An Interview with Slovak writer and translator Lucia Duero about Fragments of the vanishing speech: Contemporary Slovak Poetry

Lucia Duero is a Slovak writer and literary translator residing in Mexico City. Her work has been published in numerous magazines in Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Latin America, and the United States. Her translation of Luljeta Lleshanaku’s Lunes en Siete Días (Olifante, Spain, 2017) into Spanish won the II Marcelo Reyes Translation Award. She is the author of the poetic novel El Problema Principal written originally in Spanish (Amargord, Madrid, 2018).

She translates from Spanish, English and occasionally French. Duero is the translator of Alejandra Pizarnik, Amparo Dávila, Cristina Peri Rossi, José Emilio Pacheco, Josefina Vicens, Anne Carson and Aimé Césaire into Slovak, and she translated the work of Slovak poets Ivan Štrpka, Michal Habaj and Katarína Kucbelová into Spanish. She’s been awarded numerous residencies and scholarships across the globe, such as Looren Translation House, Spanish Center for Literary Translation, The European Translators’ College in Straelen, Germany and Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity.


Jesse Lee Kercheval: What would you like the readers to know about Slovak poetry and these contemporary poets?

Lucia Duero: I think Slovak poetry can expose a reader to a different appreciation of the world, as the use of language itself represents the mentality of a nation and reveals to us something about how a human life can be understood or questioned based on a different systems of thought; whether it’s conveyed through Mila Haugová’s extreme sensibility towards every significant detail when observing and untangling reality, the rational and experimental approach of Michal Habaj, Katarína Kucbelová’s questioning of constant consumption of information or Ján Gavura’s unique way of combining tragic humor with spirituality. James Sutherland-Smith, one of the translators included here and one of the first translators of Slovak poetry into English who started to translate in 1989 together with his wife Viera, says he “found Slovak poetry to be an inexhaustible country of the imagination.” James tells the story of how one of the anthologies of Slovak poetry he co-translated, Not Waiting for Miracles, was purchased by the famous Czech poet Miroslav Holub when he found a copy in Dublin bookshop and after he read it, Holub said that he had more in common with these Slovak poets than his Czech contemporaries. 

Kercheval: What is the current state of translation in Slovakia? Both works translated by Slovak authors into other languages and work translated from other languages into Slovak?

Duero: The situation regarding translation in Slovakia is imbalanced. What do I mean by this? Slovak readers can enjoy a wide selection of works from almost every corner of the world. However, only a very small number of Slovak books make it into English. This is caused by three different underlying factors, in my opinion. The first, Slovak is a complex language spoken by small group of people and very few translators are able to translate from Slovak into English. 

Second, the limited number of publishers who have little or no knowledge about the literary situation in Slovakia and are reluctant to take the risk to publish this type of authors because they don’t know how to commercialize them in their markets. That is why it’s crucial to have this kind of literary exchange in magazines such as the Tupelo Quarterly. There are many prominent poets or authors that do not get the proper platform. One of the examples is Ivan Štrpka, who is, in the opinion of James Sutherland-Smith and many others, a major European poet. His work will appear in the second part of Fragments of the vanishing speech: Contemporary Slovak Poetry.

The third underlying factor is the hardship of the life of a translator. It’s a very time-consuming and intellectually demanding task that provides little or sometimes no reward. 

Kercheval: You and I met at the Banff Centre for Literary Translation in Canada last summer where we were in residence for three weeks with other translators from around the world. In many ways, your work represents a window into that broader world of translation, a world that is bigger than just work translated into English. Could you tell us a little about your own life as a translator?

Duero: Translation can be bizarre and intricate: an effort to see into someone’s mind. You can strive to get as close as possible to the original meaning but you can never fully reach that perfection, an ideal state, because at the end of the day, you are always interpreting according to your own thought structures. In addition to this, every language obeys its own rules and consists of a set of elements, which may greatly vary from one language to another. I guess that’s why translation attracts me – that enigma, impossibility, an effort to understand something. 

As someone who translates from and into Slovak, I had the opportunity to understand particular challenges of small and big markets but what both of them have in common is the lack of understanding of what’s actually being produced in certain countries. In my eyes, this has to do with institutions that are able to promote national literatures both internally and abroad. This is why you are able to think of more French than Slovak writers, not because they don’t exist but because Slovak writers do not have access to the same infrastructure and support as French or American writers do. 

Note: Ivan Štrpka, Katarína Kucbelová and Michal Habaj will appear in the second feature.