The Resurrection of Good Soldier Svejk

review of a new translation of Good Soldier Svejk by Jarosav Hasek

by Richard Seltzer, seltzer@samizdat.com, www.samizdat.com


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 by Jaroslav Hasek 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 Emmit 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:


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.'


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 Konopste, the fat one, the religious one."


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 this 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.


Discuss books at  Blogging about Books http://www.samizdat.com/blog/
Other book reviews by Richard Seltzer

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