THE BRITISH LIBRARY

European studies blog

98 posts categorized "Translation"

20 September 2019

Crusoe’s Adventures in Enlightenment Germany

Add comment

Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe was first published 300 years ago this year and swiftly became popular both in Britain and beyond. As well as the numerous editions and translations that followed the original publication, there were also many adaptations of the story, particularly for younger readers.

One such was Joachim Heinrich Campe’s Robinson der Jüngere (1779-80). Campe was an educational theorist, teacher, author and publisher in the tradition of the German Enlightenment. Like Rousseau, he believed that Robinson Crusoe could teach children valuable lessons in self-sufficiency and independence, but he thought that Defoe’s text was too dense for young readers and lacking in clear moral instruction. His wanted his own version to correct these supposed defects.

Title-page of Robinson der Jüngere (Braunschweig, 1835).
Title-page of an 1835 edition of Robinson der Jüngere, 1459.b.15.

Certainly nobody could accuse Campe’s version of lacking in instruction, moral or otherwise. The book is presented as a series of conversations between a father, who tells the main story over a number of evenings, and his extended family and friends, who chip in with questions and comments. Some of these relate to practical matters such as geography, natural history and survival skills, while others are moral and philosophical ones relating to Robinson’s actions and beliefs, with no opportunity missed to inform the listeners what course of action is right.

Campe’s Robinson is the youngest and only surviving son of a Hamburg merchant. (Oddly, Robinson is the family’s surname and ‘Krusoe’ the protagonist’s forename; even the narraor admits ‘I don’t know why’, and ‘Krusoe Robinson’ is referred to by his surname for most of the book). Over-indulged by his parents and allowed to neglect his education, he boards a ship bound for England on a whim, and without telling anyone. After various misadventures he finds himself the only survivor of a shipwreck, washed up on a deserted island. Unlike Defoe’s hero, he is unable to salvage tools and supplies from the wreck, and has to create shelter and find food using only his hands and his wits.

Picture of Robinson washed up on the rocky shore of an Island
Robinson is washed ashore. Woodcut by John Bewick from The new Robinson Crusoe ... (London, 1811)
Cup.403.a.26. an English translation made from  the first French translation of Campe’s text, 

Only quite late on in the story does Robinson, now accompanied by Friday whom he has rescued as in Defoe’s version, find another wreck from which useful supplies can be taken. Eventually both Robinson and Friday are able to return to Hamburg, where they establish a carpentry workshop (having become ‘accustomed to the pleasures of manual labour’), become model citizens, and remain lifelong friends.

Picture of Robinson and Friday building a wooden boat
Robinson and Friday build a boat, woodcut from  The new Robinson Crusoe

Although the book wears its didacticism rather heavily for modern tastes, it was hugely successful in its time. The British Library’s collections give some idea of the wide range of translations that appeared in the century after its first publication. We have editions in English, FrenchLatin, Yiddish, Hungarian, Greek, Italian, Estonian, Polish, Swedish, Russian and Spanish.

Title page and frontispiece (shopwing Robinson standing under a tree)  of a 1789 English translation, 'The New Robinson Crusoe'

Title-page (in Hebrew characters) of a 1784 Yiddish translation of 'Robinson der Jüngere'

Title-page and frontispiece (showing Robinson and a tame llama) of a Greek translation of 'Robinson der Jüngere'

Title page of a Latin translation, 'Robinson Secundus' 1794
Translations of Robinson der Jüngere, top to bottom: English (Dublin, 1789; RB.23.a.8790); Yiddish (Prague, 544 [1784]; 1978.c.22); Greek (Vienna, 1792; 868.c.12.); and Latin (Zullichau, 1794; 1578/5264.)

Like the Latin versions - and probably the Greek one - some of the other translations are also obviously aimed at language learners rather than native speakers, as is clear from the notes explaining vocabulary: we have English translations with notes in German and in Danish, and a French translation with Danish notes.

Opening of the text of 'Robinson the Younger', 1789, with copious footnotes explaining the vocabulary in German
Editions for language learners. Above: Opening of an English translation with German vocabulary, Robinson the Younger (Frankfurt am Main, 1789) RB.23.a.11543; Below: Title-page of a French translation with Danish vocabulary

Title page of a French translation of 'Robinson der Jüngere' with Danish notes 1817

Like Defoe’s original, Campe’s adaptation was itself adapted and changed. Some translations (and later German editions) jettisoned much or all of the framing discussion and and stuck to the basic story of Robinson’s adventures. Some translations even claimed to be versions of Defoe’s work rather than Campe’s. The book also inspired two sequels by Christoph Hildebrandt, Robinsons Colonie and Robinsons letzte Tage (RB.23.a.20778), in which the island becomes a European colony where Robinson eventually returns to live out his last days.

Unlike the slightly later, similarly moralising, German-language Robinsonade, Der schweizerische Robinson (The Swiss Familiy Robinson), Campe’s work has not maintained its popularity, but for many 19th-century children it would have been their first introduction to the character of Robinson Crusoe and the basic outline of Defoe’s story.

Susan Reed, Lead Curator Germanic Collections

Book cover showing Robinson and Friday being rowed towards a ship
Cover of a Swedish translation (Stockholm, 1628. 12604.aa.12.)

10 September 2019

A European Autumn at the British Library

Add comment

This autumn, as part of our ‘European Literature Focus’, the British Library will be hosting a number of events featuring writers and writing from across the continent. So we thought we’d give you a quick taster here to whet your appetites.

Cover of Echoes of the City by Lars Saabye Christensen

Lars Saabye Christensen, Echoes of the Citytranslated by Don Bartlett (London, 2019). Awaiting shelfmark. Norwegian edition: Byens spor - Ewald og Maj (Oslo, 2017), YF.2018.a.9337 

First up, on Monday 7 October, you can hear Norwegian Lars Saabye Christensen in conversation with Georgina Godwin. In a rare UK appearance, he will be talking about his latest novel to appear in English translation, Echoes of the City, which traces an Oslo community’s slow recovery from a period of crippling austerity after the Second World War. Christensen is one of Norway’s most popular and critically-acclaimed writers; he has been awarded the country’s top literary prizes and his breakthrough novel Beatles (1984), a coming-of-age story about four teenage Beatles fans in 1960s Oslo, remains a bestseller in Norway over 30 years after its publication.

Photograph of Elif Shafak

Elif Shafak © Bjørvika Utvikling by Kristin von Hirsch

On Tuesday 8 October Rosie Goldsmith, director of the European Literature Network and a familiar and welcome face at British Library events on European literature, chairs ‘Future Library: Art, Ideas and Time’, a discussion with artist Katie Paterson, novelist Elif Shafak and philosopher Roman Krznaric about Paterson’s ‘Future Library’ project. This is a public artwork in Oslo, begun in 2014 and designed to unfold over a century. A forest has been planted just outside the city to supply paper for an anthology to be published in 2114. Between now and then, one writer every year will contribute a text, with the writings held in trust, unread and unpublished, until the anthology appears. Elif Shafak contributed a text in 2017; other contributors so far have included Margaret Atwood, David Mitchell and the Icelandic author Sjón.

Cover of The Cut Out Girl

Bart van Es, The Cut Out Girl (London, 2018). ELD.DS.290811

Fans of Dutch literature are in for a treat on Saturday 12 October, when Bart van Es, author of Costa Prize-winning The Cut Out Girl, joins bestselling novelist Herman Koch, rising literary stars Esther Gerritsen and Jeroen Olyslaegers, and historian Simon Schama at a special day of talks on new Dutch writing presented by the Dutch Foundation for Literature in association with Modern Culture. And if you’re not (yet) a fan of Dutch literature, a day exploring the complex history and current politics of the Netherlands, and the chance to discover the latest Dutch books in English translation will surely make you one!

Covers of recently published works by Balla, Uršuľa Kovalyk and Ivana Dobrakovová

Recently published works by Balla, Uršuľa Kovalyk and Ivana Dobrakovová

Two further events take the revolutionary changes in Europe in 1989 as a starting point. On Friday 25 October there is a rare chance to meet a new generation of Slovak authors at ‘Raising the Velvet Curtain’, part of a series of events under the same name presenting contemporary Slovak writers and artists to English audiences, organised with the support of Fond na podporu umenia (the Slovak Arts Council) and the Embassy of the Republic of Slovakia. Three leading contemporary writers – Balla, Uršuľa Kovalyk and Ivana Dobrakovová – will present their recently published works (translated into English by Julia and Peter Sherwood) and discuss with host Lucy Popescu how Slovakia has changed over the past 30 years.

Photograph of Rosie Goldsmith next to the Berlin Wall

Rosie Goldsmith, November 1989, Berlin Wall

On Tuesday 26 November Rosie Goldsmith returns for ‘Riveting Germans: After the Wall’, chairing a discussion of German literature and its translation into English since 1989. Prize-winning authors Durs Grünbein, Julia Franck and Nino Haratischvili, and translators Charlotte Collins, Karen Leeder and Ruth Martin will consider what what has or hasn’t worked for UK readers of German literature, and what the the impact of the East-West divide has been on German authors. The event is organised in collaboration with the European Literature Network, the British Council, Goethe-Institut London, Frankfurt Book Fair and the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany London, and marks the publication of a German-themed issue of The Riveter, the magazine founded by Rosie with the aim of making European literature popular and accessible across the UK.

Self portrait, Leonid Pasternak

Self portrait, Leonid Pasternak

Finally, on Thursday 29 November, Doctor Zhivago: A Pasternak Family Affair’ looks at a much-loved Russian classic in a new light. Translator Nicolas Pasternak Slater and picture editor Maya Slater present their recent work on a new translation of Doctor Zhivago illustrated with 70 pictures by Boris Pasternak’s father, the Impressionist painter Leonid Pasternak, and just published by the Folio Society. They will also reveal how members of the Pasternak family living in England experienced the writing and publication of the novel.

Booking is now open for all these events and you can find full details and purchase tickets via the links above. We hope you’ll be able to join us to celebrate and discover some of the literatures of Europe this autumn.

05 September 2019

A ‘Colonial Anecdote’ in Translation: Jean-Baptiste Picquenard’s Adonis in Swedish

Add comment

The Library has recently acquired Jean-Baptiste Picquenard’s first novel, Adonis, ou le bon nègre, anecdote coloniale, translated into Swedish by Sven Johan Collin in 1802 as Adonis, eller den förträfflige negern. It tells the story of the slave revolt on Saint-Domingue, what is now known as the Haitian Revolution, through a ‘colonial anecdote’ that follows the capture of the enlightened plantation owner d’Hérouville and his loyal slave Adonis by Biassou, the leader of the revolt. Victor Hugo was inspired to write his first novel Bug-Jargal (1826) after reading Adonis.

Map of Saint-Domingue 1722

Map of Saint-Domingue by Guillaume de L’Isle (Amsterdam, 1722) Maps K.Top.123.35

The book is an extremely rare copy of a work that was not translated into many languages. Swedish interest was not simply due to some residual francophilia around the Enlightenment but also due to the reading public’s own Caribbean imaginary, sparked by Sweden’s ownership of the island of Saint Barthèlmy since 1784. The copy once belonged to the library at Östanå Castle, which points to the ownership of once director of the Swedish East India Company, Simon Bernhard Hebbe.

Title page of the Swedish translation of Adonis

Title page of the Swedish translation of Adonis (Strengnäs, 1802) RB.23.a.38783

As Chris Bongie has discovered, Picquenard was intimately involved in ‘the revolutionary violence that accompanied the successful imposition of egalitarian principles in France’s most prosperous colony’. He was deputy secretary to the French Civil Commissioners Légér-Félicité Sonthonax and Étienne Polverel, who aimed to take over power from the white Saint-Domingue population on behalf of the new republican government. Picquenard voiced the revolutionary ideas of the commission in his newspaper L’Ami de l’Égalité, frequently defending the use of violence.

Yet, none of this is necessarily apparent when you read Adonis, which avows broad humanist principles that both support the abolition of slavery and admonish the violence that enabled it. The first paragraph sets out the position:

I will not start by deciding whether or not the sudden abolition of slavery in the French colonies has been of real benefit to humanity. It will be nice, undoubtedly, for the philosopher to see the fertile plains of Saint Domingue cultivated by free hands soon – but the terrible tremor that the Antilles felt in order to reach this happy outcome has caused the ruin of so many European families, and the deaths of many others, such that I would not dare even pronounce myself in favour of such principles without fear of being accused of injustice and inhumanity.

Title page of the original French version of Adonis

Title page of the original French version of Adonis by Jean-Baptiste Picquenard (Paris, 1798) RB.23.a.37666

With the archival knowledge of Picquenard’s early engaged and violent writings on the island, Bongie can reread Adonis as not simply exemplary of the active forgetting of the Terror that typified the turn of the 19th century in France, but as an agonized site of friction between Terror and Enlightenment. Picquenard’s authorship demands that we read what has been ‘written over’, that is, ‘the entanglement of revolutionary violence and the humanist projects of Enlightenment’.

S. J. Collin’s translation stays faithful to the French original, in other words staying faithful to a certain ambivalence and infidelity in the authorial voice. It would be worth investigating the extent of French slave narratives – a significant genre in the slim period when France first temporarily abolished slavery (1792-1802) – translated into Swedish. Adonis is at the very least a curious book that reveals a shared anxiety between colonial powers.

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections

Further Reading

Chris Bongie, Friends and Enemies: The Scribal Politics of Post/Colonial Literature (Liverpool, 2008) YC.2009.a.4169

Youmna Charara, Fictions coloniales du XVIIIème siècle: Ziméo; Lettres africaines; Adonis, ou le bon nègre, anecdote coloniale (Paris, 2005) YF.2011.a.12978

30 August 2019

Women in Translation Month: top picks from the European Studies team (Part 2)

Add comment

Collage of book covers featured in the blog post

In this two-part blog post, the European Studies team have selected books by women authors in translation from across the continent. Ranging from 20th-century classics to contemporary fiction, the majority of these works were also translated by women, and several have won or been shortlisted for literary and translation awards.

Cover of Flights by Olga Tokarczuk

Olga Tokarczuk, Flights, translated by Jennifer Croft (Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2017), ELD.DS.228759
Chosen by Magda Szkuta, Curator East European Collections

Olga Tokarczuk, the winner of the 2018 Man Booker International Prize for her novel Flights, is one of the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful Polish writers of her generation, particularly noted for the hallmark mythical tone of her writing. The Polish title Bieguni refers to runaways, a sect of Old Believers, who believe that being in constant motion is a trick to avoid evil. Flights is a fragmentary novel consisting of over 100 episodes, each exploring what it means to be a traveller through space as well as time. Set between the 17th and 21st centuries, the novel includes some fictional stories and some fact-based, narrated from a perspective of an anonymous female traveller. It was translated by Jennifer Croft, an American author and critic who works from Polish, Ukrainian and Spanish. She is a founding editor of the Buenos Aires Review.

Cover of The Polyglot Lovers by Lina Wolff

Lina Wolff, The Polyglot Lovers, translated by Saskia Vogel (And other stories, 2019), ELD.DS.410017
Chosen by Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections

Referred to as ‘feminism for the Fleabag generation’ (Spectator), Lina Wolff’s second novel takes down ‘myths of male authorship’ (FT) in this absurb book about love and loss. Both this and Wolff’s first novel, Brett Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs, were awarded PEN Translates awards by English PEN, thanks to the translations of Saskia Vogel, prolific translator of Swedish fiction, who recently wrote about how she has mainly translated women authors, who ‘question the shape of society and the assumptions we make, with a particular interest in sex and gender, language, economics, and power.’

Covers of Parts I and II of The time is out of joint: Shakespeare as philosopher of history by Ágnes Heller, featuring an owl

Ágnes Heller, The time is out of joint: Shakespeare as philosopher of history (Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), translated by Magda Módos (Osiris, 2000), YC.2003.a.4129 (English) YF.2010.a.20242 (Hungarian)
Chosen by Andrea Déri, Cataloguer

‘The time is a sphinx in Shakespeare’s plays, but a sphinx whose secret will never be known, whose riddle will never be solved.’ ‘[…] for the secret of time is the meaning of life. A life has no meaning except for the question concerning meaning itself.’

Hungarian philosopher Ágnes Heller (1929–2019) interrogates time and temporality in Shakespeare’s plays in this book and engages her readers in doing the same in their life as well; challenges foreshadowed by Hamlet’s words in the title. An obituary in the Financial Times described Heller as ‘one of the most respected European philosophers of her generation’, ‘a life-long fighter for freedom’. Magda Módos, known for her interest in philosophy, translated the book from the English original into Hungarian.

Cover of Bad Roads by Natal'ya Vorozhbit

Natal'ia Vorozhbit, Bad Roads, translated by Sasha Dugdale (Nick Hern Books, 2017), ELD.DS.228387
Chosen by Katie McElvanney, Curator Slavonic and East European Collections

First performed at the Royal Court Theatre, London in 2017, Natal'ia Vorozhbit’s powerful and sometimes bitterly comic play focuses on the impact of the conflicts in Ukraine on women from different generations and backgrounds. A leading contemporary Ukrainian playwright, Vorozhbit is the co-founder of the Theatre of the Displaced in Kyiv and curator of the Class Act project in Ukraine. Bad Roads was translated from the Russian by the prolific poet, translator and editor Sasha Dugdale, who reflected on her experience of translating the play and its harrowing subject matter in an article for the Guardian.

Cover of Bitter Herbs by Marga Minco, featuring a drawing of a woman

Marga Minco, Bitter Herbs, translated by Roy Edwards (Oxford University Press, 1960)
Chosen by Marja Kingma, Curator Germanic Collections

This autobiographical novella or chronicle about a Dutch Jewish family during the Second World War was published as Minco’s debut in 1957. Bitter Herbs was given a literary award in 1958 and has been translated into several languages. Minco became the Dutch voice in European war literature. The book’s sober, clear, direct style belies its deeper meanings. Minco’s themes are loss, loneliness, fear, guilt, and a longing for security. She and her uncle were the only members of her family to survive the war. Minco received the highest Dutch literary award, the PC Hooftprijs, for her complete oeuvre in 2019, at the age of 98.

Cover of The People in the Photo by Hélène Gestern, featuring a figure sitting on a bench
 

Hélène Gestern, The People in the Photo, translated by Emily Boyce and Ros Schwartz (Gallic Book 2014), Nov.2018/1771
Chosen by Sophie Defrance, Curator Romance Collections

Hélène Gestern (born 1971) is a French writer and academic. One of her favourite themes is photography, and the power it exercises over memory. In The People in the Photo, Hélène is an archivist living in Paris. Her mother died when she was a baby, so she posts a newspaper ad requesting information about a mysterious photograph of her mother alongside two unknown men. This provokes a response from Stéphane, a Swiss scientist living in Ashford, who recognises his father. The People in the Photo revolves around the exchange of letters, emails and text messages between the two, and explores themes of memory, loss and the power of photography and images as the pair shares discoveries and speculate about their parents’ secrets. Published in 2011, the original French Eux sur la photo received the “Prix Coup de cœur des lycéens” de la Fondation Prince Pierre de Monaco and the Prix René Fallet in 2012.

27 August 2019

Women in Translation Month: top picks from the European Studies team (Part 1)

Add comment

Collage of book covers featured in the blog post

Founded in August 2014 by book blogger Meytal Radzinski, Women in Translation Month (WITMonth) aims to celebrate and promote women writers in translation, as well as their translators and publishers. So why do we need WITMonth? As the organisers of the upcoming ‘Translating Women’ conference in London highlight, ‘translated literature notoriously accounts for only 3.5% of published literature in the English-language book market, and less than one-third of this is women-authored.’

In addition to WITMonth, initiatives such as the Translating Women project and associated conferences and events all help to redress the gender imbalance in the publishing industry. And there does appear to have been a shift in recent years, with the 2019 Man Booker International Prize shortlist featuring five women authors and six women translators.

In this two-part blog post, the European Studies team have selected books by women authors in translation from across the continent. Ranging from 20th-century classics to contemporary fiction, the majority of these works were also translated by women, and several have won or been shortlisted for literary and translation awards.

 

Cover of The Art of Joy by Goliarda Sapienza

Goliarda Sapienza, The Art of Joy, translated by Anne Milano Appel (Penguin Books, 2013), Nov.2015/2304
Chosen by Valentina Mirabella, Curator Romance Collections

Written between 1966 and 1976, rejected by many publishers and issued posthumously in Italian, The Art of Joy only sparked interest after its French and English (by award-winning translator Anne Milano Appel) translations appeared, in 2008 and 2013. The Art of Joy is, above all, a novel of instruction and liberation, feminist, socialist, anti-Fascist. Goliarda Sapienza, its provocative and nonconformist Sicilian author, has just recently been rediscovered, being the subject of an international conference organised by UCL in 2013.

Cover of The Pine Islands by Marion Poschmann

Marion Poschmann, The Pine Islands, translated by Jen Calleja (Serpent’s Tail, 2019), awaiting shelfmark.
Chosen by Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections

Shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize 2019, The Pine Islands follows a lecturer with a specialism in beards, as he decides to take off to Japan on a Bashō-inspired journey to the pine islands of Matsushima. It is a poetic exploration of nature and man, and of the potential for resisting conventional existence. This light but profound text is seamlessly reflected in the translation of Jen Calleja, the British Library’s first Translator-in-Residence and writer of fiction and poetry.

Cover of Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes by Guzel Yakhina,

Guzel Yakhina, Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes, translated by Lisa C. Hayden (Oneworld Publications, 2019), awaiting shelfmark.
Chosen by Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator East European Collections

Russian author and filmmaker Guzel Yakhina’s debut novel explores one of the most tragic periods in Russian and Soviet history – the large-scale repression of wealthier peasants, kulaks, who were stripped of their property and forcefully relocated to distant and uninhabited parts of the Soviet Union together with other groups of citizens, such as intellectuals, ethnic groups and peoples and ‘enemies of the state’. At the same time, this is a very personal story that relates to the experience of the author’s grandmother – a Muslim Tatar woman in the 1930s Soviet Union. This multi-award winning book is beautifully translated by Lisa Hayden, who described the process as an ‘enjoyable challenge’ due to the novel’s vivid characters and rich cultural and historical elements.

Cover of Sphinx by Anne Garreta

Anne Garréta, Sphinx, translated by Emma Ramadan, (Deep Vellum Publishing, 2015), YA.1987.a.16171 (French), English translation awaiting shelfmark.
Chosen by Sophie Defrance, Curator Romance Collections

Born in 1962 in Paris, Anne Garréta currently teaches at Duke University as a Research Professor of Literature and Romance Studies. In 2000, she joined Oulipo (short for French: Ouvroir de littérature potentielle or workshop of potential literature), a loose gathering of (mainly) French-speaking writers and mathematicians who seek to create works using constrained writing techniques. Garréta’s first novel, Sphinx (Grasset, 1986) is a work of literary ingenuity: a love story between two characters, the narrator, “I,” and A***, written without any gender markers referring to the main characters, all the more difficult with the strict gender requirements of the French language. Sphinx is the first novel by a woman member of Oulipo to be translated into English. Emma Ramadan’s translation was nominated for the 2016 PEN Translation Prize and the Best Translated Book Award.

Cover of Soviet Milk by Nora Ikstena

Nora Ikstena, Soviet Milk, translated by Margita Gailitis (Peirene Press, 2018), ELD.DS.269711
Chosen by Ela Kucharska-Beard, Curator Baltic Collections

Nora Ikstena’s bestselling and widely translated novel is set in Soviet Latvia and tells a story of three generations of women. The mother, a doctor, is banished for political reasons to rural Latvia and takes her daughter with her. Uprooted and separated from her loving grandparents, in a reversal of roles, the daughter cares for her psychologically damaged and suicidal mother. This novel by one of the most prominent and influential prose writers in Latvia not only explores the mother-daughter relationship (under-represented in literature, according to Ikstena) but also gives a powerful voice to women living under - and coping with - an oppressive regime. It is seamlessly translated from Latvian by translator and poet Margita Gailitis.

Cover of Nada by Carmen Laforet, featuring a woman walking down an alleyway

Carmen Laforet, Nada, translated by Edith Grossman (Harvill Secker, 2007), Nov.2007/1429
Chosen by Geoff West, Former Curator Hispanic Studies

Published in 1945, Carmen Laforet’s first novel tells how 18-year old Andrea comes to Barcelona to live with her grandmother’s family while studying at university. The Spanish Civil War has greatly impoverished her relatives and created a nightmarish household of conflict, domestic abuse and religious bigotry. This world contrasts with the better-off milieu of her university friend, Ena, who also becomes embroiled in the family’s personal hell. The novel was translated into English in 2007 by Edith Grossman, whose credits already included works by Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa.

15 July 2019

Animals, Folk Tales and Tragedy: the family story behind a Ukrainian reading book

Add comment

Borys and Mariia Hrinchenko were two of the most prominent Ukrainian educators, folklorists, writers and linguists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Yet while Borys is widely celebrated, far less is known about Mariia and her work. On the anniversary of her death, this blog post looks at some of her activities through the lens of one book: Ridne slovo. Ukraïnsʹka chytanka (‘Native Word. A Ukrainian Reader’), which was compiled by Borys and Mariia and published in Kyiv in 1912 (12975.l.27.).

A portrait of the Hrinchenko Family. Mariia and Anastasiia are seated and are wearing traditional Ukrainian clothes

The Hrinchenko Family: Borys, Mariia and their daughter, Anastasiia. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The history behind the book’s publication reveals the vital and often overlooked role that Mariia played in preserving and bringing to light Borys’s work, as well as her role as a writer and editor. Borys initially used the reader, which he put together in 1889, to teach his daughter, Anastasiia, how to read. The book was based on the 1864 children’s reading book Rodnoe slovo (Native Word) by the writer and pedagogue Konstantin Ushinskii.

After publishing a Ukrainian primer in 1907 (012901.i.25.(1.)), Borys also planned to publish his reader. The book needed considerable work, however, and he died before it was finished. Following his death from tuberculosis in 1910, Mariia edited the reader and added additional sections. The book was received as a gift by the British Museum Library in 1913, a year after it was first published.

Cover of Ridne slovo. Ukraïnsʹka chytanka featuring a traditional Ukrainian folk design with flowers

Cover of Ridne slovo. Ukraïnsʹka chytanka (‘Native Word. A Ukrainian Reader’), Kyiv, 1912. 12975.l.27.

The reader is arranged thematically, beginning with a section on domestic and wild animals, before moving on to subjects such as flora, clothing and science. In addition to short stories and poems (including by Borys and Mariia Hrinchenko, Lesia Ukrainka and Taras Shevchenko, songs and comprehension exercises, it contains a number of riddles relating to the topic of each section, such as the following agricultural gem:

Що старше: ячмінь чи овес?
[What’s older: barley or oats?]
Ячмінь, бо вуси має.
[Barley, because it has a moustache (whiskers).]

Page from Ridne slovo about wild and domestic animals. Featuring drawings of a horse and hedgehog

Page from Ridne slovo about plants. Featuring drawings of mushrooms and flowers

Pages from Ridne slovo. Ukraïnsʹka chytanka (‘Native Word. A Ukrainian Reader’), Kyiv, 1912. 12975.l.27.

Mariia was herself a prolific translator, writer, poet and collector. Like Borys, she was also interested in education and Ukrainian folk culture. Between 1887 and 1893, the couple taught in a school set up by Khrystyna Alchevska, an educator, teacher and a prominent activist for national education in Ukraine and the Russian Empire. After moving to Kyiv in the early 1900s, both Mariia and Borys worked on the Slovarʹ ukraïnsʹkoï movy (Dictionary of the Ukrainian Language), which was published in four volumes between 1907 and 1909. Mariia’s role in compiling and editing the dictionary, which is considered one of the most important works in the history of the modern Ukrainian language, is rarely acknowledged, however.

Writing most commonly under the pseudonym M. Zahirnia, her translations include works by Henrik Ibsen, Hans Christian Anderson and Hermann Sudermann. Some were collaborations with her husband and daughter. Mariia also wrote pamphlets and short texts on social issues, such as Strashnyi voroh (‘The Terrible Enemy’) which discussed alcohol and alcoholism (Kyiv, 1907; Ac.2655/2.).

Title page from a book in memory of Anastasiia. Includes her portrait.

Title page from a book in memory of Anastasiia (Nastiia), (Kyiv, 1912). 010795.aa.5.

In 1908, Mariia and Borys’ daughter, Anastasiia, tragically died at the age of 24. Influenced by her parents, Anastasiia was also an active writer and translator during her short life. She was involved in revolutionary activities in 1905, for which she was twice imprisoned. It was during this time that she developed tuberculosis, which led to her death just a few years later. Tragically, her infant son, who was born just before her death, also died shortly after. In 1912, Mariia published a series of books (including older titles written by her and Borys) in Anastasiia’s memory (010795.aa.5.).

In her later years, Mariia was known for her philanthropic and political work. She was also responsible for organising and donating Borys’s library of over 6,000 books to the National Library of Ukraine shortly after it was founded in 1918. Mariia died a decade later, on 15 July 1928. As is clear from the story behind Ridne slovo, she was a hugely important figure as a writer and editor at this time and instrumental in shaping the way Borys’s legacy is viewed today.

Katie McElvanney, Curator Slavonic and East European Collections

References and further reading

Borys Hrinchenko and Mariia Hrinchenko, Ridne slovo. Ukraïnsʹka chytanka. Persha pislia hramatky knyha do chytannia (Kyiv, 1912). 12975.l.27.

Borys Hrinchenko, Ukraïnsʹka hramatka do nauky chytannia ĭ pysannia (Kyiv, 1907). 012901.i.25.(1.)

Mariia Hrinchenko, Strashnyi voroh: knyzhka po horilku, No. 7 (Kyiv, 1907). Ac.2655/2.

Mariia Hrinchenko (ed.), Knyzhky pamʹiati Nasti Hrinchenko, No. 6-11 (Kyiv, 1912-1913). 010795.aa.5.

Liudmyla Nezhyva, Mariia Zahirnia: literaturnyĭ portret (Luhansʹk, 2003). YF.2007.a.23289

P. I. Skrypnyk, ‘Hrinchenko, Mariia Mykolaïvna’ Encyclopedia of Ukrainian History, Vol. 2 (Kyiv, 2004).

19 June 2019

Translating Ibsen: monstrous rare of attainment

Add comment

The Duke of York’s Theatre is currently playing Henrik Ibsen’s Rosmersholm, a play that Michael Meyer suggests ‘marks Ibsen’s final withdrawal as a playwright from the polemical field’. It is marked everywhere by a curious sense of withdrawal, as the protagonist John Rosmer, heir to the Rosmersholm legacy and former clergyman, stirs himself towards a revolutionary popular politics, before abruptly asserting its futility. Likewise, the complex love affair between Rosmer and Rebecca West reaches the possibility of marriage, before that becomes impossible because of Rebecca’s guilt over her complicity in the suicide of Rosmer’s first wife and her manipulation of Rosmer towards her radicalism. Hints of idealism amidst the angst-ridden interactions dissolve into a resignation to unchangeable political, psychological and moral realities. This kind of thematic disappointment works also on the level of language, and Toril Moi suggests it depicts a dark modernity ‘where language has come to seem untrustworthy’. This makes you wonder: if the play is about the impossibility of communication, what does it mean to read and experience it at one remove, in translation?

Title page of the first edition of Rosmersholm

First edition of Rosmersholm (Copenhagen, 1896) BL 11755.bbb.34.

Ibsen is notoriously difficult to translate, hence the many translations and adaptations of his plays over the last century. This includes the new four-volume Penguin Ibsen, the third volume of which contains a new translation and critical apparatus for Rosmersholm and will be released in December this year. Mark Lawson reminds us of one of the problems of translating Ibsen: that he wrote in Danish in Norway at a time of linguistic transition, when Danish remained in use but was being superseded by Norwegian. ‘This means that the translator … needs two different sets of dictionaries and thesauri and a strong sense of the historical evolution of Scandinavian languages.’

Portrait of Louis Napoleon Parker

Portrait of Louis Napoleon Parker, National Portrait Gallery 1917

This combination of disappointed ideals and the thankless task of the translator emerge in the preface to the first English translation of Rosmersholm (London, 1889; 11755.e.13.) by the playwright, poet and musician, Louis Napoleon Parker. Parker writes how Ibsen was slowly becoming known to English audiences and, regarding his translation, ‘It claims only one merit: it is done from the original, and it is done as literally as my limited skill in juggling words would permit. An ideal translation is, like other ideals, monstrous rare of attainment. This is not an ideal translation; but that it is faithful I will pledge the word of one who has hitherto been considered indifferent honest.’ In his autobiography, Parker mentions an ‘obsession’ with Rosmersholm, ‘the only useful lesson in playwriting I ever had’. After first translating from an early German version, probably Marie von Borch’s (Berlin, 1887; 11755.c.2.), he returned to the original, feeling ‘instinctively that there were slips and lacunæ’ in the German.

Title Page of Louis N. Parker’s translation alongside his dedication to H. Rowland Brown

Title Page of Louis N. Parker’s translation alongside his dedication to H. Rowland Brown Cup.403.m.4.(7.)

The Ibsen Society of America see the first translations, including presumably Parker’s Rosmersholm, as being particularly faithful but also outdated: ‘older literary translations can impede meaning as much as they preserve it, as one soon discovers when struggling through any of the arch British-Victorian translations’. A couple of the tricky motifs to transmit into English, according to Toril Moi, are the verbs svælge (‘swallow’) and kvæle (‘strangle’). For Moi, these verbs ‘evoke ideas of forced or silenced expression’ in a play about the struggle to connect through language and the actual abyss between Rosmer and Rebecca, as well as between Rosmer and the outside world. These verbs are strange to a Norwegian reader in their contexts and therefore stand out. Rendering into comprehensible English, translators often miss the specific motifs of swallowing and suffocation, which Moi holds central to her understanding of the play.

Let’s compare a couple of passages from Parker’s 1889 work, Charles Archer’s 1891 translation (11755.df.45.), Michael Meyer’s 1966 version (X.908/8346.), Mike Poulton’s 2008 adaptation (YK.2009.a.18115), and Moi’s own renderings in her critical work.

The end of Act 2 sees Rosmer lament the impossibility of his political project due in part to his deep guilt over his wife’s death. Moi has it:

ROSMER: I shall never conquer this – not completely. There will always be a lingering doubt. A question. I’ll never again be able to bask in (svælge i) that which makes life so wonderfully delightful to live.
REBECCA: [leaning over the back of his chair, more slowly] What kind of thing is it you mean, Rosmer?
ROSMER: [looking up at her] Quiet, joyous freedom from guilt.
REBECCA: [takes a step back] Yes. Freedom from guilt.

Moi cannot retain the idea of swallowing but opts for a phrase that keeps a bodily sense, of absorbing something. This is lost in Meyer’s and Poulton’s translations, which go with the verbs ‘enjoy’ and ‘losing the one joyful thing’. Parker and Archer settle for ‘revel in’, retaining at least the preposition and therefore some idea of physicality.

The scene takes a turn when Rosmer asks Rebecca to become his second wife, a proposal she rejects for no clear reasons at this stage. Rosmer’s plea is about shaking off the burden of the past in marriage, demanding, according to Moi’s version, to ‘let us strangle (kvæle) all memories in freedom, in pleasure, in passion’. Meyer writes, ‘let us lay all memories to rest in freedom, and joy, and love’, a significantly more peaceful image. Poulton offers a more violent image in the verb ‘drown’. However, closer to the original, Parker and Archer prefer the verb ‘stifle’, a motif of suffocation.

One last example that provides interesting comparison is the word vidnesbyrd, the ‘testimony’ or ‘proof’ Rosmer asks of Rebecca to restore his faith, essentially demanding that she takes her own life. Moi prefers to see this as ‘bearing witness’ because the concept is distinct from ‘proof’, as it ‘has to do with a person’, whereas ‘proof’ ‘often refers to things or facts’. This word isolates one translator among our selection. The very first translation, the one that was a product of an obsession with the most faithful rendering, Louis Napoleon Parker’s work is the only version not to use the word ‘proof’. He employs the awkward formulation, ‘Let me have a token!’ The word ‘token’ insists on a visible and tangible manifestation of something in a way that ‘proof’ does not quite manage.

As strange as it sounds in Parker’s rendering, perhaps Parker’s ‘token’ is a more accurate translation after all, and, if anything, his version helps to remind us of Ibsen’s own strange language.

Pardaad Chamsaz, Curator Germanic Collections

References/Further Reading

Louis N. Parker, Several of my Lives (London, 1928), 010855.f.42

Toril Moi, Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism: Art, Theater, Philosophy (Oxford, 2006) YC.2006.a.19524

Mark Lawson, ‘The Master Linguist: The Problem with Translating Ibsen’, The Guardian (29 October 2014)

01 February 2019

Unlocking Access to Ancient Science in Renaissance Italy: the vernacularization of Pliny’s ‘Historia Naturalis’

Add comment

In most cases, literary works which have marked a turning point, a watershed moment in the history of literature, are new and original creations. However, in some cases, a similar literary outburst has come from a translation rather than the original text. It will suffice to recall the Latin version of the Bible by St. Jerome at the end of the 4th century, the so-called Vulgate and the enormous historical and cultural impact it had on Western Europe at the time.

A less known case, but no less historically important in its impact on the formation of the European Renaissance culture, is the vulgarization of the Naturalis Historia by Pliny the Elder published in 1476 by the Florentine humanist Cristoforo Landino, on which new light has been shed from the recent study of the Italian philologist Antonino Antonazzo in his Il volgarizzamento pliniano di Cristoforo Landino. (Messina, 2018; YF.2019.b.21).

Landino study

In a period which witnessed the rediscovery of classical literature, through the revival of Greek and Latin authors fallen into oblivion during the Middle Ages, the translation of Pliny’s text truly marked an epochal event: Landino’s great historical merit was to make a grandiose 37-volume encyclopedia of Greek-Roman antiquity accessible in the vernacular for the first time: the editio princeps of the translation is a monumental 830-page folio volume.

The British Library holds two copies at shelfmarks IC.19693 and C.3.d.2.

Pliny IC.19693 Dedication Translator’s dedication (f.2) from Historia naturale di C. Plinio Secondo tradocta di lingua Latina in Fiorentina per Christophoro Landino (Venice, 1476) Above: IC.19693 ; below: C.3.d2.

Pliny C.3.d.2

Landino’s laborious work filled an important cultural void that could no longer wait. Many readers from different backgrounds benefited from it: poets, such as Luigi Pulci; artists – to name one, Leonardo da Vinci; and even explorers such as Christopher Columbus. The aftermath was so great throughout Europe, that Landino’s translation remained the only vernacular translation of Naturalis historia for almost a century: the first French translation was published in 1562 (Antoine du Pinet), the English was published in 1601 (Philemon Holland ), the Spanish in 1624 (Gerónimo de Huerta) and a complete German translation as late as 1764 (Johann Daniel Denso).

Pliny IC.19693 Preface
Opening of Pliny’s preface from Historia Naturale (IC.19693)

The Florentine vernacularization became a key work because it placed itself at the confluence of many questions until then unanswered: was it acceptable to translate classical literary works into the very vernacular used in everyday life by common people? How to translate a peculiar lexicon of scientific disciplines, such as astronomy, meteorology, zoology, botany, medicine and mineralogy?

And, among the many vernaculars spoken in the regions of Italy, which one was the most suitable? The debate around this last question was in fact now centuries old: it had been a burning one since the origins of Italian literature in the 13th century and had left many conflicting theories; Dante Alighieri in his unfinished De Vulgari Eloquentia (1303-04) reviewed 14 Italian vernaculars in order to identify the most ‘illustrious’ and suitable for poetry, and ended up discarding them all, including the Florentine itself – which is the reason why scholars believe he interrupted the work, the theory conflicting with the practice, as the Divine Comedy would demonstrate.

Cristoforo_Landino_-_Wikimedia

 Portrait of Cristoforo Landino from a fresco by Domenico Ghirlandaio in the Tornabuoni Chapel, Santa Maria Novella, Florence, ca 1486-90. (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Landino’s translation answered all these questions, and even though it did not please some humanists, it was received with enthusiasm by the general public. A significant example of this is its success with a female public, as we read in Giovanni Sabadino degli Arienti’s description of his wife with her books in Gynevera de le clare donne.

...havea piacere assai in audire legere li versi de Virgilio; legea lei voluntiera Plinio de naturali hystoria, posto in materna lingua, et de li libri spirituali et sancti.
[...she very much enjoyed having Virgil’s verses read to her; she gladly read Pliny’s Naturalis Historia in her mother tongue, and holy and spiritual books...]

The relevance of this testimony is reinforced by the reaction of Francesco Florido Sabino, who, 60 years later, in his Apologia in Marci Actii Plauti aliorumque poetarum et linguae Latinae calumniatores, cursed Landino for allowing not just anybody access to Pliny’s work, but even to women. (See Antonazzo’s study p. 50)

Landino’s intention to reach a wide audicence is expressed in his dedicatory letter to the King of Naples Ferrante d’Aragona, which begins with these words:

Essendo gli animi nostri per loro natura di tanta celerità quanta né mia né altra lingua exprimere non poterebbe, né essendo altro cibo che gli pasca et nutrisca se non la cognitione, chi non vede che nessuna più grata chosa può alloro adivenire che havere vera scientia di tutte le cose?
[Our soul in its nature being as rapid as neither mine nor any other language can express, and there being no other nourishment that satisfies and feeds as cognition does, how can anyone not see that there is nothing that makes it happier than the true knowledge of all things?]

Giuseppe Alizzi, Curator Romance Collections

References

Dante Alighieri, De vulgari eloquentia, a cura di Enrico Fenzi, con la collaborazione di Luciano Formisano e Francesco Montuori (Rome, 2012) YF.2013.a.25815

Sabadino Degli Arienti, Gynevera de le clare donne (Bologna, 1888). 12226.de.8.(1.)

Francesco Florido Sabino, In M. Actii Plauti aliorumque Scriptorum calumniatores apologia ... (Basle, 1540) C.81.i.9.

27 August 2018

“Buried at his feet”: Fanny Susan Copeland, Triglav and Slovenia

Add comment

August 26 2018 marked the 240th anniversary of the first successful ascent of Triglav, the three-headed mountain that has become a national symbol of Slovenia and a striking part of its flag. This was one of the earliest ascents in the Alps, several years before anyone made it to the peaks of Mont Blanc or the Matterhorn.

Copeland Triglav View towards the Vrata Valley and Triglav from the village of Mojstrana. (Photo: Janet Ashton)

Triglav has been a magnet for mountaineers ever since, its relatively modest height of 2,863 metres attracting people of even limited experience – some of whom take unacceptable risks in scaling it.

One of many foreigners who were drawn to the mountain was a Scottish woman, Fanny Susan Copeland (1872-1970), who moved to Ljubljana in 1921. She would climb Triglav several times, including one snowy New Year’s Eve, when she joined a couple of students who had accepted a bet of a stick of chocolate that they dare not do it! Most remarkably, she made her last ascent in 1958 at the age of almost 87.

Copeland Beautiful mountains TriglavTriglav, illustration by Edo Deržaj from Fanny S. Copeland, Beautiful Mountains: in the Jugoslav Alps (Split, 1931) 10205.g.32 

Fanny Copeland was a linguist, musician and journalist who left an unhappy marriage to become a translator working for the exiled Yugoslav Committee  in London during the First World War. Her own early writing echoes the ideology of that body, which was intent on establishing an independent state by uniting the south Slav people of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Kingdoms of Serbia and Montenegro, with whom they were currently at war. It had the ear of the liberal Habsburg dissident and future Czechoslovak president, Tomas Masaryk, and greatly influenced Allied attitudes to the future. Copeland delivered lectures on the fate of the besieged “Women of Serbia” and spoke rather crudely of south Slav people as a single entity: “a race which lives in a land which stretches from the Carinthian Alps … to the heart of Macedonia – and from the Danube … to the rock-bound coast of the blue island-studded Adriatic”, attributing to all “but one language … correctly called the Serbo-Croatian tongue … one tradition of the past and one hope for the future.”

Copeland Women of Serbia

 Cover of The Women of Serbia (London, 1917) 08415.f.26.

Not long after this, however, she translated Bogumil Vošnjak’s Bulwark against Germany, an in-depth study of the particular position of the Slovenes. When the war was over, she visited the new-minted Yugoslavia for the first time, and settled in Slovenia, drawn by a post teaching English and by mountains which seemed to remind her of Scotland.

Copeland Beautiful mountains Kot ValleyThe Kot Valley, from Beautiful Mountains.

Copeland believed strongly in Yugoslavia and was certainly no Slovene separatist, but she soon developed a more subtle knowledge of the distinct culture and language of the country’s most northerly nation, and was one of the first people to write a lot about it for English-speaking audiences, keen to attract visitors to her beloved mountains. In the 19th century, the provinces that became Slovenia were often dismissed by foreign observers and pan-Slavs as “part of the hereditary Habsburg lands” and therefore too complex a case for their future to be considered alongside that of other Slavs. By the 1920s, with the Habsburgs gone, this had been replaced by a tendency to classify the Slovenes as a branch of the “Serbo-Croatian” people, who ought to act according to current notions of what that meant. Generally, the more “Russian” a nation seemed, the more truly Slavic it was deemed by British scholars. The traveller and writer Stephen Graham for example, loved Serbia passionately, but wrote mockingly of Slovenes who spoke German to tourists, claiming they did it not to be understood but “to show they are cultured” and “not barbarians from the Balkan peninsula” like many of their new compatriots. He smelt “the pleasant odour of old Austria” in Slovenia’s resorts, but could not acknowledge the legacy of a thousand years of shared history and culture as anything other than a pretension.

Copeland Triglav map  10026.l.12 Map of the Julian Alps, from Emile Levasseur, Les Alpes et les grandes ascensions (Paris, 1889) 10026.l.12

Fanny Copeland, however, was amused by and instinctively sympathetic to the differences she soon detected between the south Slavic nations she had previously thought of as “one.” She envisaged the Slovenes as the backbone of the nation, more practical and pragmatic than their southern neighbours. “The Slovene regards the Croat much as a Scot regards the Sassenach,” she wrote: the mountains, in both cases, were a decisive factor. Her Slovenian friends blamed their neighbours for any disarray or damage they found in the mountain huts on their climbs to Triglav, and gently mocked Croats for setting out with pet dogs or in unsuitable footwear.

Copeland Beautiful mountains hutA mountain hut, from Beautiful Mountains.

Fanny Copeland’s writing on the Slovenian Alps is immensely evocative and close to anthropomorphic in places. Love them and take risks with them as she did, she never failed to convey the dangers posed by the mountains. Writing of the Vršič Pass, a former military road built in 1916 by Russian prisoners of war, she spoke of “a fine road, well-built and skilfully laid out, with bridges and culverts, winding, twisting and looping like a snake – and white as dead men’s bones … All along its course, the loveliness of an alpine world unfolds its splendours, each picture fairer than the last … But it is a Sorrowful Road, built by … wretched aliens, driven and starved. Russians, sons of the boundless plains … penned here in the narrow pass between awful mountains … this road was the rack on which they suffered and died… As I walk up it in the dusk, I listen for the sobbing of its stones.”

Over the Pass looms the mountain Prisank or Prisojnik, famous for a round hole in one face. Fanny envisaged this “eye of Prisoinik” peering down, “dead and vacant in its stony socket, with the patch of snow beneath it like a monstrous tear.” Yet she spoke also of Triglav as a “father”, welcoming to those who approached it from the right angle.

Copeland Prisojnik 2Prisojnik, showing its “eye”. (Photo: Janet Ashton)

Copeland Beautiful mountains Prisojnik
Prisojnik from Beautiful Mountains.

Fanny Copeland was interned in Italy by the fascist occupiers of Ljubljana during the Second World War, but returned to Slovenia after 1945, spending the remainder of her long life living mainly in the Hotel Slon in Ljubljana, still writing and translating prolifically. She is buried in the graveyard in the village of Dovje, overlooked by Triglav itself and surrounded by numerous other mountaineers and admirers of the extraordinary alpine scenery that helped give the country its very distinctive character.

Copeland Grave Fanny Copeland’s grave in Dovje (Photo: Janet Ashton)

Janet Ashton, WEL Cataloguing Team Manager

References and further reading:

Stephen Graham, Alexander of Jugoslavia, Strong Man of the Balkans. (London, 1938) 010795.m.8

Bogumil Vošnjak, A Bulwark against Germany: the fight of the Slovenes, the western branch of the Jugo-Slavs, for national existence. Translated by Fanny S. Copeland. (London, 1917) 003817864

 

18 August 2018

A Bohemian bicentenary: Václav Bolemír Nebeský and the Národní Muzeum

Add comment

It is a truism that in choosing a name one should consider whether it is likely to date – how many Kylies approaching their mid-thirties regret being given one which marks them out as children of the early 1980s? A similar phenomenon could be observed in Bohemia in the early 19th century – but with an unusual twist. Many parents who had presented their offspring for baptism with such solid Czech names as František, Josef or Magdalena must have been perplexed when their growing sons and daughters announced that they would no longer use these but in future preferred to be known as Ladislav or Dobromila. Far from being new-fangled inventions, their choices were drawn from the ancient Czech chronicles and legends and simultaneously stated the bearer’s identification with the Bohemian nation’s glorious past and rejection of alien (i.e. German) cultural influences.

Young Václav Nebeský was such a one. Born on 18 August 1818 on the Nový Dvůr estate just north of Kokořín, he was given the name of the king who became Bohemia’s patron saint (‘Good King Wenceslas’), but even that was not patriotic enough for him. He went to high school in Litoměřice, where he proved a gifted student who learned Greek and Latin with ease and went on to study in Prague at Charles University. This was a time when the National Revival was in full swing, and under the influence of its reverence for Bohemian history he decided at the age of 20 to adopt the ultra-Slavonic Bolemír as a second name – a statement all the more emphatic in confirming his sympathies while he was living in Vienna after graduating.

Nebesky portrait 010790ee3Portrait of Václav Bolemír Nebeský from Život a spisy Václava Bolemíra Nebeského by J. Hanuš (Prague, 1896)  010790.ee.3.

Like many talented young men without private means in those days, he earned his living as a private tutor. This could involve occupational hazards such as those experienced by Friedrich Hölderlin – being treated like an inferior servant or becoming emotionally entangled with the lady of the house – but Nebeský was more fortunate. He secured a post in the household of Jan Norbert z Neuberka (Neuberk), who in 1841 had become president of the Národní Muzeum. This National Museum had been established in 1818 by the nobleman and palaeontologist Kaspar Maria, Graf von Sternberg, whose letters contain frequent but unsuccessful appeals to his friend Goethe to visit Prague. Nebeský had already made a wide circle of friends among the generation who would lead the National Revival, both in literature and politics, including the dramatist Josef Kajetán Tyl, Karel Jaromír Erben, whose Kytice remains one of the best-loved works of Czech poetry, the poet and journalist Karel Havlíček Borovský, and Karel Sabina, who provided the libretto for Smetana’s Prodaná nevešta (The Bartered Bride), but was also a notorious police spy. Life in the Neuberk household introduced him to still more eminent figures and helped to develop his political awareness in a practical direction.

Nebesky National Museum 7801.d.6
The Národní Muzeum, Prague, from Národní museum 1818-1948, ed. by Gustav Skalský and others (Prague, 1949) 7801.d.6.

In his early twenties Nebeský had already begun to publish poems in almanacs such as Česká Vcela (The Czech Bee) and Vesna (Spring). His great success came comparatively early with the publication in 1844 of Protichůdci, a long poem whose title is difficult to translate but conveys the sense of ‘those who go against the grain’ or in a direction opposed to conventional ideas of progress, as exemplified by its protagonist, the world-weary Wandering Jew Ahasuerus.

Nebesky Protichudci X.907-8652
Illustration by Jan Konůpek from Václav Bolemír Nebeský, Protichůdci (Prague, 1924) X.907/8652).

He was also an exceptional translator, and his classical training enabled him to produce fluent and highly readable versions of authors including Aeschylus, Aristophanes, and Plautus’s Captivi (Pleníci; Prague, 1873; 11707.b.5.). Indeed, he was heard to say that he often wished that he had been born a modern Greek, a desire which led him in 1864 to publish an anthology of Greek folk-songs in his own translations, Novořecké národní písně. He also brought out a similar collection of Spanish romances, Kytice ze španělských romancí (Prague, 1864; 11452.b.9).

Nebesky binding 1568-4251Binding of Václav Bolemír Nebeský, Novořecké národní písně (Prague, 1864) 1568/4251.

At the same time, Nebeský was involved in many areas of public life. During 1848, the Year of Revolutions, he was politically active and was elected to the Austrian Parliament; the following year he qualified as a university lecturer in Greek and Czech literature, although he never exercised this function professionally. In 1850 he was appointed editor of the Museum’s journal Muzejník, and the following year he became Secretary of the Museum itself, continuing in office until ill-health forced him to step down in 1874.

Nebesky Museum 1609-4911 Dějiny Musea Království Českého (Prague, 1868) 11852.g.2, Nebeský’s history of the National Museum

Nebeský married comparatively late in life, in 1859, but before then he had had a close relationship with another of the National Revival’s most beloved authors, Božena Nemcová (1820-1842), best known for her novel Babička (1855). Unhappily married, she found an outlet in her friendship with Nebeský, with whom she shared not only literary but patriotic interests. Her tomb is close to the gates of Prague’s Vyšehrad cemetery where many of the great cultural figures of 19th-century Czech cultural life are buried, and when he died on 17 August 1882, the day before his 64th birthday, Nebeský himself was laid to rest nearby in the company of Karel Hynek Mácha, the poet whom he so much admired, and many of the friends who, with him, had done so much to shape their country’s future.

Susan Halstead (Subject Librarian, Social Sciences) Research Services