Interview with a Translator: Alex Zucker on Translating INNOCENCE, OR MURDER ON STEEP STREET, by Heda Margolius Kovaly

On Monday, June 20th, at 1 PM, the Murder in the Afternoon Book Club meets to discuss famed Holocaust memoirist Heda Margolius Kovaly’s novel Innocence, or, Murder on Steep Street, a noir account of secrets and lies in 1950s Prague, and a rare glimpse at the painful effects of Soviet-imposed Communist rule from a woman’s perspective. Innocence begins at a movie theater, mainly staffed by women whose husbands have either died in World War II or have been arrested by State Security, the Communist Party’s secret police. When a dead body is discovered at the theater and the police begin an investigation, we learn more about each woman’s backstory, and see the ways in which the state’s relentless search for informers has torn apart the communities and families represented in the book. 

Earlier this year, I interviewed Alex Zucker, the novel’s translator, via Skype. We chatted about the book, translation, and the enduring appeal of Czech literature to American readers. Some of the interview has been condensed to summary form. 

  • Interview by Molly Odintz

Molly Odintz: It seems to me that Czech literature has inspired more interest in America than other Eastern Bloc countries. When I try to name writers from other small European countries; for example, Bulgaria, or Lithuania, or Belgium, I come up short; when I think of Czech writers, automatically, there are a bunch that come to mind. Why do you think that Czech writers have such a high reputation and recognition among American readers, compared to writers from other smallish languages? 

Alex Zucker: I guest-edited an issue on Czech literature for Words Without Borders, and I wrote an introduction to the issue that talks about the popularity of Czech authors; my theory is the reason these Czech authors, Kundera,  Klíma, Hrabal, Havel,  Škvorecký, the reason as many Czech writers are as well known as they are is because they had people in this country championing them, and writers from other countries have not had this same level of support…There has been a critical mass of important influential people in the US and Europe in publishing who really vouched for Czech authors, and made sure they got published, reviewed and got attention. I think Czech literature in the United States does not have a champion right now; there’s nobody writing about Czech literature on a regular basis, in contrast to the UK, where Czech books are reviewed regularly in the Times Literary Supplement.

Alex goes on to name figures in support of Czech literature in France and the Czech Republic as well.

A lot of translators and publishers now are starting to look more at books that might in the past have been considered less literary. They’ve realized that readers don’t care if a book is a translation as long as it’s a good read.

MO: Do you think that writers in the Czech Republic have more celebrity status than writers in the United States? 

AZ: Than in the United States? For sure; but I think, the whole position of intellectuals is different in most European countries than here; there’s a long tradition of them writing for papers, in France they have intellectuals on talk shows…We don’t have intellectuals on talk shows, here, we have “experts.” It is much more common for writers to write for newspapers about topics not about literature or their own writing, so in the Czech Republic you have writers weighing in on public affairs on a regular basis.  Alex points out that, during the Prague Spring uprising of Czechoslovakia against Soviet oppression, writers were an integral part of Czech opposition to the Soviets, and spoke out for political change before and after, despite their party membership and orders to toe the line. 

MO: Tell us about the initial publication of Innocence.

AZ: Innocence, by Kovaly, was originally published in Czech in 1985 by an emigre publishing house in Cologne, in Germany, called Index, under a pseudonym, and I would guess she wrote it in the early 80s, but set it in the 50s….One of the reasons people are interested in this book is that it is to some degree a fictionalized account of the author’s life in the 50s after her husband was falsely accused of being a traitor to the Czechoslovak communist regime, despite being a high official and member of the Communist Party. Throughout the Eastern Bloc there were show trials with wild accusations against mostly high-ranking Jews in communist parties in Eastern Europe of disloyalty to the Soviet Union as part of a Trotskyite-Titoite-Zionist conspiracy.

In 1952, Kovaly’s first husband, Rudolf Margolius, was tried and accused with a group of mostly other Jewish members of the Czechoslovak Communist Party….Rudolf Margolius was, along with Heda Margolius, a survivor of Auschwitz and a few other camps  (this was in the intro to the book that her son wrote.) The accusation of Zionism among high-ranking Jewish Communists in Czechoslovakia [was particularly ironic] given that the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia was the main supplier of arms to the new Israeli state after 1948….But that’s another chapter of history. Kovaly’s story reflects the fickle nature of Stalinist politics and how the waves rippled through the East Bloc through the early 50s and even after Stalin’s death in 1953.

MO: Tell me a bit more about you came to this project.

AZ: How I got involved was really simple, actually. Juliet Grames, the associate publisher of Soho Press, who oversees their crime imprint, sent me a message on LinkedIn asking me if I would be interested in translating the book. At that point I knew about Heda Margolius Kovaly, but I didn’t know about this book; I only knew about her memoir, Under a Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941-1968, and I hadn’t read it before.

The way that Soho Press got the book is the interesting part that you’re probably thinking of…Ivan Margolius, her son, had done his own full translation and sent it around to a number of publishing houses, including Soho, and it ended up in the electronic equivalent of the slush pile, their general inbox. Paul Oliver, the marketing director for Soho Press, was looking through Juliet’s email, and recognized it because he had read her memoir in college, and he thought it was an interesting submission by a fascinating figure. [For Heda Margolius Kovaly] to first survive the Holocaust, escaping a death march, that’s an unbelievable story, although of course there are a number of people who lived that. But then, to have her husband falsely accused, put on a show trial and hanged…Added to that, a lot of people read her memoir in school; when she died there was an obituary in the New York Times, she wrote reviews for the New York Times, so she’s kind of a known person in the literary world already…and there’s the fact that she then wrote a murder mystery inspired by the fact that she translated mysteries into Czech – it’s a fascinating story…Paul said to Juliet, we ought to take a look at this.

Alex is quick to praise the quality of Ivan Margolius’s initial translation, and recounts how Ivan was pleased at Alex’s selection as translator. He adds they worked together on the translation for publication. He concludes, “After that I stopped badmouthing LinkedIn – it was the first time I got work out it.”

MO: Heda Margolius Kovaly worked as a translator for much of her life. Did her work as a translator affect your approach to the project? 

AZ: Since she had translated Raymond Chandler, and the publishing house was playing up the fact that she was inspired by Chandler, I thought it was important to verify if she was actually writing like him; my sense was that she was not. Her son sent me a copy of one of her Raymond Chandler translations, Farewell, My Lovely… I looked at it to see how she translated it [and] the styles are not the same; she was not writing like Raymond Chandler. Chandler wrote a lot of tight, short sentences with a lot of dialogue. Heda Margolius Kovaly wrote in what I would call a more natural or more frequently used Czech style that is not so tight; she does use a lot of dialogue.

It wouldn’t be true to say she writes like Chandler, but she does use a lot of Prague speak, and slang. Since the book is set in the 50s, I did try to use language that could have been used in the 50s as well…It is always tricky to do that in a translation, because, especially in dialogue, readers tend to react to that. If you just have an ongoing narration that’s in a particular style that’s associated with a particular time period it tends not to bother readers, but when you use dialogue associated with a particular time, all of a sudden, their ears prick up, and the illusion is shattered; they realize they are reading a translation, and say ‘I don’t understand, how can these people be speaking in 1950s American slang when they’re Czech,’ but of course, the whole book was written in Czech originally, not just the dialogue…

I felt like it needed to sound like it was from that period because to set a book in the 1950s and have people using contemporary slang and usage would have been wrong…there’s always a suspension of disbelief in translation…part of my work is to help people to forget that they are reading a book that was not originally in English, because otherwise they couldn’t enjoy it. You can always write a translation that mirrors more the word order and actual wording of phrases in the original language, but there’s a word for that, “translationese,” and [that style of translation] is not really literary, and it’s no fun to read.

MO: Were there any phrases particularly difficult to translate? Something that speaks of 1950s Prague, that could never find its exact equivalent in English? 

AZ: There’s always a question like this with translation interviews. With Czech, there’s not usually a particular idiom. Czech has a clear demarcation of registers. In Czech, they talk about spisovná  čeština, or written Czech, hovorová čeština, or spoken Czech, and obecná čeština, or common Czech. If you go on TV, or the radio, or if someone is speaking in public, at least until relatively recently, it would have been considered a faux pas to not speak in written style, or the most formal, highest style.

In a work of Czech fiction the dialogue can often be in more spoken Czech, and on top of that, there’s some usage that’s unique to Prague. One thing that they do in Prague, is that they put a ‘v’ in front of words that start with an ‘o’,  it’s called a prosthetic v’ and it’s done only in spoken language…These linguistic features unique to Prague are used by people across all levels of society, so the usage of spoken Czech by a Czech character does not mark them as belonging to a social class in any way. In English, there tends to be a class or education status attached to language. That’s always an issue in translating Czech.

MO: So I’m going to ask you the other question you probably always get in translator interviews. Only 3% of works published every year in the US are works in translation, and many of these are translations of old classics. What do you think are responsible for the low numbers of translations? 

AZ: First, I need to say that this 3% figure is one that’s been around for a long time, but I don’t think it’s up to date…This number has become so fixed in people’s minds, but never completely represented the true figure of translated works anyway, because it didn’t include literary nonfiction, and there may be books that we don’t know about…In any given year the percentage of translated works published in the US could be 4% or 5%. Of course it’s never going to be as high as it is in smaller countries and language groups, where most of the works of literature they read are in translation.

On the other hand, I am sure that the percentage of translations here is lower. I think it’s basically a question of population size and the number of people who read English. If you look at the percentage of books published in, say, Germany that are translations, maybe this number is, say, 30%, but I think you’ll also find out that a lot of those books that are translated are not necessarily “high literature” but more bestsellers. This is one big difference between what’s translated into English, versus what’s translated into other languages. The United States, up until recently, haven’t had so many bestsellers translated. A lot of us translators are working with texts that are a bit more challenging, so they are probably not bestsellers, or at least won’t be bestsellers in this country. It’s a different type of literature.

A lot of translators and publishers now are starting to look more at books that might in the past have been considered less literary. They’ve realized that readers don’t care if a book is a translation as long as it’s a good read. I think the success of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, if you could pin it down to a single event, has had more to do with that than any other one thing…I think that there’s an idea that translations do not sell as well, but in this country, since most translations are of, for lack of a better word, of relatively high literary quality, I think they sell about as well as books in English on that same level of literary quality… Any literary work in this country is going to have comparatively low sales compared to more commercial literature…I think it more has to do with the literary qualities of the work, “rather than whether or not it’s translated.

MO: I have my own theory that it has to do with the author as celebrity – when the author is thousands of miles from their audience, its harder to build a following. 

AZ: 95% of books written don’t sell more than 5,000 copies. Translations are always going to come up short when you compare them to bestsellers, but most writers writing in English don’t sell like that either, so who are we comparing them to?…There isn’t total agreement among translators about to what extent we want people to read the things we translate as translations or purely as great works. There is some tension among translators between wanting reviewers, readers, publishers to recognize the art and the craft of what we do as translators, and not wanting reviewers, readers, and publishers to pigeonhole us, as being apart somehow. I don’t know if there’s ever going to be a resolution of that tension.

MO: Going back to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and the increasing translation of  genre fiction. It seem to me that there is increasing respect for literary genre fiction, those works that rise above genre conventions and at the same time are playful with these conventions. The book we’ve been chatting about, Innocence, definitely has a foot in both literary and genre fiction. Do you think such works will increasingly be translated? 

AZ:…My sense is yes. A lot of the translators I know are quite interested in genre fiction, and although I don’t usually read crime fiction or murder mysteries, I thoroughly enjoyed translating Innocence, and working with Soho Press…I would expect to see more, is my short answer.

MO: Heda Margolius Kovaly wrote a memoir and also a detective novel processing the trauma of her husband’s arrest. She used a more literary method of processing trauma, the memoir, and also a form of genre fiction great for processing trauma, the roman noir. Were you thinking about the detective novel versus the memoir while you were translating Innocence? How does her novel compare with her memoir? 

AZ: I didn’t read her memoir until after I was done translating the novel…but without having seen the original Czech of her memoir, it still would have been hard to compare, because from what I understand, there was quite a bit of work done on the translation, it was very heavily edited…Every book I translate has different styles…If you spoke to a translator who studied literature, you might get different answers than I would give, but when I’m working on a translation, I’m not really thinking about big picture topics. I’m thinking about how does it sound, what is the rhythm, and is this a way that someone would write this in English; i’m down in the weeds, and not thinking very much about the meaning of the book as a unit…

MO: You came to translation from international relations and human rights work. What’s the story behind that? 

AZ: I went to Czechoslovakia for the first time in 1987 with a girlfriend who had read The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera in a poli sci course in college. She loaned it to me, I read the book and liked it, I read another book of his, she was in London, I went to meet her and we decided to travel to Czechoslovakia together. I got interested through Kundera in Czechoslovakia as a country and as a Communist country and started reading about it… I started getting into it as a political phenomenon and decided after going there in 87 to start studying Czech and applying to a masters program in International Affairs, so I could work on human rights…The only program in the country with a program in international affairs and a professor of Czech was the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University; this was also where Peter Kussi taught, in the Slavic Department, and he was one of Kundera’s translators…We were reading literature in his class right from the start, and I got interested in translating from Kussi…

We wrap up our interview with a discussion of mass incarceration, at its peak in the Soviet Union in the early 50s, and at at its peak in the United States, well, right now. I mention that part of what drew me to Margolius Kovaly’s work was her representation of a society of women, where the men are either incarcerated, dead or exploitative representatives of Soviet authority. Modern American crime novels of the past 30 years, when they depict rural and urban communities increasingly targeted in the name of the ‘War on Drugs’, have much the same feeling and gender dynamics.

We move from there to a discussion of dissident literature and why so much of it is by men. Alex pins it on the differing risk factors for a dissident woman with children and a dissident man with children – the man would be more likely to be willing to go to prison for his beliefs, leaving the childcare and financial support to his wife, than vice versa. In a way, dying for your principles (at least, for those with children) is an expression of male privilege. We agree that it would be nice to see more translations of women, and especially more translations of dissident female writers.

Alex has three translations out in 2016: Midway Upon the Journey of Our Life by Josef Jedlička (Karolinum Press); Love Letter in Cuneiform by Tomáš Zmeškal (Margellos World Republic of Letters at Yale University Press); and The Attempt by Magdaléna Platzová (Bellevue Literary Press). You can find more information about his translation work at Slowly but surely, the presence of Czech literature translated into English continues to grow.

You can find copies of Innocence, or Murder on Steep Street, on our shelves and via Come by BookPeople Monday, June 20th, at 1 PM, for a discussion of this fascinating look at the Cold War from a feminist perspective. 


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