Elena Sokol Collaborates on English Translation of Acclaimed Czech Novel
Professor Emerita of Russian Studies at The College of Wooster co-translates Daniela Hodrová’s A Kingdom of Souls
WOOSTER, Ohio — As a second-generation Czech-American, Elena Sokol has always been interested in her Czech ancestry. As a highly regarded scholar, she has long been intrigued by the women writers of the Czech Republic, several of whom she profiled and critiqued in published articles. These two interests recently led her to a most ambitious project — a translation of A Kingdom of Souls, the first novel by celebrated contemporary Czech writer Daniela Hodrová, written in the late 1970s, but only published in the original Czech in 1991, after the fall of communism.
Sokol, Professor Emerita of Russian Studies at The College of Wooster, together with her co-translator, Véronique Firkusny of New York City, bring Hodrová’s unique perception of Prague to life for Western audiences through a thorough re-working of a version originally translated by Firkusny and her late mother Tatiana Firkusny in 1992, but never published in its entirety. “Daniela’s novel may best be characterized as playful ‘magical realism,’ reminiscent of such writers as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and written in a kind of fragmentary poetic prose,” says Sokol, who managed to find a British publisher (Jantar) for this English version. ”It offers a special appeal for readers who enjoy fanciful, imaginatively constructed novels.”
Set in the author's beloved hometown of Prague, the story blends the memory of individuals with that of Czech history and culture. “An underlying duality throughout the narrative leads the reader between the boundaries of life and death, the present and the past (with glimpses of the future), good and evil,” says Sokol. “Although this work doesn't lend itself to simple paraphrase, on a concrete level the main setting is an apartment building (especially one apartment and its sequence of Jewish, German, and Czech inhabitants) in the Vinohrady quarter of Prague and the large historical cemetery located across the street (with its 'souls' dating from the Middle Ages to post-World War II.). Much like the novels of her fellow woman writer Virginia Woolf (especially Mrs. Dalloway), Hodrová's fiction connects the personal voice with the collective human experience, the private (family and home) with the public.”
A prolific literary scholar and a prominent writer of fiction, Hodrová discovered her love for writing as a child. She went on to study Czech and Russian literature at Charles University in Prague before pursing graduate studies in French and comparative literature. She then worked for three years as an editor for the Odeon Publishing House before becoming a research scholar in the Department of Literary Theory in what is now known as the Academy of Sciences Institute of Czech Literature, where she continues as a senior researcher, even in retirement. She received the Czech State Prize for Literature in 2011 and the International Franz Kafka Prize in 2012, becoming just the second woman to receive both awards. To date she has published nine works of prose; her latest novel, Spiral Sentences, came out in May 2015. AKingdom of Souls, together with Hodrová's second and third novels — Puppets and Theta — form a loose trilogy; these next two volumes will also be translated by Sokol, in collaboration with Firkusny.
“In all of Hodrová's prose, there is a rich interpenetration of past and present, reminiscent of Marcel Proust’s style in his fictional epic, In Search of Lost Time,” says Sokol in her introduction to the book. “Time for her becomes a spatial rather than a linear dimension. Thus, the intermingling of the living and the dead is a central feature of all her prose, beginning with the first novel.”
Most of the narrative of A Kingdom of Souls takes place from the beginning of World War II through the 1970s — years that include the Nazi occupation, the uprising in Prague (and the subsequent forced resettlement of the Germans), the Communist coup of 1948, and the Prague Spring, followed by the Warsaw-Pact invasion, which ushered in a period of oppressive political normalization. There are also references to early Czech history, including Blanik Mountain, where legendary knights led by St. Wenceslas are believed to be sleeping until the day on which they will be awakened to defend the Czech nation in its time of greatest trouble.
“It has been thrilling to work on this project,” says Sokol. “I am very pleased with the outcome.” This English translation of Hodrová's A Kingdom of Souls is available as an e-book on amazon.com. It is also on sale at The College of Wooster’s Wilson Bookstore in Lowry Center (1189 Beall Ave.) and at the Wooster Book Company in Downtown Wooster (205 W. Liberty St.).