Translating Fact into Fiction: Alex Zucker on Heda Margolius Kovály’s Innocence

Interview by Stacey Knecht

The translator Alex Zucker, Brooklyn, New York, February 19, 2014. Photo © Beowulf Sheehan +1 917 450 2345 mail@beowulfsheehan.comStacey Knecht, a translator from the Czech and Dutch based in the Netherlands, spoke with Alex Zucker via Skype on May 22, 2015 about his latest translation, Innocence; or, Murder on Steep Street by Czech author Heda Margolius Kovály, just out from Soho House Press. “Set in and around a cinema where a murder was recently committed, Innocence follows the unfolding of the investigation while telling the stories of the women who work there as ushers, each of whom is forced to support herself in difficult circumstances. As the novel brings this group alive, it tells their various life stories that have brought them to this job, the secrets they share with one another, and the secrets they keep. When the detective trying to solve the first murder is found slain by the cinema, all of their secrets come into the light.” (Courtesy Soho Press.)

Stacey Knecht: This was quite a change from the first work I ever read by Kovály, twenty years ago, her memoir Under a Cruel Star. What did you know about Kovály before you began work on this translation?

Alex Zucker: I didn’t know that much about her. I’d heard of her of course, mainly in connection with the memoir, but I did know about her husband, Rudolf Margolius, because he was one of the defendants in the Slánský trials, which is one of those topics that comes up repeatedly if you read about twentieth-century Czechoslovak history, and Communism and Stalinism. The idea that somebody survived Auschwitz and the Holocaust, only to come back home and become a high-ranking Communist official and then be tried on false charges as a Zionist traitor and hanged—it was just horrific.

So that was all I knew before I was invited to translate the book.

SK: How did the translation come about?

AZ: Well, Ivan Margolius, the son of Heda and Rudolf Margolius, had translated the entire book on his own, into English. The Czech version, Nevina aneb Vražda v Příkré ulici, was originally published in 1985 by an émigré publishing house called Index, in Cologne, Germany. I’m not sure when Kovály actually wrote it. It’s set in the early ’50s, but at the time it was published, she was living in the States and was working as a librarian at the Harvard Law School. Ivan managed to get the book republished in the Czech Republic, in Prague, in 2013, because it had never actually been published there. At the same time, he had a couple of her own translations reissued, such as Raymond Chandler’s Farewell, My Lovely (Sbohem buď, lásko má) with Mladá fronta, originally published in 1967. He sent me that translation, which was helpful—I’ll tell you more about that later—and then translated Innocence himself, the whole book, and sent it to I don’t know how many publishers. It landed in Soho Press’s slush pile, and Paul Oliver, director of marketing and publicity, eventually read it and recognized her name because he had read Under a Cruel Star in college. Her memoir is the kind of thing that most people read in high school or in college because it’s assigned to them in a course. So he recognized the name and thought it sounded interesting, and he told Juliet Grames, associate publisher at Soho Press and editor of the Soho Crime list, about it and one thing led to another. Juliet actually found me on LinkedIn and offered me the book.

Yeah, that was when I stopped badmouthing LinkedIn. It can result in work (laughs).

Innocence-Heda Margolius Kovály

SK: They didn’t want to use Ivan’s translation?

AZ: Ivan never intended for them to publish his translation. He did it so they could read the book. Most publishers are very reluctant to buy rights to a book based on a single chapter. It’s a gamble for them. They love it when there’s a full translation available, no matter how rough it is. So that’s how it happened: I had heard of Heda Margolius Kovály, I knew who she was, but I didn’t know the details of her story.

SK: When did you find out those details? I’m harping on this because Ivan says, in his introduction to Innocence, “It’s a true companion to her memoir.” If that’s the case, that these two books are so strongly linked, I assume they both must’ve been influential in your work approach to the translation.

AZ: Sure. You translate, too, so you know this as well: there are different types of books, different types of novels. Some novels really do require a certain level of knowledge about a culture or a place to fully appreciate them. Some of them don’t require it, but do benefit from it, and with others it really doesn’t matter. I mean, look, anytime you pick up a book, even in English, you’ve got a varying degree of knowledge about the time and place where it’s set. If a book is set in New Orleans, for instance, and they’re referring to streets and coffee shops and bars, and I don’t happen to know those streets and coffee shops and bars, I don’t get the same effect as somebody who does. So it’s the same thing with a translation, of course, maybe to a slightly differing degree.

I think it’s great that Ivan wrote such an informative introduction, because the reader needs to have at least some idea of the historical setting: you need to know that it was a Communist country, you need to know that it was a specific period of Communism when things were particularly controlled and the secret police were arresting people and killing them—I mean, by the time the ’70s and ’80s rolled around, the secret police were still very active and in some cases feared, but they weren’t picking people up in the middle of the night and killing them. They were beating people up and forcing them out of their jobs and putting them in all kinds of compromising situations, they were blackmailing them and harassing them, but they weren’t just picking people up and killing them anymore, or putting them into uranium mines to work till they died. So you really need to know that it comes from that era in order to appreciate it. On the other hand, if you don’t know these details, you can just read it as a murder mystery. I think it’s going to be interesting to see how readers react, based on what they do and don’t know.

But, to answer your question, the memoir did not influence my approach to the translation. I had not read the memoir when I began the translation and I don’t believe it would have made any difference if I had. The important thing from a translation point of view was to be familiar with the atmosphere and circumstances of 1950s Prague, and I already had that familiarity thanks to other reading I’ve done, films I’ve seen, and people I’ve talked to over the years.

“I did feel a tension in the book, like Kovály was wrestling with how much of herself was in the character and how much was not, how much of it she wanted her readers to know was herself and how much she didn’t want them to know.”

SK: Soho Press has said that it was Raymond Chandler’s work that inspired Kovály to “turn her pen to fiction,” that she was inspired by him to “knit her own terrifying experiences in early 1950s Communist Prague” into a “psychological thriller-cum-detective novel.” What’s your opinion, is she actually writing like Chandler?

AZ: She was inspired by Raymond Chandler and she translated Raymond Chandler, but what does that mean in terms of her own approach to this novel, and what would it mean for the English translation? I asked myself the same thing. One of the first things I did, after reading the book in Czech, was to get hold of some Raymond Chandler, in English, and then Ivan sent me her translation of Farewell, My Lovely, but it became pretty clear that she doesn’t actually write like him. Inspired by him, yes, but she doesn’t write like him.

SK: How does she write?

AZ: Well, Chandler wrote in very short, compact sentences and had a lot more action and dialogue than she does. I would say that her writing is very typically Czech—in contrast to most writing in the US, there’s less dialogue and it’s heavier on internal monologue and narration. Kovály also does some interesting things with shifting point-of-view, which can be a bit confusing at points and it was one of the things we had to work a lot on during the editing.

SK: Tell me more about that, because when I compared the translation with the Czech original, it was one of the first things I noticed.

AZ: It all came about in the editing. I originally translated the book the way it was written, as far as maintaining the perspective that Kovály used in the Czech version, with lots of shifts back and forth between first- and third-person point-of-view. When Juliet did her edit, she suggested the point-of-view remain the same at least within each section of the novel, if not throughout each chapter or throughout the entire book—since it’s one thing to keep people guessing and another to confuse them outright. So her edits were all in that direction, and I agreed with them. But Ivan felt very strongly about his mother’s artistry in presenting the varying points-of-view, so from then on I left it up to Juliet and Ivan, again, since Ivan was essentially acting as the author of the book.

So, to get back to your question about Raymond Chandler, I think anyone reading this book expecting it to read like Chandler is going to be disappointed. Even if Kovály had written Chandler-style, it would be bizarre and inappropriate, because her book is not set in 1930s Los Angeles, it’s set in 1950s Prague. And another thing: if I had opened her book and found that she was writing like Raymond Chandler, I still couldn’t have translated it in a Chandler voice. That wouldn’t make sense either. This is really the difficulty and illusion and fun of translation, that it does require some suspension of disbelief. I think dialogue in particular is always tricky, because most readers don’t really want to think about the fact that they’re reading a translation. A reader commented recently on Amazon that he was kind of put off by all the Czech names (laughs).

SK: Really? (laughs)

AZ: We chose to keep the original names, but I suppose that if you wanted to emphasize this as a story, purely as a story, you could change the names and Kovály would still be telling the same story, but the names wouldn’t be as “distracting.” I did two books by the Czech author Patrik Ouředník, and he himself suggested in at least one of the books, the detective novel Case Closed, that we change some of the names to make it less complicated. So it may not be something that every translator or publisher or author wants to do, but I’d never dismiss it as invalid or unacceptable. Do you know what I mean?

SK: Oh yes, I’ve certainly had that experience, even with my translations from the Dutch. They’re foreign words and sounds and names and combinations of letters that English readers aren’t used to.

AZ: Yes, and the thing about genre fiction is, people will read a book regardless, and if they like the story they don’t really pay attention to other things. But I mean, this book, Innocence, is a literary work. It’s in a genre, it’s a murder mystery, but it is a literary work.

SK: As was much of Chandler’s work. And of course, for Kovály there was also that very strong autobiographical component. She chose to write a thriller, but she also chose to write about herself.

AZ: Yes. Well, and here’s something that Ivan refers to in his introduction, something we were talking about, Juliet, Ivan and I, when we were making those editing decisions about point-of-view. When the book was originally published in Czech in 1985, it was published under the name Helena Nováková, which is the same name as the book’s narrator. The identification between the narrator and the author is right there. And now it isn’t. So that was something we were trying to deal with. I did feel a tension in the book, like Kovály was wrestling with how much of herself was in the character and how much was not, how much of it she wanted her readers to know was herself and how much she didn’t want them to know. My personal opinion is that some of this shifting in point-of-view had to do with with those unresolved feelings. It may even have been entirely unconscious.

SK: That’s really interesting. It’s the difference between reading—and writing—something truly, blatantly autobiographical, and an autobiographical work of fiction.

AZ: It’s an interesting question. What does it mean for somebody to write an autobiographical work of fiction? We could go down a rabbit hole with this. Ruth Franklin wrote a book called A Thousand Darknesses, about Holocaust fiction, and about how many of the works that we have in English translation, from and about the Holocaust, tend to blur the line between memoir and fiction when it comes to that historical period or set of events. How many of the things that are presented to us as memoir have been reworked to the point where really they should be understood as fiction, and vice versa.

SK: Reworked by the editors, or by the author, or—

AZ: By the author. Like I said, I think we could go down a rabbit hole with this, but one of the things Franklin writes about is how Elie Wiesel claimed that only someone who has lived through the Holocaust has the right to write about it. In other words, you can only write the truth about it if you were there, but then Wiesel himself has rewritten his books to the point where they are not correctly understood as memoir, but as very powerful fiction. It raises a lot of question about who “owns” history, who has moral authority and this kind of thing. These are some of the same issues when you have, basically, an autobiographical work of fiction. And certainly, in this book, where the opening sentence in the inside flap says, as you pointed out earlier: “Famed Holocaust memoirist Heda Margolius Kovály knits her own terrifying experiences in Soviet Prague into a powerful work of literary suspense.” So there you go.

SK: How do you feel about the book being presented like that?

AZ: Well, it’s true!

“This, I think, is a pretty powerful theme running through the book, this idea of compromising in order to survive. The men in the book are not doing that: the women are.”

SK: I wonder why, aside from the fact that she enjoyed and translated Raymond Chandler’s work and various other thriller writers, she chose this particular genre to write this particular book.

AZ: I don’t know. I will give you one other interesting piece of information that, had I written the introduction to the book, I would’ve included: the murder that happens at the beginning of the novel, of the child in the projection booth, was an actual event. You know how it is when you’re translating, you’re always looking stuff up, asking lots of questions, so I was asking one of my Czech friends a language question, and she said, “I remember my grandmother telling me not to go to the movies alone when I was little, because et cetera et cetera,” and I looked it up and there was an actual murder of a kid—

SK: Did they really hide him under the floor?

AZ: I don’t remember, but that was a true story. I asked Ivan and Juliet if I should include it in my translator’s note, and they said no. Because, you know, the book is a mix of fact and fiction. Most novels are, and they don’t have notes explaining which events and characters are real and which are not. At one point the art department at Soho Press wanted to put a little map of downtown Prague into the book, which was a nice idea, because there’s all this talk about who went where: this person was at that pub, that person walked down that street, went into that building and so on. There are a lot of real places in the book. For instance, at one point, one of the policemen is reporting to his boss about the whereabouts of one of the suspects at the time of the murder:

Accordin’ to a statement from Božena Šulcová at the Black Cat snack bar, Vránová exited the Horizon and turned right on Steep Street ’bout five minutes past eight and a few minutes after quarter past she was already at the pub, so she must’ve walked by the car with Nedoma inside—the comrade captain, that is—but she couldn’t’ve stuck around long. Course how much time do you need to stick a knife in a man’s ribs, right? (147)

So locations are important. But even though the subtitle of the book is Murder on Steep Street, there’s no Steep Street in Prague! And then there’s Hlavní, which I could’ve translated as Main Street, but Main Street in a city just sounds too rinky-dink. So we agreed, Ivan and I, to call it Broad Street. There’s a Široká in Prague, which does mean “Broad” Street, but in reality it’s a narrow street. And it’s not off Wenceslas Square, as in the book. Bartolomějská is a real street and state security did in fact have its headquarters there. So the whole thing is a mix of a real and a fictionalized Prague. I told Soho Press, you can’t do a map, because there is no Steep Street and there is no Broad Street! (laughs) I do think, though, that the idea of that “map” is a reflection of the book as a whole, a mixture of fiction and non-fiction.

You know, you don’t have a lot of murder mysteries written by Holocaust survivors. I think that’s one of the reasons Soho Press decided to publish the book. But there’s another reason that Juliet was so excited to do it, which is that she sees it as a very strongly feminist novel. The fact that the whole novel revolves around the female characters, not the men, and the women are all very strong, and yet at the same time prostituting themselves to various degrees in varying ways, to get what they need or what they think they need or what they want, and feeling like there’s no other way. This is really one of the biggest themes running through the novel, and people who lived in Communist Czechoslovakia saw that as a metaphor for what most people had to do to survive under Communism, with regard to the compromises they had to make in order to get, or keep, a job, or send their children to school. The regime created a situation in which people had to show loyalty or obedience, at least on the outside, in order not to make their lives more difficult. This, I think, is a pretty powerful theme running through the book, this idea of compromising in order to survive. The men in the book are not doing that: the women are.

“I worked really hard on the vocabulary…I didn’t want to have anyone using slang or colloquial speech that was too close to our era, and on the other hand I tried to use words and phrases that were reminiscent of the ’50s: women as ‘gals,’ jail at one point as ‘the clink,’ expressions like ‘the whole kit and caboodle’ and ‘any way you slice it.'”

SK: Let’s talk about dialogue.

AZ: Well, obviously, I was following what the author was doing. And it’s tricky with Czech, because they have a register they call hovorová čeština, “spoken Czech,” which, rendered into English, tends to cast a person as being either “uneducated” or “working-class,” even if they’re not. But in Prague, a lot of very socio-economically well-off people will also speak in “spoken Czech”—it’s just a cultural thing. So my initial rendering of the dialogue didn’t have the distinctions drawn as sharply as they were in the Czech, just because I didn’t want to miscast the characters. Again, this is something I discussed with Juliet and Ivan, and in the end, the characters are pretty heavily distinguished, and it’ll be interesting to see how readers respond to that. It’s always a tough call: how far do you go? I worked really hard on the vocabulary, doing a lot of searching on Google Books for books from that time period to make sure I didn’t use anything that was too anachronistic. In other words, I didn’t want to have anyone using slang or colloquial speech that was too close to our era, and on the other hand I tried to use words and phrases that were reminiscent of the ’50s: women as “gals,” jail at one point as “the clink,” expressions like “the whole kit and caboodle” and “any way you slice it.”

SK: The challenges you faced with the dialogue, are these things you’ve come across in your other translations from the Czech?

AZ: Absolutely. Every single time. But I’ve never done an entire book that was set in the ’50s before. When I was translating Sestra by Jáchym Topol, City Sister Silver in English, there’s a chapter set in Auschwitz with a character named Josef Novák who speaks in World War II–era slang, and I worked very hard to make sure the words coming out of his mouth really were from that era. So I have done it before, but it’s different when it’s one chapter as opposed to a whole book, and again, dialogue is always the hardest.

“…when I’m actually in the middle of working on a text, I’m so down in the undergrowth that if you ask me what the book is about, I’d say: I dunno! […] It isn’t until the later drafts, when I go back and edit, that I’m conscious again of what’s going on in the bigger picture.”

SK: Did you have a favorite character?

AZ: I actually really liked Lieutenant Vendyš, who doesn’t make his appearance until the second half of the book. It’s never stated explicitly, but you know that he’s Roma because of this one sentence: “Lieutenant Vendyš inherited his eyes, so perfectly black you couldn’t tell the pupil from the iris, from his mother, who was born in a small town in western Slovakia.” To a Czech reader, even just the fact that his mother was born in a small town in western Slovakia already suggests that she was Roma. That’s the kind of thing you’re not necessarily going to get if you’re not familiar with the place. But I really liked him and the way that he spoke and the kind of conflicts he had. He was the character caught in the middle—a regular policeman who couldn’t go too far in the investigation for fear of stepping on the toes of the secret police—and really conscientious about his job. It was a challenge to translate the way he spoke—he had a fair number of lines, so to speak.

Of course, Helena is the star of the book, but her voice is more internal. She’s telling most of the story. Here’s one example:

Karel was locked up with common criminals and murderers, and here I was whoring around with a man I’d never even met until the day before yesterday. But what if he really could help Karel? Wouldn’t that make it worth it? After all, was it more important for me to sit around protecting my reputation like a saint, or for Karel to get through his sentence as soon as he could and come home? If I wanted to help him—and God only knew what he must be going through every day—what was I supposed to do? I didn’t have any choice, this was the only way. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing, maybe it would even bring me closer to Karel if we both sank into the muck together, each in our own way (90–91).

Kovály tends to characterize her characters more by their way of talking than by describing them physically. Your average writer in the US does a lot of work to describe physical characteristics and gestures, and that’s not so common in Czech literature. But there’s a lot of effort put into how people speak. So that’s tough. It puts a lot of the onus on the translator, and we don’t necessarily have the same linguistic means, or the same number of means, at our disposal in English. But it’s not just how they say it, it’s what they say, what they choose to reveal about themselves when they’re in conversation with other people.

Another thing you’ll notice is that certain phrases are in italics. We had a lot of discussion about that. It’s a pretty standard convention in this country to use italics to differentiate between standard narration and internal monologue: when somebody is thinking something, you italicize it. That’s not normally done in Czech, it’s all just set in the same typeface. But then the question arises: when you have a book being narrated by one of the characters in the book, what is thought and what is narration? We had a lot of discussion about that too.

SK: I’d advise readers to read this book more than once.

AZ: Yeah. Several people have told me that. I don’t know about you, but when I’m translating, when I’m actually in the middle of working on a text, I’m so down in the undergrowth that if you ask me what the book is about, I’d say: I dunno! (laughs) I can tell you what the last sentence I’ve translated is about, in terms of the words’ relationship to each other, but I’m not necessarily aware of what’s happening on the stage, so to speak. It isn’t until the later drafts, when I go back and edit, that I’m conscious again of what’s going on in the bigger picture.

Alex Zucker
has translated works by many Czech authors, including Jáchym Topol, Petra Hůlová, and Patrik Ouředník. Love Letter in Cuneiform, his translation of Tomáš Zmeškal’s debut novel, will be published next year by Yale University Press. He lives in Brooklyn, NY. Visit his website at

Kovály, Heda Margolius. Innocence; or, Murder on Steep Street. Tr. Alex Zucker. New York: Soho Press, 2015.


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