Category: Paul Wilson

Interview with Translator Paul Wilson

Posted April 22, 2010 - 11:24am

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.

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