Hrabal, Translation, and “Owning” Languages: An Interview with Stacey Knecht

Conducted by Rachael Daum

Let me dive right in, and I hope you don’t mind my getting personal right off. You got your education at the Royal College of Music, and I’m interested in how that experience and aspect of your life plays into translation and literature, if it does at all?

Oh it absolutely does! Music and translation are tightly and wonderfully linked. When I teach translation, I always talk about the relationship between the two. Whether you’re translating prose or poetry, you’re always thinking about sound and rhythm, about the music within the text. I call it “translating by sound”. Very occasionally I’ve translated a passage or a sentence entirely by sound, with less regard to the actual meaning of the text, because if I’d stuck too closely to the meaning I’d have ended up with stilted English.

Stacey and Zuzu

Stacey Knecht and Zuzu, the sidekick to the interview.

Can you describe your translation process? You translate from Czech and Dutch into English. Do you find your process differs at all in either language?

They do differ somewhat, in that I’ve been speaking and reading Dutch much longer than Czech. I live in the Netherlands, I speak and hear and read Dutch all day long, so it’s just easier, you know? But I love Czech so much more, I love the literature so much more, and I’m not ashamed to say it. The Czech Republic is my home of homes – something very special happens to me when I’m there, everything falls into place. I suppose what characterizes my translation of both languages is my slow tempo — though I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. I like to think things over – in a big way. I could never be an interpreter, because by the time I’d decided how to translate a sentence, the whole audience would’ve fallen asleep. When I work, I usually have six or more dictionaries open at a time, I read and re-read and re-re-read and edit the hell out of the manuscript. I want the translation to be as perfect as it can be. I want to be able to read it again later on and not have things jump out and wag their finger at me. Life is too short not to be able to produce work you’re truly proud of. Not that everyone needs to work this way, but it just happens to work best for me. I’m also lucky to be in a position, financially, where I can allow myself the time I need. I’m not a full-time translator, nor would I even want to be. I’m very involved in language education, for instance, in setting up a special Dutch-language “clinic” for the many refugees now trying to make a new home for themselves here in my town. Language is an essential part of that process.

Are there any authors, particularly Czech, whom you have a special affinity for?

Not surprisingly, I love the work of Bohumil Hrabal. I first began studying Czech so I could read his work in the original. But I really feel I’ve only just begun to understand his world – there’s so much there. As far as other Czech authors… I’m not sure how to answer that yet. I’m still learning, and the more I learn the less I know—a cliché, but true. I always feel a strong connection to the books I’ve translated, especially while I’m translating them. I’ve met and gotten to know all my authors, except for Hrabal, who died in the early 90’s, before I ever even spoke a word of Czech. Working directly with an author can teach you a lot. For one thing, you’re working on a translation of a book the author has already finished, sometimes years before. It’s in their past and they’re usually involved in something new. I’ll ask them questions about the text and they’ll say, “Hm, I can’t remember what I meant by that sentence,” and I’ll think, but you wrote it! But why should they remember? They’ve closed that chapter, as it were. I’ve learned to figure out more of these linguistic problems by myself, but it does take time to learn to trust your translator’s intuition. There’s also a lot of trust involved – on both sides — in working with authors. One writer I worked with said, before we actually began, that to her, being translated was like being raped, which is quite a statement. She poured her heart into her books, and then translators would come along and tear them all apart.

Hrabal was the first non-living author I’ve ever translated. That has its advantages and disadvantages. I’ve often joked about having a séance, bringing Hrabal back to ask him a thing or two. I’ll admit, while translating Harlequin’s Millions I’d sit here at my desk talking to him, aloud, gazing up at the ceiling, as if he might be hovering there somewhere —and whether or not he really was, I found it comforting to think so. I felt very responsible for the book, and for him. I sometimes doubted my ability to do what I’d set out to do, also because he wasn’t there to physically share in the process, or to give his me his approval on particular choices I’d made. On the other hand, it did give me the freedom to make those choices myself.

When Harlequin’s Millions first came out in 2014, I gave a reading at 192 Books, in NYC, my home town. It was a dark, rainy night [laughs]… and as I was reading someone came in, bundled in rain gear from head to toe, so I couldn’t see his face. He stood there by the door, directly opposite me, with the audience between us, and left as soon as I’d finished. I like to think it was Hrabal himself, and I hope he was satisfied with what he heard.

I understand that you were on the jury for the Best Translated Book Award in Fiction this year. That must’ve been exciting! Could you describe what it was like?

It was great fun! I’d asked Chad Post years ago if I could be on the jury, and this year there was an opening. As it happened I was the only jury member overseas. I think it’s a good thing to have a native-English-speaking-juror or two based in Europe, because I think we have a slightly different perspective on the annual literary harvest than readers and jurors in the US: for instance: for instance, which European-language books end up being selected for translation into English and which do not. Unfortunately, in the end, Chad decided that the costs of sending books to Europe outweighed the usefulness of an overseas juror, so I won’t be on the jury for 2017. This is actually good news for my nearest and dearest, because the stacks of books were taking over the house. All my neighbors knew what I was up to, because I often wasn’t home when a new box of books was delivered, and the packages and boxes were left in their care. When I came to pick them up, they’d look at me incredulously: Do you have to read all this?

The truth is, it was a bit overwhelming at first. And again: this feeling of great responsibility, towards the authors, the translators, the publishers. Fortunately, you’re working with eight other “book nerds”, as one of my fellow jurors called us, and we’re all in pretty much the same boat. There’s always someone to turn to, if need be, and there’s a lot of positive energy – and humor! You have to tell yourself not to panic, and also to realize and accept that some of these are books you just won’t like, and that’s okay. Each of the nine jurors is required to read one-ninth of the books and to know these books really well, so that we can argue for or against them when the time comes. In addition, we’re asked to read as many of the other books as possible. It’s fascinating to discuss books in this context. The views can diametrically opposed, but sometimes everyone feels exactly the same way about a particular work. This is a prize for the best translated book award, not just the best work of fiction, and that’s part of the challenge. Sometimes a translation will be weak, even though you suspect the original is probably quite good, and vice versa. That can be frustrating, but it makes it possible to eliminate quite a number of books at the very beginning. It gets harder as time goes on, because when you weed out the weaker ones, the books and translations you’re left with are increasingly better. I’m an extremely critical reader, and I hate to say it, but I did feel that some of the best works of fiction on our longlist were unevenly translated, though my views weren’t always shared by the other jurors. I realized that this unevenness may not have been the fault of the translator, but the result of shaky prose in the original, or perhaps insufficient editing. Still, we all worked very hard and with as much integrity and honesty as we could.

Being a BTBA juror taught me to read in a much more focused way, because I had to. It was thrilling toward the end, you get really hung up on the book you want to win and even slightly annoyed at anyone else who feels otherwise. I couldn’t sleep the night before we learned who had won—it had somehow become very personal. The excellent novel that did win, Signs Preceding the End of the World, by Mexican author Yuri Herrera and translated by Lisa Dillman, wasn’t actually my first choice. But you just have to let it go.

You’ve also won a number of translation prizes, including the Vondel Prize in England, in its inaugural year, for your translation of Marcel Möring’s The Great Longing. How did it feel to win it in its first year? Do you feel that your translation somehow set the tone for following years?

You know, I’m so used to just sitting here in my little house in the east of Holland, doing my job, and every now and then sending something out into the world. So when people tell me, “I’ve read your translation!”, I’m amazed that the translation even still exists, much less that it’s won a prize. That’s not false modesty – that’s really how it feels to me. I do think it was a very good translation; I worked really hard on it, together with the author, and I was proud of what we’d done.

As far as getting the prize in its inaugural year — that was pretty cool. Pioneer-ish. I wouldn’t claim that it set the tone for the following years, though. No idea. I hope not, because I think a jury – which often isn’t even composed of the same members as the year before — should start afresh with each new selection of books.

I’ve really enjoyed reading your thoughts on Hrabal over at Slavische Studies, about his unique style and, as you say, how he often preferred the comma to the period. You expressed dissatisfaction with previous translations of Hrabal; was it beneficial to have these to consciously move away from?

Well, it’s always fun to think to say to yourself: I’m going to do this completely differently! I enjoyed having those other Hrabal translations to butt heads with, as it were, and I learned a lot by reading and comparing them. It puzzled me, as I wrote in the article you mention, to discover translations in which publishers had cut Hrabal’s long, meandering sentences into little pieces, divided page-long blocks of text into neat paragraphs, eliminated “difficult” cultural references. It made no sense to me as a translator, and as a reader, I felt cheated.

What are the benefits or detriments of being the first to bring a particular text, or author, into English? Seeing as how you’ve done both?

It’s exciting, but also a bit scary. Back when The Great Longing first came out in English, publishers were always going on about literary “waves”—the Latin American wave, the Russian wave — and there was talk that this might be the start of a Dutch wave. I just hoped it would be the start of something good for the author, whose work had never appeared in English before.

But then there’s someone like Hrabal, who is known and loved in many countries, including the US and the UK. I assumed — and rightly so, as it turned out — that my translation would be compared to what had come before, not least because this was my first translation from the Czech. I also assumed that people would question my knowledge of the language, and my hubris for even attempting such a task. Like, “Who does she think she is?!?”[Laughs.] Fortunately, the book was well received. It was even a runner-up to the Best Translated Book Award 2015, and now, having been on the jury, I know what that means. I’m working on two new Hrabals at the moment, for my favorite US publisher, Archipelago. No matter how long you’ve been translating, it’s always important to approach each new text as if it’s the first time – because really, it is — to ask lots of seemingly stupid questions and use all your senses to find the answers. But I don’t think it’ll be as scary this time around.

Rachael Daum is the Publicity Managerme for ALTA. She earned her Bachelor’s in English: Creative Writing at the University of Rochester, and has an MA in Russian language and literature in Russian language and literature from Indiana University. Her hope is to continue work in translating literature from Russian, German, and Serbian/Bosnian/Croatian. She lives in New York City. You can find her @Oopsadaisical.

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1 Response to Hrabal, Translation, and “Owning” Languages: An Interview with Stacey Knecht

  1. mlynxqualey says:

    Love the image of chatting with Hrabal. 🙂

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