The Power of the Approach

in Interviews

Interview with Filip Drlík

by Lucie Horáková


Have you ever been asked that annoying question “And what on earth are you going to do with your degree?” I bet that everyone of us has had to answer it at some point. Maybe you were overcome by the sense of despair, fearing that studying English is just a waste of time, as the general public seems to think. But fear not. Not only that studying at KAA broadens your horizons and provides you with invaluable knowledge, but the skills you learn here are perfectly applicable in the “real world out there”, too. What more – with enough diligence and courage you can start your career already during your studies! Meet Filip Drlík, 28, a student of the master degree program in translation at KAA, who managed just that. He pursued his goal of becoming a translator of fiction and succeeded. In this interview you can read about his way to literary translation, the practical site of being a translator of fiction, the importance of translation studies and many more.

Filip Drlík - rozhovor
Filip Drlík with Peter May at the Authors’s Reading Month. Courtesy of David Konečný.

Can you tell us for how long have you been translating books and what was your first commission?

I started in about 2011. Three or four years ago I translated the first book, a fantasy called Dragonfly Falling. It was the second book in a series published by Zoner Press. I got that through a friend on Facebook. So FB can be a helpful network and networking tool. I checked my FB one day and there was a friend complaining that translating fantasy is the worst thing he could do and he was regretting that he accepted the book. By that time I was interested in the genre – I read over 100 or 150 fantasy and sci-fi books so I offered to help and he accepted and set up a meeting with the publishing house. But the standard procedure is that you do a sample translation and they tell you to go on or . . . goodbye.

Do you do this for every single book or only the first time you cooperate with a new publishing house?

It depends, so far I have cooperated with 3 publishing houses, and they usually ask me to send them the samples anyway. Maybe it’s their way of ensuring that I’m not getting mental or deteriorating, but I think it’s a good thing. You have to adjust yourself to that, you have to do all the thinking before the sample translation and then you’re ready to go. Some publishing houses don’t do that, they just assign you the first book and when they know what kind of translator you are then you’re good to go.

Is the sample translation paid?

Usually, it’s not paid. I really wanted to do literary translation and I was moaning that it’s all about contacts and luck, but then I decided that I’d take the matter in my hands. I spent the whole day extracting emails and contacts to all kinds of publishing houses I could think of. I wrote them all emails, where I just changed the surname in the greeting. But out of the 30+ publishing houses only maybe 7 answered. And then I had to do 7 sample translations in one week.

How many pages was that?

It was over 40 pages. Now I regret that decision because in the end I didn’t have time to do all the sample translations and I simply had to say ‘sorry, I don’t have the time now’. Usually they don’t response well to this kind of behaviour. If I could go back I wouldn’t send 30+ emails in one day and expect that 2 would reply. Anyway, I did some sample translations and the usual reactions were: “Thank you very much, we’ll add you to our database, and if we have something, we’ll contact you,” and sometimes they really do contact you. But sometimes I think that if they assign you long chunks of books, that they are just extracting that for free from people and then they use these translations for publications, they just pay ‘a trained monkey’ to unite it a bit. But some agencies pay the sample translations or they just give you one page, not twenty or thirty.

Could you describe the translation project or projects you’re currently working on – what are you translating, at what stage the project is etc.?

Right now I’m finishing the last touches on a book that’s called The future of mind; in Czech it will be called Budoucnost mysli. It was written by a theoretical physicist named Michio Kaku. It’s a futurist book where he’s saying what the mind should look like and be like in 10, 20, 30, 100 year’s time, the future of robots and our consciousness, so there’s a lot of interesting scientific information. That’s the one book I’m finishing and also I started working on Peter May’s next book in the series of China thrillers, The Fourth Sacrifice. I’m doing my researches now.

Do you suppose you’ll be translating the whole series?

I hope so. The series should be united with the same style, you get to know the characters and you know lots of facts and the references.

Speaking of Peter May – you met him during the Authors’ Reading Month. What was it like to meet him in person? Did you have time to discuss his texts and did he give you any piece of advice?

It was the best thing that could have happened to me. I really can’t describe this feeling in words. One of the translation theories says, in metaphorical terms, that if you want to translate someone’s work, you have to become friends with the author. If you become friends with the author, you like your job, you like what you’re doing and you get the same feel as the author. It’s a theory that usually applies in metaphorical terms to authors that are long dead. So I met my author and it was brilliant. After that I have a different attitude to the translation itself. I just view the star from a different perspective. Of course he gave me invaluable pieces of advice. We spoke about all the translations, about his books, those that I’ve read, and he uncovered some internal info that I couldn’t possibly gain anywhere else. If I need something I write to him and he’s a really willing person, he’s very kind and he always replies to me.

What was the experience of meeting him for the first time? Were you nervous?

Yes, of course I was. Maybe I was a bit more eager than nervous. I was chomping at the bit, but I had to hold myself back, because he wasn’t there for me, he didn’t arrive just to talk to his translator. I was sitting, waiting, interpreting, doing the organizational stuff for the publishing house, and the things around the author’s reading. And then in a free time, when we had a minute, and these things were dealt with, I could speak to him about literature and translation. I was disciplined (I hope).

Now I’m going to ask you a few questions about the way you translate, about your techniques and habits. First of all, how do you cope with such a mass of text? Because books are long, it’s something different than sample translations or short stories. What’s your strategy?

This is an interesting question, because I have this theory. I don’t know to what extent it can be called a theory but I call it ‘potato approach’. When you’re peeling and you have a really big potato and you want to cook it, you first peel it quick and roughly, because if you start to peel the potato precisely it gets all dirty and it’s kind of counterproductive. You refine it in the end, when you get the wrong and bad bits out of the potato. And if you have a small potato, then you can work it at once and don’t have to refine it that much. I’d say everything from a short story to larger text, bigger texts, is a big potato. So my strategy is to work quickly and then go and then very laboriously go through the text and refine it. Once, twice, three times . . .

What are the different stages of your translation process and how long does it take from receiving the manuscript to having the text ready for print?

It depends really on the publishing house and their strategy. Some publishing houses work hard volumes, high speed, they publish books all the time and they expect the same from their translators. I’ll now be talking about Peter May and the Host publishing house. They are really quality oriented – I’m not saying that other publishing houses aren’t – but they have time for it. They do things in advance. The first book I did was assigned to me in December and I had time until the end of May. Now I have 3 months to do it, that means that I have to start working now, but it helps me fight procrastination, because I need to plan carefully and I can’t start last minute.

So first you do the rough translation, then you refine it and then you send it to the publishing house for proofreading?

The very first stage is the analysis. I first read the book. If it’s a work of fiction, then I reread it thoroughly. Some translators don’t do that, but Peter May’s style is very elaborate. Sometimes he mentions something that he explains ten chapters later and you can’t possibly know what he meant by that at first. I was puzzling myself about these things and then I realized ten chapters away that this is absolutely logical. So the first stage is note taking, reading, rereading, thinking, some kind of research – I usually go and ask other translators and my teachers such as Renata Kamenická or Jiří Rambousek, our role models. I sort this complicated stuff beforehand and then I can translate. Only translate. I try to do the rough translation as best as I can. I finish a chapter and then I go back to it, I reread it, edit it myself, and then I go on. After I finish, I read the whole thing. It’s an elaborate process but I think this is the only way I can work efficiently. Then after I finish the book I send it to the publishing house, then the publishing house gives it to one of its editors, the editor that’s in charge of the series, and then I speak to the editor. But this is the ideal situation. Translating for this publishing house is a dream come true for me. I can’t believe my luck.

What is your weekly routine like? How do you fit translation into it? What else do you have to balance in your everyday life?

To be honest, it was about two months ago when I first had a clear idea of what this routine might look like. I usually work very long hours, I work almost all day, and I don’t mind that, because I like what I’m doing. After reading Konec prokrastinace I decided I need to fix the long-term issues. I want to translate fiction and non-fiction as well as some other tasks, assignments that I get, but I also want to concentrate on my own writing and on my music. So I have to find some kind of ratio in which I could incorporate all these things. I realized that I’m doing lots of things that are not good for my long-term goals. I almost stopped teaching, I only have a few lessons a week, but it’s a good thing, because then I know that long-term I’m doing what I should do. Translating fiction will be 50-60% of my time. I don’t have a strict routine these days, but I’d like to have it one day, after I finish school, after I dump all of my students. But now I know that I need to translate a lot. There is a new theory; it was mentioned in one of the books I’ve translated. It’s about the ten thousand hours rule, it’s that you achieve mastery of something, or expert level, if you do something for 10,000 hours. If you do it for less than that then you are a pro, but you’re not the master of it.

Can you tell us what’s your daily maximum of translation? How many pages a day are simply too much?

It really depends on the kind of text. If we’re speaking about literary translation – if I work for 14 hours a day, then I can do nearly 20 pages. But that’s a maximum and it’s not the standard I’m doing. Usually it’s around 8-10 pages a day. If I work too fast then I have additional work with the text. On the other hand, with some texts I think that this speed is very useful. Not really fiction in this respect, because fiction really takes time thinking, it’s as if you were writing the thing. For non-fiction and other things like that I can switch into this ‘flow mode’ and then I can translate very quickly, even though I have to come back and polish it anyway.

I think it was Viktor Janiš who wrote in some interview that an ideal number is 6 pages a day, which, compared to your 20 at times, is quite a difference.

The fact is that it always reflects on quality. The speed is not always in direct opposition to quality, but it’s one of the things that takes it down a little. That’s why I avoid translating so many pages and that’s why Viktor Janiš mentions it. On the other hand, there are really high quality translators that can do lots of pages a day and they don’t mind. It’s a different strategy, different approach . . . in the end, there’s no one to tell you what the right strategy is.

You’re a musician too, so my next question is: do you like listening to music while translating?

Yeah, of course, but it has to be some kind of music that does not disturb me or distract me. I’ve finally found the kinds of music that make me concentrate well. I usually listen to music only when I need to kill the noise around me. Usually I listen to instrumental music, some kind of post-rock with lots of mellow guitars, for example Mogwai is the band that is really good for me to translate with. Then of course some classical music, film soundtracks, I don’t do that often but sometimes I can listen to some piano concertos, strings, . . . But if I listen to something that’s got lyrics and that’s got singing, then even when I know the song and I’ve heard it ten thousand times, it still distracts me.

I think it’s even worse because then you know what they’re singing about and you can’t block it out that easily. Do you also pick the music based on what you are translating, to set  in the mood?
No, I do that with reading. When you read and listen to some music, it gets connected in your brain and when you hear the music again the memory of something in the book pops up. I like this kind of mindfuck, let’s say, the thing that you can programme your brain this way, but I don’t do that with translating.

Now back to the translation process. I would like to ask you about your tools for translation. Do you use any software or printed dictionaries?

I realized that I don’t have as many tools as I used to have. Because the tools are more efficient in non-literary translation. I tend to use only the things that are online, but you can’t really use translation software for literary translations. I tried it, because I wanted to see how it looks, how it works, but it doesn’t work for me. The best way for me is to have either the book printed, or a second screen, or to have one word file where there’s the English, and Czech above it, so I can see the whole piece of text. I need to see the text in context and CAT tools don’t provide that very much, in fact they do the opposite. They divide the text into segments and make it not whole, they disrupt the unity of the text, and then it limits you. I’m sure it must reflect on the translation on certain level, for example on the level of sentence structure. When you’re working with the whole chunks of text, you tend to disregard sentences, or I tend to disregard sentences, and I just go for preservation of the style, the meaning, all the pictures, all the imagery, and all the stylistic tools that the author used and try to transfer them into Czech. So I just use Libre Office or Microsoft Word.

What about printed dictionaries, do you use them?

I have the classic monolingual Oxford dictionary. I think a good strategy to go for is that if you find something you’re not sure about or something you are 100% sure about and you say: “It’s a bit weird, but I’m sure this is this,” this is exactly the moment where you should stop and consult a native speaker. Usually it turns out that these things are language figures, things that are difficult to grasp for a non-native. My greatest “tool” is my friend Duncan that I call to, that I see, that I show the passages from the book. Now I can also ask the author directly, once in, say, 10 pages I have a place that I’m really not sure about. I always think that it’s better to suppress the ego and realize you don’t know this than to be an egoist or to think that your English is impeccable.

And do you ever use Czech dictionaries? Or are you sure of your Czech that much that you don’t use them?

I use the Czech national corpora, for example for collocations. And for the improvement of my style, I read a lot in Czech. When I started at the Department of English and American Studies, I had the feeling that I had to read only in English, that from now on English is going to be THE language that I’m going to read. But after I started translating, Dr Kamenická mentioned that students really should be encouraged to read proper Czech literature, non-translations. It’s harsh to say but mostly I don’t read Czech translations, it’s rare. I read Czech original fiction and try to get a feeling from it, and of course, I write a lot. Even though I’m not going to use it, I just write and write, because this way I precise my own writing style and it has to reflect on the translating style as well.

Let’s move on to technical translation. Do you have experience with technical or commercial translation as well?

Of course, that’s what I started with. Now I’m cutting that down again, but I still have some companies that I work for. I translated thousands of pages of manuals, samples, marketing materials, . . .

What are the areas you are translating from?

The main one is the medical products industry, it’s spinal implants and these things, then engineering, that’s another big area of my interest.

If you should describe the difference between literary translation, non-fiction translation and interpreting – what are your feelings, ideas, what are the differences for you, what are the similarities, and maybe how your approach differs.

I have considerable experience with interpreting at all kinds of events. I spent a whole month at the authors’ readings interpreting, it was a very intensive experience. I think interpreting in itself is very different from translation, though not in principle, of course. Some people say that you don’t have the time to analyze the sentence properly before you translate it, but that’s not true. Professionals do it, they prepare beforehand for the kind of topic they’re going to interpret, and this analysis doesn’t take long time, or maybe it’s just unconscious, but it’s there. I don’t do simultaneous interpreting, I do consecutive and I use some specific strategies. I try to make it as short as possible, I take notes and then I summarize it, because if I had to translate everything, sentence after sentence, it would take too long. Compared with translation, the stages of working with the text, what happens in your head, are very similar. And I’m sure that Dr Fictumová would tell you more about that, we had a brilliant course about that. And the difference between the non-fiction texts and literary texts is also big. When I work with technical texts, I employ lots of tools, I use lots of online resources and you think about different things, the overall attitude is different. For example you want to unite everything, you want to have one terminology for it, so you tend to do that beforehand and then contact your customer and have a look at that and try to find the best words. In literary translation, the glossary would be very useful but I don’t know of any application that would help you with that.

I was thinking about it, that we really need something like this – a nice, easy tool, with one half of screen for English, the second half for Czech, a glossary implemented in and some kind of tool that might help you sketch the relations between the characters . . .

Yes, there should be a simple tool with a glossary reminding you of a word that you’re using. For example if you’re translating a detective story there’s obviously going to be lots of ranks of policemen and it’s you who’s creating these and then if you want to look back what it was you either remember it or you have to Ctrl+F it. That’s the difference in approach I’d say. And then in translation itself, there’s not much difference. But when I’m doing short technical texts, I try to do it with my potato theory, just do it so I can finish it and come back to the big potato and remove the little impurities in it.

An important question: how do you relax?

I try swimming, music is a great way of relaxation, sleep is great . . . I like hard work but I like leisure as well. I’ll probably have it one day that I’ll have some kind of a regime that would be the same. Now I just tend to translate for three weeks, four weeks, two months – very hard, doing many kinds of translations and lots of other work, and then I just tend to go to a pub. I need people, I need to socialize. If you’re working with people you need some time for yourself to relax and if you’re working with books you need some time with people to relax.

Did translating meet your expectations? Was there anything that surprised you, was unexpected, you weren’t prepared for?

What surprised me were the levels of perception of what translation is. I’m going to overuse the word “approach” again, but when I started, I thought that I’m doing everything alright and that I’m learning. I had long experience with it, but then I started studying the translation studies and I realized that I have to redefine everything I knew up until that moment. I realized that lots of things I did were wrong and I actively reshaped myself. There are 2 different groups of translators. Lots of translators haven’t studied the specialized translation fields, they usually study something professional, or English, or some other languages, or they just have long experience in their field. But being a part of the academic world, as a student, it gives you a different perspective on the whole thing. And I think the good way is to have the best of the both worlds, to have the practicality and experience and also the good tools and good methods that only school can supply. Some people say that studying translation and analyzing the text is useless, that you gain the experience only by translating. I was surprised how untrue that is. There are lots of things every translator should know about translation and linguistics. There are really useful things written by Jakobson, Levý, Popovič or Chesterman. These guys are theorists and they are translation studies experts. I think you can’t teach people to translate, but you can teach them to use some methods and reshape their thinking. That was the surprise, in the business of translation and in the academics’ view on translation, that it’s two different things.

Have you ever participated in a translation competition? Do you think it helped you in any way?

Yes, I sent my translated short story into Jiří Levý’s competition. I didn’t rank on any places. I hate contests because when you don’t win you feel bad. But on the other hand, I think it’s good to fall out of grace, to start again, to rethink and to just lose your ideal, suppress your ego a bit. If you don’t rank among winners it doesn’t mean you’re bad, but it makes you think and doubt and there’s always a limit to this doubt, you shouldn’t overdo it. I think that everything that’s a challenge and makes you doubt yourself and rethink and reconsider what you’re doing is good.

What do you wish somebody had told you before you started translating? You spoke about the different approach, but what about some practical piece of advice.

Maybe the most important thing that I realize now is that you should really like what you’re doing. If you don’t like it, if the circumstances force you, or if you are disorganized and do other things that endanger this, it’s always bad. It’s not about methods or advice it’s just about maintaining the right state of mind and taking that as the most important thing. Cause if you like it then everything’s easy.

So your advice is: don’t do this for money.

Of course you have to start with doing it for money and you have to start doing it for less money than would be desirable, because you need some experience. And there’s the 10,000 hour rule, so you need to translate and translate and translate. I can’t think of an advice that would help me because I went through some progress and I know my attitude to translating changed very much and this process hasn’t stopped yet. Now I think that you have to be, in metaphorical terms, a friend with the author, and you have to like what you’re doing, and you have to think about the long term goals. You should love what you’re doing. If you don’t love it, don’t do it. And if you think you might love it one day, then do it, hate it as least as possible, and then you’ll love it one day, hopefully.

Where do you see yourself in 5 years? A very general question but what’s your idea?

My idea is what I suggested at the beginning, that I’ll have some kind of ratio maintained. I’ll stop doing things that I don’t want to be doing in the long term, and I’ll be doing the things that I want to do and that I feel fun when I’m doing them – translation, writing and music, . . . Other than that I don’t really think about that, because you can never predict that. I see myself as the model I’m trying to implement now. So if that works out, that would be grand.

What is your most cherished experience from translation, interpreting or teaching?

Probably when I was assigned work for Host publishing house, every book I’m doing for them is a big thrill. And then I met Peter May, that was a strong moment as well. There’s some strange link between a writer and a translator, people that wouldn’t normally meet and when they do, they’re related in a very special way. That was a very special moment.

So the highlight came quite recently, didn’t it?

Yes, you’re right. It’s so intense that it overshadows everything, everything is irrelevant in comparison. But I have lots of great moments. Every time I think of something really smart in translating is a great moment of joy.


Favourite Czech authors: Karel Čapek, Jan Neruda, Jaroslav Hašek, Vladimír Páral, Petr Šabach, Filip Topol, Zdeněk Galuška, Jan Balabán, Kateřina Tučková, Jan Skácel, T. R. Field, Milan Kundera
Favourite authors from abroad: Roald Dahl, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Mark Haddon, James Clavell, Fay Weldon, Angela Carter, H. P. Lovecraft, Harlan Ellison, John Betjeman, Robert Burns, Liz Lochhead, Tony Harrison, Dylan Thomas
Favourite translators: Viktor Janiš, Richard Podaný, Martin Hilský, Bob Hýsek, Robert Křesťan, Jan Kantůrek, Svatopluk Horečka, František Vrba, Alena Machoninová