Translating Voices, Advocating Change: In Conversation with Alex Zucker

Ibrahim Badshah

In the realm of literary translation, few names resonate as strongly as Alex Zucker. With his extensive body of work encompassing Czech fiction, plays, subtitles, song lyrics, essays, poems, philosophy, and art history, Alex has firmly established himself as a prolific and versatile translator. However, his contributions go beyond the realm of translation. As a dedicated advocate, Alex actively works to improve the rights and working conditions of literary translators. During our video call, Alex graciously shared his experiences, reflecting on the diverse influences that have shaped his path. From the language legacy passed down by his family to transformative encounters with Czech literature, he revealed the profound impact on his craft. Alex also shed light on his advocacy work, discussing the evolving landscape and emphasizing the importance of collective action. Here are the highlights of this conversation.  


Ibrahim Badshah: I will start with the basics. How did it all start? How did you become a translator?

Alex Zucker: I could give two different answers to that. First, the far-back answer: It started with my mother’s parents, French Jews who fled to the United States when Nazi Germany invaded France. My mother, at that time a young girl, was with them, and she spoke French with them her entire life. I grew up hearing French, though my mother didn’t speak it with me and my two sisters. I began learning the language in high school, then studied a few years in college, and lived in Paris for a time, taking an intensive course in French. I was fluent when I finished, though the idea of translating was not yet on my radar. The way I sometimes put it is my mother’s parents put me on the language path, so that was, in a way, the beginning. 

Second, the less-far-back answer: My interest in translating started with Peter Kussi, who was a lecturer in Czech at Columbia University when I did a master’s degree at the School of International and Public Affairs there. I entered the program in the mid-1980s with the intention of working in human rights focused on Eastern Europe, which was sparked by my reading of Czech literature, especially Milan Kundera. As part of that degree, I took Czech courses taught by Kussi, and since he was a translator—before Kundera was translated by Michael Henry Heim, he was translated by Kussi—he had us do a lot of translating in class. I discovered I really enjoyed it, and I seemed to be pretty good at it. We did poems, song lyrics, essays—and at one point Kussi brought in a few pages from Kundera’s Nesmrtelnost (Immortality), which he was translating, and we talked about some of the challenges or problems he was facing. So, as I like to say, I caught the translating bug from Kussi. Then the human rights organization that I had been hoping to work for shut down its programs in Eastern Europe when communism fell, so after grad school I moved to Prague to translate wire service reports from Czech and Slovak into English for ČTK, the Czechoslovak Press Agency, and that was where I actually learned to translate. I began reading whole books in Czech, including a few novels side-by-side with English translations of them. Then I myself began to translate literary works—shorter ones—for journals and magazines in Prague. And so on and so on. 

IB: Every single translator I have talked to has a different story to tell and it is wonderful to look back and see all the small dots that make the full picture. Now, you said reading translations, including Kussi’s, influenced you. What do you think makes a “good translation”? And how does that understanding inform your translation philosophy?

AZ: To say I have a “philosophy” would be too grandiose. I could say I have an “approach.” When I was in my early days of translating, my friend Jan Jirák shared with me the idea that my goal ought to be to translate a text so that someone reading it in English has as similar an experience as possible to someone reading it in Czech. That’s my approach. Now, we know, for all kinds of reasons, that’s impossible, and it doesn’t come anywhere near answering the difficult questions having to do with power imbalances between the cultures of the languages involved, or power imbalances between the person translating and the person being translated, based on their identities and positionalities. But it does have some clear practical implications that are useful when I’m in the thick of a text, such as: if a text is choppy in Czech, I don’t try to smooth it out in English; if an author uses Czech slang from a certain period, I use English slang from that same period; if the author uses a Czech metaphor with vivid imagery, I keep it rather than choosing an analogous one in English that has different imagery, or at least do my best to use a metaphor with imagery as similar as possible. These are, obviously, just a few examples, and if you’re a translator, you know every time you give an example of what you do, you can think of times when you do just the opposite. This is what makes literary translation creative writing. Literary translators are not machines, and we don’t work in a strictly logical sense, following rules, since we aren’t translating words; what we translate is style, which varies not only from one author to another but also from one text to another by the same author, and, often, within a text.

IB: That’s interesting because we are talking more and more about machine translations, which are based on these “rules” for the most part. How do you see the emergence of AI in the realm of translation?

AZ: There are so many different facets to this, let me at least speak to what I just mentioned about creativity. If we’re talking literary translation, as opposed to other types of translation—of technical or legal texts for example, where style is more standardized, really very intentionally so—then the main thing you run up against is, machines are not creative. The same way, as supporters of the WGA East strike have pointed out, that you can have a TV or movie script written by AI, but it’s not going to surprise you, or innovate, and the style will always only—necessarily—be one that conforms to a style that’s already been done before, since that’s the way AI works: it offers words and phrasings based on past usage, on words and phrases strung together in a certain way previously by human beings in the past. Besides that, it’s critical to realize that for languages less translated into English—languages other than French, German, and Spanish, for example—AI does a far less satisfactory job, since it has far less training. So, we really can’t talk about AI in translation in general; the situation varies a lot from language to language.

IB: That’s true. I also feel the same way about machine translations losing that personal touch, which is often based on a specific philosophy or “approach” as you call it. Speaking of your approach, I noticed that you added a “Translator’s Note” to A Sensitive Person by Jáchym Topol and Love Letter in Cuneiform by Tomáš Zmeškal, whereas some other translations, such as The Attempt by Magdaléna Platzová, do not have them. How do you make these decisions? What role do you think these notes play?

AZ: The text I wrote for A Sensitive Person was actually a full-on introduction, whereas my text for A Love Letter in Cuneiform was an afterword. Both of those novels were published by Yale University Press, under their Margellos World Republic of Letters imprint, and in both instances I was asked to write an accompanying text. As far as I know, this is something Yale asks of every translator who contributes to the series, and I assume that’s because as an academic press they are interested in educating readers about translation. Also, note that the afterword I wrote was included in my translation contract and I was not paid an additional fee for writing it, whereas for the introduction I signed a separate contract and was paid a fee in addition to what I received for the translation itself. 

Most often, when I’ve written paratext for a translation of mine, it’s been at the request of the publisher. Many presses don’t want any additional framing of a text in the book itself, and instead prefer to have it through blog posts, interviews, videos, etc. For instance, I actually did also write something for The Attempt, but it was published as part of the press kit, rather than in the book itself. Among other things, more pages means a higher printing cost, and of course then there are publishers who are not eager to highlight the fact that a text is a translation any more than they have to. 

IB: The advocacy you do for translators’ rights is remarkable. Working conditions are an important aspect that many people seem to ignore or shy away from discussing in public. Considering the role they play in the production of good translations, this aspect cannot be overlooked. I am curious about the origins of your activism in this area.

AZ: Here again I credit Peter Kussi. As a lecturer at Columbia, he was not a tenured faculty member and had to renegotiate his contract repeatedly. At the same time, his other source of income—literary translation—was precarious, and he in particular was treated shabbily by both Milan Kundera and the presses who published him. So, I knew from the start that the labor of literary translation was undervalued and that literary translators as workers were viewed as disposable. Also, since I translated professionally for nine years before publishing my first book-length literary translation, it’s always mattered to me how much I was paid and what my working conditions were like. Then my friend and fellow translator Katie Silver in 2014 drew my attention to the CEATL Survey of Translator Working Conditions from 2008, which noted that the situation for literary translators in Europe was becoming increasingly catastrophic. Even though I don’t live in Europe, that was another touchstone for me.

The good news is there are so many more translators involved in efforts for change now than even just five years ago. Jeremy Tiang, a friend and fellow member of the Cedilla & Co. translators’ collective, recently gave a superb overview of efforts to win visibility and increase space for translators, and the relationship of these efforts to our status as workers. The number of panels, essays, even whole books, as well as other initiatives devoted to translators’ rights considered more broadly—rights as a practice rather than a thing, to borrow a phrase from abolitionist scholar and organizer Ruth Wilson Gilmore—calling attention to practices by translators that undermine white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, colonialism, imperialism, ableism, as well as class and caste privilege, and capitalism itself, is inspiring and astonishing, considering how recently none of these subjects was even mentioned at all in most spaces and organizations associated with literary translation in the U.S. 

Here we’re talking about literary translation, but honestly most of my ideas and thinking about what’s possible in this world and why it’s worth working toward come from organizers. For decades, I hated the world the way it was, but I had no idea what to do about it, and mostly took out my anger on myself. I had an opportunity to change, and I took it. I asked for, and got, a lot of help. I found people who understood that individual actions aren’t enough to effect lasting change—we have to act collectively—and I joined them. Work is happening. I invite everybody who wants change to join with others to make it a reality. In whatever area moves you most.

IB: You talked about your past work in genocide prevention and your interest in human rights. Do you see that interest being manifested in your translation? In other words, do you see an activist potential in your translation? 

AZ: Some authors I’ve translated have been human rights defenders and/or have written novels with subject matter related to human rights and/or genocide. The main example being Jáchym Topol, who I’ve been translating since the 1990s. Jáchym was extremely active in underground culture and grassroots organizing under the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia, and genocide—and resistance to it—is a major theme in his novels. 

But where I see most of my “activist potential,” as you put it—I’d prefer to call it changemaking potential—is in areas connected to translation rather than in translating itself. Besides advocacy for translator rights, another way I’ve engaged, in my little corner of the world, has been tracking the publication of Czech literature in English translation, since 2013. Seeing the massive disparity between the number of books translated into English written by women vs. those written by men led me to decide that I would only pitch books by women as my part in remedying the situation (though I’ve made an exception for Tomáš Zmeškal, the Czech Republic’s only Black novelist, who is a man—and in case any publishers are reading this, I am still seeking a publisher for Tomáš’s second book, Biography of a Black-and-White Lamb!).