Martin Hilský: Interpreting Shakespeare

This charismatic Charles University English Studies professor has taken on a life-long task: to translate the Shakespeare’s complete works. As the leading Czech authority on the Bard, he has also become one of the main figures of the Shakespeare Summer Festival.You’ve been teaching for 40 years, so you can compare various generations of students. What are today’s students like?
They’re great, very talented, and they speak English fluently, which you couldn’t take for granted before. On the other hand, their cultural knowledge, orientation, and thinking about literature unfortunately seem a bit more limited to me. When I recall the lists of books that people read during “normalization”, I see a big difference. Today they’re much shorter, predominated by thrillers or popular novels. But English Studies and the university in general deal with literature in the serious sense of the word. I have an explanation for this development. What else was there besides books back then? They were the windows that opened up the world when we couldn’t travel as much. Today there are simply lots of other possibilities.

Do Czechs read at all? Is there a future for serious literature?
People do read, and I firmly believe in the future of books. I think there will be a peaceful coexistence among computers, books, the internet, and so on. Because in the end, a book is irreplaceable. I’m just a bit concerned that people are really getting used to reading popular literature. I like it too, and it’s doubtlessly very useful, but there should be a certain balance between entertaining literature and something more serious.

You lecture at foreign universities. Are the students here different from the students there?
I don’t do it so much any more. I travel to lecture occasionally, but the rest of the time I work here. Still, I know foreign students, as they study at our school too, and with full responsibility I must say that our students are comparable and often even better. Not in English, but because you usually don’t have to explain things that are a part of general education. So I still believe in central European education, which is of high quality, and to me this is a great asset and value. Our students’ view of the world and science is more comprehensive.

In 1968 you had a chance to spend a year at Oxford. What was it like there?
Today’s students take the chance to study abroad for granted. In my generation it was the opposite – it was ruled out. Although I’m an English scholar, my stays in England were very truncated, and 1968 was a magic year of great liberalization and a landmark for me. Before the Soviet invasion, in May of 1968, the British embassy interviewed me and hundreds of other applicants for a single position at Linacre college at Oxford. I stopped thinking about it, then came August, and in September the British embassy suddenly called me to enter Oxford as a Junior Research Fellow. I spent an unbelievable year there. Oxford was amazing, it was like a revelation to me, the entire world was there, about 100 people from all the continents and varying political positions – such a melting pot.

How was it that you added translation to your university activities?
In the ’70s I didn’t even have a contract at the university, because I didn’t meet the main political qualification of the times (Communist Party membership). So I started translating and writing epilogues, and this necessity led to a completely different need, and I started to enjoy translating. It wasn’t Shakespeare yet, instead it was contemporary Anglo-American writers of prose and theater, so I stayed with it.

A life in numbers
1943 born in Prague
1965 completed studies in English and Spanish at the Charles University School of Philosophy
1968 won a competition for a stipend to study at Linacre College at Oxford
1983 completed his first Shakespeare translation – A Midsummer Night’s Dream
1989-98 managed the Institute of English and American Studies at Charles University
2001 named honorable member of the Order of the British Empire for disseminating English literature in the Czech Republic

You’re a full-time teacher and translator, two very demanding activities. Can they be combined somehow?
The university and the theater are my two work environments, but the work is the same, with different ends. On one end are students, and on the other theatrical performances. But it’s all the public, just different types. My translations aren’t directly dependent on my profession, but they go together directly with university work. Thanks to them I teach Shakespeare as something inherent, not as something you learn and then recite. This is because of the experience of a translator who thinks about each word of the play a hundred times. I see it as personal good fortune that I’ve been able to combine the two.

You translate Shakespeare into modern Czech, but what about the British – do they understand Shakespearian English? Does anyone in England try to translate Shakespeare into contemporary language?
Some have tried, especially in the US, but recently people in the UK have tried, too. I dare say an English person with an average education who goes to see a Shakespeare play and chooses a somewhat more complex comedy doesn’t catch thirty percent of the puns, because they’re linked to the reality of four centuries ago. It doesn’t matter so much in theater, because the communication isn’t only verbal. But it’s amazing that a Czech translator has a chance to reveal plays on words. If he translates them well, that is, not literally, and knows their meanings and can put them into the language of today and give them contemporary meaning, he’ll cause people here to react in the approximate places where people of the Shakespearian age reacted. But that’s not so in the UK.

In eleven years the Summer Shakespeare Festival has become one of the most important events of the season in Prague. How do you explain this success?
The credit doubtlessly goes to the organizing agency, thanks to whose promotion people have gotten used to going to the Castle, it’s become a tradition. The second reason is Prague Castle, a magical environment in itself. Just the thought of “We’re going to the Castle!” is interesting. Prague Castle is a place with a cultural and historical memory, it was the seat of kings and today of the president. Czech history is written in the coats of arms on the walls of the home of the Supreme Burgrave. With the night-time illumination all this has a magic that you can’t achieve in a covered theater. Additionally, Shakespeare’s works were also played in the open air. And the third thing is the great effort to cast good actors under the leadership of a good director, so that known figures who know something and have achieved a certain degree of fame and certain qualities are there.

Last year the Czech Republic entered the European Union. What does this mean to you?
I’m glad we’re in Europe, it’s always been my dream. But from my point of view as a translator, I’m a little worried about what will happen to language communities in this supernational unit – with us, the Slovenians, the Slovaks, etc. As a translator I’d regret it if the EU meant a weakening of Czech from a cultural point of view, or even its extinction at some point in the future. The Czech language is an enormous treasure that should prosper in the European Union, and not go extinct. For me, Europe will function only as a large whole that also respects the cultural autonomies of the individual regions.Where do you see yourself in ten years?
I wouldn’t like to see myself in a grave, but you never know. In ten years I should have translated all of Shakespeare. Mainly, I’d like to be clear of mind, able to accomplish something, to have lived a full life, and then somehow quickly stop…

How would you like people to remember you?
Above all as an honest person who was useful and made people happy. That would be very beautiful for me.






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