HIMNF or How I met Northrop Frye
A guest post by Sylva Ficová
Last month I took part in the conference Canada in Eight Tongues in Budapest. I met quite a few translators there, notably two Hungarian colleagues who also translated some of the works of Northrop Frye. We were all asked to talk about various aspects of our work: who proposed the translation, what was its effect on the academic world, what difficulties we encountered in translating the books… The most important question, however, hasn’t been asked by anyone: Did you like the work, the books? As if feelings and emotions had nothing to do with translation… or at least not that much. I deliberately broke the unwritten rule of conferences and didn’t prepare any paper. I had just a few notes I’d scribbled on a piece of paper during a break and, being a jazz lover, I decided to improvise. Instead of a long presentation, I tried to explain how I “met” Northrop Frye.
It all started with a rock band: I was 17 years old and I discovered The Doors. I loved the music, the lyrics and Jim Morrison’s insistent voice. I tried to get or record as many songs by The Doors as possible – which wasn’t very easy for a girl who was growing up behind the Iron Curtain. When I was a university student, I realised that The Doors took their name from The Doors of Perception by Aldous Huxley. I was a great fan of the beatniks at that time, read the book twice and found out that its title is a quote from The Marriage of Heaven and Hell by William Blake. I read all the available Czech and Slovak translations of his works, only to learn they were either incomplete or not good enough. When I came to Leeds as an exchange-programme student, among the first books I borrowed at the university library were those by and about Blake. Suddenly I wanted Blake to be better known in my country and how else can that be done other than by translating his poetry? One day I went to the library again to borrow some reference material for my “Blake studies”. Hidden on a dusted shelf, there it was: Fearful Symmetry by Northrop Frye. I hadn’t heard about Frye at that time – which is a shame – but after several pages of his book, I knew I had to read more. I fell in love with his writing, his passion for words and images, and his passion for literature.
Northrop Frye has taught me not to be afraid of symbols and archetypes and he has shown me what I had already suspected: literature can be, and often is, passion. He has also taught me to read the Bible as both poetry and fiction, without the religious blinkers of dogmatic and orthodox reading. I read all his major works and there it was again: I wanted him to be better known in Czech and how else can you make that happen other than by… translating his Anatomy of Criticism, right? Being a systematic person myself (if I weren’t a translator, I would probably be a librarian ordering books according to the Dewey decimal classification), I liked Frye’s structuralist view of literature and especially his idea that criticism shouldn’t be restricted to opinion and judgement. His words, that literature is “the place where our imaginations find the ideal that they try to pass on to belief and action, where they find the vision which is the source of both the dignity and the joy of life”, resonated with me.
It’s been almost a decade since Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism was published in Czech – my life, my taste and some of my views have changed, sometimes dramatically. What hasn’t changed is my soft spot for Northrop Frye and my passion for literature. Whenever I find an author who interests me or inspires me, I try to read as much as possible by and about them, be it Patrick McCabe, Alison Bechdel, Jeanette Winterson or Katherine Mansfield. Whenever I translate a book, it’s always a book I love personally; it’s never “a job”.
Sylva Ficová is a freelance translator and editor. She studied English and Czech at the Faculty of Arts, Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic, and took part in exchange studies at the Faculty of Arts, University of Leeds, the UK. She has translated more than 10 book translations, including literary theory, fiction, poetry, and a comic book. As a freelance translator she specializes in professional technical translation and subtitling. She has worked as an English teacher for several years and published a number of book reviews and articles. She lives with her daughter and partner in Brno, Czech Republic. www.ficova.com