Don’t be afraid of the voices, there are plenty of them here,
it’s the wind combing the grass
and already for many days now
someone’s been making love on the crushed straw
and ragged autumn waits in the ripe maize.
Like a bird following an executioner a cloud is following the sun,
the sky bleeds
and it is beyond my strength.
This coarse yellow that you wear in your hair
was scattered onto the hard road from the wagons.
Notes on this poem
I was persuaded to attempt translations of Jan Skácel’s poems by a Czech friend who knew my own poems. I was reluctant – I speak only English; I’d never heard of Skácel. Eventually I said that if my friend made literal translations of half a dozen poems I’d take a look. She quickly provided literals of about twenty. I looked at them. They meant nothing to me; more than that, nothing about them attracted me. But I carried them around and pulled them out of my pocket now and then – at the bus-stop, queuing in the post-office, in idle moments in the cafe . . . One day I got an inkling about what one might be saying. I made a mark or two . . . I kept a few literals to hand and would glance at them now and then while cooking or washing up. I began to make more marks, to look up odd words in the enormous dictionary I’d been lent, to put occasional queries to my friend. Eventually I applied myself properly.
When about twenty-five translations had been finished we sent them – with great trepidation on my part, I have long been familiar with the essays in his collection Testaments Betrayed – to Milan Kundera c/o his British publisher. My then collaborator knew that Kundera had been a friend of Skácel – who died in 1989 – and had long championed his work. Only when a warmly appreciative response came from Milan Kundera and his wife Vera did I begin to stop feeling like a complete imposter. And when I took to reading the translations in public, often with improvised accompaniment from a gifted violinist and cellist local to me, there was no doubting their impact on listeners.
About forty translations have been finished to date. It is very slow, painstaking work, but I have come to love the man who wrote these poems. Sometimes he feels very, very close. My motivation is simple: the pleasures of the work itself, its intensity, and the desire to help in any way I can in finding new readers for what Věra Kunderová calls ‘these miraculous poems’.
Introduction by Simon Pettifar