Books: Independent Foreign Fiction Award: Messages transmitted by facts: Peter Guttridge talks to Paul Wilson, translator of My Golden Trades by Ivan Klima (Granta, 13.99)

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The Independent Culture
IN THE 10 years Toronto-based translator Paul Wilson spent in Czechoslovakia, he saw many friends put in the same position as the one Ivan Klima describes in My Golden Trades, the most autobiographical of all the author's works. Klima, who in recent years has begun to achieve the recognition he deserves as a writer and thinker, was prevented in the 1980s from publishing his books and so had to take a variety of jobs - 'golden trades' - to earn a living. 'The atmosphere was very familiar to me,' Wilson says.

Wilson, who abandoned an MA at London University on George Orwell in 1967 to teach English in Czechoslovakia, began translating essays and articles soon after he moved to Prague. However, his first substantial piece of work - the English translation of Josef Skvorecky's magnum opus The Engineer of Human Souls - came after Skvorecky was expelled in 1977 (he went to Canada). Since then he has translated novels and essays by many writers, notably Vaclav Havel. 'My Golden Trades is one of the easiest books I have translated because I was so delighted with the text,' Wilson says. 'There is a sense of celebration about the book because the pieces were written either when things were easing in Czechoslovakia or when freedom had come.'

He and Klima got on well, even when Wilson slightly changed one piece from the book, The Archaeologist's Story, for publication in the New Yorker. The New Yorker is famous for the rigour of its fact-checking department, whose insistence on accuracy extends even to facts in fiction.

Klima made some mistake when illustrating a point with reference to the body of an Iron Age man found in the Tollund Fen. 'They actually phoned the museum and checked. Then they insisted that I change it. I couldn't get hold of Klima, and I figured that I could do it his way for the book, so I amended the story slightly.'

Wilson is already at work translating a collection of Klima's essays on politics and literature. He is scheduled to translate Skvorecky's next book too - a huge novel about the role of Czech soldiers in the American Civil War. 'There really were some there,' he says. 'So fact-checkers can rest easy.'