The Ambassador and his books

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By Nickky Faustine P. de Guzman, Reporter

The Czech Ambassador to the Philippines Jaroslav Olša, Jr. will be leaving his post in December, but he will leave behind an indelible legacy: Books.

Over the four years that Mr. Olša has been in the country, he has worked on the promotion of literary and cultural ties between the Czech Republic and the Philippines by publishing books written and translated into Czech, Tagalog, English, Bicolano, Waray, and Minasbate.

He believes that 21st century communication strategies between two nations heavily involve “people-to-people branding and PR. It’s about thinking of the most interesting way to show that your country is interesting, beautiful, and will encourage people to learn more about it. I think this applies mostly to faraway countries, those on the other side of the world.”

And the Philippines and the Czech Republic are two best examples because they are poles apart, share their differences, but also have their similarities as well. Books are one of the ways to showcase what each country has to offer.

“I am involved in various projects — films and other art fields — but literature is probably the least used opportunity to show your country. The reason for that are many. For one, it’s [more] difficult to publish books than it is to mount exhibitions and concerts. But on the other side, books have long-term impacts. Books remain in the shops, libraries, and homes and then you read them later, and the impacts are long term,” he told BusinessWorld.




The soft powers manifested in literature and culture are “really one of the best ways in supporting our business relations for the both sides (Czech and Philippines).”

OF KAFKA, POETRY, AND SCIENCE FICTION
Before coming to the Philippines, Mr. Olša was Ambassador in Zimbabwe and South Korea where he also published books that aimed to bridge the gaps between his country and the nation where he was assigned.

“The idea came into my mind when I was in Africa — in Zimbabwe — and we were given the opportunity to print three booklets. I had bigger chances when we produced Czech books in the Korean language. So when I arrived here, I started talking to the Komisyon ng Wikang Filipino (KWF) and to National Artist Virgilo Almario.”

He said joint promotions are “important, not only in promoting about my literature and culture but helping to promote Philippine literature in the Czech Republic as well.”

Among the first projects he worked on with KWF was the translation of Franz Kafka’s Die Verwandlung (The Metamorphosis), which was first published in 1915. Ang Metamorposis was translated not only into Tagalog but into Bicolano. While Kafka was German, he lived in Prague — Czech’s capital — “and the book is a quintessential reading,” said the ambassador.

The Czech Republic and KWF collaboration also included the translation of the poetry of Nobel Prize-winning Czech writer Jaroslav Seifert. The resulting 300-page book, Sa Prága: Mga Piling Tula ni Jaroslav Seifert, included the best samples of his works in a career that spanned more than 60 years.

Whenever there are big literary events and festivals in the country — like the Manila International Book Fair — Mr. Olša brings in well-known Czech writers so the audience get to know them. The Embassy has flown in Ondrej Neff, Julie Novkov, and Martin Vopenka who gave away English translations of their books.

Printed by Visprint, the Embassy has also translated the popular anthology The Witcher, and other Fantasy and Science Fiction from Central Europe and the Philippines into Ang Manggagaway at iba pang Kathang-Agham at Pantasya mula sa Gitnang Europa at Pilipinas. Mr. Olša, Hungarian Ambassador József Bencze, and Filipino speculative fiction writer Dean Francis Alfri co-edited the book, and Filipino popular writers Bob Ong, Eros Atalia, Beverly Siy, and Joselito Delos Reyes translated the collection into Filipino.

THE EDITOR IN HIM
Amongst the many published Czech literary gems, how does the Ambassador sift through them and choose which works to translate and publish? He said his love for the written words helps him curate.

“Plenty of people have asked my how I do it. I am an avid reader and I have read for dozens of years because I was involved in publishing and translating before, and I know many of the writers personally. That means I personally select from what I’ve read or have met the writers. But sometimes, of course, I need advisors because being abroad means you do not know so much of the Czech writers today. I am still in contact with various book publishers and writers, and I’ll tell them ‘Oh I need a story about this’ and they will send [them to] me. It has no structured logic in it, but I try to select the best, of course.”

Mr. Olša used to own a small publishing house in the Czech Republic 25 years ago. “It was short lived, but we published almost 100 titles when I was there. So this a familiar thing to me [because I have a background].” He was also the editor of Czech Republic’s science fiction magazine called Ikarie and was a former science fiction translator. The man knows his stuff.

“I am an avid reader. It’s not only about a specific genre (science fiction), it’s one of the things I know, but it’s not the only thing I read. But I typically ready short stories [rather] than novels. There’s a trend that people read series that grow bigger and bigger, but on the contrary, I like the short stories because this is where the craft of the writer is — he needs to know how to engage the reader, how to capture their interest. The reader can say if you like it or not.”

FINAL PROJECTS
I met with the Ambassador at his office in Makati on Oct. 9, where I was greeted by his books and his personal belongings that he’s been readying to pack for his trip in December. But as he prepare to leave his post, he still has many projects in the pipeline. This includes a travelogue by BusinessWorld contributor Jessica Zafra, which will be launched on Oct. 27, 2 p.m., at Fully Booked BGC.

“I said, okay, let’s do the travelogue — but let’s make it different. Let’s make it more oriented to Central Europe. With my Hungarian and Polish colleagues, Jessica Zafra travelled to Poland where she has never been… and to Czech, Hungary, and Paris and Italy… It’s a very good attempt to show to the Filipinos the part of Europe which is more and more visited but still not as widely known as France or Italy or Spain,” said Mr. Olša.

Another one of his projects is Chicks in a Snake Cage, which is an anthology of 40 Filipino writers including the works of Leoncio P. Deriada, an award-winning writer credited to be the Father of Contemporary Literature in Western Visayas. Unfortunately, he will no longer be stationed in Manila when it is launched some time in 2019.

Mr. Deriada was one of the first Filipino authors that the ambassador had known about and read. Apparently, before becoming the Czech Ambassador to the Philippines, Mr. Olša had already been frequenting the country in the 1990s. He first set foot in Manila in 1994 for work — he showed me an identification card that he has kept from when he visited Manila back then as an advisor to the first deputy minister of the Czech Republic.

“When I came for the first time, I took the cab going to Intramuros and looked to my guide book and found that the best book shop in town was Solidaridad… I remember walking from Intramuros, past the National Museum, and bought books that I still have now. I bought Leoncio Deriada’s short story collection, science fiction by Jose Ma. Espino who is a forgotten writer who passed away years back. I bought a directory of Filipino writers, and books on the history of Philippine literature. And also I think I bought a Greg Brillantes book. Maybe there are some more but I couldn’t remember. Whenever I was coming back during the ’90s, I bought more and more books, which meant I had a good idea on what the Philippines’ culture and literature. It became easier to me when I was given the post as the Ambassador.”

COMMON ROOTS
He said there’s not much difference between the culture and literatures of our two countries, unlike, for example, when he was still in South Korea where he said he had to adjust to the culture.

“We share the common roots of civilization. You’re connected by 300 years of Spanish rule. You’re Catholic Christian and so are we.” He also said there’s an “easy access to the mood of the writer” whenever he reads Filipino authors.

“Sometimes when you read Chinese or Indian literature, you can see the differences right away — the civilization, the beliefs, the experiences of the writer. But in the Philippines, we do understand each other without much explanation. For example, when I read Korean literature — I spent six years in Korea — sometimes I don’t know because i don’t have the deep knowledge of the Korean history. With the Filipinos, I think I don’t have any difficulties. You name it, and you’ll find our closeness, our thinking, in many ways.”

The Ambassador has high hopes for the future of print. He said: “Twenty years ago everybody said there will be no books, look, and there are still books. The touch of the book is still a touch of a book. Yes, it’s helpful to have book in your computer, but you really need the physical. Part of book publishing will go online but there will still be full-fledged book publishing as well. It’s an art. For example, you can have art projection on the wall, but still people want to have a print copy, it’s the same with books.”

Mr. Olša might be leaving in less than two months, but he will be leaving a legacy that keeps on giving.

“We are still finishing some projects, which will be my legacy. You cannot finish all the projects, there are projects that need longer time,” he said.

He is working on the translation of the letters of two Czech Jesuit priests who were in the Visayas in the 18th century. “It’s going to be a long project,” he said. It will include 10 unpublished letters written in the 1730s until 1740s. “The letters were never published, nobody saw them in English, which means that for the Filipinos it will be something important.”

The project will definitely be published after Mr. Olša has physically left the country, but he and his book projects will forever remain on our bookshelves.