Miroslava Vallová: You Have to Master the Target Language like Musicians Master Their Instruments

30/12/2011 12:35

By courtesy of Miroslava Vallová


Although she did not intend to work as a translator after graduating from university, Miroslava Vallová ended up translating such famous authors as Alberto Moravia or Umberto Eco, following in the footsteps of Blahoslav Hečko, her inspiration and role model. Ms. Vallová granted PERSPECTIVES an interesting interview about her life, experience and creativity. It is very nice that while speaking, she often uses “we” instead of “I”, meaning herself and her husband, who is a translator as well.


Perspectives (PP): How long have you been translating?

Miroslava Vallová (MV): When we started with translation, there was an unwritten rule that one was not allowed to translate a book unless one translated a short story for Život magazine at first. I translated one of Dino Buzzati’s short stories. Then one had to pass through the competition at the Revue svetovej literatúry magazine. There you had to translate a longer passage from a novel or several short stories. Not until you made a name for yourself there was it theoretically possible to be asked to translate a book. In my case it was in 1977.


PP: Could you describe your student years at Comenius University in brief?

MV: We were young, and in this period of life personal experiences usually overshadow any troubles, so I think back to the years with pleasure. However, I was most interested in my own life during my studies because I got married and had a baby. But I remember other things as well: for example, when our professor Igor Považan persuaded us to prepare a French poetry event. I do not remember all the details, but I know we were forbidden to do it for some ideological reasons. We were very angry, exasperated and embittered. So we also experienced things like this.


PP: You studied French and Italian at university, but people associate your name mainly with Italian. Why did you choose this language?

MV: It is true that we gave up on French as a language for translation because my husband and I were so inspired and fascinated by Italian that we gave ourselves entirely to it. However, it does not mean we do not like French. It is just that Italian is our favourite. There are no rational reasons why I chose this particular language. It is like falling in love. It just happens.


PP: What do you like about Italy?

MV: I will never forget the moment when I got off the train in Venice for the first time. It was in the first year of my study at Comenius University. As students of Italian, we had one huge advantage: Professor Mikuláš Pažítka arranged summer scholarships for us, which was absolutely marvellous. Some students went to Italy three or four times; we went there twice. Venice was so stunning that I got goose bumps when I first saw it. We had learned a lot about Italy from literature, and suddenly this inaccessible and majestic city materialized in front of us. Italy is a magical country. It had been composed of small city-states, kingdoms, principalities, and so on, until the nineteenth century when it got united. Each city-state, each territorial unit had its own distinctive features, many of which have been preserved up to the present. Italy is a country of centuries of culture, artists, beautiful fine arts, and we were fascinated by this.


PP: What were your feelings when you left university? Were you prepared to be a translator?

MV: I was feeling wonderful, but I am ashamed to admit that I had absolutely no idea what to do. I had a baby to take care of, so this absorbed me. I had no idea what to do and I didn’t think of translating as a possible career. But a happy coincidence brought me to the Tatran publishing house where I started to work. After several weeks or maybe months, I understood that the fate had been very nice to me. I became an editor. I edited books, which was only a step away from translating them.


PP: What skills should a translator possess in order to translate such authors as Alberto Moravia or Umberto Eco?

MV: It is necessary to meet several requirements. Firstly, one must fully master the source language (in my case, it was Italian) and the target language; one must be literate too. You have to master the target language like musicians master their instruments. Just as they must know various tones and positions, a translator must be good at using various slangs and a considerable number of expressions. This is not enough though. It is inevitable for a translator to have a sense of creativity and artistic sensibility. Not only is it important to convey meaning, but also the beauty of language, syntax and rhythm. These things require a certain degree of intuition. A lot of things are learnable, but some are not. The last but very important thing is patience because translating means spending hours, days or even months translating until the work is finished, and this is the time when one is totally alone.


PP: What advice would you give us, the future translators?

MV: Read, read and read. Read in Slovak, mainly contemporary Slovak fiction, because it reflects the contemporary situation of the Slovak language. Different authors use the language differently, and this is what will come in handy one day. I remember my professor Anton Vantuch advising me to read foreign literature ten minutes a day, for example, in the morning, before I start doing anything else. “If you do this regularly all the year, you will see results,” he said. And it was true. I got used to it, and it helped me not only with Italian and French, but with Russian and English as well. This way you pick up a language easily, without making much effort. It is said that Schliemann learnt Russian reading Russian fairy tales before discovering Troy.


PP: What does the relationship between publishers and translators look like?

MV: The situation is different for a newcomer and for an experienced translator. If you are an experienced translator, you do not have to be afraid of not having a job because publishers tend to offer books to translate to you first. Since translators are familiar with the source literature and they know what is new and what is good, they often offer books worth translating to their favourite editor, or to the editor who might be interested in publishing the books. Each publisher has their own preferred style, and it is important to take this into consideration. It is impossible to offer everything to everybody. As for beginners, it is good to start with the Revue svetovej literatúry magazine, run by Jarka Samcová, which, fortunately, still exists. As a start point, it is not bad. In addition, publishers nowadays give opportunities also to young translators, which our generation does not consider very fortunate because it can negatively affect quality. Sometimes, due to a lack of time, two translators are asked to translate one book. It is not the best solution either, as their styles might be different. Another option is that an experienced translator puts in a good word for you. But do not hesitate to put in a good word for yourself either, perhaps even to send a specimen of your translation.


PP: When you are reading your own translation, do you feel somehow connected with the author?

MV: I often read it with anxiety and have tendency to refine the text. The feeling of connection with the author occurs at the beginning when I receive the book, rather than at the end of the process, because it is at the very beginning that I must penetrate deep into the book’s structure. I have to read it two or three times to understand it properly. It is as if you were removing layers from an onion one by one. I always try to connect not with the author, but with what the author wanted to say. Despite that, every translation involves a certain loss of meaning.


PP: Are you in contact with the authors of the books you translate?  

MV: Yes, sometimes. It is comforting to know that you can consult whenever you need. It is true that over the years we got to know some of them, like Umberto Eco, who sends his translators a lot of notes. As his books are full of allusions and quotations, he realizes that not everybody might have read the same literature in his or her childhood or have had the same topographical and artistic experience. There are some authors we do not know, and still we write them. And there are some we do not write at all.


PP: Have you ever told yourself that something is untranslatable?  

MV: Many times, as you have to translate a cultural context as well. This is a very difficult task to do, and sometimes you have to create a completely new pun, because the original one is untranslatable.


PP: Are there any translators you look up to?

MV: Yes, during my student years it was Blahoslav Hečko. He was also my first teacher of Italian. Mr. Hečko was a translator with great creativity, whose work I really esteemed highly. All my life I have admired my elder colleague Michaela Jurovská, who is a translator both from Italian and French.


PP: What do you think of young translators today? What are their strengths and weaknesses?

MV: They have better linguistic knowledge. They travel a lot and receive better linguistic education. There is no doubt about it. The early translations of our generation are a proof of it. We did not have so many opportunities as you have, for example, in terms of access to movies. You are in contact with the countries and you can verify anything within a minute. The world’s got smaller. On the other hand, young translators are more superficial and lack patience.


PP: What do you think of contemporary Slovak literature? Which authors do you like?

MV: Contemporary Slovak literature is excellent, but it faces one problem: publishers (mostly western ones) do not publish us because they do not know us and they continue not to know us because we do not get published. The SLOLIA committee, which operates within the Centre for Information on Literature (LIC), is trying hard to break this vicious circle by supporting the publishers who publish Slovak literature, but the process is lengthy and difficult. Despite that, we have very good authors beginning with Vilikovský and continuing with, for example, Lucia Piussi, Jaroslav Rumpli, Monika Kompaníková, and many others.


Dominika Kepštová



Miroslava Vallová is a translator. She studied French and Italian at the Faculty of Arts at University Comenius in Bratislava. She worked as an editor and later as a deputy editor-in-chief in the Tatran publishing house. Now she works in the Centre for Information on Literature (LIC) as Head of the Department of Foreign Activities. She was also President of the Executive Board of the Slovak Association of Literary Translators.



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