Central Europe Review: politics,
society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0
First Published:
28 September 1998

Book cover B O O K   R E V I E W:
The Poetry of Jaroslav Seifert
Translated by Ewald Osers
Catbird Press, 1998
ISBN 0-945774-39-7

James Partridge

Jaroslav Seifert’s first book of poetry in English translation was The Plague Column (Morový sloup), translated by Ewald Osers and published in a small edition in 1979. Another book, An Umbrella from Piccadilly (Deštník z Piccadilly), also translated by Osers, was published in 1983 (also in a small edition). Both of these books disappeared at the time without generating any particular interest.

There was, however, a brief flicker of interest in Seifert after he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1984. With people evidently demanding to know who this Seifert was and why had he been awarded the Nobel Prize, Osers went into overdrive and in 1986, the first edition of this extensive collection of Seifert’s poetry (including the two earlier books as well as a selection of poems from Seifert’s older work and ten short extracts from Seifert’s memoirs translated by George Gibian) was published. However, it too met with little success. Evidently the gap between the awarding of the prize and the publication of a sizeable paperback edition of Seifert’s poetry was long enough for the poetry reading public to forget completely who he was and why they ought to read him. This book too rapidly disappeared from view.

Catbird Press have now decided to reissue the whole collection, suitably revised, expanded and updated, and this is very welcome. Such an extensive collection (92 poems) means that with the exception of Miroslav Holub, Seifert is the best served of all Czech poets as far as translations into English are concerned. Whether this book will have any more success than its predecessors remains to be seen, but there is little cause for optimism. This new edition differs from the 1986 edition in that eight additional poems from The Plague Column have been added (Osers using Seifert’s samizdat edition rather than the official, published version), as have nineteen other poems from various volumes.

Opinion amongst Bohemists is divided on the subject of Seifert’s qualities as a poet. Most agree that he is one of the key figures in 20th century Czech poetry – a “poet of the world of the senses, not of transcendence, angst, fear or trembling” as Gibian writes in the interesting and helpful introduction to this book. There are also a few who feel that he is greatly overrated, a lightweight poet of sentimental poetry who was awarded the Nobel Prize for political, not artistic reasons. It is left to the reader of this collection to decide for themselves.

Seifert was a prolific writer, but then he had time to be: his first book was published in 1921 and his last over 60 years later in 1983. Even so, Osers has chosen to concentrate on Seifert’s last three books: there are 46 poems written between 1978 and 1983 and 45 poems from the years 1921 to 1967 (plus one uncollected poem). This bias towards Seifert’s late work is regrettable, but understandable. It also probably reflects the circumstances under which the book was originally compiled: Osers was able to reuse all his earlier translations from The Plague Column and An Umbrella from Piccadilly and supplement it with a selection from Seifert’s earlier work.

This huge 60 year span of time does present any translator with quite a serious problem. Seifert began his career as a proletarian poet but soon changed direction to become one of the leading figures of the avant-garde, writing in the playful, visually and verbally exuberant style known as Poetism; in the 1930s he turned to a rich, song-like stanzaic poetry celebrating women and love, before the approach of war brought a more serious note to his verse, writing of his homeland and nation in metrically regular, carefully rhymed strophes. The fine 1950 collection Píseň o Viktorce (not represented in Oser’s translations) ensured Seifert the enmity of the post-war communist regime, although he continued to write and occasionally publish until 1957. A long silence followed (partly connected with serious illness) until in 1965 he published Concert on the Island (Koncert na ostrově) – poems in the unrhymed, unornamented free verse that he would continue to write for the rest of his life. The problem for the translator is precisely how to cope with all these different styles without blurring the poet’s voice or losing it altogether.

Osers is quite inventive in finding way to preserve some sense of a rhyme scheme without doing too much violence to the original. This is the opening of Transformations (Proměny) from the 1933 collection An Apple from your Lap (Jablko z klína):

Chlapec se změnil v bílý keř,
keř ve spícího pastyře,
jemný hlas v struny na lyře,
sníh ve sníh, jenž pad na kadeř.

Osers renders this as follows:

A lad changed to a shrub in spring,
the shrub into a shepherd boy,
a fine hair to a lyre string,
snow into snow on hair piled high.

Of course this deviates quite a lot from the original: the shrub isn’t white any more, "spring" has suddenly appeared from nowhere, the shepherd boy is no longer sleeping, and so on, but there is a danger of being too pedantic. Only the expression "hair piled high" seems rather awkward. Osers tries hard to retain a rhyme scheme, the feeling of the regular metre and most importantly the sense and meaning of the original, albeit at the expense of sound patterning and linguistic accuracy. There must be some compromise when translating this kind of verse, and this is not the worst Osers could have made.

With most, if not all of the rhymed verse Osers makes just such compromises. If you compare the Czech and English texts you will very often find words or phrases inserted in the translation for the sake of the rhyme, but Osers clearly made an effort to make such changes as unobtrusive as possible. More difficult to understand are the occasions when Osers seems to overlook the meaning or the central metaphor altogether. The most striking instance of this I have found is in the translation of the Prologue to The Casting of the Bells (Odlévání zvonů) from 1967. I will quote it in full:

Někdy zoufale bije slovem o slovo,
aby vykřesal jistotu,
ale není žádné v tomto světě.
A marně hází hořícími slovy
daleko, až za smrt,
aby zacloumal němým tajemstvím,
aby podpálil tmu, která se nehýbe
v tom hromadném hrobě
a jen se lepí
na ubohé kosti,
potřísněné měděnkou za zapalovače,
který zastřelenému zapomněli
v kapse u kalhot.

Osers translation reads as follows:

Sometimes he’ll desperately clash his words together
to produce some certainty –
but there’s no certainty in our world.
And vainly does he fling his fiery words
far, even beyond death,
to dangle some mute mystery,
to lighten the darkness that lies motionless
on this mass grave
and merely clings
to miserable bones,
spattered with verdigris from the lighter
they overlooked in the executed man’s
trouser pocket.

The baffling thing about this translation is what Osers has done with the words vykřesal and podpálil. The central metaphor in the Czech is totally unambiguous: the poet clashes his words together to strike sparks (vykřesat) off each other. These words burst into flame and then ignite (podpálit) the darkness. Seifert even gives us a helping hand by using two more words connected with fire: hořící and zapalovač. But in Osers’s translation we find "to produce some certainty" for "aby vykřesal jistotu" and equally limply "to lighten the darkness" for "aby podpálil tmu". The only conclusion to be drawn from this is that Osers has missed the point.

I have not gone into this probably rather tiresome detail just to criticise and belittle Osers, but rather to make a more general point. By translating these two words as he has done and/or by missing the key metaphor in these lines, Osers has watered down the original, leaving something rather bland and insipid in its place. This is not just a case of academic pedantry because, unlike in the example above, the whole essence of the poem has been compromised. In fairness, this is the only example of seriously misreading the original that I found in all the line by line comparisons I made between the Czech and English texts (about 15 poems), but then it only takes one such misreading to leave the suspicion that there might be others.

Nevertheless, the strongest impression one gets from the whole translation is precisely that it is rather bland. Osers has tried to choose poems from Seifert’s enormous and sometimes rather repetitive body of work in such a way that all sides of his poetry are represented, but still in this translation it is sometimes hard to tell the difference between the playful, sensual poems of the late 1920s and the simple, almost conversational works of the late 1970s. Unfortunately, I think the same principle applies more generally to English translations of Czech poetry, whether of Seifert, Holub, Holan or anyone else, but I will have to return to this theme some other time.

One last word of caution about the poems. Seifert tended to revise his work fairly regularly, and it has often proved difficult to settle on the canonical version of any given poem. This may be reflected in the translations in the sense that the texts that Osers used may not be the ones now considered to be canonical, and equally that Osers got some of his texts (such as The Plague Column) directly from Seifert and these may also differ from published versions of the same poems. For instance, the translation of Prologue discussed above differs from the Czech text published in the 1986 Československý spisovatel edition (which is supposed to be definitive and has an extremely detailed editorial commentary on the various changes and editions in the texts) by being 90 lines longer!

The book is rounded off by ten short prose extracts taken from Seifert’s memoirs All the Beauties of the World (Všecky krásy světa) in George Gibian’s translation. For me this was the most interesting part of the whole book. Gibian has carefully chosen texts which can be read by most people without having to resort to a detailed footnote apparatus (although brief notes are provided to explain the many references to Czech cultural figures and events). Seifert’s reminiscences of his parents, of his first experience with a prostitute or publishing his first book of poetry, as well as his brush with death at the hands of the Germans in 1945 are all well-told, easy to read and interesting.

To summarise then, The Poetry of Jaroslav Seifert is important and interesting in that it is one of the very few books in English that attempt to give a detailed cross-section of the work of a major Czech literary figure. Whether you will understand, after reading this book quite why Seifert is considered by Czechs to be one of their greatest poets is another matter. It is good that the book has been reissued and people interested in Czech and Central European poetry should not be without it, but still one can only regret that the opportunity to produce a really fine and representative translation has been missed.

James Partridge

Order The Poetry of Jaroslav Seifert from Amazon.com.

Editor's Note: This article is a revised version of the review that was first published in ENP, 28 September 1998.

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