It is a conundrum challenging every writer: how to create a main character that will draw readers into the plot? American physician Siddhartha Mukherjee found the main character of his scientific thriller in his own practice – and wrote a book about cancer. The first Czech translation of his worldwide bestseller The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer was published by Munipress, the publishing house of Masaryk University.
Reviewers call it an ‘absorbing chronicle’ of a disease humans have lived with and died of for more than five thousand years. ‘We decided to start working on the translation because no such complex and engaging account of cancer has ever been published in Czech,’ says Munipress editor Lenka Brodecká. The Pulitzer Prize winning book was first published five years ago and experts and editors have been working on its Czech version for almost eighteen months.
Jan Šmarda, Director of the Department of Experimental Biology, describes the pitfalls he encountered during the translation: ‘The book is written in a rather florid language – the author likes to use cumulative modifiers, for example – and it has not always been easy for me to understand what exactly he means and find the right words in Czech. It was a little like translating poetry. It is not only the meaning that you have to capture, but also the form and the rhyming.’
The translation required hundreds of hours of work. Šmarda first learned about the book from a colleague working at Stanford University and was very impressed by the story. He then mentioned it to the publishing house and offered his help with the translation into Czech. ‘I was really happy when Munipress director Alena Mizerová contacted me later to say that she had secured the Czech translation rights for the Masaryk University publishing house and that I could start translating,’ he says.
At that time, he only had experience with translations of scientific literature. ‘Even though the style of the “Emperor” is closer to fiction, it was a tempting opportunity. The author combines scientific and popular writing to great success, weaving together fascinating stories of patients, physicians, researchers, scientific discoveries and technological innovations. I think the book is an engaging read for expert oncologists, molecular biologists, students and patients as well as the general public,’ he says, adding that he would like to use the author’s style in his own lectures.
The translation does not go beyond the original story, even though there have been many significant developments in oncology since the book was published five years ago and an excursus on Czech history of the disease would certainly be interesting for Czech readers. ‘As a translator, I have no right to change the text in any way. However, I am glad that the publication includes an interview with the author describing promising areas of cancer research that are not included in the story itself,’ he adds. He also points out it would be great if the book prompted a Czech oncologist to publish a separate work chronicling the history of Czech oncology.
This is what Jan Vorlíček, a prominent Czech oncologist and a scientific editor of the Czech translation, says about the book in his blurb: ‘The story of cancer is relevant to everyone – after all, one in three people in the Czech Republic develop a malignant tumour at one point in their lives and one in four people die of cancer.’