vaclav-havel-george-orwell

From George Orwell to Vaclav Havel – translating the language of democracy


Any English—speaker to whom Vaclav Havel has mattered owes a debt they’re probably unaware of to Paul Wilson. His work as the Czech writer’s translator began thirty years ago but I discover, over a cup of coffee off Russell Square, that he first came to London from his native Canada ten years before that, to do an MA dissertation on George Orwell. In fact the first translation he ever made was in London, of an early essay which Orwell wrote in French. Wilson is dapper, friendly, the hair has mostly turned silver now, but as we talk the subject of those earlier studies recurs time and again.

As a post–graduate in London in the mid–sixties he happened on a season of the new Czech cinema and felt attracted to its atmosphere. The MA was left uncompleted: Orwell’s clairvoyance about Stalinism was already then a part of the language — and already then controversial for many on the left — but clairvoyant is just what it was: except for very briefly in Barcelona, he had no direct experience of it.

It was in search of such experience that a younger, foot–loose Wilson travelled on to Czechoslovakia in 1967, where he taught English, learnt Czech and sang in a rock–band until being forcibly expelled in 1977. Those were the days. It was in Prague, not London, that he found writers and artists who seemed to be picking up where Orwell had left off. For the Czechs at that time, he explains, Orwell, “especially in 1984, was too pessimistic about the future of humankind…  he under–estimated the natural ability of people to dig under Newspeak and create their own living language.“

The fluent Czech speaker who landed back in Canada was soon translating Vaclav Havel’s justly famous essay on this theme, The Power of the Powerless. It’s an exploration of the ways in which people can and do in fact, both spiritually and practically, resist dictatorship — and it’s an eloquent rejoinder to Orwell’s fatalism. Wilson’s own search for a “living language” was by now well underway. The fiction by Bohumil Hrabal, for example, to which he also turned his hand, like Havel’s plays from the 1960s, “represented the political reality that people were living without being explicit about it.” It was their very lightness of touch which made them so threatening to a regime hampered by its own humourlessness.

Then was then, of course. For those who control our contemporary mediascape, humourlessness is not so much a symptom of existential malaise — it’s just the ultimate PR howler. “It’s harder to get around PR speak,” as Wilson puts it, “because it’s a cleverer form of manipulation.” His work with the kind of language which opposes it, however undemonstratively, has continued. What had taken him to London and then on to Prague continued back in his native Canada: he edited literary magazines and got by as a freelancer for CBC and others. Such is the direction many in search of a living language end up taking — and that search is as troubled now as it ever has been.

In the anglosphere Orwell’s reputation, that barometer of political unease, has undergone a dramatic revival over the past decade. It’s English — not Czech —speakers these days who are anxiously holding up his dystopia alongside their own reality, for comparison. It is in Whitehall, after all, not Hradčany, that a man can now be arrested when he holds up a placard reading “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” For thus quoting Orwell in too close proximity to Number 10 Downing Street, Steven Jago was charged under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act, passed by the present government.

“With the hindsight offered by history,” as Drew Westen recently put it, “it’s fair to say that Orwell got the title of his book wrong by two decades. His seminal novel should have been called 2004.” It’s not so much “that Big brother rules,” another American, Martin Kaplan, has suggested, “but rather that entertainment reigns.”

You might think there would be little patience with such talk in today’s Central and Eastern Europe, most of which was quick to sign up to Bush’s ‘Coalition of the Willing’. Wilson can confirm: “OK, the bloom is off the rose as far as market capitalism goes in the Czech Republic, but I don’t think they quite understand the extent to which this PR speak and the Big Lie approach to politics have really taken over in the countries they once looked to with great hope. The wars in 1984 have no other purpose than to keep people in a state of perpetual fear — the politics of fear may not be central to Orwell’s thinking but they’re certainly central to the way Bush has governed.”

The new play which Wilson is in London for, however, Havel’s first for twenty years, points to a new awareness of how badly let down ‘New Europe’ has been by its complacency about today’s PR speak. Mafia capitalists have taken over the post–Communist state where the action is set. The country’s vain, bombastic former head of state continues to treat his family and the occasional reporter to speeches about ‘putting the individual at the centre of politics.’ One by one the other characters repeat this phrase back at him, out–and–out gangsters included, until the message is clear: the promise to “put the individual at the centre of politics” means in effect whatever suits the individual who is making the promise. For Wilson, ”it’s a play about people who use the institutions and language of democracy to establish if not absolute then a very authoritarian kind of power.”

It’s a play, then, about concerns many in the English–speaking world now share, but none of the London reviews picked up on this. Wilson: “In the London production the former president is played as a bit of a buffoon, but he doesn’t have to be. I understand that in the Czech production his capitulation to the new order is given a far more sinister treatment, with tragic overtones.” More specifically it suggests the return of a police state.

That nothing was made of this in the very country, Britain, where state surveillance is now the most intrusive in Europe, is itself noteworthy. Havel’s hero–status suits us just fine: it permits us to admire or dismiss without listening too closely either way. Or perhaps, as some reviewers suggested, the very medium of theatre for messages like this is now something of a throw–back. The translator’s art in particular, with all that meticulous verbal stitching and unstitching, might seem perhaps at best unglamorous, at worst downright quaint. Ill–suited to the present, anyway: just who in their right minds is banking on prose style or snappy dialogue in a world like this?

Actually all kinds of people are. Our ‘language of democracy’, or modern PR speak, is often written much more carefully than the Newspeak Orwell satirised. As Wilson himself says, as a form of manipulation it is far cleverer than its predecessors. But translating from ‘obscure’ languages, reporting on far–away countries of which we know very little, editing small magazines — the kind of culture Wilson has devoted himself to suggests something we tend to overlook perhaps. That one way round PR speak might be via the right kind of attachment to something we already know.

We sell ourselves short when we exaggerate the impact of PR on human nature. Novelists and playwrights have after all understood, for centuries and millennia respectively, what advertisers and political advisers have only in the last few decades fully grasped: it’s stories that people listen to. Money which wants to talk has learnt to bear that in mind.

Writers as distinct from advertisers, however, have continued to insist on an idea the PR professionals long ago discarded: that severed from its roots in the truth, no story can flourish for long. The PR industry was built up on a very different premise: uncouple your story from any corresponding reality, it says, then repeat it often enough, flavour it with pleasurable associations, and people will go on listening. Even if they scoff outwardly, just enough inside each member of your audience will go on listening to make the continual repetitions worthwhile.

To that extent the mixture of trivia, shock stories, crisis porn and political advertising which now passes for ‘news’ presents us with an authentically new problem, but is the resilience it requires of us so unprecedented? The skills cultivated by good writers are essentially those by which we keep the stories we tell responsive to what is actually happening around us.

Wilson quotes the motto from Orwell at the top of a well known blogsite which he follows and which set out, among other things, to track each lie told during the US Presidential campaign. That’s a tall order but the motto runs “To see what is in front of your nose needs a constant struggle.” It was as a novelist himself that Orwell once said that he had wanted above all “to make political writing into an art”. Far from some retreat into subjectivism he meant it should be held to the most exacting standards there are. The spirit of that unfinished MA continues to hover over our discussion.

It is by operating within a verbal and narrative syntax which may not seem at all outwardly ‘original’ that genuine writing achieves its originality now. “When I was at school we were given these exercises where there was a sentence with a mistake in it which you had to find and correct,” Wilson fondly recalls, “or there was a bad sentence and you had to turn it into a good one, or a weak sentence, say, and you had to turn it into a strong one.”

The inconspicuous labour of reading, understanding and then transposing a literary text from one language into another is surely as radical a challenge to the present mediascape as any. Because to translate well is never to translate merely from one language into another, but from one sensibility and history into another. To translate well is to believe in the kind of language which grows from an author’s grounded, patiently integrated vision up, even if there is more and more language which grows from some well funded plausible deception down. Done properly, the creating and translation of such work cannot but mitigate against the sound–bite and the slogan, against everything slick and misleading.

Dvorak in Love, the superb novel by Josef Škvorecky, to take one example, had to be re–organised in its entirety because its narrative structure in Czech assumed an outline familiarity with the composer”s life, and with the emigrant experience of Czechs in North America. This could not be assumed for an English–speaking audience. Wilson and Škvorecky collaborated and a new work emerged.

To translate is often to act effectively as an editor too, which can require the skills of a diplomat as much as those of a linguist. “There’s this huge suspicion of editors in what was Czechoslovakia, because of the history of censorship — so you can talk even now to young writers who will say ‘Do not touch my work — I want it exactly the way it is.’ Even Havel can be like that at times.”

This version of culture, then, starts from a personal engagement with a particular vision and a particular place. It can only work as a collaborative venture. “A life that is not dedicated to that which gives it meaning is not worth living,” the philosopher Jan Patočka once wrote — I quote him as rendered into English by Wilson, as quoted in a prison letter of Havel’s. In our ratings–driven world such sentiments might seem a risky strategy but they have always been a risky strategy: Patočka himself died ‘whilst in Police custody’ in 1977. Western societies have since perfected more entertaining ways to call off the search for a living language.

That the search for it continues is not only the achievement of the Orwells and the Havels — though they tend to get most of the credit. It is decisively down to the Paul Wilsons too. And if the present cycle of perpetual war abroad justifying ever more controls at home, is going to be broken, ‘old–fashioned’ literary culture like this could come in useful. Its long experience of how to phrase the awkward questions is still worth listening to.

This interview was originally published by the British Czech and Slovak Review

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