Language: Latin

A Lexicon Like No Other

“The crushing of the Prague Spring was followed by another communist party crackdown. Dozens of translations...were banned."

Oľga Kovačičová, PhD is a Slovak literature scholar and specialist in old Russian literature and translation studies. She works at the Institute for Literary Studies at the Slovak Academy of Sciences where for the past few years she has been the driving force behind a unique project, “The Lexicon of 20th century Slovak translators,“ which she co-edited and contributed some 80 of the total 400 entries. She has agreed to share some reflections on the special role literary translation played in shaping Slovak language and culture with Asymptote’s Editor-at-large Julia Sherwood, who then translated her insights into English.

Translated literature necessarily plays a more important role in smaller countries compared with bigger nations where much of the reading public’s literary and general cultural needs are met by local literary output. When it comes to a really small country like Slovakia, even without citing statistical data it is obvious that the ratio of translated to domestic literary production is roughly the converse of that in Western Europe, where translations represent 12% (Germany) or 20% (Italy) of book publishing overall, let alone English speaking countries with the notorious 3-4% of translated books.

Lexicon cover

Another big difference is that while the major European cultures have had access to the great works of world literature in their own language for many centuries, in Slovakia the process of reception was basically condensed into the 20th century, since Slovak as a literary language was only constituted in the second half of the 1840s.  Volume I of the Lexicon of Slovak 20th century Literary Translators (Slovník slovenských prekladateľov umeleckej literatúry 20. storočia), published in 2015 by the Slovak Academy of Sciences (volume II is almost complete), provides a fascinating glimpse of this frantic catching up process.

There are lexicons and then there are lexicons. Unlike pragmatic manuals of the “Who’s Who” type, the profiles of some 400 translators featured in The Lexicon aim to chart the trajectory of literary translation in the 20th century and through this, the history of reception of world literature in Slovakia. Individual entries are between three and five pages long, and apart from basic biographical details and each translator’s bibliography, they look at the works each of them translated and how he/she translated them.  The fruit of the painstaking labour of over 30 linguists and translation studies scholars, the book includes Katarína Bednárová’s comprehensive introductory essay on the history of literary translation in Slovakia and its international context, a bibliography of secondary sources, and an index. Volume II will feature an illustrated supplement, showcasing a selection of around 200 book covers, which doubles as a comprehensive survey of the evolution of Slovak book design, as well as lists of translators by source country.

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Resurrection Song: William Tyndale

Fifth in Josh Billings's "Lives of the Translators" series—on God, death, and translation.

One morning in October 1536, in the Flemish town of Vilvorde, William Tyndale was led by his guards from his cell to a cross in the public square, to which he was tied at the ankles and waist with chains, and at the neck with a loose hemp cord.

Contrary to popular legend, he was not burned alive. Thieves and beggars were burned alive, women were burned alive, but Tyndale was a scholar and degraded priest: he was afforded the courtesy of being strangled first. When the procurer-general gave the signal, an executioner standing behind the cross pulled the hemp cord tight around Tyndale’s neck until he was dead. Then he lit the pile of brush and gunpowder that had been built up around the cross, and stood back.

Translation has always had its fair share of occupational hazards, but the execution of William Tyndale is one of rare examples in literary history of a translator killed for his work. It happened in an era when translation was taken extremely seriously, not just because it allowed ordinary people to read the Bible in their own languages, but because it implied those languages were as capable of containing God’s Word as Latin, Greek or Hebrew. Tyndale’s New Testament didn’t just imply this: it proved it, giving readers a Gospel that was both noble and familiar—a book of shepherds, the kitchen, the market, sons. READ MORE…

The Book of Sand: St. Jerome

Second in a series highlighting the lives of famous translators

When we dream about him, we dream about lions. But when Jerome dreamed, he dreamed of the desert, and of a judge who told him to destroy his books.

He had wanted to do this for a long time. Not because he hated his books, but because he loved them so much. He had labored over them, copying line after line of Plautus and Virgil into the codices that were now his curse, since no matter how much he fasted, wept, or threw himself in the dust, they were there to do what great literature always did—that is, to pick him back up and console him for his human lot. READ MORE…