JUSTIN QUINN, CURRENTLY a lecturer at Charles University in Prague, was born in Dublin and graduated from Trinity College. He is the author of five collections of poetry, two books of criticism, and two works of translation: The Drug of Art: Selected Poems of Ivan Blatný and Petr Borkovec: From the Interior, Poems 1995-2005.
Front Porch: I’m sure you get this question all the time—why Czech?
Justin Quinn: Pure chance. I ended up here in the early 1990s to get away from Ireland for a while after graduating. One thing led to another…
FP: There’s an old line about how dreaming in a foreign language is a sign of fluency. At what point do you feel comfortable enough with a language to decide to become a translator? Are there markers, like dreaming, that indicate a mastery of another language?
JQ: I think you have at the very least to be able to read a wide range of prose in that language before attempting to translate poetry. Then it gets more specific: if your writer’s language is very streetwise, then you had better spend some time on the street also, otherwise you’ll end up making stupid mistakes. As for markers to indicate general mastery of a language, I like to think that holding your own in an argument in a second language is a type of graduation, perhaps your BA. I read somewhere that the ultimate mastery is to host a dinner party well in a foreign language. That seems like a good marker also, as you need to command a range of registers—you might need something demotic if you’re telling a story about something that happened to you on the street at 3 a.m., you might need turn on the style a bit in order to report what the Queen said to you over dinner the previous week, etc.
FP: How did you pick Petr Borkovec? Was there a reason you picked a contemporary writer instead of an older but previously untranslated writer?
JQ: I came upon his work in a newspaper first and then bought the books. There was very little choice involved. I became a translator through trying to make sense of his work, and I was lucky in the fact that he himself translates Russian poetry into Czech, so I set myself to study the aesthetic choices he made as a translator, and took his lead.
FP: How much about an author’s context—his cultural milieu, his literary background, his ideas of language—do you need to know to do justice to his work?
JQ: Again, this varies for me. For Petr, I needed to know a lot.
FP: How much of your own poetry do you bring to your translations? Another way of putting this: if somebody else translated Petr Borkovec, how could we tell their rendering apart from yours?
JQ: I’m a selfish translator. I only really translate work that I can see as part of my own creative endeavours. That said, I should also note that I reject totally the distinction between original work and translation: it’s all the one. Keats found himself as poet through Ronsard. English Renaissance poets came into being as they tried to make sense of Italian poetry.
More specifically, the relationship between poet and translator is often like a marriage. If Petr found another translator, it’d feel like a divorce, or at least an affair that couldn’t be overlooked. As far as I know, he’s been faithful so far, so I can’t compare. I think the translator should be invisible most of the time, but there’s always room for inventio, which was the medieval translation practice of introducing new elements (content, style) to the translated work. In the translations, I often make Petr allude to Anglophone writers he’s never even read. I see it as part of the business of making his poems feel at home in English, while never completely losing their sheen of otherness, as the theorists like to call it.
FP: On a similar note from the last two questions: much of Czech literature, along with the rest of their society, is bound up in the traumas of 20th century Europe, especially World War II and the fifty-year Communist reign that followed. You’re primarily translating authors who emerged from the tail end of Communism or may even be post-Communism. Is this an experience you needed to have shared in order to translate their works? How do you access this experience?
JQ: Since I live in Prague, I have it outside my door. But I never really thought about divisions in poetry according to historical issues like Communism, etc. This year I want to launch into translations of Bohuslav Reynek, who died an old man in 1971. He refers hardly at all to his own historical period, as artists have the complete right to do if it suits their art.
FP: There seems to be a general dichotomy in thinking about translating. One school seems to try to imitate the writer’s original language, including the uniqueness of syntax and rhythm, while another attempts to either update the prose or convert it to nuances of the new language. Is this a valid dilemma? If so, is there a side you pick?
JQ: I don’t really know. When I translate Reynek, I’ll definitely use a more archaic and Parnassian diction, but I don’t wish to fully replicate the depth of his archaic style. I want to make good poems in English also. Take, for instance, the translations of Shakespeare into Czech: the best ones let you know that he’s not a contemporary writer, but they don’t break their contract with contemporary speech either. It’s a tightrope act, and the moves vary from one writer to the next.
FP: In my brief experience in Prague, although I had 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?
JQ: Certainly more people speak English now than when I first came in the early 1990s, which helps the country renew its contacts with the rest of the world. It’s more prevalent in the big cities, especially Prague, less in the countryside, just as, I suppose, you have a higher number of Francophones in Manhattan, New York than Manhattan, Kansas. Also, given that graduates have now greater proficiency in English, there are more translations from that poetry. For instance, a large number of fantastic American poets were not translated in the 20th century, and that’s being rectified now. Those translations are having a tangible effect on poetry being written in Czech. Petr Borkovec is a good example of Elizabeth Bishop’s influence, for instance.
FP: There’s a long-standing affinity for the Irish in Czech culture. Is the feeling mutual? What influences have you detected in either body of literature?
JQ: Next to nothing. We share a general tendency to irony and a passion for beer, but beyond that, I’m still looking…
FP: I have to ask—At the reading I saw you give at the Ypsilon, much of your poetry rhymed. There was some rumbling about that afterwards, especially among the poetry students; it was like Dylan going electric or something. Have you found this to be a controversial decision?
JQ: This strikes me as a non-argument. Surely there’s never really been a stand-off between Richard Wilbur and John Ashbery—or more generally, conventional form and free verse. I think it’s a reductive way to see things. Take a look at Paul Muldoon’s new collection, Maggot, and you’ll see that it’s book-ended by poems dedicated to these two poets, as Muldoon himself seems to marry the virtues of both styles. The real distinction is between good and bad poetry. Very little free verse poetry thinks much about form and the way that it curves your expression, and the same is true of most New Formalist verse. If you drop conventional form, you have to think very hard about the shape of what you write, and you can see that thinking going on in John Ashbery, Jorie Graham, A. R. Ammons, to name just a few of my favorites. That thinking itself generates the best poetry.