Napište nám

When and why did you decide to live in the Czech Republic?

Cherchez la femme. It was back in the summer of 1992… (cont. p. 94)[1]

Were you planning to make your living as a translator from the very beginning?

No, I wasn’t. I don’t think  many young people in Britain aspire to be translators. Not quite role models, are we now? To this day my siblings express disappointment that I became a translator. Originally I planned to obtain some experience in TEFL here and then move on somewhere more lucrative, but the demand here for English tuition  was so high in the early 1990s that I barely had time to wipe my nose, never mind consider a career change.

Still, teaching and translation work do complement one another nicely.  I’d had plenty of experience translating both ways when I did a three-year course in Czech and Slovak language and literature at SSEES, then part of the University of London (details ) and I did occasionally try to keep my hand in e.g. by translating Ladislav Klíma’s aphorisms for fun (”Love is a stratagem of the tyrannical urge” etc), so  when on an impulse I placed a classified ad for translation services in Annonce I found there just wasn’t enough tippex to go round (this was still in pre-internet days when large crowds would gather round shop window displays to stare at the screen savers on computers).

Who came up with the idea of getting B. Proudew translated into English?

Initially I was approached  by Irena’s people.


Which Czech words have been the hardest nuts to crack in your published translation work?

I have summarized some of the most interesting problems in Proudew in an essay on the translation issues involved. But I had to make even more use of my creative imagination in my translation of Vánoční svátky o století zpátky by Kamila Skopová, on traditional Czech Christmas cuisine and customs, with evocative names for such classic treats as chróste, muzika-odvárka, černý Kuba (mastná huba), hubník, jahelník, peciválky and pučálka, not to mention vánoční zvykoslovné předměty like Mikulášský vrkoč, Třesolka and Polaz. You can find some of my solutions here  and others at a good bookshop near you.


There are many references to the communist regime in B. Proudew. I am sure even Czechs themselves have forgotten some of them. How did you find the meanings of these?

I am not entirely unfamiliar with everyday life under Husák, as I used to come over to Czechoslovakia every year during the 1980s to visit friends. Many Czechs suggest it must have all seemed terribly alien, but you would be surprised just how familiar some of it was to somebody brought up in an inner city area of Manchester, a kind of second-world zone wrapped round a first-world hub. Sundays had a similar character, as did the quality of the air, food, information sources, administration, health and safety laws and so forth.

And when in doubt I can also always ask Hana, my long-time, long-suffering translation partner.


In today’s world, there are so many “Englishes”. Which one did you rely on when translating B. Proudew?

Basically, a kind of uncosmopolitan 1970s English English. You will find details in my recent essay.


Should we give up on learning British or American English? Isn’t it a shame that there is no authority taking care of “good English” similar to Ústav pro jazyk český?

Learn British English and you have access to some 65 million people. Then spend half an hour learning Australian vowels and you can understand another 23 million. Add an hour or two on another set of vowels, consonants, spellings and  lexis and you have a sporting chance of communicating with 320 million Americans. I look on the bright side. Not a bad deal really.

As for academies they have been tried in the past, but with no success. They might make my job easier, but meanwhile I think the world and the language would move on. Standards already exist anyway. Plenty of them. That is just the kind of thing we discuss in our workshops.

What is your role in the Belisha Beacon workshops for professional translators?

We call these sessions workshops because they have quite a different approach to the standard language tuition that many older people will be familiar with. As a rule we do not work down from rules to model textbook  sentences. Quite the reverse, we normally work inductively, focusing on the translation issues that arise naturally in authentic texts, discussing the various stylistic and semantic options and coming up with context-bound solutions. This will often lead to similar solutions that have been noted over the years in the online Czechlist blog .

The workshop itself is only one part of the package. Participants are encouraged to present their own translation texts, which can then be discussed one-to-one by email and/or on Skype and/or in the group.

So anybody who joins the workshop in the  hope of re-enacting traumas from their schooldays is  going to be quite disappointed in me, because I often act more as a workshop facilitator than as an old-school language teacher. For example I will encourage participants to consider various stylistic alternatives rather than just straight correct/incorrect polarities. We tend to deal more in rules of thumb than in strict linguistic laws. To quote Tárnyiková’s Sentence Complexes in Texts, the  point is not to reject binarity (dichotomy) but rather to advocate the admission of the fact that for some language data, more relevant results can be obtained if gradients (clines, scales) rather than binary oppositions are taken into account.

I do now have over twenty-five years’ experience of translation and teaching English to Czechs and Slovaks, so we can be fairly flexible in the workshop, switching attention from one issue to another at a moment’s notice with little or no preparation on my part. Of course, I do not claim to know all the answers, so we can always throw questions out to Czechlist, a discussion group that I established back in 1999, which currently has hundreds of translators very actively involved in language discussions.  A few examples:

In any case it is  often quite an eye-opener to hear our transatlantic cousins’ points of view.

Of course workshop participants can contribute to these debates, and we usually discuss the findings in subsequent workshops.

Note the Czechlist archives cover hundreds of everyday issues raised in translation work – a very useful resource:

Distance students need not feel left out.  They can use Tinychat to take part in workshops and then email or Skype to discuss the issues involved. This can provide far more opportunity to practise and discuss the language than was ever available in classic classroom settings, where individual students were lucky to speak for more than a few minutes.






[1] “Continued page 94” is an old running joke from the satirical magazine Private Eye, used for any text that promises to be boring and predictable.