TRANSLATING CAPEK.

Andrew Malcovsky has started Fables and Understories, in which he’s translating Karel Čapek’s Bajky a podpovídky (1946), “a posthumous collection of the author’s short pieces.” He says:

Please feel free to get in touch with me—mercilessly (if politely!) targeting my weaknesses can only, in fact, make me stronger. I may have tossed some stuff up here without a third or fourth pass, and the more eyes the merrier!

So if you know Czech, help him out; if you don’t, just relax and enjoy the Čapek! (He’s the guy who wrote the play, R.U.R., in which the word robot was first used, though he didn’t invent it.)

Comments

  1. Now that’s just cool, respect to Andrew.
    A propos of ‘robot’: note this bit of historical revisionism: the author of this post asserts that the word “robot” had been used at least 300 years before RUR and insists that neither of the Čapeks invented “the form nor the semantic content” of this word. All of this based on his misreading of a few German sources (the earliest from 1626), among them an entry from 1886’s Brockhaus Conversations Lexikon. As pointed out by some better informed folk in the comments, the encyclopedia entry speaks of “Fronen” = “compulsory labor performed for a feudal lord” and not of people. Plus, there is a huge difference between “die Robote” and “der Robot”.
    Also, there is this historian dude who claims that Jozef Čapek got the inspiration from Slovak where “robiť” and its derivation “robota” is a native word, whereas the native Czech equivalent is “dělat”. He offers no evidence, however.

  2. Steiner’s chapter on Čapek in “Deserts of Bohemia” is terribly sad. Čapek was a close ally of Masaryk and did what he could to help Czechoslovakia survive a genuinely hopeless situation. He was a very reasonable, moderate man and was symoathetic to Deweyan pragmatism — rare in Europe. He died shortly after the Munich Pact.
    Besides “robot” (possibly) another neologism of Slovak origin is “dobro” — the resonator guitar often heard in folk or country music. Wiki:
    “Dobro” is both a contraction of “Dopyera brothers” and a word meaning “good” in their native Slovak language. An early company motto was “Dobro means good in any language”.

  3. Not actually a neologism, quite, I guess.

  4. Yay! Thanks for the mention. I had a bunch of the stuff done in various places, and thought it might work well as a blog when I was looking for New Year’s resolutions.
    A professor I had in Brno claimed both “pistol” and “dollar” were Czech words in English. Dollar seems like it needn’t have gone through Czech from [Joachims]thaler, though.

  5. I believe that the OED agrees about pistol. Also “howitzer” if I’m not mistaken. The Hussites left a bigger mark than people understand.

  6. Yup. The entry was just revised last December:
    < French pistole (1544), prob. < early modern German regional (Silesia) pisschulle, pischol, pischczal, bitschol, etc. (1421 as pisschulle; cf. German Pistole (a1607)) < Czech píšt’ala, píščala, spec. use of píst’ala whistle, pipe, flute (app. first applied during the Hussite wars to a weapon with a barrel and a clear-sounding shot; in modern Czech the word was reborrowed from French or German as pistole).

  7. Oh, and howitzer is from Czech houfnice ‘stone-sling, catapult.’

  8. Good ol’ General Žižka–I’d forgotten about ‘howitzer’.

  9. The Czechs peaked too early.

  10. I was curious as to the original wording of Čapek’s letter. I see that it is at Lidové noviny, 1933-12-24 (or as they write it, 24.12.1933), page 12. And a recent Czech article on the topic has the original text of the letter:

    O SLOVĚ ROBOT

    Zmínka prof. Chudoby o tom, jak se podle svědectví Oxfordského slovníku ujalo slovo robot a jeho odvozeniny v angličtině, mne upomíná na starý dluh. To slovo totiž nevymyslel autor hry R.U.R., nýbrž toliko je uvedl v život. Bylo to tak: v jedné nestřežené chvíli napadla řečeného autora látka na tu hru. I běžel s tím zatepla na svého bratra Josefa, malíře, který zrovna stál u štafle a maloval po plátně, až to šustělo.

    „Ty, Josef,“ začal autor, „já bych měl myšlenku na hru.“

    „Jakou,“ bručel malíř (opravdu bručel, neboť držel přitom v ústech štětec).

    Autor mu to řekl tak stručně, jak to šlo.

    „Tak to napiš,“ děl malíř, aniž vyndal štětec z úst a přestal natírat plátno. Bylo to až urážlivě lhostejné.

    „Ale já nevím,“ řekl autor, „jak mám ty umělé dělníky nazvat. Řekl bych jim laboři, ale připadá mně to nějak papírové.“

    „Tak jim řekni roboti,“ mumlal malíř se štětcem v ústech a maloval dál. A bylo to. Tím způsobem se tedy zrodilo slovo robot; budiž tímto přiřčeno svému skutečnému původci.

    I was wondering about the phrase “Řekl bych jim laboři, ale připadá mně to nějak papírové.” The translation linked to above says: “I could call them Labori, but that strikes me as a bit bookish.” However, another translation (Margolius,Ivan. “The Robot of Prague”. The Friends of Czech Heritage, Autumn 2017, #17) has that as “I could call them labouri, but that strikes me as a bit literal.”

    I guess I’ll leave this as an open question for any Czech-speakers wandering by: Does laboři seem “literal”, or does it seem “bookish”? These are very distinct concepts in English — “horseless carriage” and “driver” are very literal terms; “Phaeton” and “Jehu” are very bookish.

    (Google translate is no help; it says that “papírové” means “paper”. Pfaugh!)

    A different point: the third-person narrative seems like an awkward attempt to be cutesy. Karel calling himself “the author” undermines the fact that Josef also wrote. Am I detecting a little passive-aggressive sniping?

  11. Wow, thanks for finding that! My big Czech-English dictionary says papírový (in the transferred/metaphorical sense) is “bookish, cardboard, lifeless.”

  12. My big Czech-English dictionary says papírový (in the transferred/metaphorical sense) is “bookish, cardboard, lifeless.”

    Maybe “dry”, in the metaphorical sense?

    (OED “dry”, adj.)

    16. Lacking adornment or embellishment, or some addition; meagre, plain, bare; matter-of-fact.

    17. Deficient in interest; unattractive, distasteful, insipid.

    18. a. Art. Characterized by stiff and formal outlines; lacking in softness or mellowness; frigidly precise.

    Maybe I’m confused by the “bookish” part, which to me seems to imply “learned; erudite” primarily. In the case of “laboři”, I wondered if he was saying that, as a Latin-derived term, it was too high-register; too obviously upper class.

  13. Maybe I’m confused by the “bookish” part, which to me seems to imply “learned; erudite” primarily.

    To me it just means “more likely to be found in books than in speech,” which would seem to be the implication of the Czech ‘paper.’ I think “bookish” works well here — certainly better than “dry,” which has too many other possible senses.

  14. January First-of-May says:

    To me it just means “more likely to be found in books than in speech,” which would seem to be the implication of the Czech ‘paper.’ I think “bookish” works well here — certainly better than “dry,” which has too many other possible senses.

    For what it’s worth, the Russian translator went with книжное. I suspect that the intended meaning was probably something to the effect of “I’m afraid it would sound too fancy”.

    Czech píšt’ala, píščala, spec. use of píst’ala whistle, pipe, flute

    In other words, пищали пищали. Somehow I never actually figured out before that those two words were directly related.

    (A Russian пищаль is some kind of cannon, not a pistol, though I don’t recall offhand which kind of cannon.
    IIRC, pistole, as in the coin, is of the same origin, but I’m not sure of the details of how that happened.)

    Oh, and howitzer is from Czech houfnice ‘stone-sling, catapult.’

    Russian гаубица (stress on the у, I believe) – dunno why the б.

  15. гаубица (stress on the у

    гаубица

  16. dunno why the б.

    “Gav, gav…. But how to pronounce this word, your nobleness?”

    “Try to say it like golubitsa”

  17. PlasticPaddy says:

    @jfom
    Regarding the b in Haubitze and the Russian and Polish equivalents, the Czech original had fn instead of b, and was originally borrowed with fn into German. According to DWDS, the current German spelling is attested from 1700. Maybe there was contamination with the placename Haubitz in Saxony.

  18. Still wondering about “laboři”, I did a Google Books search. The first hit has a paraphrase of what Capek wrote:

    Měl pro ně už sice název – „ laboři “ – ten se mu však zdál příliš vyumělkovaný . Aniž přerušil malování , utrousil Josef sedící za štaflemi s rozpracovaným plátnem : „ Tak jim říkej , roboti “ . . . “ A nové slovo bylo na světě .

    Google translates:

    He already had a name for them – “Labor” – but it seemed too artificial. Without interrupting the painting, Joseph said, sitting behind the ladders with the canvas in progress, “Call them robots.” . . ” And a new word was born.

    Hm. So now “papírové” is “artificial”? Well, at least one Czech thought so.

  19. January First-of-May says:

    гаубица

    “Gav, gav…. But how to pronounce this word, your nobleness?”

    …This explains the scene in Ferdinand the Magnificent where the titular protagonist has to give a speech at an army parade, but he sucks at speeches, so after some discussion the whole thing had been shortened to one word: “howitzer”.

    Unfortunately, Ferdinand the Magnificent happens to be a dog, so he gets stuck at the first syllable…

  20. vyumělkovaný příd.
    artificial, (strojený) affected, mannered

  21. Owlmirror says:

    What I’m actually wondering is how common words that are a form of (Latin) “labor” are, and maybe other Latin and Latin-based words. Given that Latin was the language of scholarship for so long, perhaps any Czech with a reasonable education would have recognized the term “laboři” as deriving from “labor”.

    What I am suspecting, now, is this: Čapeck had in mind a stunningly melodramatic narrative in mind. New life is created! The new life is immediately put to work without pay! The new life revolts! The new life is victorious! The new life replaces humanity, transcending its old limitations!

    His play was at least in part an indictment of the capitalist exploitation of labor. I think the problem he perceived with his first ldea,“laboři”, is not that the term is too fancy, or too erudite, or too artificial, or too literal, or too “bookish”, but rather, too cardboard or too lifeless. Too boring; too bland; too bloodless.

    Calling the constructs “laboři”, was, I guess, something like calling them “operons”, or “operators”, maybe. The workers . . . do work. OK, so?

    Given what Karel was trying to do, Josef’s suggestion might be “translated” into English as “serfator”, with perhaps a hint of “slavator”. Ignore the clunkiness; using a form of the term “serf”/”slave” emphasizes that these people-like workers do not have the full rights of fully human people; their work and their bodies are the property of the humans who make them and sell them and own them. It emphasizes, more sharply, who and what they are in the minds of Rossum and the world he lives in, creates the “robots” in, and sells them in.

    So that’s what I think, for now, about laboři being papírové, until someone with more understanding of Čapeck comes along with a better argument.

  22. David Marjanović says:

    would have recognized the term “laboři” as deriving from “labor”.

    It’s just the plural, as dinosauři is the plural of dinosaur.

    Also, -ck would be mercilessly pronounced [tsk]; names ending in -cký/-cká are indeed common.

  23. Owlmirror says:

    Čapek! Čapek!

    How did I get Čapeck twice? Oh, right, I mistyped once, and then carelessly copy-pasted.

    Gosh darn you, lazy fingers!

    Also, Gosh darn all orthographic variance! Can’t we at least all spell sownds the saym whey?

  24. I vote for Tschapekk or Tchapèque.

  25. Lars Mathiesen says:

    Tjapæk

  26. Tja!

  27. Lars Mathiesen says:

    Tjänare!

  28. January First-of-May says:
    Oh, and howitzer is from Czech houfnice ‘stone-sling, catapult.’

    Russian гаубица (stress on the у, I believe) – dunno why the б.

    In Croatian: haubica
    In older Croatian: obica.
    also has B.

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