Martin Vopěnka, a Jewish-Czech writer, traveler and publisher, is the author of 16 books for adults and children. Born in 1963, Vopěnka studied nuclear and physical engineering in Prague. However, ever since his childhood, he has been more attracted by literature. So he started writing at an early age and has never stopped.
Since the end of the communist regime he has devoted himself exclusively to publishing books and to his own writing. The author not only draws from his study of mathematics and physics, but also from his extensive travels, including Chile, Argentina, Iceland, and the Antarctic. His main interest is the fate and future of human civilization. Some of his books have been published abroad. His adventure novel The Fifth Dimension was published in the U.K. in 2015 by Barbican Press in London. His thriller for children The Sleeping City was published in Egypt in 2016.
How has reading translations shaped your writing and view of the world?
I don't think I am the kind of author that draws inspiration from works of fiction. Of course, there was a time when I was a passionate reader, and because back then in communist Czechoslovakia only a limited number of contemporary novels were published, I read mainly the older classics. I consider some of Herman Hesse's texts to be the height of literary style. Even today I still sometimes read a few pages of those superb sentences—just for refreshment.
Writing is an integral part of my life. and so absolutely everything that I live through, study, experience, all the philosophy, the existential feelings and human emotions I find in myself or around me, gets channeled into my literary output. But inspiration for the stories themselves just has to come to me. It's a miracle and it can't be entirely consciously influenced.
As someone whose books have been translated and published in English, what can you share about the translation process?
For me the greatest experience in that context was working with Michael March, the president of the Prague Writers Fair and an American poet. We collaborated on the fine tuning of a few translations of my poems. While the original translation was more or less literal, Michael turned it into poetics. This made me aware of how a difference of language also brings a different philosophy and different possibilities. I realized how the poetic form needs to be recreated anew in the new language. Obviously it is less complicated in the case of prose. I'm grateful when a translator asks questions because it means that he or she is really thinking deeply about it.
Do you feel any aspects of your writing were lost in translation? Were new things gained?
To be honest that's not something I am able to judge. My feeling is that my work is built on natural opinions and insights. It's no kind of linguistic puzzle. On the contrary I'm proud of the fact that I can explain even the most complicated things in such a way that anyone can understand them. This was something I taught myself to do mainly in communicating with children and writing for them.
You have published a long list of books in your career, which one or ones do you think would be most appealing to an English-speaking audience in Europe and beyond? Why?
I hope it won't sound conceited if I say that I think my novel The New Planet could easily bear comparison with the greatest literary stories ever written. I mean stories like The Count of Monte Cristo, Lord of the Rings...exciting stories with a deeper message. The problem is that The New Planet was written in Czech and is nearly 700 pages long. It needs a major investor to take a chance with it—for in today's commercial world, it's the rule that a big story needs big money. It could be adapted into a major film. If that happens, and I believe that it just has to happen someday, I'll write a sequel. (If I'm still alive then).
How has being from the Czech Republic in general and Prague specifically affected your writing?
For many years here I had to struggle with rejection and misunderstanding because my themes are more global than Czech. One Polish journalist, who admires my work and is also an expert on Czech character and literature, has written that I'm his favorite Czech author because I'm not so much Czech as universal—with themes that are attractive "for young people up to fifty living anywhere."
From childhood it has been my ambition to become a world famous writer. If that ever happens it will look as if it couldn't have turned out otherwise—that Prague, Bohemia, my backgrounds, were all contributing influences. All the same, I've often wished that I had been born a writer in one of the world's big languages.
I hope too that one day someone will understand and consider me as a Jewish novelist writing in Czech, even though Jewish identity is not a theme of my books. What their theme are, however, and perhaps links them with ancient Jewish tradition, is the thirst for a glimpse of at least a hint of meaning in human life here on earth.