Viktor Janis - a translator on the watch

Viktor Janis is a young and successful literary translator. Among his translations are works by such renowned authors as Graham Greene, Isaac Asimov, Iain Banks, Hanif Kureishi, Tom Clancy or Louis de Bernieres. Viktor has already gained recognition for his work in literary translation but that is not the only way in which he contributes to the overall quality of Czech translation. In this week's edition of Profile Pavla Horakova spoke to Viktor Janis after she visited one rather unusual award ceremony at the annual Book Fair.

At the annual Prague Book Fair a unique award ceremony takes place - the Anti-award for the worst translation of the year. The prize is given to the worst translation of both a work of fiction and non-fiction and to the audience's great amusement, extracts from the botched translations are read out. Viktor Janis, a young translator from English, has been on the hunt for shoddy translations for seven years now. I spoke to him right after the ceremony, outside the Prague Exhibition Hall.

"The award has not got a long tradition; it started eight years ago when the situation really was alarming. After the revolution people started publishing in vast quantities and this small country really had not had that many good and qualified translators. The anti-award was meant to point at those translations. It worked this way for three or four years. I don't mean that the number of the very bad - outstandingly bad - translations is dropping but the number of good books published is rising so those bad translations are really drowned in this volume. The bad translations will always be a benchmark to those very good ones. But since we have had so many satisfied listeners at the annual Book Fair we decided to continue in this way and in this tradition and to get some media attention for just one day in a year."

Viktor Janis has received a number of awards for his translations, of course not anti-awards. Most recently it was for the translation of Captain Corelli's Mandolin by Louis de Bernieres for which Viktor got two prizes. Since Captain Corelli's Mandolin was first published in 1995 it has become a huge bestseller and has also been made into a film. The Czech translation of the novel was very successful too.

"Captain Corelli's Mandolin sold many copies; thus far about 9,000, I think. I don't have the exact figures but I think that my most successful translation is Isaac Asimov's The Foundation which sold about 10,000 copies. But on the other hand, Captain Corelli's Mandolin is my most beloved translation."

Also you are one of the most prolific translators, at least of the young generation. How many books have you translated so far?

"I think it's been about 20 books. I really started translating just after school, which means I have been translating freelance for about three years continually. It also means that I am a naive idealist. I wouldn't say I reject commercial translations, that's not true, but I think this area of human endeavour would not thrive, it would not even live without such naive translators who are not in it for money but for the good feeling that you are translating something that is worthwhile. Just to give an example: I earn three times as much translating interviews of Hollywood stars. This is not translating; this is creative writing. I get something, which doesn't even resemble an interview, with spelling errors - a stream of consciousness which ejaculated from these stars and which I have to get into some publishable shape. And by translating interviews I earn three times as much as by translating works by Louis de Bernieres who knows exactly what he is saying and he has something to say. Which is not the case with those Hollywood stars."

When Louis de Bernieres visited Prague in November last year to give a reading at the city's Municipal Library, Viktor acted as the author's interpreter.
Do you always get to meet the authors you translate?

"No, it was a singular honour. I was really pleased to meet him in person. He was exactly the type I envisaged. But on the whole I think that I am quite lucky if I have the email address of the author I am translating and I may consult some changes and ask him questions which in other cases would just go unresolved."

When did you first realise you wanted to be a literary translator?

"I was seventeen, I was working as a receptionist in a lobby, in a hotel in the middle of nowhere. I had two customers a day and I was free to do whatever I chose. And I had this book by Frederick Forsythe called 'No Comebacks' and I was translating just for fun the title story. I haven't finished it up-to-date but from then on I realised this was something I would like to do. At that time I had many unresolved questions about translating and I thought that by studying at the Faculty of Arts at the Department of Translation I would get the answers to those question. Which I didn't."

Is there a dream book that you would love to translate?

"No. I have several projects but I have a habit of fulfilling my wishes. Getting to translate Louis de Bernieres - yes, that was a dream. It's very satisfactory work. Next year, I would love to translate book by Alain de Boton, I will be translating two books by Margaret Atwood and I will be translating several sequels to The Foundation. This is just the type of intellectually demanding work that I seek."

Is it more natural to translate a man or a woman or somebody of your generation? Do you feel the differences?

"A translator is just a master of disguises. You have to find the voice for the narrator and it really doesn't matter whether he is a man or a woman. You just have to have a keen ear; you have to listen to people speaking in the street. I sometimes have a feeling that I steal from them."

And what next? When you have translated a thousand books would you perhaps like to write something yourself?

"That's a question we translators are often asked. But no. This work teaches you humility. You translate the cream of the cream, you translate the very best and somehow you just don't have the feeling that you may add something substantial. On the other hand, I love my work, I work in a dry environment and I don't have to lift any weights."