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Shakespeare in Czech

To mark the occasion of St. Wenceslas Day, a Czech national holiday, Collections Librarian Mareike Doleschal tells us about Martin Hilsky's Czech translations of A midsummer night's dream and The sonnets which are held in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust's Library.

Mareike Doleschal

“A translation must be related to the original in the way a child is to a parent. Children take after their parents but they also talk back. So I see all the Shakespearean translators of the world to be like Shakespeare’s children, each in their own way different each trying to do what they can.”

This is how Professor Martin Hilsky, Professor of English Language at Charles University & South Bohemian University and renowned translator of Shakespeare into Czech, describes the relationship between Shakespeare and his translators: like parent and child. It’s a moving analogy. Of course a translation becomes something different. It’s a kind of transformation, yet at the same time it shouldn’t be too far removed from the original to become something completely new. It’s a challenge that every translator faces: finding the fine balance between being faithful to the original yet not too close, creating a text that sounds right in the translated version. Martin Hilsky wasn’t afraid of this challenge, having translated the complete works of Shakespeare into his native tongue.

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in Czech, translated by Martin Hilsky. Illustration by Adolf Born. Copyright of the artist

I remember very well when he donated his translation of Shakespeare’s sonnets to the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Library. I was on Reading Room duty, helping him to search the library catalogue while he produced a beautifully illustrated edition of the sonnets in Czech. Usually we receive book donations by post, but when the donor presents them in person, there’s something very special about the occasion and it definitely made my day!

When Hilsky first began translating Shakespeare, it wasn’t an easy start. In interviews, Hilsky describes how it took him a long time to understand Shakespeare and that he was close to giving up when translating A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He also talks about striking that fine balance of being faithful to the original but at the same time creating something a modern audience can identify with: “I think to translate Shakespeare now means to use the language people speak now. I could not reconstruct the language of the Renaissance, for example, because that is not the language I know… But, my other objective was to be as faithful to Shakespeare as possible, which means in matter of verse, whenever there is blank verse there should be blank verse, a rhyme should have a rhyme in Czech, puns are difficult and I thought when Shakespeare uses his puns, more or less, at the same places Czech puns should be used… And this is really, really difficult.”

In addition to his translation of the sonnets, Hilsky also donated his translation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream illustrated by Adolf Born. The illustrations are a cross between Breughel and surrealism, a fusion of styles that creates something unique. A multi-talented visual artist, Born excelled in a range of media including painting, book illustration, cartoons, caricatures and animated films.  His illustrations offer a further translation of Shakespeare’s play, a visual interpretation that enriches the Czech translation.

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A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in Czech, translated by Martin Hilsky. Illustration by Adolf Born. Copyright of the artist

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