Found in translation
Mark Andrew Corner speaks out on his new interpretation of old Jaroslav Hašek short stories
Posted: October 10, 2012
For most, Jaroslav Hašek is essentially the author of a single book, the story of The Good Soldier Švejk, which chronicles how a bumbling dog thief became the shrewdest soldier in then-Austria's World War I army. Lesser known are the 1,500 short stories that Hašek wrote before he died in 1923, just short of turning 40. One finds some of the author's best work in these tighter tales.
Behind the Lines, a new translation by Mark Adrian Corner published by Karolinum Press, brings a cross-section of this work, spotlighting a selection of stories from before he put pen to paper for The Good Soldier Švejk.
About half of the stories in Behind the Lines focus on the Russian town of Bugulma and the adventures of the narrator, Gašek, as a newly appointed commanding officer. The snippets draw deeply from Hašek's own experiences. The author left the Czechoslovak Legions in favor of revolutionaries in 1918, joining the Red Army, mainly to work as a recruiter and propaganda writer later that year before returning to Prague in 1920.
Despite the autobiographical undercurrent, Gašek is not Hašek. As in all his writing, the author's intent is satire above all, and so the narrator of the Bugulma stories assumes the shape of a more ironic, even grotesque, Hašek.
University of Chicago Press
Though not as infused with slapstick humor of The Good Soldier Švejk, Behind the Lines entertains as Hašek takes aim at the absurdities of a revolution, starting on the very first page, when Gašek, upon being appointed commanding officer, inquires, "One other thing - how do I get to this Bugulma? I mean to say, where is it?" Hašek's exceptional feel for hyperbole creates the familiar mordant tone of this fast-paced edition. The stories are amply padded with illustrations by the comic artist Jiří Grus, who manages to intensify the satirical tone, caricaturelike qualities of the cast and the not-always-coherent realities of Gašek as a traveler on unsteady ground.
Though not well-known, the Bugulma stories first appeared in 1976 as a shorter collection and again in 1981 as part of the translation of The Red Commissar by Cecil Parrott, Hašek's famed biographer. This compilation doesn't limit itself to Bugulma, though, as it strings together a series of stories that, in one way or another, tie back to the title itself.
Behind the Lines fits well into the comedy-tinged repertoire of the Brussels-based Corner, who taught in the English Department at Charles University from 1992 to 2005. Corner has translated a number of Czech novels, including Zdeněk Jirotka's Saturnin, Vladislav Vančura's Summer of Caprice (Rozmarné léto) and Karel Poláček's We Were a Handful (Bylo nás pět). Corner took some time recently to talk about this most recent book.
The Prague Post: Why is the English version of this selection called Behind the Lines?
Mark Adrian Corner: Most of the short stories involve travel across borders in very difficult circumstances - it was the period when Central and Eastern Europe were in a state of transition following World War I - and the other short story, about meeting the author of your obituary, arguably means crossing the hardest border of all. There is also the sense of getting to the real meaning, as in "between the lines."
TPP: Did you have a say in the selection of the short stories?
MC: I'm always given a say in what is translated, but in this case it was quite easy as I liked the Bugulma tales and the other Hašek short stories from the start. What I appreciated about the selection is that they present a world rent apart by conflict, revolution and war, a world where travel is chaotic, boundaries are constantly being redrawn, hierarchies being replaced, misunderstandings appearing and being, to a degree, resolved and yet somehow, like a traveler in a disordered universe, Švejk makes his way from one difficult place or situation to another and survives. He even "survives death," coming back from the other side to tackle the author of a mean obituary. But I wouldn't say that Karolinum [Press] had quite this in mind, and they probably made a selection based on more "academic" considerations of representing different periods of Hašek's career and so on.
TPP: What elements of Cecil Parrott's translation worked for you, and where did you approach the texts differently?
MC: To be honest, I tried to keep away from it - I'm sure it was very good, but it's important to approach a translation directly without immediately asking yourself things like "I see he's done it this way, why is that? Should I do it this way as well?"
TPP: Hašek is best known for The Good Soldier Švejk, and, for years, was etched in the collective memory as a one-book author. So what new elements of Hašek's work do these stories reveal?
MC: One important thing was to bring to life Hašek as a short-story writer, and even the short story as the medium at which Hašek excelled. It could even be argued The Good Soldier Švejk itself works best when Švejk is telling funny stories, as a collection of short stories.
TPP: You've translated a number of Czech authors into English. How was it translating Hašek in comparison to the other literary translations you've done or are working on? How long did it take you to complete the translation?
MC: I am a terribly slow translator, one book a year, plus I'm doing other things in Brussels like presenting introductions to the European Union and teaching at a college. The next is Ladislav Fuks' Natalia Mooshabr's Mice (Myši Natálie Mooshabrové), which is a grotesque, Gothic horror story set in a Kafkaesque dream world, so not quite Hašek!
Hašek is not hard in the way that the prose poetry of Vančura was hard, but it is important to keep the style and pace of the original. Overall, I'm deeply conscious of the problem any translator faces, of whether you should be "precise" at the cost of making your translation read like a translation, or make the translation read in a natural way so that it can appear to be an original text, at the cost of some "inaccuracy."
While I worked in Prague, this sort of debate was always being had, and maybe it is possible to be entirely accurate and precise while maintaining "natural flow," but I have to confess that I tend to veer in the direction of the "above all, make it a natural read" school. This seemed less problematic with Hašek than it was with Vančura. When I read Kundera lambasting his translators and claiming that, since the age of Flaubert, novelists have taken as much care over every word as poets, I am glad that I translate only dead authors - though Jirotka died while I was in the process of translating him. But, maybe, like Hašek meeting the author of his own obituary, he will come back from the dead to scold one of his translators, too.
Martina Čermáková can be reached at
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