HANA ULMANOVA WAS born in Prague and received her MA in American civilization from George Washington University. Since then she has been a prolific reviewer and interviewer and has translated Truman Capote, Isaac Singer, Nicole Kraus, and Ambrose Bierce, among others. She is currently a lecturer at Charles University.
Front Porch: Could you give a brief rundown of the languages you speak and how you came to speak them?
Hana Ulmanova: I speak English, Russian, and German and understand well enough French and Spanish. And since I translate American Jewish literature, I also have some awareness of Yiddish and Hebrew. I started to learn all of them under communism, since there was nothing else to do, and as I grew older, I realized that speaking or understanding any foreign language means enriching your horizons—both cultural and intellectual, as well as your way of thought.
FP: Why 20th Century American literature?
HU: Since I am also a university teacher, I certainly know early American literature, too, but to be entirely honest, I find it less interesting, even though I certainly acknowledge its influence on modern texts. As to other mostly European literatures I have some knowledge of, I use that as a basis for some comparative moments in the classes, but I never mastered them well enough to be able to translate from them (i.e., I am not that familiar with the historical, cultural, and literary contexts, and I am not that perfectly fluent in any other language than English).
FP: What are the challenges of translating American prose? Some of the writers you’ve translated—Capote, for instance—are southern. What idiosyncrasies of language have you noticed? Are there parts of American vernacular that don’t translate?
HU: As to southern writers, I believe that I discovered a cultural as well as a linguistic parallel. Originally, I come from Moravia, which is—as opposed to Bohemia—always thought of as more agricultural, more religious, less advanced, and even less sophisticated part of the Czech Republic. Thus, I can use some elements of the Moravian vernacular here, although I have to be very careful at the same time and should never overdo it (for that purpose, I always insist on having an editor from Bohemia). My theory simply is that everything is translatable—it is just a question of parallels, compensations, etc.
FP: Are there aspects of American literature you think are peculiar to our version of English? Are there stories or characters that couldn’t have been written in any other language?
HU: The only thing I can imagine here is the American western stories, focusing on cowboys, Indians, frontier, etc., which of course includes the tradition of tall tale. This is, in my opinion, uniquely American, and at the same time popular all over the world—not only in the Czech Republic, but also in Japan and China.
FP: A lot of mid-Century American authors, especially the Jewish writers, were children of Russian or Eastern European immigrants—I’m thinking Bellow and Malamud, both of whom were children of Russian immigrants. James Wood said Bellow’s writing had a distinct Russian flavor, despite Bellow being born in Quebec. Do you find the rhythms of Russian, or Yiddish, or other languages lurking around the English of American authors? Is there a special challenge—or delight—in rendering these European bits back to the continent?
HU: I am certainly noticing the influence of Yiddish in both Malamud and Bellow. It is not just a question of a Yiddish word here and there, but the whole syntax and very often the structure of the story as well. And obviously also the themes, which often combine very low and mundane elements together with deep philosophical and spiritual questions. And yes, it is delightful to render that back to the continent, since the European readers are able to appreciate that more (often because they are at least slightly familiar with Jewish folklore, which obviously relies on the same principles).
FP: Are you attracted to a work because of the thematic elements, because of the intricacies of the language, or both? Are there works you translate for the challenge of it?
HU: It has to be both, and on top of that, I have to enjoy the work as well. Lucky me—I am in the position to choose the titles I wish to translate, and I would never choose a work that does not meet the criteria mentioned above (unless I am dying of hunger or just desperately need the money, of course).
FP: How much of your own writing and study of literature do you bring to your translations? Another way of putting this: if somebody else translated this text, how could we tell yours apart?
HU: I am not a creative writer myself, since there are so many bad ones around—which is to say I bring nothing of my own writing into the translations. What I do bring, though, is the careful study of not just the individual text I am translating, but also the knowledge of other texts written by the same author (believe it or not, very often there are connections). Thus, I would be inclined to say that my translations would more adequately capture the spirit of the original than the translations done by, let’s say, a creative writer or a person who is doing just one piece and that is it.
FP: How did you become a translator in the Czech Republic? How would you become one now?
HU: Translating just became a part of my life, similarly to teaching and reviewing, as I believe that those activities are interconnected. If I remember that correctly, at the beginning of my career, after I translated a few shorter pieces for different literary magazines, I was approached by a publisher with an offer to translate Truman Capote’s stories for a book, and I just said yes. As to how does one become [a translator] now, I do not know the answer—you can certainly study translatology or the specific languages and literatures, but on top of that, you need to be gifted, and you need to demonstrate that gift: you should probably, like me in the past, submit a few translations to a journal and see what happens.
FP: How has translating in the Czech Republic changed since the Velvet Revolution?
HU: Translating has not changed that much, you just do not need to explain or footnote things like hamburgers anymore, because they are all around. But what has changed tremendously is the quality of the translations—it just went down. The private publishers may hire for the job anybody they like, and very often, they hire poor translators who are cheaper or can translate more quickly. They sometimes even do not have editors; nobody proofreads the texts, etc. And there is not much you can do about it. This is simply how free market works.
FP: In my brief experience in Prague, though I learned enough Czech to hold a basic conversation, I didn’t need to. In fact, many, especially in the downtown and tourist areas, seemed to prefer English, as if to preclude any awkwardness. How prevalent is the English language? Is there any animus toward its pervasiveness? Has it impacted the literature at all?
HU: At this point, pretty much all the people belonging to the younger generation here speak some English. The only impact I can think of is that there is quite a demand for the so-called mirror translations, where you have the original page by page next to the Czech translation. Which is, in my opinion, a great thing—you as a reader can learn a lot about both languages in question and probably will understand the actual literary work even better.
FP: What’s your white whale of translating, the one text you want to tackle?
HU: William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!, which is not translated into Czech yet. In order to do that, I need tons of experience and tons of time, so I sort of decided to start five years before I die (and just hope that I will get the timing right).