Alexandra Büchler: crossing the frontiers of language

In this week's Czech Books we talk to Alexandra Büchler, a very important name in terms of Czech literature worldwide. She has been instrumental not only in translating, but also in organizing projects to make Czech literature and the literatures of other smaller countries known to a wider public. She was in Prague recently for the Prague Book Fair, when Bernie Higgins took the opportunity to ask her about her work. She began by asking about the book fair itself.

"The guest of honour at the Prague Book Fair this year is Slovenia, and my organization 'Literature across Frontiers' has been working for several years now, organizing projects in Slovenia, in Britain and around Europe, involving Slovenian writers. So we have a couple of events at the book fair, which we're doing together."

You've mentioned the organization 'Literature across Frontiers'. Can you say a little more about it and the work that it does?

"'Literature across Frontiers' is funded by the European Union and its main aim is to promote literature in translation, especially literature written in the smaller languages of Europe. It's based in Britain - in Wales in fact - and we work with approximately 20 organizations from various EU countries including the Czech Republic on a variety of projects. One of our projects also is the publication of an internet magazine called 'Transcript' (www.transcript-review.org), which is a trilingual review of books and writing. The magazine publishes writing in translation that may not have been published before, ranging from Icelandic to Basque literature. We also do special issues. We did a Czech issue quite a long time ago and now we're launching a Slovenian issue."

You left the Czech Republic, I think, in the late 70s, and lived in a number of countries. When did you first start translating?

"I started translating a long time ago because I studied languages and literature. But, because I emigrated, it wasn't really possible to publish my translations here. Also I had other things to do. I had been trying to translate things, and it was a bit like writing and putting things in the proverbial drawer. Then after '89 it became possible to get in touch with publishers here and so on, and that's when I started publishing translations."

When you were moving and not living in the Czech Republic, how was your relationship to the Czech language, given that you were translating?

"Well, this is something that I think happens to everyone who lives outside the country where they were born and grew up, that they become detached to a larger or smaller extent from the language. There was a time in my life when I didn't speak much Czech and I had to rediscover the language. I think this is really what translation was to me to some extent - a kind of means to rediscover the language again. It was quite an interesting process and it transported me back to my childhood when I read voraciously. Suddenly there was this whole layer of language which came back to me."

You will be best known to many people who know the modern Czech book scene for your anthologies of Czech literature, which include 'This Side of Reality: Modern Czech Writing'. Can you say something about the authors in this selection?

"I should say something that is probably a well-known fact to everyone, that in the English-speaking world, there is not much literature translated from other languages. The percentage in British publishing is that about 2.7% of books are translated, which is a dismally small number. So the first step when you want to promote writing, whether it's from your country or other countries, you have to get a publisher interested. What happens often is that the interest is based on a kind of political interest - it has to do with political events. So the first wave of interest in Czech writing came in the late '60s and early '70s, and that's when there were some publications of Czech literature in translation. And then there was nothing for a very long time.

"Then, after the so-called Velvet Revolution I thought this is the time to approach a publisher with a project of this kind. So this is how 'This Side of Reality' came about. It was published by a publisher who wanted at that time to do anthologies in translation and published about six or eight and then stopped because they weren't selling. What I wanted to do in that book, because I thought it was the opportunity to do something like that, was to chart the historical development of the country after the Second World War. So I started with Ladislav Fuchs and finished with Jachym Topol and Michael Viewegh. If I were to be doing the book today I would do it differently, but that's another story and let's hope that I'll get another opportunity."

I look forward to the next anthology. I was also fascinated by the fact that you edited a book of contemporary Czech women writers. It was called 'Allskin and Other Tales' and we've actually spoken about it in the past on Czech Books. Can you tell me what provoked this particular anthology?

"It was really an outcome of doing 'This Side of Reality' because when I was selecting the writers for 'This Side of Reality', I realized that Czech women writers had not been translated at all. So I thought - well, I can't put them all in this anthology, because I was told by the publisher that it couldn't be more than about 260 pages. So I thought, I'll find somebody who will publish an anthology of Czech women's writing, and that really was a very simple reason. I just thought that they deserved to be better known."

And how do you think that the Czech literary scene - or Czech literature generally - is perceived in the English-speaking countries you've lived in? Do you think that people know a fair bit about what's going on or do you think they still have a lot to learn?

"Well they certainly have a lot to learn, I'm afraid. In Britain especially Czech literature is simply not known at all. When you ask somebody to name a Czech writer they usually come up with Milan Kundera, and possibly, if they are in the know, maybe Hrabal, but that's it. Czech writers are not being translated into English very much. There are publishers who actually specialize in translation. There is a handful of them. Then there are the large publishers like Penguin and Faber that publish some translations, but the small independent publishers that specialize in translations are the ones that one has to approach with a proposal.

"So, as with 'This Side of Reality' and 'Allskin', I actually approached a poetry publisher, who published poetry translation, and they agreed to do an anthology of young poetry from the new EU member states. The idea for this was that now, with the entry of these countries into the EU, there would be more interest - which there definitely was - in the cultures of these new neighbours, countries that a lot of people didn't even know existed before, like Slovenia or Slovakia. Generally there has been interest, which was a good thing, so we thought, let's do this anthology, let's actually launch it for May 1st last year, which we did.

"It's an anthology which has two young poets from ten countries, eight that have already joined the EU, and Bulgaria and Romania, who will be joining soon. It's a bilingual edition, so it was quite a lot of work, working with these eleven languages (because Latvia is represented by a Russian poet as well as a Latvian poet). The book has been quite successful. We have brought some of these poets to Britain and Ireland and toured them to various festivals. The response of the audience has been really very good."

Where will your work with 'Literature across Frontiers' take you next?

"We have been organizing poetry translation workshops. The rationale for this particular model that we have been applying is that there are sometimes no translators between very small languages. So what we've been doing - it's nothing new really - is to bring together poets, who are also translators. Often they are very distinguished poets, very well known in their own country or beyond, and we bring them together in a group in a location for about a week, and they translate each others' poetry, via a bridge language, which is usually English or French or German. So this is one of the things we are definitely going to continue. The next one will actually take place in the Shetland Islands with a group of Nordic poets from Latvia, Estonia to Iceland, Norway and obviously local poets from the Shetlands. We are also going to concentrate more on the United Kingdom, because that is really a spot on the map of Europe that needs attention."

Why exactly the United Kingdom as a new focus?

"Well, I've already mentioned that British publishers do not really publish translations. Maybe they would like to but they don't get enough information, so they don't know which titles to look at. So we're planning to actually start publishing a quarterly publication, which won't be a magazine - it will be an offer to publishers of specific titles with all the bits and pieces that an agent would give them, a synopsis, information about the author, about the title, where the writer is sold, and a translated sample. And this is really important, that you have to have at least a chapter. Usually more is better, so that they can read, and it has to be a good translation."

For more information you can go to: www.lit-across-frontiers.org