Interview: Martin Hilský

Bridging the Cultures - The man who translated Shakespeare's complete oeuvre to Czech

Ryan Scott

Written by Ryan Scott Published on 03.12.2012 15:18:05 (updated on 03.12.2012) Reading time: 6 minutes

Earlier this year, Martin Hilský, professor of English Language at Charles University & South Bohemian University and renowned for his translations of Shakespeare into Czech, released Dílo. Meaning artistic work, it is the first time all of Shakespeare’s plays have been released in Czech in a single volume. At 4,000 pages, the book is a culmination of a life devoted to English literature. Prof. Hilský spoke with about this passion and how to keep the essence of Shakespeare in a different language.

To start with something general, where did your interest in English language start?

It started long ago. In fact when I was very very young and I read French and English literature and I loved English literature. However, I studied English privately. I never studied it formally until I began at Charles University in 1960. There the interest in the English language developed into a kind of passion or possession and it still holds me.

Did your ideas about English language and literature change after your time in Oxford?

For me it was a formative experience. Not only professionally, but also from my private point of view because I didn’t travel much and suddenly in ’68 I became a fellow of Linacre College [a graduate college at Oxford].  Czechoslovakia was more or less a self-enclosed country. Not entirely but more or less. Suddenly I was in a multi-cultural environment and there were people from all over the world sitting next to me in the common room and they were all free thinking individuals.

You’ve translated English writers from a range of eras. Have you found some common thread in these writers or do you approach each one individually?

This is an interesting question. Basically, I approach them individually but later on I realized I was more interested in books based on dialogue. One of my earliest translations was The Darling Buds of May by H.E. Bates, which is based on dialogue. I think it was from this interest in dialogue that I began translating the plays. First was Peter Schaeffer’s Amadeus for ABC Theater. Because it was a success the same director asked me in 1983 to translate A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I must say that I refused at first because I didn’t have the courage to do it. Then I began sketching the dialogue and realized that it came out differently and the play was slightly different to the previous translations. The director liked it and the audience liked it so this is how my Shakespearean journey began.

How do you bring Shakespeare‘s work into the Czech audience? What do you preserve? What do you have to change?

Shakespeare’s work is 400 years old. There are layers and layers of language between him and us. Many changes have happened in those 400 years, both here and in England so I realized that to translate Shakespeare means [not just] to translate words but to translate the two cultures. You’re translating the English culture of the Renaissance into contemporary Czech culture. The puns and slang are based on aspects of everyday life which are irretrievably lost. The challenge of any translator of Shakespeare into any language is to somehow preserve this wordplay. Oddly enough it can be done, though it is difficult.

Would you be able to give me an example  where your translation has been successful?

It’s from sonnet 86 in which Shakespeare is addressing a rival poet. The word play is based on two words – womb and tomb, the womb meaning the beginning of life and tomb, which is obviously connected with death. When I came across this I thought I’d stop translating. Womb in Czech Is lůno and tomb is hrob and there is no possible way to find two words which would have those meanings and have that beautiful sound – tomb and womb it’s like an organ. It took several days if not weeks, I’d almost forgotten about it, when suddenly I realized there was one word in Czech – kolébka, which means cradle – and it’s the beginning of life which had in it another word – lebka, which means skull. I discovered the way to go about this. [Note: You can read and hear  the original and Hilský’s translation here.]

So the loss of music is substituted for the music of márnice and marný and the meaning of womb tomb is in line three. A translation must be related to the original in the way a child is to a parent. Children take after their parents but they also talk back. So I see all the Shakespearean translators of the world to be like Shakespeare’s children, each in their own way different each trying to do what they can.

Václav Klaus hands over the State Medal of Merit in the field of culture and educationAt Gymnázium Havlíčkův Brod

As well as being a translator, you are a university lecturer. How do you teach Shakespeare in the university setting?

I try to present Shakespeare as though he wrote those poems to address us. When I do the plays its obvious. You may make it into a drama, a great adventure, discovering the meaning of these plays, so I want to make it interesting, but not in a superficial way. You see, no single reading of Shakespeare – either a play or poem – is the same. Each person understands him differently and that’s the great adventure. I do not instruct my students. I share my experience of Shakespeare with them and it becomes a common pursuit and together you try to discover the meaning of his work.

You describe your current approach to teaching as sharing. I can’t help but imagine it was different when you were teaching during the ‘normalization’ period.  How did the former regime have an effect on your work?

Oddly enough, not much. I taught what I wanted and I could do that only because I was in the Department of English. If I were in the Department of Czech I would have no chance. This could be done, especially with Shakespeare, because in the 40s, 50s and 60s Shakespeare’s plays were often produced. Shakespeare can survive all regimes. So I was almost free but not free as I am now. I couldn’t have a seminar on Orwell but you could still teach a huge number and you could definitely teach Shakespeare. So it was an island of freedom.

Since 1989 you have done more translations. Dílo must be the culmination of everything that you know about the language and literature. How does it feel to have finally completed this?

On one hand, it is a great joy because it was not easy. In fact, it wasn’t my goal at first at all. All I wanted was to translate each play as well as I could. The further ambitions came later. When I’d translated more than fifteen plays, which is about half of Shakespeare’s canon, then I thought what about doing the whole body of work. It’s like climbing Mount Everest. You start climbing and then you find that you can’t go down, you must continue. But this was the book which for many years I wanted to have. And it’s special way. In its modest way, it may help to bridge the two cultures.

The interview has been edited for publication.
Photos: Wikimedia Commons

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