Tag Archives: Czech literature

Petra Hůlová, Three Plastic Rooms

Translated from Czech by Alex Zucker (Jantar Publishing, 2017)

Three Plastic Rooms is narrated by an ageing prostitute, and is an extended internal monologue that offers insight into her musings on the world, her life, and her profession. The opening line erupts with contempt (“I wonder if anyone ever gives her a grinding down to the bone?”) and sets the tone for around 160 pages of raw narrative vitriol. No-one is spared from this rage: other sex workers are judged, clients are held in contempt (especially the officers of the law who visit her by day to check nothing illicit is going on and by night to indulge in the services she offers), women are to be pitied for the domestic servitude that is their lot and criticised for accepting it as their only option (for, after all, “counting bills offers a woman more than enough self-gratification”), and above all our narrator is scathing about a society that pushes people – especially women – into a limited range of time-worn possibilities. The narrator herself defies expectation and stereotype: she offers a service, but notes that her clients come to her for “a bit of humanity”, and acknowledges life’s hardships but refuses to surrender to self-pity (“Let others be unhappy, if those are the stories they want to write”).

The translation is clearly a major feat: there are linguistic leitmotivs that Zucker retains in the translation – for example in the prefix “e-”, which is used where sometimes “digital” would be a more obvious collocation, but where switching to “digital” would dilute the repetition (and, to be clear, “digital” wouldn’t work in all cases), but my favourite feature was the hilariously deadpan concatenation of nouns and phrases to describe different sexual references. Here Zucker revels in the range of linguistic possibility: “bangstick” was one of my favourite offerings for penis; there is no ejaculation when a jizzing or a creaming could occur instead; as for sex toys, well, I’ll hand over to Zucker’s translation to show you his full use of outrageously colourful synonyms: “No dildo, no vibrator. No self-erecting quiverstick, manless wang, pond paddle, sleepytime tingletron, ticklepink for beddy-bye”, and the character of our irascible narrator comes out not only in the tirades that are as tireless as her paid performances, but also in the linguistic idiosyncrasies of single words (“if there is a hell, then fwoop, down they all go”).

This all seems gloriously effortless, but the translator’s note at the end is particularly interesting, as Zucker notes how Hůlová plays with language and uses it in innovative and unexpected ways. To read his translation, it is not evident that there was so much agonising behind it – which is a sign that it’s been done well. Even the occasional thing that struck me as a little odd – such as the gendering of genitals in English, to reflect the use of grammatical gender in Czech – is explained convincingly in the translator’s note, so that even if it might not be quite what you might expect, it becomes clear what the text would lose if this aspect were omitted from the translation. So the “hammers” are feminine (which sheds a whole new light on the cover illustration!) and the “sticker-inners” are masculine.

Morality is similarly inverted and subverted throughout the narrative, most memorably in the way the narrator describes the services she offers to clients attracted to minors. By satisfying their desires in the conveniently wipe-clean environment of her three plastic rooms, she postulates, she is saving an anonymous real-life 14-year-old from being subjected to the urges of the men in question (“what says martyrdom more than the love of a mature woman, saving fuckable babies by luring the enemy to her?”). It is, however, not until the final paragraph that we finally see the context for the vitriolic torrent that constitutes the narrative – and it’s a twist that took me by surprise. Once it hit me, I looked at everything in a different light – and that was the great triumph of the story. Three Plastic Rooms is unrelenting in both language and content, but beneath the sex scenes as foul as the language used to describe them it throbs with a rawness and a black humour that render this unlikely anti-heroine an addictive narrator.

Review copy of Three Plastic Rooms provided by Jantar Publishing

 

The Susanna Roth Competition, Czech–English Translation and Bianca Bellová’s ‘The Lake’

I’m delighted to welcome a new guest contributor to the blog: Julia Sutton-Mattocks won the 2017 Susanna Roth Translation Competition for her translation of Bianca Bellová’s The Lake, and is writing today about her experience.

Find out more about Julia on our Guest Contributors page.

One of my translation students recently told me that she always saved her translation homework for the end of the week. It would be a treat, she said; something to look forward to when all of the other tasks were done. It amused me, because it was what I had always done too. What’s odd is that, as an undergrad, I never really considered translation except as a language exercise. I’m a grammar geek type of linguist and translation presented a gloriously creative form of grammar puzzle. I loved it, but for some reason it never crossed my mind to take it further.

Fast-forward several years to January 2017, when a Twitter post from Czech Centre London caught my eye. They were inviting submissions for the Czech–English round of their annual Susanna Roth Translation Competition, which they run jointly with the Czech Literary Centre in a number of different countries. The competition aims to encourage a new generation of translators to enter the world of Czech literary translation and is named in honour of the Swiss translator Susanna Roth (1950–1997), who translated the work of some of Czech literature’s best-known names into German. The announcement reached me at an auspicious moment; I was part-way through the second year of my PhD and had recently made a New Year’s resolution to make the most of my PhD years by not focusing exclusively on my thesis (apologies to my supervisors, should they be reading). I decided to give it a shot.

The competition’s focus is on contemporary Czech prose, even the leading lights of which often have to fight quite hard to get translated into other languages. 2017’s chosen text was the opening of Bianca Bellová’s Jezero (The Lake) (Host, 2016). Bellová (b.1970), a Prague-born writer with Bulgarian roots, is a big name in contemporary Czech prose. The Lake, her fourth novel, won the Czech Republic’s prestigious Magnesia Litera Book of the Year award in 2017 and was also one of the 2017 winners of the European Union Prize for Literature. It is a Bildungsroman and was inspired by the drying up of the Aral Sea, but its setting is completely fictional. Certain of the details identify the location as Central Asian, the presence of Russian soldiers indicates a Soviet context, and the sense of change and rupture that permeates the novel suggests that it is set in the late 1980s to early 1990s. Yet there’s nothing to enable the reader to define a precise geographical or historical setting, which makes it a novel of unknowns, disorientating and yet universal.

The novel opens in the tiny fishing village of Boros on the shores of a rapidly disappearing lake. There a little boy called Nami goes to school, builds treehouses, fears the Spirit of the Lake, pretends to shoot down planes and wonders who his parents are. He has a vague memory of his mother, but has grown up with his grandparents, who avoid all of his questions. Nami later escapes Boros for the city on the other side of the lake, where he meets a cast of beautifully drawn characters: a rough diamond construction worker, Gleb Nikitich; a money-crazed drug dealer, Johnny; the Old Lady (an aristocratic former lover of the deposed autocratic Statesman); and a grumpy escaped monkey named Majmun. Over the course of the novel, Nami’s path is set with tasks to overcome and relationships to build. Only once he has built up his physical and moral strength, and learnt to cope with both love and loss, can he complete his journey to self-discovery.

The extract was a joy to translate; full of colloquial language, juicy grammar problems, odd changes of tense and a lot of different types of food. Tense was a sticking point I encountered early on. Czech tends to use the historic present much more commonly than English, and this extract was no exception. Since I often struggle with the feel of the historic present in English, I initially started by putting everything into the past. Yet the immediacy of Bellová’s prose seemed to be lost as a result. I switched backwards and forwards several times before settling on retaining the present tense narration. Even then, there are short passages of past tense narration in the original, which I eventually came to read as cinematic flashbacks within the main narrative, but which initially seemed specially placed just to throw me.

The various foodstuffs hurled a whole new translation issue into the mix. They provide a snapshot of the decisions I found myself needing to make. The characters in The Lake spend a lot of time eating, making or thinking about food; and they eat, make and think about food from a wide variety of different cuisines. How these were rendered in English would have an effect on the reader’s interpretation of the novel’s setting. The Czech ‘lívanec’ is a thick pancake, somewhat like a scotch pancake, an American pancake or a drop scone. The English ‘pancake’ to me is something more akin to a crêpe, so I didn’t feel I could leave it unqualified. Using the word ‘scone’ for a UK audience conjures up incongruous images of jam and cream; and using either ‘American’ or ‘scotch’ wouldn’t have worked for obvious reasons. In the end, I went with ‘bliny’ since, in English, we tend to think of ‘bliny’ as thick pancakes; and I justified the change on the basis that Russian influences already existed elsewhere in the text and that some would be lost in the translation process for other reasons (the immediate Soviet connotations of the Czech word ‘gazík’, for instance, are lost in my English ‘army jeep’).

Another foodstuff, the Czech ‘cibulový koláč’, I rendered as ‘onion pie’. I felt that retaining ‘koláč’ (or, perhaps, ‘kolach’) would have emphasised the text’s Czechness unnecessarily. However, as I discovered when I discussed The Lake at a translation festival in September 2017, this was certainly an imperfect solution, since everyone in the room had a different idea of what a pie looked like. Then there was ‘burek’. Nami’s grandmother and her neighbour spend a lot of time making burek and I spent an inordinate amount of time reading recipes for it so that I could understand how to translate the scene in question (one day, perhaps, I’ll put this knowledge to culinary use.) Burek (or börek) is a savoury pastry made across parts of Central Asia, the Middle East and the Balkans, so its presence in the text served to emphasise the novel’s Central Asian setting. While I consequently left ‘burek’ in the English, I translated ‘těsto’ (‘pastry’) as ‘filo pastry’ so that readers who didn’t know what burek was had a bit of a clue.

Like my student, I used the task as a treat: if I could do a really good day’s concentrated PhD work, I got an hour or so at the end of the day to translate. It was surprisingly motivating and I was more than a little sad when it was done and dusted. The email conveying the news that I’d won arrived in my inbox on a blisteringly hot May day in Seville. I’d just arrived for a three-day choir tour (welcome to my other life) and was absent-mindedly checking my email while waiting for the keys to my hostel room. The sense of euphoria was extraordinary. It only became more so when I found myself whisked off on the prizewinners’ trip to the Czech Republic in July, courtesy of the organisers, for a week-long whirlwind of seminars, presentations, sight-seeing trips (including to the spectacular UNESCO World Heritage site of Český Krumlov) and a lot of hearty Czech food. The other eight winners (all women) came from Ukraine, Italy, Hungary, Serbia, Bulgaria, Poland, Japan and South Korea, and it was fascinating to talk about the very different experiences we had all had in translating the same text into our own languages and to share our stories about learning Czech.

If, as I hope, I’ve intrigued you, you can download my English translation of the opening of The Lake here. If you want to read on, for the moment you’ll need to turn to the original Czech or to one of the five translations into other European languages that have been published in 2018 (see bottom of page for details). For more of a Bellová fix, or just to read more Czech literature in English translation in general, the latest issue of the quarterly online journal Apofenie is a good place to turn. Four times a year, Apofenie’s all-female editorial team curates a selection of contemporary artwork, poetry and prose from around the world in original English translations. Their latest issue, which focuses on Czech literature, includes my translation of Bellová’s short science fiction story ‘Závrať’ (‘Vertigo’, 2014), as well as translations of works by other leading lights of contemporary Czech prose, including the women authors Alena Mornštajnová, Jana Šrámková and Lucie Faulerová. For the really keen, even more information in English about contemporary Czech literature can be found at Czech Literature Online, a project financed by the Czech Ministry of Culture and managed by the Czech Literary Centre. Happy reading!

 

The Lake is now available in the following European languages (all 2018 publications):

Dutch: Het Meer, De Geus, trans. by Kees Mercks

French: Nami, Mirobole éditions, trans. by Christine Laferrière

German: Am See, Kein & Aber, trans. by Mirko Kraetsch

Italian: Il Lago, Miraggi, trans. by Laura Angeloni

Polish: Jezioro, Afera, trans. by Anna Radwan-Żbikowska

 

The 2019 round of the Susanna Roth Award is now open for submissions. To find out how to enter, visit this page.