life; Pavol Rankov takes a look at life in the gulag from the perspective of a mother, who has had to give birth and raise her son there; Marek Vadas takes us into the heart of Africa and its many mysteries; Lukáš Luk reminisces about an idyllic past and concludes that it is impossible to return home; Ivana Dobrakovová reveals the struggles of expat life in Italy; Pavel Vilikovský ponders the meaning of art through the eyes of a mature photographer; Uršuľa Kovalyk’s heroine wanders into a night circus, which turns into a nightmare; Zuzana Cigánová reflects on the burden of being ugly.
JS: The authors’ styles and voices are also very different, ranging from the dystopian in Michal Hvorecký’s story through strong autobiographical elements in Veronika Šikulová to Dušan Mitana channeling Edgar Allan Poe; from traditional storytelling with a broad historical sweep (Pavol Rankov) to fragmented postmodern approaches (Peter Macsovszky); from realistic depictions of the everyday (Zuzana Cigánová) to surrealistic flights of fancy (Uršuľa Kovalyk) and the absurd (Balla) and the poetic (Jana Beňová).
We wanted to demonstrate that Slovakia is . . . very much part of the modern globalized world with all its problems and preoccupations, and that it also has its own distinctive traditions and history that it needs to come to terms with.
WWB: The anthology includes biographies and photos of each author, as well as notes from the authors themselves about their work. Are there other ways in which you are hoping to connect the featured authors with an English-reading audience, through events or in other ways?
MM: The first step in connecting the authors with their audience is getting the word out about the book. To that end, before publication we had an article promoting the book in Visegrad Insight, and recently we’ve had two reviews published, one by Michael Stein in B O D Y Literature, and another by Zuzana Slobodová in European Literature Network. Several other reviews are currently under way, and we welcome any other publicity for Into the Spotlight.
JS: We were also very fortunate in that Parthian Books bought the UK rights for the anthology. In May we launched it along with another book—Balla’s In the Name of the Father, published by Jantar Publishing—in Britain with two of the authors, Balla and Ivana Dobrakovová. Rosie Goldsmith, director of the European Literature Network, introduced them as part of her Eurostars series of events at Waterstones Piccadilly in London. Apart from the general public, we believe the anthology should be of interest to scholars and students of Slovak literature, and we welcomed the opportunity to present the two authors during the annual Czech and Slovak Study Day, hosted this year by the University of Sheffield.
MM: We’re also planning a US tour with two authors and me in the near future.
WWB: What was it like working on this project together?
MM: Working with Julia has been a wonderful experience. I think it’s safe to say that we each put the interest of Slovak literature first and foremost in our work, and we both threw ourselves at this project with a lot of energy and enthusiasm. We spent countless hours on the author and work selection process, we went back and forth, negotiating through our choices, not shying away from external input, and most importantly, listening to each other. And while afterward each of us worked on her own translations, once we were done, we spent a week together in Slovakia going over each other’s work, giving feedback, and editing. It was a very rewarding process, because in essence, we found our first reader and critic in the other person, thus getting the opportunity to make the translations better before anyone else had a chance to see them.
JS: I agree with every word Magdalena has said. I would just add that I have a very close working relationship with my husband, but he is not a Slovak speaker, so it was particularly rewarding and enjoyable to experience this kind of close, hands-on collaboration with a fellow translator with whom I could chew over all the nuances of the original text or discover hidden layers of meaning. It would be wonderful to have another opportunity to work together. In fact, we have already started discussing tentative ideas for future projects.
Magdalena Mullek was born and grew up in Košice, Slovakia, but moved to the United States more than twenty years ago. She is an independent literary translator and scholar. Her translations from the Slovak have appeared in The Dirty Goat, Alchemy, Ozone Park, TWO LINES, Words Without Borders, Slovak Literary Review, and B O D Y. She was one of the translators of The Dedalus Book of Slovak Literature. Magdalena lives in Orlando, Florida, with her husband and their daughter.
Julia Sherwood was born and grew up in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia. After studying in Germany she settled in the UK, working for Amnesty International and Save the Children. Since 2008 she has worked as a freelance translator of fiction and nonfiction from Slovak, Czech, Polish, and Russian. Her translations into English (jointly with Peter Sherwood) include book-length works by Balla, Daniela Kapitáňová, Hubert Klimko-Dobrzaniecki, Uršuľa Kovalyk, Peter Krištúfek, and Petra Procházková; and into Slovak, by Tony Judt and Hamid Ismailov. She is based in London and serves as the editor-at-large for Slovakia for Asymptote, an online journal for literary translation.