The resurrection of the Good Soldier Svejk. New translation brings classic comedy to life.



a book review by Richard Seltzer,
seltzer@seltzerbooks.com                                                         www.samizdat.com
published at www.isyndicate.com on July 18, 2000

(reproduced with a permission by the author)

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A new translation of Good Soldier Svejk brings alive a comic novel that has
an enormous reputation in Europe, but which had been rarely read in English
because of the poor quality of the translation in the standard Penguin
edition. Written in Czech in the 1920s, Svejk is set in Austria-Hungary
during World War I, a country which was a figment of bureaucratic
imagination, with borders constructed by political compromise and military
conquest and which held in subjection numerous nationalities, with different
languages and cultures.

In the Penguin edition, translated by Cecil Parrott, The Good Soldier Svejk
is mildly funny because of the thick-headed stupidity of Svejk, and one
episode seems to follow another, without you ever getting a feeling for his
personality. As you get used to the non-sequitur style of his responses to
bureaucratic figures, the humor becomes stale, and this becomes one of those
books that you read just because you feel an obligation to do so, just
because you've seen this work referred to reverently so many times.

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
who deliberately pretends to be stupid, and uses this stupidity to mock
authority, through his refusal to play the game of life by their rules. Here
you laugh with Svejk, rather than at him, and the more you get to know him,
the more you like him. In fact, the difference in tone is set right at the
beginning, where the translators explain that Svejk is pronounced "Shvake"
and rhymes with "bake", and they say, "So, now you're ready to Svejk and bake!"

In many passages, you see some of the same words and phrases in both
editions. But in the Parrott translation, the effect is stilted and
unnatural. You move along at a halting pace, while in the new translation,
the narrative flows smoothly, letting you focus on the character. Parrott
includes numerous footnotes to explain the terminology in the text, while
the new version generally makes the text self-explanatory, only rarely
resorting to footnotes. Often Parrott uses an archaic term that sends you to
a dictionary or distances the story from your personal experience. The new
translation uses contemporary terms. Parrott judiciously avoids "dirty
words"; while the new version uses common everyday obscenity. Even the
punctuation in the Parrott edition distances the reader from the story,
using single quotes (') where modern usage calls for double quotes ("),
omitting the period after "Mr" and "Mrs", omitting commas where they would
be natural, and letting sentences ramble on, perhaps to faithfully or
literally render the original, but making it difficult for the reader to
follow the train of thought.

Consider the opening of the book:

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Parrott --

'And so they've killed our Ferdinand,' [footnote] said the charwoman to Mr
Svejk, who had left military service years before, after having been finally
certified by an army medical board as an imbecile, and now lived by selling
dogs -- ugly, mongrel monstrosities whose pedigrees he forged.

Apart from this occupation he suffered from rheumatism and was at this very
moment rubbing his knees with Elliman's embrocation.

'Which Ferdinand, Mrs Muller?' he asked, going on with the massaging, 'I
know two Ferdinands. One is a messenger at Prusa's, the chemist's, and once
by mistake he drank a bottle of hair oil there. And other is Ferdinand
Kokoska who collects dog manure. Neither of them is any loss.'

'Oh no, sir, it's His Imperial Highness, the Archduke Ferdinand, from
Konopiste, the fat churchy one.'

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Sadlon and Joyce --

"So they've done it to us," said the cleaning woman to Mr. Svejk. "They've
killed our Ferdinand."

Svejk had been discharged from military service years ago when a military
medical commission had pronounced him to be officially an imbecile. Now, he
was making his living by selling dogs, ugly mongrel mutants that he sold as
purebreds by forging their pedigrees. In addition to this demeaning
vocation, Svejk also suffered from rheumatism and was just now rubbing his
aching knees with camphor ice.

"Which Ferdinand, Mrs. Muller?" he asked. "I know two Ferdinands. One is the
pharmacist Prusa's delivery boy, who drank up a whole bottle of hair potion
once by mistake. And then, I know one Ferdinand Kokoska, who collects dog
turds. Neither one would be much of a loss."

"But Mr. Svejk! They killed the Archduke Ferdinand, the one from Konopiste,
the fat one, the religious one."

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In Parrott, Svejk was "finally certified" as an imbecile, while in the new
translation he had been pronounced "to be officially an imbecile" by a
bureaucratic body. In other words, Parrott's text implies that he actually
is stupid, while the new text makes a distinction between reality and what
the Austrian government and military proclaim to be reality. That difference
is at the heart of understanding and enjoying this remarkable book.

The consequences become apparent almost immediately. In Parrott, Svejk's
occupation -- selling "mongrel monstrosities whose pedigrees he forged" --
is just one of a number of odd facts jumbled together in rapid succession.
You 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 "selling dogs, ugly mongrel mutants that
he sold as purebreds by forging their pedigrees." This man makes a living by
fooling people. That's hardly what you'd expect of an "imbecile". Rather,
it's what you'd expect of someone smart enough to get discharged from the
military as an imbecile -- a complex and interesting character, who can
challenge and beat the establishment, not by confronting it head-to-head,
but by doing and saying everything it asks of him, with an innocent and
compliant smile. If you enjoyed Heller's Catch-22, you'll enjoy the Good
Soldier Svejk. But Svejk is a far more subtle and complex and interesting
character than Yossarian. Here we have a unique and comic form of rebellion.
Here we have a character whose unassuming behavior repeatedly shows up the
stupidity of the people and the system that have labeled him as stupid. Here
we have an ordinary man-of-the-street repeatedly tripping up officers and
government officials, making a mockery of them, while seeming to maintain a
childlike, almost holy innocence. He's a confidence man posing as a holy
fool. His is the wisdom of the streets, the wisdom of the downtrodden
playing on the naivete of those in authority.

So the new translation is a "must read," but where can you find it? It was
published by the translators themselves, rather than by a major publishing
company. Hence you can't find it on the shelves of physical book stores and
you probably won't find a copy in your local library. But you can buy it
online in a print-on-demand edition, either from the print-on-demand site --
www.1stbooks.com -- or at Amazon.com. Look for "The Fateful Adventures of
the Good Soldier Svejk." This edition only includes "book one," but that's a
self-contained work that reads like a complete novel. And if enough people
order volume, hopefully the translators will soon make the rest available as well.

I placed my order at the 1st Books Web site and paid by credit card --
$10.95, plus standard shipping. Five days later the book arrived at my
house -- an attractive, professional looking, easy to read, and well bound
paperback book.

If the word spreads, this way of producing and distributing books could and
should become the norm. With no waste in printing and distributing and
warehousing large quantities of books that people don't want, the costs and
risks of book publishing could diminish greatly. And that could lead to an
increase in the variety and quality of books readily available to the
public. In other words, today, thanks to the Internet as a means of
connecting buyers and sellers, we are seeing the beginnings of a major
revolution in book publishing, still long before electronic books begin to
replace paper.