Truth is Always in Exile: Presseurop on George Steiner, Josef Škvorecký, and Zdena Salivarová-Škvorecká

The final days of any year provide a brief space in which to sketch out a balance sheet of the preceding twelve months and take stock of the things we are grateful for, the things we look forward to doing in the coming year, and the things we wish to improve in ourselves, our lives, and our world.

My year’s general ledger is a polyglot affair, just like my professional work, my shopping lists, my personal library, and my friendships. English is my mother tongue and Spanish is the language I use in my day-to-day business and personal life, but both are peppered with words and ideas taken from other languages I have been in contact with. Yesterday I popped a cut of meat into the oven that I know best as galtas—a Catalan word—but that my Aragonese husband calls carrilleras. I had never heard of such a cut before moving to Barcelona a decade ago and frankly I feel foolish calling it “pork cheeks,” the correct, if somewhat dissonant, translation suggested by The Spanish Institute for Foreign Trade (ICEX). However, “pork cheeks” is probably the closest description possible, as galtas (or carrilleras, if you will) are precisely the pockets of meat bound to the muscles of a pig’s lower jaw. Likewise, although I have always referred to any cooked fruit spread made from raspberries, strawberries, apples, or peaches as jelly, jam, marmalade, or fruit butter, I will always think of the same concoction made with apricots or prunes as lekvár (Hungarian and Slovak) or lektvar (Czech), the delicious filling used in many Eastern European pastries. If food is a slippery category linguistically, tools constitute another. Sometimes I reach for a screwdriver, but for no particular reason the next time I pick it up it has mysteriously become a destornillador or a tornavís.

I have a number of translation clients who shift back and forth between Spanish and English as they draft their texts. Although it’s much more work to hammer the hybrid syntax of their documents into proper English, I appreciate what these writers are up to. To the extent that their linguistic skills allow them, they are trying to make the most out of at least two ways of thinking and writing about a subject. I say at least two because the bibliographies of articles written by almost every Spaniard academic I have ever worked with back up Umberto Ecco’s assertion that “translation is the language of Europe.” I’m accustomed to proofreading bibliographies that document reference material in a number of different languages, a frequent indication that the translation into English that the writer has entrusted to me is only the final step of a long linguistic journey from a study of the existing literature on a subject to a mature, original idea. Maintaining both the polyphony of a writer’s references (whether they are clearly stated in a bibliography of a text or not) and the essence of his or her voice is one of the many challenges inherent to any work of translation. For translators working in a multilingual environment such as Europe, achieving this harmony is a primordial objective.

The references that support the arguments and ideas of the authors I work with are a never-ending source of personal and professional enrichment. Each is a gold mine waiting to be discovered. Behind what first appears to be a lifeless string of names and dates: (Till and Baack, 2005; Koslow, Sasser and Riordan, 2003; Stone, Besser and Lewis, 2000), (Merleau-Ponty [1945] 2002, p.169), (Kirchhoff 1979; Ilg 1988; Alexieva 1994) lurk theories of marketing, the mental calculations carried out by consecutive interpreters as they carry a message from one language to another, or, in Merleau Ponty’s words, “the harmony between what we aim at and what is given.” In a year marked by a relentless questioning of the central ideas that sparked the dream of a united Europe, it was a consolation to work with communications professor Manuel Fernández Sande on the translation of his conference presentation on the history of pan-European radio and learn that while Europe teeters on the brink of dissolution, eighteen radio stations in fifteen European countries were broadcasting 2,000 hours of Eurocentric news to over 15 million listeners. Thanks to Manuel, I have became an avid reader of Presseurop, the online news service of the pan-European radio network, which offers me a glimpse of the world from the perspective of journalists working from Athens to Warsaw. The editors of Presseurop are fully aware of the transcendent value of translation; their mission is to publish a selection of news, opinion articles, and even political cartoons produced in points throughout Europe in ten European languages. I can read a Presseurop article in English and with a flick of a finger, share it with friends in German, French, or Spanish. If 2011 has been the year to analyze the many ways that the European initiative has failed, may 2012 be the year to celebrate its many undeniable successes, among them a revolutionary willingness to debate rather than take up arms and a commitment to consider the fate of one’s neighbor as inextricably bound to one’s own. Presseurop is evidence of the common desire to heed the lessons of past disasters that makes Europe such an exciting place to live today.

In a Télérama interview that recently appeared in translation in the marvelous Presseurop website, George Steiner shares some vary interesting personal anecdotes about multilingualism, culture, and Europe with writer Juliette Cerf.  George Steiner is a polyglot from birth; he recalls his mother beginning a sentence in one language and ending it in another. His conversation with Cerf touches on multilingualism as a vehicle for physical, spiritual, and mental mobility and renovation. He describes the four languages in which he is fluent as, “my escape, my greatest joy and pleasure.” Although his parents were Czech, he lists his childhood languages as having been French, English, and German, and notes:

I had no mother tongue, which, contrary to conventional wisdom, is not uncommon. In Sweden, you have Finnish as well as Swedish; in Malaysia, people speak three languages. The idea of a ‘mother tongue’ is a highly romantic and nationalist one. My multilingualism enabled me to teach, and to write After Babel: Aspects of Language and Translation, and to feel at home everywhere. Every language is an open window on the world. This is in contrast to the grim attachment to roots advocated by someone like Maurice Barrès. Trees have roots; I have legs. And believe me, that is a huge advantage.

Despite his family’s flight from France to the United States during the Second World War, Steiner acknowledges an unequivocal feeling of cultural kinship with Europe:

Europe remains the locus of the massacre, of the incomprehensible, but also of cultures that I love. I owe everything to Europe, and I want to be there among my dead. I want to stay close to the Shoah, in a place where I can speak my four languages.

Steiner’s statement that “Books are the great bulwark of private life,” links the Télérama interview to another article that appeared in Presseurop this week titled “Sixty-Eight Publishers – books of dissent,” in which Petr Koura and Pavlina Kourová pay homage to Czech intellectuals Josef Škvorecký and Zdena Salivarová-Skvorecky.

Josef Škvorecký forged a career as a writer, teacher, translator, and editor after receiving his degree in English literature from Charles University in Prague in 1951. In an interview published in The Central European Review, he admits that his career in literature came on the heels of the devastating realization that he had no talent as a jazz musician, laughingly citing an aphorism plucked from William Faulkner’s “An Odor of Verbena”: “Those who can do. Those who cannot, and suffer long enough, because they cannot, write about it.” Škvorecký suffered ostracism as a dissident writer throughout the 1950s and 60s. Although his own books could not be published in Czechoslovakia during this period, he remained active in Czech literary circles and translated English classics by authors such as Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, and Henry James into Czech.

As Steiner points out, a command of more than one language is an open window on the world. Like Steiner, Škvorecký had “legs,” which proved to be a strategic advantage for a dissident writer after the crackdown that followed the brief “Prague Spring” of 1968. He and his wife, actress and author Zdena Salivarová-Skvorecky, left Czechoslovakia in 1969 and resettled in Canada where his fluency in English and expertise in English literature qualified him for a teaching position in the English Department of the University of Toronto. As an exile in Canada, Škvorecký’s literary career flourished. A nomination for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982 is only one of the many honors he has received for his literary work. But if Škvorecký’s long list of published books was a bulwark of the couple’s new life in Canada, they remained emotionally attached and morally committed to the literature and writers of their homeland. In 1971 they founded Sixty-Eight, a small private press conceived to publish Škvorecký’s books and reprints of prose work by other Czech émigré writers. The project was launched with their own savings. Josef did most of the editing and Zdena typeset the books and handled the logistical aspects of the fledgling venture. They shipped books for free to readers living in Eastern Bloc countries, often camouflaging prohibited titles with false covers, hiding them in boxes of soap powder, and even sneaking them through customs in diplomatic mailbags. In 1974, Sixty-Eight began to publish the work of contemporary writers living in Czechoslovakia.

Sixty-Eight kept Czechoslovakian literature alive at home and abroad. As Milan Kundera was later to recall in 1989:

Virtually all of contemporary Czech literature moved into their tiny publishing house, which consisted of only two or three rooms – both the literature written in the country, and that written outside it. And because those two people, who did the right thing at the right time, are also excellent novelists, their publishing house has both moral and aesthetic authority, and I don’t know when any other Czech publishing house has had that.

For almost twenty years Zdena Salivarová and Josef  Škvorecký alone, working with a keen and youthful spirit under trying conditions that seem unreal to professional editors, have allowed us to remain writers in the sense that the European modern age understands: as authors of books. If we realize what it cost them in time, work, effort, exhaustion, we will understand that those two have, in addition to all the ways they served the Czechs, have also set a precedent unique in history: sacrificing a part of their own work for the work of their colleagues.

 Although relatively few copies of Sixty-Eight editions were circulated in Czechoslovakia, they were considered “bandages on torn wounds” by those who read them. As Petr Koura and Pavlina Kourová note in their article, circulating and reading banned books carried serious risks:

Reading and owning them was punishable by law, yet people borrowed and copied them all the same. Almost everyone who got any of the books from the Škvoreckýs still recalls who brought it to them, how much time they had to read it, which of the books they copied and which were confiscated in a search of their homes by the StB (Czechoslovakia’s State Security Police).

By the time a decision was made to shut down the press in 1994, Sixty-Eight had published a total of 224 titles in small editions by Czech and Slovak writers, as well as a few by other writers whose work was centered on some aspect of Czechoslovakian history or culture. Czech President Vaclav Havel, one of the writers whose work had been published through Sixty-Eight, awarded Škvorecký and his wife the Order of the White Lion, the highest honor the Czech Republic confers on foreigners who have made a contribution to Czech culture, during the couple’s first return visit to Prague in 1989. Unlike George Steiner, the founders of Sixty-Eight Press would only return to Europe as distinguished guests. A documentary produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Company that records their bittersweet visit to the Czech Republic in 1989 offers a subtle and moving portrait of an exiled writer’s return to his homeland after a hiatus of twenty years.

Is truth, as the eighteenth-century rabbi Baal Shem Tov said, always in exile? In her interview with Josef Škvorecký for the Central European Review, Julie Hansen asked the author if living in exile had affected him as a writer. Škvorecký replied, “Henry Miller recommended that writers live abroad, because their native language suddenly becomes precious to them. They see its possibilities and beauty, which they hadn’t noticed at home, because there everyone spoke Czech [sic]. I think that is confirmed by the fact that Hemingway, who was probably the most influential stylist in American literature, wrote his early stories and novels abroad.” Škvorecký claims to be satisfied with the work of translators who have brought his novels to other languages, emphasizing that having translated over ten English language novels into Czech, he is fully aware of the challenge professional translators face.

I fully agree with his assertion that living abroad gives writers and translators a greater appreciation for their native language or languages. While I revel in previously unimagined elements of expression that Spanish offers me, such as the imperfect and subjunctive tenses and two forms of the verb to be, rummaging through the endless stocks of synonyms and compound words available in English is a truly sybaritic delight. As George Steiner noted in his book Real Presences, “Each language speaks the world in its own ways. Each edifies worlds and counter-worlds in its own mode. The polyglot is a freer man.”

Bob Dylan once defined a hero as someone who understands the responsibility that comes with his or her freedom. According to this definition, one can easily say that George Steiner, Josef Škvorecký, and Zdena Salivarova have all been cultural heroes in an excessively dogmatic world. It takes guts for a holocaust-obsessed Jewish writer who quotes Baal Shem Tov to openly criticize the state of Israel when it has failed to fulfill its initial postulations as a society, and it is an act of selfless commitment to others for two writers fortunate to have escaped the claustrophobic atmosphere of their homeland to have spent twenty years of personal freedom maintaining intellectual lifelines with colleagues left behind. All three émigrés and wanders are conscious that despite the onrush of globalization, refugees find themselves in an increasing vulnerable position. When asked during his interview with Juliette Cerf if globalization has facilitated the movement of wandering spirits, George Steiner replied, “We have never had so many geographic barriers. . . . The planet is increasingly closed off. . . . Think of the horrible fate of modern refugees. When I had the honour of making a speech to the German government, I finished up saying ‘Ladies and gentlemen, all the stars are now turning yellow.’”

His reflections on modern refugees bring to mind another project that I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to participate in this year: the preparation of the catalog for Médicos del Mundo’s annual 2011 Luis Valtueña photographic awards. Each year, MdM Spain offers an exhibition and cash prizes to photographers who have distinguished themselves in the field of humanitarian photography. Alessandro Grassani won this year’s top prize for his documentation of climate change refugees in Mongolia. Runners-up Luca Catalano and Gabriel Pecot were recognized for their coverage of conditions in refugee camps in Dadaab, Nigeria and Greece. Once more, my polyglot vocabulary expands; what I once knew as a tent and later as a yurt, I now know to be a gher. I now know the cycle of dry summers and bitterly cold winters that forced more than 39,000 traditional Mongolian herdsmen to give up their nomadic way of life in 2010 has a name that rolls off the tongue as bitter and hard as the trail of death and desperation it leaves in its wake: dzud.

Every language is an open window on the world, both its lights and its shadows. The mistletoe that decorates my front door in Spain on the longest night of the year and invites a romantic kiss is also a sprig of muérdago that must be thrown into the bonfire lit on St. John’s Day, the year’s longest day, to ensure the harvest. On this last day of the year, my husband brought home a subtitled documentary to watch before dinner—a big concession from a lifelong addict of dubbed versions of foreign films. “In-see-day hob,” he informs me triumphantly. In-see-day hob, indeed. May we begin to set things right in 2012, word by word, and deed by deed, and may the languages we read and speak, as George Steiner tells us in just some of the translations available through Presseurop, make us

feel at home everywhere
überall zuhause zu fühlen
sentir chez nous partout
sentir vontade em qualquer lugar