Interview with Translator Paul Wilson
You’ve been translating Vaclav Havel’s writing for a quarter century now. What events led to you translating his works originally?
That happened gradually, more by accident than by design. I had already translated two major novels by the Czech writer Josef Skvorecky, and was then offered the chance to translate Havel’s influential 1977 essay, “The Power of the Powerless.” It’s a brilliant descriptive analysis of how the system, which Havel called “post-totalitarianism,” actually worked. It argued that the Soviet system could be resisted and ultimately overcome by non-violent means: by “living in truth.”
Then, when Havel’s letters from prison were published in samizdat [literature or other media clandestinely distributed in Soviet-bloc countries] his American agent turned to me for a translation. Letters to Olga turned out to be a classic – some critics think it’s his best book – and it probably established me as Havel’s unofficial translator. I went on to translate his first autobiographical book, Disturbing the Peace, just after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Velvet Revolution in 1989. I edited Open Letters, a collection of Havel’s essays, and when he became president, Havel turned to me to translate his major speeches, speeches that he delivered in English around the world, including one he gave in Philadelphia in 1994. Finally, I translated his presidential memoir, To the Castle and Back, in 2006.
Are there different challenges to translating his prose and his dialogue?
Havel’s plays and the essays and speeches come from the same mind and imagination, and were created in the same set of historical circumstances, so in that sense, you can hear the same “voice” at work. Having worked hard to establish the tone of that voice in English in his essays I found it easier to translate the plays in a way that I hope shows the continuity between his prose and his drama.
The challenges of each, however, are slightly different. In translating his books, my main concern was to be faithful to his ideas. In translating the plays, my concern shifted to making sure that the dialogue actually works on stage, that it sounds natural as the actors speak, and that the play communicates with the audience as immediately and directly as possible. So the process of translating his plays was quite different than translating his books. My translation of Leaving, for instance, was workshopped twice, once with a group of English actors at the Orange Tree Theatre in London, and once here at the Wilma, with mostly American actors. In each case, I was able to make adjustments to the dialogue that I hope made it more comprehensible to the specific audiences. It’s a wonderful process, and has the added bonus of making translation a less lonely profession.
You lived in Prague for ten years starting in the late 60s. What brought you to Prague? And can you talk a little about your involvement with the Plastic People of the Universe?
I decided to go to Prague in 1967 – when I was doing post-graduate work on George Orwell in London, England – because I was curious about what everyday life was like under a communist regime. That curiosity was sparked partly by Orwell’s writings: in two of his most famous books – Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four – he had tried to imagine life in a totalitarian dictatorship and I wondered, naturally, how right he had been. At the same time, I went to a festival of the New Wave of Czech and Slovak cinema from the mid-1960s, and they were so different from what I had imagined that it spurred me on to see for myself. I managed to get a job teaching English in Brno and Prague, and arrived just as the Prague Spring was beginning to bubble up under the surface of things. The following year – 1968 – was a year of triumph and tragedy, ending in the Soviet invasion of the country. I made the decision to stay on and make a proper study of the language, and so the bulk of my experience was during the period of so-called “normalization” – when the Soviet puppet government of the country attempted to restore “order.”
In 1970, I was invited to join a band called The Plastic People of the Universe, a band that had already been successful and then fallen out of favour with the regime. I played with them for almost three years, and remained associated with them until I was expelled in 1977, but that experience enabled me to see, at first hand, how the regime tried to curtail and control artistic expression, especially in the lives of young people. Havel, who by that time was one of the leading dissidents, took up the band’s cause when they were arrested in 1976, and he remains associated with them to this day. The Plastic People are still playing, more than 40 years after they first got together.
The story of the Plastic People is a complicated one. It’s often claimed that they were the catalyst for the human rights initiative, Charter 77 – and there is a lot of truth in that. They were, in a very profound way, the embodiment of Havel’s argument that if you live according to your own truth, you might just change the world. [Wilma fans of Tom Stoppard’s Rock’n’Roll may remember the important role the Plastic People of the Universe played in that story. They were also shown performing between two of the scenes.]
Vaclav Havel started Leaving in the late 80s, before the Velvet Revolution and his Presidency, and the protagonist was originally “Vilém Lear.” What can you tell us about the play’s evolution? Have you ever seen any of that early draft?
I have not seen Havel’s early draft, but I understand it does exist – certainly the notes for it do. They were unearthed by his literary secretary when he was clearing out his office in the Castle after stepping down as president in 2003. He’d written the outline in 1988 – when he was still a dissident – and he had a clear idea of what his main hero – Lear, as he called him then –would be like. “Vilém Lear,” Havel wrote, “is an elegant, graying man in his mid-fifties, a former politician who has recently lost power. He’s confident, enjoys the limelight. The loss of power is hard for him to bear but he doesn’t let it show at first. He lives with the memories of his recent power. Somewhere deep inside, he may still harbor the belief that one day someone, perhaps the nation, will summon him back to power, which of course is a great delusion.”
The protagonist of Leaving, whose name is now Vilém Rieger, shares some of these qualities, but his character – and presumably the whole play – evolved a great deal from that early outline. That’s not surprising when you think of the huge historical chasm that separates the early draft from the final play: twenty eventful years during which Czechoslovakia, and then the Czech Republic, struggled to build a democracy on the ruins of totalitarianism. Havel spent thirteen of those years as the head of a democratic state. So while Vilém Rieger shares some of Vilém Lear’s vanity and ambition, Rieger is a much more complex character. We don’t know if he longs to be summoned back to power – possibly not – but he clings desperately to his legacy, and Havel has added a diabolical plot twist in the form of a rival politician who aims not only to succeed Rieger but to overturn that legacy entirely, even while pretending to honor it.
Havel’s fascination with the theme of “leaving office” goes back to his interest in a problem that had always intrigued him, which was that in almost all of Czech history – and in the wider communist world – none of the top leaders ever left office in a natural way or had any kind of dignified retirement. Khrushchev, who succeeded Stalin, was perhaps an exception – but he was ousted in a coup, and his “retirement” was spent in a kind of internal exile. Alexander Dubček, the First Secretary in Czechoslovakia at the time of the Prague Spring, was ousted after an invasion and spent the next two decades working as a gardener in Bratislava. But then in the 1980s, things began loosening up in the Soviet Union, and the country had several first secretaries in a row, culminating in Mikhail Gorbachev. I’m guessing here, but Havel was fascinated by Gorbachev, and just about the time he was working on his first draft of this play, he must have wondered how Gorbachev’s extraordinary career would end. Would he cling to power like all of his predecessors? And if he left office “voluntarily,” what kind of retirement would he have? I think – and this is just my opinion – that there are elements of Gorbachev the reformer in Vilém Lear.
Some people have compared the character of Rieger to Havel, while Havel has said he feels himself “to be the exact opposite of the main protagonist.” How much of the man you know is in this character?
It would be odd if a person as complex as Havel did not project some aspects of his nature into the characters in his play. It doesn’t make sense, though, to say that Rieger is either like Havel, or his “exact opposite.” Rieger obviously clings to some of the trappings of his former power: the play, after all, centers around what it to become of the presidential villa, which Rieger is loathe to leave. I’ve never seen any evidence that Havel clung to power or the trappings of power or regretted that his time in office was over. On the contrary, I think he was glad when his term was over.
But that’s not to say he may not have regretted the loss of the influence he once had, or the position he once enjoyed in the eyes of the world. And he is concerned about his legacy, as most former politicians are. In retrospect, he needn’t have worried: ex-president Havel still enjoys the world’s respect, and he still has a voice in Czech politics as well. Regarding Rieger’s relationship with the women in his life, including his mother: these may or may not be autobiographical, but they have more in common with Havel’s earlier plays than they do with his life. But here’s one real difference: Havel regards Leaving as a tragedy and Rieger as a tragic figure – “It’s even more tragic than King Lear,” he told me – because in the end Rieger is brought down by his own weaknesses; he succumbs to his pride and to the wiles of his political opponent. Havel would be the first to admit to a whole array of human weaknesses, and has certainly admitted to making mistakes, but I don’t believe that he sees his own life as a tragedy, and certainly not as a tragedy of someone who ever backed away from a fight or lacked the courage to face the truth.
Havel draws upon techniques, images, and perhaps even quotations from his earlier plays in Leaving. Since most of our audience will probably have never seen one of his plays before (or haven’t seen one in ages), what do you think would be useful for an American audience to know about Havel’s dramaturgy?
It might be useful for audiences to keep in mind that Havel sees himself as a playwright in the tradition of absurd drama, whose antecedents include Eugene Ionesco and Samuel Beckett, to name just two. And while each of his plays reflects the reality in his country at the time it was written – and can therefore be seen, on one level, as a period piece – they also have more universal themes that are presented with a distinct absurdist twist. Leaving is a typical Havel play in that the protagonist is a man under pressure, beset by hangers-on who want a piece of him, or rivals who wish to undermine him. The protagonist usually has a problematic relationship with women, and there is usually a villain intent on bringing him down. In the end, however, what brings the hero down is not an honourable defeat in battle, but the twisted logic he uses to justify his own surrender to a lie.
On the surface, there is nothing formally “absurd” about how the play presents its straightforward story, but Havel disrupts the story with absurdist elements, such as sudden, dislocating quotations from Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, or Shakespeare’s King Lear, or moments of fantasmagoria when he scrambles the dialogue in scenes that seem like the sudden onset of a nightmare. He also plays fast and loose with time, for if we are to believe Rieger’s name-dropping, he must have been in power since World War Two. The most interesting “absurdist” element in Leaving is the way Havel uses the authorial “voice” to interrupt the action. In his memoirs, Havel dreamed of discovering a way of writing a play in which he could reveal to the audience his private intentions and thoughts as he wrote it. The “Voice” in Leaving is the realization of that dream.
You’ve visited the Wilma a couple of times in the past year and a half, and have corresponded with Jiri over the summer. You’ll be in residence during rehearsals as well. What are you most looking forward to from the experience?
I’m excited about seeing the play come alive in the hands of a cast of great actors in front of audiences that will bring a whole new set of assumptions and experiences with them. The play has already had its world English-language premiere at the Orange Tree Theatre in London, England, and it was fascinating to see how the actors and the audience understood the play in the context of British politics and social life at the tired end of a long stint of Labour government. (Most thrilling of all, I admit, was hearing audiences laugh in places I least expected.) Jiri Zizka staged a public reading of Leaving last year, but this full production will be my first chance to see how the play “translates” to the real context here, in the United States. Given how difficult it has been for some members of the former US Administration to leave the stage of politics and power, I’m sure Leaving will resonate in unique ways here as well. And of course I’m thrilled to be present during rehearsals, where we can work on fine-tuning the dialogue for maximum impact. For a translator, this is a real thrill, and a unique privilege.