|Česká verze/Czech version|
|Challenges of translating Svejk into English|
|A report on the experimental project of its "Chicago version"|
Hasek's novel is on the New York Public Library's list of one hundred most important literary works of the 20th century. The same list includes the title Catch-22 written by Joseph Heller. The difference between both books is twofold. For one, they are included in different sections of the list. Then there is also the difference in their popularity among American readers. In reality, regarding Svejk, one cannot even speak of popularity but mere awareness of the book. But with rare exceptions, that is equal to zero. This is indicated already by the listing of both titles under two different headings of the twelve on the New York Public Library's list, although the novels are related, starting with their theme, genre, and type of the main character: Catch-22 occupies the 14th spot in the sixth section titled Popular Culture & Mass Entertainment, while The Good Soldier Schweik is in the fourth spot of the tenth section War, Holocaust, Totalitarianism.
Neither one of the books is posted under the heading of the first section on the list, Landmarks of Modern Literature. The case of Hasek's work is akin to the time sequence of a hen and an egg. When nobody knows of the book it can hardly make it onto the list of literary landmarks. But people know Heller's book. Its title, Catch-22, has become as widely known a saying as the Czech "Tak nám zabili Ferdinanda" ("So, they've done it to us, they've killed our Ferdinand"), or "Já jsem znal jednoho..." ("I knew one [guy]) ), and as often used as the concept of "Svejkování" ("svejking"), derived from Hasek's novel. As Arnost Lustig testifies, Joseph Heller personally told him that if it weren't for his having read The Good Soldier Svejk he would never had written his American novel Catch-22. According to the claims of several professional scholars of literature Svejk is much better from the literary point of view than Catch-22. So where's the catch?
The most important factor, in my view, is the very issue of translation.
When my colleague Mike Joyce, having finished reading the 1973 translation, was intensely prodding me to translate Svejk, I had to admit that I could not objectively claim the book was better in its Czech original because I only read it once and thirty five years ago at that. What I could confirm, however, was that the 1973 English translation impressed me as a totally different book than the one I remembered. Mike himself reacted to the English translation by the words "the sparks of Hasek's genius are in there, but it's horrible". That's exactly why he took it upon himself that, although he didn't want to be telling my how to live, I had to translate the book anew. I gave in to him only under the condition that we would do it together. And that is indeed what happened.
Mike started inquiring about Svejk of everybody with whom he came in contact. His conclusion is that immigrants from Eastern and Central Europe who have read Hasek's novel in their mother tongue are for the most part enthusiastic about it. If they have read the English translation they view it as very unsuccessful.
With the exception of a few, mostly British voices, the same view is expressed by the later readers of the "Chicago version" of the Book One who have first read the 1973 translation.
The need for a new translation of Hasek's Svejk into English is at the least admitted by both of the first two academic critics from the British Isles. (James Partridge: "Do we need a new translation? This [sic] answer to this is clearly yes - a better translation than Parrott's is long overdue", and Michelle Woods: "it may be time for an updated English-language translation of this great and underestimated novel.") David Powelstock, assistant professor of Russian and Czech literature at the University of Chicago also says "Svejk is certainly a book that has wanted re-translation."
In Michael Joyce's and my judgment the author of the 1973 translation bears a significant part of the responsibility for Svejk's invisibility and its not doing well in the U.S.A. The audacity to express such an opinion publicly scandalizes the very people who don't mind that the translation has apparently never been made a subject of literary criticism and failed to gain any popularity in the U.S. (The main problem of that translation is neither that it was created thirty years ago, nor that is a British translation through and through", explanations with which some people try to mollify us.) However, David Powelstock, the professor at the University of Chicago whom I already mentioned, knows better and so do we. He "readily acknowledged that entrenched translations often do good books a disservice."
So the decision to translate Svejk into English was made, and it happened already in 1997. The purpose was to create the most faithful translation possible which would unmask Svejk for readers of English. The goal was to raise the awareness of the existence of Svejk to level comparable with Catch-22 which was, by the way, on April 22, 2003 the 272nd best selling book of the Internet bookseller Amazon.com.
The Manner And The Method
The second question was whether I should work on the translation alone, which was up to that point my only experience, or with somebody. Because Mike Joyce reacted to the 1973 translation in such an intense way, demonstrating that Jaroslav Hasek and Svejk spoke to him very strongly and personally in spite of the distorting and hollowing filter of that translation, and because we have gone through very similar experiences of life among "ordinary people", it was natural that I chose the method of working together with him, although he only has the command of his native English.
After that came the question of the methodology of work. One available method was that of an edited translation, in which Mike would play the role of an editor. I was of the opinion that in such a case his valuable insights would neither be properly stimulated to see the light of day, nor taken advantage of, because from the point of the process of translation editing is interactive only post facto. I wanted for him to be a more equal partner, if it were somehow possible. We agreed on the method of literary rendition of, as I had named it, the "raw translation". The raw translation I was producing for our purposes was something between a literal translation and a proper translation. A raw translation contains, e.g., original idioms translated in such a way as to communicate the Czech idiom by English words, not by an English idiom, so that it is possible to discuss its content in English without any knowledge of Czech. Similarly, the raw translation often keeps the original sentence structure if it is needed to preserve logical inferences that would disappear by adjusting it. That way there is always enough to discuss or to fight for in the course of producing the final translation.
As the saying goes, "ignorance is bliss". Only in ignorance of the size of the necessary effort, although maintained perhaps by the sheer power of will, I could actually begin the work on the translation. I knew that I had to approach the translating as one would the task of eating an elephant "one piece at a time.
The collection of the meanings of the Czech word "osud", i.e. "fate", does not contain the component of "fortune" in the sense of "prosperity" (3a). Therefore, the Czech plural "osudy", is characterized by a more-or-less passive role of the victim, while the English "fortunes" often signify an active role of the one in question. We chose the phrase "fateful adventures" to translate the word "osudy":
It is not without interest that in order to translate the word "osudy", i.e. "fates", which appears in the novel only once and it does so in the author"s introduction, the previous translation makes use of the word "adventures" which is an essential part of our translation of this perhaps fateful word. (On the nineteen lines of the introduction we have, by the way, at least twenty different translation solutions in comparison with the previous translation.)
The fact that the opening sentence of the first chapter in our translation did not become a target of one uncompromising review riding the formal aspects of our version, such as visual breaking up of long sentences and paragraphs, is also interesting. That sentence is as famous, as evocative, and repeated as often by Czechs, as "I have a dream" is among Americans. From the formal point of view we have committed, that is to say, perhaps a literary version of sacrilege. Here is the beginning of the first sentence from the previous English translation: "And so they've killed our Ferdinand . . .". When translated back into Czech, it reads: "A tak zabili naÅ eho Ferdinanda . . .". Jaroslav Hasek, however, did not use the word "naseho", but "nám", which in this context does not have an equivalent in English.
They have not merely killed "our" Ferdinand, but they've done it to "us". That is why our translation begins with the words "So, they've done it to us, they've killed our Ferdinand . . .". In the emphasis on the almost affable "nám", i.e. "to us" or "for us", in the Czech original are hidden the tensions and double meanings which are so familiar to any serf, slave or otherwise oppressed person who deals with the "overseers", "rulers", or the "bosses" who keep him alive or take his life away according to their whim. They are "our" rulers, "our" bosses, be they this or that way. Did Mrs. Müller hate the heir to the Austrian throne or did she love him? Who knows? The important thing is that when they killed him, they did not, according to her words, kill merely "our" Ferdinand, but that they did it to "us", whether it pleases us or brings us regret. We are a part of an organic being "the society", the oppressed and oppressors, the bureaucrats and anarchists, the Emperor and his subjects, etc., etc.
We sacrificed the structure of the original sentence in our translation in order to preserve the information contained in it. This is an extreme situation which happened to appear at the outset of the novel by a circumstance. However, perhaps 90% of the differences between our and the previous translation is of a much more subtle nature, although they are not any less important. This is appreciated and illustrated not only by the positively inclined critics, but most of the readers have indicated in their feedback they appreciate it as well.
One reviewer on the British Isles reduces our translation to "simply a contemporary and deliberately Americanized view of the translation". She had chosen several atypical samples and thus proves that which she wanted to prove, as if there indeed was not any apparent substantial difference between the two translations.
The Sun Never Set On The British Empire
The Clash Of The Backgrounds
The Fundamental Challenges
As if that itself was not enough of a reason not to delve into translating Svejk into English, there are yet two more issues specific to the literary work. As Frantisek Daneswrote in his The Language and Style of Hasek's Novel The Good Soldier Svejk from the Viewpoint of Translation, "Firstly, in "The Good Soldier Svejk', more than in a great majority of other literary works, the difference between particular languages, their (social) stratifications, along with cultural, historical and ethical specificities are highly involved, so that to find or contrive truthful translational equivalents is in many instances extremely difficult and in part simply impossible."
In addition to the specific language phenomena the translator must struggle with differing cultural phenomena. Hasek's novel is set on the divide of two centuries, two historic epochs of societal evolution. Feudalism, its turns of language and its artifacts were still functional and as alive during the author's life as the phenomena of the Communist ideology and its resulting police state are for us. Although the British English has expressions for the various class-dependent phenomena of the feudal system and times, feudalism itself in Great Britain was not identical to the feudalism in the Czech lands. In addition, most basic realities of feudalism are alien to the Americans, not to speak of the nuances between the feudalism of the Anglo-Saxons and the feudalism of the Czechs in the Austrian Empire. The result? Certain words, as far as dictionaries are concerned, do have their equivalents, but in reality it is often better not to use them, because they are too closely imbedded in the history of a given country and its culture. With the exception of especially the Black population, Americans do not know the familiarity of the various expressions of subjection and how it is operational in various calculations of decision making processes among people in the most varied situations.
How should the differences in linguistic, cultural and historical context be solved? One option is footnotes. With the exception of several mostly inevitable cases, such as the footnote about using the pronoun "oni", we had decided not to use footnotes as they are distracting. Instead, we strove to integrate pieces of information into the text, because such pieces of information were and to a great extent even today are a part of the frame of reference of the Czech reader for whom they are then practically included in the perception of the original text and he does not have to look for them outside of it. As with most things in life, even here the situation is not ideal and there's no single possible solution. We rejected the third possibility, i.e. neither footnotes nor information integrated into the text, as depriving the reader of information and therefore unacceptable.
The Shifting Meanings
The contemporary Velký česko-anglický slovník (The Large Czech-English Dictionary, Poldauf,1996) now elaborates on the definition: A1. wise fool, wily idiot, 2. clown 3. shirker, skiver." Is it a mere coincidence that such a big difference between definitions arose after the Nazi occupation and the Communist dictatorship of the proletariat? We are of the opinion, that it is not. (See the note about Lada's illustrations, above.)
Jarmila, Hasek's wife, said this of her maligned husband: "The honesty of Hasek's work lies in that he would descend for his art all the way to the level of his jokes to come to understand their relation to people and things. He sacrificed himself, a mother, a wife, a child, a friend "he laid everything he had on the altar of truth "and she revealed herself to him such as she is, a laughably crippled wretch, without trinkets and without a veil."
It appears that Jaroslav Hasek was very exceptional. Among other things, he read a lot, he observed a lot, and he remembered a lot. Even in his time already his being exceptional did not predestine him for a career of a professional of this or that field. Nowadays his chances of holding a professional or just any steady job would be smaller by the same astronomical factor, by which the society we live in is more vulgar.
The Contextual Point Of View
Why do I mention all of this? Because reality, that is truth, prevails and will prevail after all in the end. Jaroslav Hasek did not write to become a darling of the New York Times Literary Supplement readers, to get an offer for a block-buster movie version, having an agent ready to make the deal, a lawyer to make it fool-proof, and an accountant who'd add it all up. (Not that he wouldn't welcome success. After all, he was not sending back the dollars being sent from Chicago for Svejk being published in serial installments.) Svejk also is not a hermetically closed literary text written to satisfy the needs of scientific research. For Jaroslav Hasek Svejk was a result of unusually rich, varied and uncommon life experiences. His book is about life and truth, especially as they are experienced by working class people, rather than members of the elites.
Most people who never leave the geographical and social circuit of their own national culture and its constituent elements cannot even begin to imagine what Jaroslav Hasek underwent, as a real person, a thinking and feeling being on his anabasis through Europe and Asia between his joining the army and his return home. (Pavel Gan has laid it out best so far in his book Osudy humoristy Jaroslava Haska v Řísi carů a komisařů i doma v Čechách , i.e. The Fateful Adventures of the Humorist Jaroslav Hasek in the Empire of the Czars and Commissars And Even at Home in the Czechlands.) No, they not only can begin to imagine, they even analyze it and make conclusions about it. However, they cannot have lived through anything comparable. And inasmuch as experiences are prerequisites for certain insights, they cannot understand everything in Hasek's life, and if it is reflected in his work, they cannot properly understand everything in Hasek's work either.
That is all in the way of an explanation of the problem of the point of view taken to look at Jaroslav Hasek and his Svejk. The correct point of view is a necessary, although not a sufficient condition for obtaining a correct translation consisting of the individual translational hard to crack nuts.
In The Translating Weeds
A translator can use the original word in the translated text for various reasons. One of them is that the given word represents a unique phenomenon or concept. "Juniper gin", i.e. "jalovcová kořalka" does not have in the Anglo-Saxon world such a strong reputation and position which "borovička" enjoys among the Czech, Moravian and Slovak people. Therefore it is worth calling it by its genuine name in an English text. However, a reader with no knowledge of Czech is denied not only the experience of drinking "borovička" during his first, virtual encounter with it, but he is also denied its association with "pine". In Czech, that is the language of Svejk, "borovička" is a diminutive of "borovice", i.e. a tree known in English as "pine". Thus the first sense of the word is "young pine" or "pine sapling". Unless a Czech is a drinker or has read Svejk, or in some other round about way accidentally found out the connection between "borovička", i.e. "juniper gin", and "jalovec", i.e. "juniper", in his reader' s imagination he is induced to attempt capturing the taste of pine, be it its wood or needles, on his virtual tongue. Whence our insertion of the words "that liquor that tastes like pine wood".
Both the readers of the original and the readers the English translations find out the connection between "borovička", i.e. "juniper gin" and "jalovec", i.e. "juniper", three sentences later: "If it had been at least the genuine article, for instance, a distillate from juniper, like the one I drank in Moravia." In Bohemia, in Moravia, and in Slovakia "jalovcová" is commonly called "borovička". It is worth noting that the Slovak word for "jalovec", i.e. "juniper", is "borievka", and "borovčie" denotes "jalovÄ?í", i.e. "juniper bushes". It is then altogether legitimate to guess that "borovička", as an inebriating distillate, is derived from the Slovak term for juniper and not, as Michelle Woods claims, that it is a distillate from "bilberries". It is possible that during her extended stay in Prague the blueberries were suggested to her by somebody who, just as I, did not have a clue during the first reading of Svejk as a youth that "borovička" did not come from "borovice", i.e. "pine", or from "borůvky", i.e. blueberries, but from "jalovec", i.e. juniper. The Slovník spisovného jazyka českého, I, a-g, (The Dictionary of the Proper Czech Language, Academia 1989) unequivocally states that "borovička" is "jalovcová kořalka", which in English translation means "juniper booze", i.e. "juniper gin".
Mistaking The Finger For The Moon
One more note on the language of the translation. It is said that the Brits and Americans are two nations divided by a common language. It is true that our translation is written in "American language", not British English. However, attempting to reduce the differences between Parrott's and our translation to characterizing them as more or less an American and a British versions of the Czech original exhibiting no substantial and qualitative differences belies either a bias, self-serving purpose, or shallowness of the reviewer's effort. Also, when it comes to particular languages in Svejk, they need to be judged according to the speaker, not the reader or the reviewer.
The lady who translated Svejk into Hebrew worked on it for thirty years. Another lady who translated Hasek's work into Catalan devoted ten years to the translation. Our experimental translation of Book One was ready within four months. (That it was met with an overwhelmingly positive response from reviewers and readers is an eloquent proof of our ability to keep the promise to produce a qualitatively better English translation. The work on the translation of all four books continues.*)
We can report with a nice measure of satisfaction that in spite of not having a literary agent we had managed to induce several top publishers to request the manuscript of our translation. When in the end they decided not to take advantage of the opportunity, it was not due to unsatisfactory quality of the translation. The responses contained statements such as: "Books are not selling." In reaction to our pointing out that millions of copies in more than fifty languages have been sold, we were being asked: "Could you document the commercial success?" A veritable "Svejkárna". One university's publisher which we selected from among the second tier wrote to us: "A translation already exists; it would be hard to compete."
Therefore we first published Book One of Svejk as an electronic book and publicized it on promotional web pages on the Internet at www.zenny.com . An extensive account of this deed appeared in several pages, starting with the cover page, of the Chicago Reader in July, 1999. The first review that appeared was by Richard Seltzer who posted it on the Internet. We were then considering self-publishing a paperback. Just then a new way of publishing emerged in the marketplace, the so-called print on demand (POD) which we decided upon in the end.
The First Wave
Among the large regional dailies the Chicago Tribune wrote extensively about the new translation of Svejk on August 9, 2000. This led, of necessity, to the first wave of sales and responses from the readers. There followed articles in a number of smaller papers in Chicagoland. In December of that year another important review, written by Bob Hicks, appeared in the regional (but practically state-wide) Portland Oregonian. Among other interesting moments were our two visits at the Czech and Slovak National Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where we had speaking engagements at two local events attended by the mayor, other city officials, the Ambassadors of the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and officials of the Czech-American organizations and representatives of the Czech and Slovak exile community. Due to the need to translate and publish the remaining books of Svejk, our participation in the pre-show talks with the audience of the March 2001 production of Robert Kurka's opera The Good Soldier Schweik staged by the Chicago Opera Theatre had to be the last promotional event for the time being. It was also attended by Czech Americans from Texas who came in on a bus chartered by the Czech Cultural Center of Houston with which we have established contacts from the very beginning. The important and encouraging result of the first phase of our promotional effort for this project is that the readers' feedback has confirmed its initial assumptions.
What's The Buzz, Tell Me What's Happenin' . . .
The very first review was written by an "Internet guru" Richard Seltzer, who, among other things, wrote: "In the Penguin edition, translated by Cecil Parrott, The Good Soldier Svejk is mildly funny because of the thick-headed stupidity of Svejk. But the new translation by Zdenek Sadlon and Emmett Joyce produces a very different effect. In this version, Svejk is a subtle and clever character". It needs to be pointed out here that according to our opinion the previous translator, not us, is responsible for the shift. Richard Seltzer also wrote: "In Parrott [y]ou stumble forward in the text just remembering that this is a stupid man who sells ugly dogs. In contrast, the diction in the new translation flows naturally and puts Svejk in charge of his own destiny." So the new translation is a "must read", concludes Richard Seltzer.
The Portland Oregonian's reviewer Bob Hicks wrote this about our translation on Christmas Eve 2000: "Their lean, taut language is much more conversational, much quicker and much funnier line for line." We are of the opinion that our translation only mirrors the lean quality of the original language. Mr. Parrott embellishes Svejk's language to make it "flowery". Bob Hicks continues: "This new translation makes brilliant sense of the rambling, episodic nature of Hasek's storytelling. What can seem like a flaw in Parrott's version becomes in Joyce and Sadlon's translation central to the book's method and message. Sadlon and Joyce's new translation is so joyful and audacious in its headlong hurtle through Hasek's story that it deserves to become the standard English version."
Let us transport ourselves to the British Isles now. James Partridge of Oxford University wrote regarding our effort in Winter 2001, as we found out two years later: "while it is easy to criticize Parrott's work, he should also be respected for his devotion to Hasek". That of course has nothing to do with the quality of his or our translation. Then follows a false compliment: "The intermittent errors and clumsy diction make this translation frequently frustrating to read, even though many pages are more or less accurate renditions of Hasek's original." And at last: "Sadlon and Joyce are right to criticise Parrott's rather wooden attempts at humour, but they, unfortunately, do no better themselves."
Michelle Woods added her voice in August, 2002. First her summary: "perhaps the major problem with their translation is that it consolidates and expands on the limitations of Parrott=s version." She admits at least something minimally positive when in spite of the variances from the literal text she admonishes us for she writes: "the changes are subtle". She also adds: "all of reviews quoted are, it seems, from non-Czech speakers. This suggests that Sadlon and Joyce have been successful in making the translation more accessible to a domestic readership, but is no recommendation that the translation is faithful in spirit to the Czech version." Michelle Woods did not know yet that many Czech readers had been responding positively and enthusiastically to our translation.
Here are several examples of both Czech and English readers' reaction to our translation: "Yes, there can be a near-perfect translation. A translation that serves justice to Hasek's language. I didn't realize how stilted Parrott's language was until I read your translation. Sadlon and Joyce, to my mind, have taken things a step further by restoring the book's fresh, journalistic, crude energy. I must say that I am ecstatic about your new translation of Svejk. Reading the opening of the first chapter I was entertained in the same degree (and in the same spots) as by the Czech original. In addition, this new translation also preserves the rhythm of the sentences, their overall sense and spirit. That is all which the old translation lacks in a catastrophic measure. It is a fabulous translation! It is so much better than the Penguin [edition]. The Parrott translation used to put me to sleep. This translation makes me laugh so hard I have a hard time going to sleep. I read the Czech original and pondered upon the possibility of English translation, so I read the English preview on your page. It was surprisingly close to the original. I also read the fragments of the Parrot's translation and found it bad."
What's Up Ahead
The experiences gained in translating Book One resulted in the current more stringent work regiment for the rest of the project. Insertions, omissions and errors will be limited to a minimum.
It is also possible that the original paragraphs will be preserved. In that regard, however, it is necessary to add: The formalistic dilemma of whether to preserve or divide some paragraphs is, from the point of view of the communicative effect, a false one because it abstracts reality ad absurdum. The manner in which people communicate and are willing or even just able to receive and in the end actually do receive the communicated messages, changes. Not long after Hasek's passing on, the literary public became aware of Ernest Hemingway, then came television, and now there is the Internet. If a reader is unable to get "lost in Svejk's garrulousness" due to the paragraphs delineated by the translator, then there is something wrong with the language of the translation or the reader's ability to perceive and process ideas after having received the visual sensation. Is the Old Testament in Christian Bibles defective in comparison with the Torah because it contains paragraphs? How about vowels?
Svejk. What is it about? Who is authorized to render a judgment? A Czech? A non-Czech? An academician? A laborer? A local resident or a globetrotter? James Partridge of Oxford University wrote: "For Sadlon, Svejk is simply a "quintessential, working-class citizen-soldier" (xvii), closer to the man as played by Rudolf Hrusínský in the charming but rather anodynic film made in the 1950s than he is to the more elusive and textual Svejk of Hasek's novel." Mr. Partridge has no idea that my conception of a working class man is worlds apart from the concept which was realized by Rudolf Hrusínský in that film made during the era of Communist contentment. In fact, mine is the result of experiences of a working class existence in empirical socialism on one hand and empirical capitalism on the other.
I hope that from these lines it is possible to make an independent conclusion that it is necessary to go beyond the boundaries of translating. What is needed is an intense, energetic and open discussion. The great lagging of Svejk behind Catch-22 amounts to wasting Czech literary heritage. Now several questions: Where is an objective evaluation of the previous translation? Why does a better translation not exist? How many camps holding different views of Jaroslav Hasek and Svejk are there? From my vantage point, both Jaroslav Hasek and Svejk are victims of attempts to assassinate their character. Outside of Czechlands it is excusable. In Czechlands it is understandable, but sad. The virtual nonexistence of Svejk awareness in the United States is one of the major literary crimes of the 20th century.
Zenny K. Sadlon
*All four books have been released in three volumes as e-books and paperbacks since the writing of this report.
|Česká verze/Czech version|