Leaving

by Václav Havel
translated by Paul Wilson
directed by Jiri Zizka
starring Oscar® nominee David Strathairn
May 19, 2010June 20, 2010

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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.

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an absurdist drama from a surrealist politician

The theme of moving, of leave-taking, and of cutting down was something I may have brought upon myself: the play I’ve long been preparing to write will work with these themes; it will attempt to allude to Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, to Beckett’s Endgame, and above all to Shakespeare’s King Lear. It will be about a statesman who has lost his position and has to move out of the official residence provided by the state; it’s surrounded by an orchard, and he can’t come to accept it. The loss of his position and all that pertains to it means the collapse of his world. He goes slightly mad from it all. (The interesting thing is that I started writing this play before the revolution, that is, sixteen years ago, and then I tossed the manuscript away in the belief that after all the changes taking place, the theme would no longer interest me.… But it’s far more probable that, having thought about it for so long, I’ll never get it written, and then someone else – most probably my longtime friend and colleague Tom Stoppard – will write a play about a writer who prepared his whole life to write the most important play of his life and, of course, he never writes it.)
-Václav Havel, To the Castle and Back