Translating Literature of the Transition: Jáchym Topol’s Sestra and Alex Zucker’s City, Sister, Silver

Yvonne Howell, University of Richmond

With few exceptions, issues of translation were subordinated to issues of ideology when literary works from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe were introduced to the West as morally and aesthetically courageous, or in defiance of censorship. At this point, our understanding of how literary texts from the “emerging” and “transitional” societies of Russia and Eastern Europe are received in translation in the West is incomplete. My paper will examine Jáchym Topol’s 1994 novel Sestra and Alex Zucker’s recent translation of the novel into English. This paper will selectively use contemporary translation theory to “make [Zucker’s] translation visible,” in order to better understand what happens when post-Soviet literary texts from Russia and Eastern Europe are introduced and marketed to the West through translation. Specifically, I will look at Albrecht Neubert’s theories of textual approach to translation and Carol Maier’s analysis of the politics of reviewing translations in literary journals.

Jáchym Topol’s novel City, Sister, Silver (Sestra) was an immediate critical sensation when it arrived on the Czech literary scene in 1994. It won the Egon Hostovský Prize for the best Czech book of the year, and was the only post-Velvet Revolution book included in the writers’ and critics’ list of the 100 Greatest Czech Prose Works of the Century (ahead of all but one of Kundera’s novels on the list). What Czech critics saw in this epic novel (the original is 488 pages) was a stunningly new and serious attempt to transform the literary and artistic resources of the Czech language, to make it express the profoundly different spiritual and social reality of the post-Communist Czech Republic. When social change is accelerated by revolutionary events, language develops and changes more quickly and noticeably than usual. The first Czech edition of this novel actually includes a note from the editors on the back page warning the reader that the novel deviates from the norms in spelling, morphology, syntax, oscillation between standard written and substandard dialectical forms, use of the accusative pronoun ji, etc. Since it is hard to imagine what kind of English prose could provoke such editorial concern in our times, one might assume that any translation of Topol’s linguistic experimentation would inevitably involve a substantial loss of the original. From this point of view, the reviewer is left with little to do but to praise the translator for a “resourceful” and “remarkably accurate” translation and finish up. On the other hand, we can see Zucker’s translation as a strategy and a creative trade-off, whose goal is communicative equivalence in the English-speaking world, but not equivalence of meaning. From this point of view, the translation reopens a dialog between the original and the target language, and what is lost is not as relevant as what is discovered. Clearly, the reception of this novel in the Czech literary world had at least something to do with its radical extension of the possibilities of Czech as a contemporary literary language capable of expressing both the elation and the alienation of Topol’s generation. My analysis looks at the translator’s strategies for recreating in a different linguistic and aesthetic system some of the cultural impact of the original.