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Poetry in motion

Czech verse garners an audience abroad

It’s a Tuesday night in London’s bustling Soho district, where a small crowd of literati has gathered on the top floor of Foyle’s Bookshop. They have come to listen to a reading given by two Czech contemporary poets whose work has been translated into English and published in a new bilingual anthology titled Six Czech Poets.

While Czech and British cultures are seemingly worlds apart, the interest in Czech poetry — particularly post-Velvet Revolution — is growing. That was clear at last month’s Manchester Literature Festival in the United Kingdom, where Kateřina Rudčenková and Petr Borkovec read at an event that festival director Cathy Bolton described as one of her “personal highlights.”

“We were delighted by the response to the Czech poets event, which was packed and very well received by the audience,” Bolton says.

This doesn’t surprise Alexandra Büchler, editor of Six Czech Poets and director of Literature Across Frontiers, a European Union–funded initiative formed to promote literature from lesser-known European countries. “It’s sometimes said poetry is really written for and read only by other poets,” Büchler says. “But when you have some 60 people listening to a poetry reading during their lunch hour — as happened with Kateřina and Petr in Manchester — you wonder whether this assessment is correct.”

Back at Foyle’s in London, the audience watches intently as 32-year-old Rudčenková steps up to the podium. She seems nervous and reads quickly at first, the tips of her ears turning pink beneath her pixie-cropped hair.

Later, she laughs at her discomfort. “Have you ever tried to read in front of people?” she says. “I’m always very nervous. I don’t like it.”

Rudčenková, born and raised in Prague and just 14 years old when communism fell, once pursued acting. She developed her love of poetry and writing — “something I must do” — at the Jaroslav Ježek Conservatoire. In 1999, Ludwig, her first book of poetry, was published to critical acclaim.

Rudčenková has since published three more collections of verse: No Need for You To Visit Me, Nights Nights and Ashes and Pleasure. These days, she is a resident playwright at London’s Royal Court Theatre, working on a play due to premiere in Prague next year.

Stepping up to the podium after Rudčenková finishes, 37-year-old Petr Borkovec, one of the Czech Republic’s most prominent contemporary poets to emerge after the fall of communism, seems more at ease with the audience. Wearing a black, buttoned-up shirt and clutching a booklet of poetry like a priest holding a Bible, he introduces each of his poems with personal anecdotes before he reads, his voice lilting with rhythm.

Describing a poem from his 1998 collection Polní práce (Field Work), Borkovec explains it is about the landscape of his hometown Louňovice pod Blaníkem, which features prominently in his poetry, in idyllic descriptions of landscape and lyrical observations of daily life. He now lives with his wife and three children in Černošice, about 15 kilometers (9 miles) southwest of Prague.

Much of his work has been translated into English by the Irish poet and Charles University instructor Justin Quinn. When asked how he thinks his work and that of other contemporary Czech poets is perceived overseas, Borkovec is uncertain. But he speaks intensely about his passion for translating 20th-century Russian, Hungarian and classical Greek and Korean poetry and drama.

“The real reason for translation is to stand in the shadow of authors we love, and to do honor to them through translation,” he says.

As for translating Czech into other languages, Büchler says it can be done without losing meaning. “Readers will always relate to good poetry which is well-translated and which deals with universal themes from a new perspective,” she says.

“Luckily, Petr and Kateřina’s work travels well in translation. Justin Quinn does a marvelous job transposing [a Borkovec] poem into one which speaks to an English reader within a whole new framework of reference, in terms of sound, rhythm and inter-textual references to English-language poetry.”

But, occasionally, the cryptic idioms of the Czech language can stump even the most experienced translator.

“Some things just don’t work,” Rudčenková explains. “For example, I had a Czech saying that people tell little girls, ‘Než se vdáš tak se to zahojí,’ which means something like, ‘It will be OK before you get married.’ But, when you try to translate it into English, it doesn’t mean anything.”

For a firsthand experience in how well Czech poetry translates, catch Rudčenková and Borkovec reading their work at the local launch of Six Czech Poets at the Globe next week.

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