Napište nám

I have attempted to avoid too many spoilers here, but having read this article, you may find that some of the delight and surprise will have to be faked a bit...

Who is the mysterious titular Hrdý Budžes AKA B. Proudew? First mentioned in a poetry recital, he comes to inspire eight-year-old Helena Součková to persevere through life, come what may. Only at the end of long tribulations, in which he has acted as her guiding light, is his identity finally revealed: he is a mondegreen, a mishearing. A hrdý buď, žes vytrval.” ”Be proud you persevered! Well, I warned you about the delight and surprise. Anyway, the wry twist is something of an open secret here, because when Czechs who have lived through Communist-era schooling hear the title for the first time, as a rule they will guess what it refers to eventually. They have all been there.

I admit my translation solution for the title is not ideal. One colleague came up with Proud Beethachoo, which I rather like. Still, Helena conjectures that Budžes might be a Communist, so I feel B. Proudewindeed has that faceless bureaucratic ring to it. But then for all we know he might also be a native American. Proud Beaver Chew sounds like he is from the Mondegreen tribe, or how about Proud Bee Virtue? My colleague charitably calls my solution ingenious but flawed, but then I think a literary translator sometimes has to be just that, in order to square all those pesky circles. And there were plenty of circles to square in this translation, including what I like to call Britishisms, foreignisms and awkwardisms.

Britishisms in a translation of this kind should in my view be more than just exotic ornamentals, but somewhat less than a rampant jungle. I was translating for Anglophonia as a whole, so I did not want my transatlantic readers to be baffled by a barrage of British idioms. Then again, I felt it was important to ground the text in a recognizable kind of English that reflected the character of small-town 1970s Czechoslovakia, hence an uncosmopolitan 1970s English English struck me as optimal, rather than some bland mid-Atlantic-speak. But then what is the ideal proportion of EngEng in such a translation?

An experienced American translator, Guy Tabachnick, went over my translation with a fine tooth-comb,pointing out inter alia anything that might confuse non-Brits. Our basic theory was that American readers normally enjoy learning the odd Britishism from context, but if the context itself is thick with Cockney street jive then that might just not happen. After spending almost twenty years on Czechlist, discussing the shifting linguistic miasma that dooms the British and the Americans to forever slightly misunderstand one other I am convinced that almost any paragraph of English has quite different meanings in Boston Lincs and Boston Mass. Hence even everyday words like quite have to be carefully considered. Fag was out and ciggie was in, but Americans will have to work out choc-ice for themselves. Gatehouse was considered instead of porter’s lodge, front desk instead of reception desk. I’ll be blowed had to be weighed up very carefully indeed in context, as did come a cropper, home and dry and wake(s) as a translation of posvícení, an annual local fair. Kirmess is suggested by some dictionaries as an equivalent, but I fear this would be equally lost on most Anglophones. So to answer my own question above I found a compromise between the jungle and the ornamental garden in occasional small ornamental jungles of English English.

While Britishisms will be relatively easy to navigate, foreignisms might cause more alarm. By foreignism I mean the deliberate use of an alien-sounding lexeme in order to convey some of the local colour (dreadful expression) and genius loci of the setting. This is a well-established translation technique, the reasoning behind it being that if we paint the Czechs in very English colours we are throwing out the bath with the bathwater and the baby. I do not believe readers nowadays want everything handed to them on atraditional Wedgewood plate with chips and gravy, so that the plot might just as well have taken place in Surbiton. Quite the reverse, when you choose to read a translation e.g. of Dostoyevsky you want to smell the samovars and hear the clatter of penniless princesses’ carriage wheels on the cobblestones. You want to learn the minutiae of everyday lives abroad along with all those little foreign things that foreigners do, don’t you? Well, most of the time. With just an occasional helping hand. So I am actually something of an 80:20 man on this.

Where once we had footnotes we now have the internet, so as a rule I feel confident that readers will appreciate the subtly different cultural details, which they can then research for themselves at their leisure. That way we learn from our leisure reading. For example, I argued long and hard with my editors to retain details of school realia such as the marking and school report system. Such nuances as Comrade Teacher instead of Comrade plus the teacher’s surname were retained. You do not buy fiction in translation to read the same TV school soap operas reenacted elsewhere in time and space.

So when one editor pointed out that Trade Fair Palace sounds very Communist in English I said it was meant to. Likewise House of Culture sounds deliberately alien, partly because that is how Dům kulturycomes across to many Czechs to this day. Perhaps the nearest British cultural equivalent is a Community Centre, but I feel that sounds rather bland and inoffensive in comparison. After-school groups for art and music are often called clubs in English, but I kept closer to the original kroužky with circles, with all their connotations of intimacy and perhaps exclusivity.

On the other hand, as an 80:20 man I occasionally left the original well behind in order to achieve equivalent effect on the reader. For example, mention is made of Děda Mráz and Sněhurka, two ‘folklore’imports from the Soviet Union, who were meant to replace such running dogs of Western imperialism as Father Christmas and the native Czech Ježišek. I referred to them as Comrade Frost and Comrade Snow White to convey the jarring sense that even traditions were being Sovietized. Similarly I translated an initially harsh-sounding children‘s taunt as the common British ‘cowardy, cowardy custard’ to convey what I felt was actually the standard nature of that taunt, but this was very much the exception, and I generally retained children’s lore (games and chants) as near to the original as possible. Once or twice I resorted to descriptive translations, e.g. Večerníček is a bedtime cartoon, so that is what I called it. The Communist Brownies and Cubs were known as Jiskřičky, the Little Sparks, so once they were described in the story I felt little would be lost by calling them Sparkies.

The awkwardisms came in various clashing shades of awkward. Helena‘s language is that of a bright youngster, who mixes colloquial language with formal and bookish expressions that she has picked up from her elders. Hence she quotes persevere from the recitation while tripping up over her own tongue so often that she can sound like a bad translation before the translator even has a chance. This issue is dealt with in some detail in Tim Parks’s Translating Style: “Any translation of such a text is bound to be a series of defeats and small consolatory victories.” When a character uses unusual, uneven and non-standard language it is not always a good idea to mirror this too closely in the translation. The overall effect is put across much more clearly when you compensate for the rough texture by highlighting it only where it shows up best in English. Deliberate infelicities of expression need not be reproduced where and as they occur, as they can often be reflected more tellingly elsewhere when the opportunity arises. I believe similar strategies can be found in some other translations of literature set in pre-1989 Communist Czechoslovakia and narrated from a child’s or a childlike viewpoint, e.g. in Alex Zucker’s excerpt from Petra Hůlová’s Strážci občanského dobra ( Guardians of the Public Good ), Janet Livingstone’s The Best of All Worlds, a translation of Irena Brežná’s Die Beste aller Welten (translated into Czech by Jana Zoubková as Nejlepší ze všech světů), and Julia Sherwood’s translation of Daniela Kapitáňová’s Samko Tále: Kniha o cintoríne ( Samko Tále’s Cemetery Book ), which paints an interestingly comparable picture of life under the old regime. Going back in time, a similar approach can also be found in Mark Corner‘s excellent translation of Poláček‘s classic pre-war Bylo nás pět (We Were a Handful).

Hence I only occasionally insisted on obviously clumsy phrases like ”not that that does me any good” orsomething’s wrong or something” or even “a little girl that had totally been murdered”, much to my editors’ annoyance, but in line with Tim Parks’s observation that (in moderation) this can suggest the overall offbeat style. I also found repeating ‘cos‘ (because) could be used to signal Helena’s ‘trademark’ repetitive patterns of speech, which might have fazed the Anglophone reader if I had reproduced them too ‘faithfully’.  American literary critic Jonathan Clarke wrote:  I agree that it [”cos”] works very well. In addition to solving the problem you describe, it seems to signal a precocious child’s fumbling after a solid sense of causation – why things happen and what they mean. So sometimes “cos” is a source of humor when Helena misunderstands how the world works and ascribes a causal relationship to unrelated events.  Jonathan is enthusiastic about the novel: ”It seems to me that there is some sleight of hand on Douskova’s part.”

Indeed the translator sometimes has to attempt a little conjuring too, with throwaway childish turns of phrase that sometimes have to simultaneously reflect a more universal and archetypal ”Emperor’s new clothes” perception, so that for example the repeating word divný is rendered by ‘odd’, which I judged to resonate intertextually with other young ladies from the English literary canon.

Word-play crops up throughout the work. Considering my overall foreignization strategy I admit I shamelessly deployed occasional Little Englandisms for contrasting humorous effect. An anti-Lenin song Na horách je Lenin is rendered as ”I’m Lenin on a lamppost”, with apologies to George Formby. The taunting pun on the surname Brďoch – Prďoch finds expression in the belittling ”Birdy”.

People sometimes ask me how I convey informal obecná čeština with all its distinctive lexis and endings in English.The problem is partly that this colloquial language is something of a universal sociolect here in the Czech Republic,whereas vernacular British English is often identified with a particular region. A kind of dialecteranto may be achieved with practice, but it can sound barely plausible if overdone. Hence we have the very occasional 1970sprovincialisms like the rather outdated wakes. Otherwise, informal lexis, phrasal verbs and contracted forms convey the register. I carefully avoided modern slang, so that e.g. ‘super’ was used in preference to ‘rad’, and ‘odd’ instead of ‘weird’.

Diminutives in Czech can look quite different to the forms from which they are derived, so the question arises whether one standard form of each name should be used throughout, so as not to confuse the reader. Again my preference is to stretch the reader’s attention span where possible (hence Kateřina was used interchangeably with Kačenka, because the different forms of address were sometimes of importance, and the context made it very clear who was who, but then many other names remain consistent throughout.

Tykání and vykání, the Czech equivalent of tuvoyer and vousvoyer, is a classic issue. When one character offers the informal form of address: nemusíš mi vykat (you needn‘t call me vy”), perhaps in some contexts this might have been rendered by an offer of using first names. Here I decided on ”you needn’t be so polite with me.” Sounds natural to me, but not everyone will agree.

Italicization is another interesting issue. Whereas it is traditionally quite standard in English to italicize a word for the sake of emphasis, this is rather unusual in Czech fiction, where word order and monosyllabic highlighters like vždyť and přece often do that job. In his Paragraphs on Translation Peter Newmark points out that this device is underused in English translations. Hence, for example, I rendered to se prostě tak říká as”that is how they say it”.

Some other awkward issues worth noting:

Trampské písničky: Rambling songs? Hiking songs? Hobo songs? There is perhaps something rather unique about the Czech tradition of tramping. On this particular occasion I chose rambling for its convivial connotations, though many would argue that I should have chosen hiking, for its sturdier, more rugged associations and its more general use in American English. As I have said, I am happy to reflect American usage where possible, but I would steer clear of outright Americanization in a translation of this kind from Czech, so ‘hobo’ has too many associations with a different continent for my liking here. 

Hokej: I am told that Americans and Czechs automatically understand hockey to be ice-hockey. Not so in Britain, where ‘jolly hockey sticks refers quite specifically to field hockey.

Czech cuisine: always a cause
for much head scratching (e.g. try translating rakvičky cakes, literally little coffins, with their unique meringue-like pastry. Here I was often tempted to down-translate a little. For example rizoto in a 1970s Czechoslovak school canteen was not really what we think of as risotto today.Škubánky lose some of their magic when translated as potato dumplings, but that was the whole point, when they were cooked by Grandad.

Some other interesting translation issues that arose include the explicative genitive, the use of idioms and the dative of empathy. And do browse through the Czechlist blog for more translators’ tricks of the trade.

Hrdý Budžes is deservedly a bestseller to this day here in the Czech Republic, as its popular stage production moves into its fourteenth year. Los Angeles Review of Books critic Jonathan Clarke is very positive about the novel: ”I think it is very good indeed. […] [Irena Dousková] gives us what seems at first to be a light novel, but in the end it is nothing of the sort.” I have endeavoured to reflect this dual aspect throughout my translation. If you wish to comment on my decisions, do feel free to discuss them with us on Czechlist .

Hrdý Budžes / B. Proudew

Now available as an e-book.