TRANSLATING SCHWEIK.

Three years ago Michelle Woods reviewed a couple of translations of The Good Soldier Švejk; it’s the kind of detailed critique and comparison that isn’t easily summarized, so I’ll just quote a representative bit and send you over to Jacket:

In some cases, indeed, interesting avenues are opened up in their use of American slang. For instance, when Švejk is arrested for sedition and sits with other imprisoned innocents, Sadlon and Joyce use the phrase ‘how they had gotten into this mess’ (Sadlon and Joyce, 11) which may suggest to many English-language speakers connotations of Laurel and Hardy, thereby contextualizing Švejk in a domestic comic tradition:

Švejk sat down with those at the table. They were explaining to each other, for the tenth time, how they had gotten into this mess. (Sadlon and Joyce, 11)

However, given Sadlon and Joyce’s claims that this is by far the closest translation, and their lack of acknowledgement that it is simply a contemporary and deliberately Americanized view of the translation, some caveats have to be issued. This is apparent from a literal translation of the Czech version of the above sentences (in the omission of material and the division of the sentence):

Švejk sat down at the table in the company of conspirators, who were, already for the tenth time, retelling how they had got into this. (Švejk CZ, 20)

Parrott in this instance is closer to the Czech version, keeping the ironic reference to the conspirators and using the same lexical structure:

Švejk sat down at the table with the conspirators, who were recounting at least for the tenth time how they had got there. (Parrott, 16)

It is a tough nut to crack. Perhaps the only way to produce a translation that serves the original well, in terms of the slang, is to keep updating it. Given the reluctance of the publishing industry to pay for new translations and new editions, perhaps the internet offers the opportunity for this (with non-copyrighted works), but there also has to be an awareness on the part of readers that this may not be, as the translators might claim, the better translation.

Incidentally, I’m never going to read my Czech edition (Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka, Prague, 1968); if anyone would like it and is willing to pay for postage, let me know. [Sold!]

Comments

  1. I certainly would like it, and am willing to pay postage, if no one’s beaten me to the punch via email.

  2. …and had she used that “Magyar” bit for comparisons? (sorry, can’t get to the article now, from work)
    Or may be you could try to translate it?
    Here’s a Russian version that become a classic:
    “Иной мадьяр не виноват что он мадьяр”.
    It’s been torturing me since yesterday.

  3. Andrew: You’ve got it. Send me an e-mail (languagehat AT gmail) and we’ll work out the details.
    Tatyana: Thanks, googling that phrase got me some funny uses!

  4. Oh man, that book!! I read the Penguin edition my freshman spring, when I was in my Czech literature phase. “This will be a nice, brief respite midway through reading Kundera’s complete works,” I thought. Yeah, NOT. By the time I was halfway through it, I understood why poor Hasek died before finishing the damn thing. I have tried to work “humbly report, sir, I’m done” into every possible conversation since then, though!

  5. But if the slang in the translation starts to date or become opaque, doesn’t that simply reflect the effect the original has on a native speaker?

  6. Uses are uses, but have you tried to translate it? Since you still have the book in original, it probably makes more sense to look it up there. Please, I have to get it out of my head.
    Googling the phrase, have you noticed this excerpt? That’s the book PF got – and never said anything about it. I suspect it’s not too academic for him…

  7. I’ll always be grateful to Hašek for one of my best grades in History class: we had to write a report on a World War I book and I chose it, to the teacher’s great surprise.

  8. Tatyana: The phrase is towards the end of this section: “Nìkerej Maïar taky za to nemùže, že je Maïar.” (Should be Někerej Mad’ar taky za to nemúže, že je Mad’ar, according to my physical copy, p. 296, with the circle-u instead of ú.) Someone who actually knows Czech will have to translate it.

  9. Something like “It’s not some Magyar’s fault he’s a Magyar.”

  10. By the way, how are the passages in other languages than Czech (German, Hungarian etc) treated in translations in general? When the book was finally translated directly from Czech to Finnish in 1991, the non-Czech passages were left as such in the text, and the translations were given in the endnotes. At least that gives the reader a good introduction to cursing in German and Hungarian…

  11. Woods is no protagonist for the Sadlon/Joyce translation. In fact, I come away a little unsure about what she believes overall, although that may have been the intent.
    I straddle the line between the romantic in me that grew up on the Parrott version and was led as by the pied piper through a strangely humorous and foreign parable; and the anal retentive that would like to read dissertations on the translation nuances, so that further lost elements of the story can be enjoyed.
    It’s the same (for me) with any translated work, though. I’m less apt to persist or value it highly if slipshod construction or language is evident. And if it’s well written yet poorly reflective of the original, I’ll never know.

  12. Michael Farris says:

    Why Magyar? (and why mad’jar and Madziar in the Russian and Polish translations?)
    As far as I can tell, mad’ar is the ordinary word for Hungarian in Czech, but it’s not the ordinary word in English or Polish (or Russian IINM).
    What am I missing? (Is it also a proper name in the story?)
    I also share the question about what’s wrong with a translation that reads as dated if the original would also read as dated to a native speaker of Czech? (or would it?)

  13. In the Russian translation that I guess is the only one and thus the canon, most German and Hungarian passages are left intact, too (“Ich melde gehorsam, Herr Oberst, ich bin besoffen!”) but some extraordinary passages are rendered phonetically via cyrillics. Such as a Polish-Austrian soldier’s desperate warning: “Bendze scheissen!” (He was trying to say “I will shoot!”)
    They say Svejk sounds excellent in Ukrainian, almost as good as in Czech.

  14. I assume they use “Hungarian” in the English translations; I can’t speak for the Polish and Russian ones.
    I also share the question about what’s wrong with a translation that reads as dated if the original would also read as dated to a native speaker of Czech
    Because you’re trying to render the effect intended by the writer. Do you think Hasek would want to be represented by antique, sometimes incomprehensible slang and other references? If translation should render the effect the original has on modern readers, should Tang poetry be translated into Old English? And what would you do about stuff written before English even existed? No, translations should give as close an approximation as possible to the effect produced by the language of the original on its original readers: archaic where the original is archaic, up to date where the original is (in its time) up to date.

  15. Thanks, LH and Andrew, it’s better than clunky constructions I was coming up with; still not as good even as Russian translation. In Russian Иной implies there could be one person, sort of exception to the iron-clad rule of “no-good Magyars”, in this patent Svejk’s phony philisophical musing-like manner.
    Interesting, does Czech has the same connotation?
    Michael F, Magyar has double flavor in Russian: 1) anachronism, dated to the period of the book 2) unofficial, casual name for Hungarians; sometimes close to derogatory, sometimes more like friendly teasing.
    At least in my understanding.

  16. >>No, translations should give as close an approximation as possible to the effect produced by the language of the original on its original readers: archaic where the original is archaic, up to date where the original is (in its time) up to date.

  17. Anders Lotsson says:

    The point to remember is: You don’t do a translation for those who know the original language. You do it for those who don’t.

  18. Oh lady (Bridget)! It was the first assigned fiction I read at University,
    a very memorable experience.
    Is that Antti H of Virginia, above?

  19. Oh, that’s a fair point, Michael. Were I not translating that off the cuff, I’d have used “Hungarian,” I suppose, but I just like the word Magyar, and, through the Czech exposure, don’t really register it as that odd in English. So that’s my idiosyncrasy there.
    And for Tatyana, the “N?kerej” is first of all a colloquial variant of the literary more “N?ktery´” (one, some–derived from the realtive pronoun) and does seem odd in this context to me, ‘some Hungarian’ either as a general case (any old one) or as a specific there’s only one-type deal. But I am not a native speaker, so these are perhaps not the best instincts.

  20. Michael Farris says:

    “No, translations should give as close an approximation as possible to the effect produced by the language of the original on its original readers: archaic where the original is archaic, up to date where the original is (in its time) up to date.”
    I do understand the ideal of recreating the source experience for the target audience. But I think if taken to extremes, it can lead to a kind of double standard: Translations should inevitably be modern, even though native language literature is full of old stuff that can puzzle modern readers or go straight over their heads.
    If I were to read Schweik in English translation (not something I’m likely to do) I’d rather a version that read more to me like it does to a Czech reader of my vintage than a more modernized version. I can understand someone wanting a more modern version, it’s just not what I would opt for, given the choice.
    There are cases where that won’t be possible. Shakespeare translated as I understand it would just confuse/irritate readers as much as I was confused/irritated when they force fed it to me in high school. But a lot of the time I think it’s a reasonable alternative.

  21. it can lead to a kind of double standard: Translations should inevitably be modern, even though native language literature is full of old stuff that can puzzle modern readers or go straight over their heads.
    That’s not a double standard, it’s apples and oranges. Of course “native language literature is full of old stuff that can puzzle modern readers”; it’s old. But it wasn’t old when it was written, and I fail to see why translations should reproduce an accidental feature of the passage of time. It’s like shooting scenes of WWI in black and white because surviving film from the period is in black and white — people who lived through it were experiencing it in color, and to continue to show it in b&w now that color film is available is distancing the audience for no good reason.
    Of course, you may prefer antique-sounding translations (as do I in some cases: the Bible, Rabelais), but that’s a personal preference and not a philosophy of translation.

  22. “That’s not a double standard, it’s apples and oranges. Of course “native language literature is full of old stuff that can puzzle modern readers”; it’s old. But it wasn’t old when it was written, and I fail to see why translations should reproduce an accidental feature of the passage of time.”
    The keynto translation or any other kind of writing is knowing your audience, and in the case of translation, that is the language community you are targeting. One perfect translation for the ages is chimerical, and that’s just for the target audience. The dilemma is trying to come up with one translation that reproduces the effect on two separate source audiences, present-day and also of the period inwhich the work was written. You are not just shooting at a moving target, you are shooting at two separate targets.
    “If translation should render the effect the original has on modern readers, should Tang poetry be translated into Old English? ”
    Well that is certainly not an option. Old English is not going to sound to a modern English speaker they way that Tang poetry sounds to a modern Chinese speaker. Tang Chinese sounds refined and polished to a modern Chinese and Old English sounds barbarous, only half a rung up the evolutionary ladder from German.

  23. But, LH, isn’t what you advocating analogous to amusing modern opera productions, where Vagner characters are dressed in jeans or Juliette jumps behind Romeo on his motorcycle?

  24. Not at all. That would be like, I don’t know, “translating” Tolstoy into rap or something. There’s a difference between bringing something up to date and dragging it into a nightclub. I agree it’s likely to seem silly if you put Romeo and Juliet on a motorcycle, but you have to do something; it’s impossible to present it “as it was in Shakespeare’s day” — we just don’t know enough — and even if we could, people probably wouldn’t like it. The way we think about and respond to theater has changed. But again, that’s apples and oranges; the text of a novel stays fixed in a way that a theatrical experience cannot.
    Jim: I confess I don’t understand what you mean about “shooting at two separate targets.” You’re trying to put, say, Tolstoy into English in a way that doesn’t make him sound like a dusty fossil. What’s so bifurcated about that?

  25. Michael Farris says:

    What about a compromise. Using Schweik, the language should be similar to that of a modern novel that takes place in the same time (in this case WWI). I don’t know how many (if any) writers are tackling that time period now, but that’s where I would start if I were doing it.
    And the shooting at two targets metaphor makes perfect sense to me, I’d say it’s the normal state of translation though and not reserved to older works.
    Finally, the director’s track of Moulin Rouge explains that in the Can Can sequence they were trying to create something that would sound to modern audiences the way the original would sound to the original audience (it was basically shady and disreputable street culture of the time, after all). It was interesting in that movie, but I wouldn’t want to read a version of Schweik where he expresses approval with “It’s the Sh*t!” (the link mentioned it’s scatalogical properties).

  26. I have translated and published Schweik from the Bulgarian (a close language to Czech) into Hebrew, no mean exercise. The original happens to be in a very coarse and simple way of expression, and the author has noted on that a few times.
    All the English translations sound very tame, sound wrong in the English terms and not at all funny.
    More the pity.

  27. All the English translations sound very tame, sound wrong in the English terms and not at all funny.
    I often have this reaction to translations from Russian.

  28. While I agree Bulgarian to Hebrew translation is no mean exercise, I wonder why did you start from Bulgarian, and not from original Czech?
    More middlemen, more distortion, that’s my view.

  29. Honza Roleček says:

    Hello, still interested in the correct translation of the sentence “Některej Maďar taky nemůže za to, že je Maďar”? As a native speaker, I will try to explain.
    1) Maďar is an official and commonly used Czech word for a citizen of Hungary
    2) “Některej Maďar” means “some Hungarian” or “some Magyar”
    3) The whole sentence means: “There are also such Hungarians who are not to blame they are Hungarians”. The word “taky” (= also in English) is important in this respect: it means that there ARE some (maybe most, or even all except one) Hungarians who are to blame they are Hungarians; I think this makes the sentence be really funny, as it weakens the opposition of this Švejk´s statement to Vodička´s statement “Maďaři jsou, zkrátka řečeno, holota”, which means “Hungarians are, briefly said, vermin/rabble/crew”.
    My English is not as good as my Czech, so please don´t hesitate to ask me if it still remains unclear.

  30. Thank you so much, Honza, that’s fits perfectly into my understanding.
    Just proved again to me how good the old Russian translations were (compared to sketchy jobs they do now, especially from English).

  31. Michael Farris says:

    thanks honza, I don’t think that the “also” can remain in English and still have any bite.
    “there are also hungarians who aren’t to blame for being hungarians”
    to me, that’s long, and not very graceful or idiomatic
    “there could also be some hungarian who can’t help being hungarian”
    a little better, but although the modal is necessary (for me) it weakens the sentence to much. and I think plural works better in most kinds of English.
    “on the other hand, not every hungarian is to blame for being hungarian”
    closer, and I’m starting to like this one, but the ‘on the other hand’ at the beginning of the sentence (no other place for it) weakens it a little
    “you can’t blame _all_ hungarians for being hungarian”
    with contrastive stress on ‘all’, is about as close as I can come in modern NAmerican English.

  32. You might want click on every hyperlink at http://www.SvejkCentral.com. Look under Societal Phenomenon: Challenges of translating Švejk into English – A report on the experimental project of its “Chicago version”.

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