English PEN talks to the translators of some of our award-winning books. Next in the series is Alex Zucker, whose translation of Jáchym Topol’s novel The Devil’s Workshop won an award in 2013
What they see in our museum they’ll never forget.
Museum, I say, looking around. What museum? Besides the mannequins there’s nothing here but crates. Crates full of specimens.
The museum we’re building in Khatyn, Alex says. It’s going to be the most famous memorial site in the world. The devil had his workshop here in Belarus. The deepest graves are in Belarus. But nobody knows about them. That’s why you’re here!
–Extract from The Devil’s Workshop by Jáchym Topol, translated from Czech by Alex Zucker
Interview by Grace Hetherington
The first half of the novel focuses intensely on the town of Terezín, former ghetto and concentration camp in the Czech Republic. The second half takes place in Belarus. Have you visited these places? Do you find historical research and getting to know places important, or do you prefer to use the text alone when translating?
You highlight a point that is actually central to The Devil’s Workshop: Terezín the town, during World War II, was the site of a ghetto/prison/camp for Jews, operated by the Nazi German regime under the name Theresienstadt. But the town and the camp were — and are — not synonymous. A substantial part of the narrative in the first half of the book turns on this distinction, and at a certain point in the translation it became clear to me I needed to understand the geography and the topography of the place in order to do it right. There are all sorts of images available on the internet — including virtual reality movies and panoramic photographs — but I still felt I needed to see it in person, and fortunately I was able to go with Jáchym himself, who if you’ve ever met him you know is an ideal tour guide. On the other hand, I couldn’t make it to Belarus, so I’ve never seen Khatyn, or Minsk, with my own eyes. It might have helped. So to get back to your question, I’ll take all the help I can get when translating. You can always do research; sometimes visiting a place isn’t possible.
The book is about the Holocaust, and the memory of it that is held by descendants of its victims, and also about the much less known massacres of Belarusians by both Nazis and Soviets. In other words, it is about the forgotten victims of history. Do you think this is what motivated Jáchym Topol to write this book?
I did an interview with Jáchym last year in which I asked him a similar question. He somewhat resisted an answer. (It’s the longest interview with him ever published in English, by the way, so I recommend it). But there’s no doubt his writing is driven by his personal concerns and experiences — ‘my paranoia and obsessions and terrors,’ as he put it — above all else. I’m sure Jáchym’s aware that some of his writing, this book certainly, may be viewed as making a contribution to history, but it isn’t his primary purpose.
The novel’s humour is darkly comic. Was it a challenge to translate this and retain the same balance in your tone? How did you achieve this?
Translating The Devil’s Workshop presented some of the same challenges (on a much smaller scale) as Jáchym’s first novel, City Sister Silver, in that at times I felt a tension — or maybe, to be honest, a disconnect — between the supposedly savvy but not so insightful narrator and the obviously intelligent and worldly author writing him. Like the narrator was drifting in and out of incarnating the author; or the author was drifting in and out of possessing the narrator. I tried the best I could to keep the narrator in character. But I didn’t create him, so there was only so far I could go. The only way I know how to achieve this is by paying close attention to detail and being willing to revise as many times as it takes.
What did you most enjoy about translating this book? What did you least enjoy?
Jáchym is a good friend, and it had been a few years since I translated a full book of his, so I was happy and excited to be working on and with him again. I really pushed for Portobello to give me this book, back in 2010, because I thought the subject was not only gripping but extremely topical in light of the publication of Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin. What I least enjoyed was I had a job at the same time — with a genocide prevention organization, actually — and dealing with the demands of both at once meant there were moments of stress, which I don’t always handle with as much grace as I would like. But of course in the end it was worth it, to have a book like this.
Describe The Devil’s Workshop in three words.
Quick, vivid, whole-souled.
Alex Zucker’s 2013 translation of Jáchym Topol’s The Devil’s Workshop received an English PEN Award for Writing in Translation, the Typographical Translation Award, and was longlisted for the Best Translated Book Award. His translation of All This Belongs to Me, by Petra Hůlová, won the ALTA National Translation Award. His current projects include Heda Margolius Kovály’s Innocence, or, Murder on Steep Street for Soho Press, and Tomáš Zmeškal’s Love Letter in Cuneiform for Yale University Press. Zucker works out of his third-floor apartment in the Greenpoint section of Brooklyn, NY.