Czech diplomat's literary diplomacy
Czech envoy talks about his passion for books
By Kim Se-jeong
Five years ago when he was told that his next posting was Seoul, Czech Ambassador Jaroslav Olsa, Jr. looked through his 10,000 books at home in search of works by Korean writers.
“The Grass Roof”— published in Czechoslovakia in 1934 — by Kang Young-hill was one of his initial discoveries. Through further research into Korean-literature, he learned that there were roughly 150 books written by Koreans published in Czechoslovakia — a country that dissolved peacefully into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993.
Upon his arrival in 2008, the ambassador conducted inverse research, which led him to a few valuable findings.
First, almost 200 Czech books were published in Korean. Second, Milan Kundera is the best-known Czech writer in Korea. Third, there were some unusual books published.
“For example, I found a book by a famous Czech globetrotter who spent most of his life in Alaska a century ago. He wrote about his journeys to the freezing North, and one of them was translated into Korean,” Olsa told The Korea Times during an interview last Monday. Another was a book about ancient Egypt written by a Czech archeologist.
“There are already many tools for diplomacy such as music and art. But I believe literature is something that has a long-lasting impact,” he said.
The ambassador’s conviction that literature is an effective tool was tested in practice in Zimbabwe where he served six years.
Working at a time of political and economic crisis in the country, he pursued cultural contacts, promoting both Czech and
Zimbabwean art and literature. One of his books, “Modern Art of Zimbabwe” was even published in Korean in 2010.
His work with Zimbabwean civil society earned him the 2011 Palmer Prize for Diplomats honoring those who are actively engaged in advancing democracy through diplomacy. The award was presented at the Community of Democracies ministerial meeting in the presence of the U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief.
The result in Korea is noticeable.
Since 2010, 10 new Czech books have been published in Korea. And “Three more are on their way,” he said.
The most recent books published are “Tales of the Little Quarter” by Jan Neruda and a selection of dramas by Karel Capek, both launched at the Seoul International Book Fair in June.
In every single book, according to the envoy, he is quite involved, from recommending stories and persuading publishers to finding authors.
For a political horror “Meat,” he searched for an author, who had been missing for half a year.
“It’s rewarding. Thanks to these 10 books, 50,000 Korean readers learned about my country differently than through brochures and leaflets,” Olsa said.
Among the upcoming books is a drama selection from four Central European countries, Poland, the Slovak Republic, Hungary and the Czech Republic, a joint project between language experts at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies and four embassies in Seoul.
Olsa wants to maintain the literary traffic two-way.
In cooperation with the Literature Translation Institute of Korea, he is helping to introduce modern Korean writers in the Czech Republic. It started with a book of Ko Un’s poetry published last year during the poet’s visit to Prague.
“It was a unique bilingual book, one page in Korean language and another in Czech,” he said. He thanked the Korean Embassy in Prague for the help it provided.
His literary interests go back to when he was a teenager.
In a recent interview with “Fantastic,” a Korean science fiction magazine, he said “I read almost one book a day. And it was always SF that I wanted to go back to read again.”
His first job was translating science fiction from Polish and English into Czech.
In 1985 under the Communist rule, he founded a SF fan magazine called Ikarie XB.
“Any printed material during the Communist times was under scrutiny. My magazine was walking on a very fine line between being a legitimate publication and completely illegal one,” he said as to how he managed to keep it running. He also said he had to keep the number of copies to a minimum.
After the fall of Communism, it transformed into a professional monthly “Ikarie,” which still exists under the name “XB-1.”
The envoy said that literature is a genuine means of generating interest in a given country, in a way that trade and investment can’t possibly do.
According to the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency, a bilateral trade volume was $2.23 billion in 2011, up from $1.22 billion in 2008.