Willa Muir: a Shetland Translator in Prague

“Willa Anderson, Mrs Edwin Muir, 1890-1970. Writer and translator.” Nigel McIsaac, 1944. Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

In her archive at St Andrew’s, Willa Muir stored a clipping from The Scotsman, dated 24 May, 1947. “It was something of a shock, writes a colleague from Prague, to hear a Czech choir singing Ho Ro, mo Nighean Donn Bhoidheach – to say nothing of ‘Ca’ the Yowes tae the Knowes’ and other Scots songs. But this was the friendly way in which the Czechs chose to greet Dr. Edwin Muir … in honour of his sixtieth birthday” and his recent honorary doctorate from Charles University, Prague (MS 38466 5/9). “Both Dr and Mrs Muir joined in the choruses of the songs,” the journalist added, “which the Czechs rendered with characteristic verve and almost perfect accent, catching the mischievous spirit of “Green Grow the Rashes O” and “Comin’ through the Rye,” as well as the gentler rhythm of “O Can ye Sew Cushions.” It turned out the Czech students, who were studying at the British Council in Prague, had a good teacher: “Mrs Muir confessed to having coached them in the Gaelic” (MS 38466 5/9).

“It was a very merry evening,” the journalist concluded.

The scene from post-war Prague sheds a different light on a Willa Muir who is usually viewed a little dryly and piously in literary history: in her Prague journals she is a cheeky, spirited, and sometimes deeply depressed, woman who presented a public face of diligence and propriety, and a tongue of acceptable and normalized literary English. That identity was one to be worn. In her Prague journals, a few months earlier, Willa Muir wrote a poem about Edwin getting ready for work at the British Council, entitled “Metamorphosis”: “My only love, daily I see you change, / donning hard rows of buttons, buckled, braced, / brushed smooth and shaven till you are bare-faced, and then disguised with large and horn-rimmed glasses … should I not find this frightening and strange?” (MS 38466/5/2). The martial imagery spoke to internecine fighting at the British Council and to their protections against some of the English snobbishness and xenophobia that she would fictionalize in her unpublished novel, The Usurpers, as analogous to the world of doctrinaire and dogmatic Communists who were about to stage a coup in Czechoslovakia: the English seemed to her quite as exclusionary and harmful.

Her Prague journals start with an observation about the English watching others (and, implicitly, herself): they “are always maddeningly sure of what to expect from others: behaviour becomes for them simply a cliché: ‘Spoken like a true gentleman.’ ‘No lady would do such a thing.’ ‘Most unEnglish!’” (MS 38466/5/2). They judge foreigners immediately by this normative sense of behaviour and the way those “outsiders” dress, but Muir thinks, too, they can’t comprehend “a thinking individual” who was “born in the country” who does not want to behave or dress differently; you can’t “behave with natural spontaneity” or else you’ll be “classed as eccentric, if not rank outsiders” (MS 38466/5/2). Her decision to teach the Czech students merry songs in Gaelic is a surprise gift to her husband but also a cheeky rebuke to the judgmental and disapproving English bureaucrats, challenging the primacy of their tongue.

Muir keenly felt an outsider through her life, including in Scotland. In post-war Prague, she jots down the thought: “All emigrants are Displaced Persons. My parents were D.P’s in Angus. So I grew up not fitting into Angus tradition and therefore critical, resentful, unsure. Hence my secret desire to own a house, to belong somewhere” (MS 38466/5/3). Muir called her autobiography, Belonging (1968), which came with a central argument that she found a home in Edwin, their marriage and their common literary work, however physically peripatetic their lives were. They never quite fit in wherever they settled, but this outsiderness also meant they also showed a democratic openness to others. Popular with the Czech students taking classes at the British Council, the Muirs were also immersed in the vibrant immediate post-war Czech literary scene, one that would be rent apart after the February coup in 1948 because of diverging political affinities. The Muirs supported writers looking to emigrate after the coup, including the poets Jiří Kolář and Ivan Blatný, but others in the British Council made “difficulties for visas for the writers who are to go to England; Parrott alleging that Kolář and Blatný are just Communist stooges” (MS 38466/5/4). Blatný made it to an unhappy exile in England; Kolář did not, was imprisoned by the Communist regime in the 1950s and later forced exile after signing the Charter 77 petition.

Two months after the coup, the Muirs attended a reception given by the new regime’s foreign minister, Vladimír Clementis, who “received us very cordially” but it made Willa Muir “wonder about this country. If our relations with people were purely formal, superficial, we might go on living here for some time yet … We could, ideally, get on with and sympathise with the people of good will, like [Marie] Pujmannova, talk literature, translate, benevolently watch over developments. But could we?” The problem was that they were close to Czechs who were now enemies of a regime, that “abuses and defames quite impartially” and it she knew it would also “defame us if that seemed necessary.” Clementis himself would be executed after a show trial in 1952 (the subsequent airbrushing of whom famously opens Milan Kundera’s 1979 novel, The Book of Laughter and Forgetting); and Clementis had become Foreign Minister after the much beloved Jan Masaryk had mysteriously fallen out of a window to his death.

In the turbulent months leading up to the coup and for two months after, Willa Muir was translating some of Kafka’s stories; she quotes a sentence from Kafka’s story, “Elf Söhne” [Eleven Sons]: “Unschuld dringt vielleicht doch noch am leichtesten durch das Toben der Elemente in dieses Welt, und unschuldig ist er,” which Willa Muir – though the translation is attributed to both her and her husband – translated as “Perhaps innocence makes its way easiest through the elemental chaos of this world, and innocent he certainly is” (Kafka 1971, 421), adding right underneath “(Edwin!)” (MS 38466/5/3) as if Kafka’s description of the fifth son in the story perfectly encapsulated her husband facing his travails at the British Council. A month after the coup, and the morning after Klaus Mann visited the Council, she notes “slept in: late breakfast: rest of morning unexpected peaceful concentration on Kafka” (MS 38466/5/4: 20 March 1948) and finally, a month after that, she mentions in-fighting at the Council, a visit from Czech friends, and a celebratory statement, underlined for emphasis: “I finished Kafka” (MS 38466/5/4: 28 April 28 1948).

It is hard to imagine, given Kafka’s iconic fame – and, by 1948, he was a figure who was already becoming iconic in England and the US thanks in large part to the Muirs’ translations – how little known his work was in Prague and the Czech lands at this time. The German-speaking Jewish community to which he belonged had just been almost wholly murdered in the Holocaust (including his three sisters), and, in the immediate post-war period, non-Jewish German-speaking communities were being expelled en masse in retaliation for assumed collaboration with the Nazis. Willa Muir, translating in Prague in 1947–8, was working in a language, German, that had been and was being expunged from Czech life. She was translating Kafka around the corner physically from where he had lived thirty years earlier, and yet his work was all but forgotten in his native city. The work Willa Muir was doing in Prague, nonetheless solidified Kafka’s reputation in English and then globally, so much so that – in a Kafkaesque twist – the new Communist regime banned his work until 1963.

“Had a fit of the scunners: heart withered up,” Willa Muir wrote on 7 May 1948 and then, in her last entry in her Prague journal three days later: “As a result of pleasant, frank evening I find myself less scunnered at Czechs and Czech: the instability of one’s feelings!” (MS 38466/5/4). Her use of Scots to emote not only about the Czechs, but also the Czech language, is suggestive of some empathy with an inherent foreignness in herself, or at least a sense of being able to be at home in a foreign tongue “Edwin took one look at the Czech language and decided he didn’t believe it,” she said, laughing, in an interview over a decade later, “He couldn’t believe it” (MS 38466/2/5).

A note is appended to her Prague journals: “In August we got out” (MS 38466/5/4) and her next journal entry, written in Scotland on 15 January 1951, reads: “Why are we alive at all? … Edwin’s poems will live. But of himself only a legend. Of me, only a very distorted legend” (MS 38466/5/5).


References & Further Information

Franz Kafka. The Complete Stories. New York: Schocken, 1971.

Willa Muir. Papers of Willa Muir. University of St Andrews Special Collections. GB 227 MS 38466.

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Michelle Woods

Michelle Woods is the author of Kafka Translated (2014), Censoring Translation (2012), and Translating Milan Kundera (2006), as well as numerous articles on the translation of Czech literature and film. She is an Associate Professor of English at SUNY New Paltz.

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