SOLDIER OF MISFORTUNE
'SVEJK,' A BITING ANTI-WAR TALE OF A SURVIVAL-BENT EVERYMAN, GETS AN ENGLISH RETELLING THAT CAPTURES THE CHARM OF THE ORIGINAL CZECH NOVEL
By Connie Lauerman
Chicago Tribune Staff Writer
August 9, 2000
`Catch-22," Joseph Heller's darkly comic World War II novel about the insanity of war and the absurdity of military bureaucracy, appears on everyone's list of classic, must-read fiction.
Critics have said the book took the war novel to a new level.
But some 40 years before Heller dreamed up John Yossarian and the term "Catch-22" entered the culture, a Czech named Jaroslav Hasek wrote a biting, satirical, antiwar novel about a survival-bent Everyman that cuts just as deep.
It was called "The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Svejk," and along with "A Farewell to Arms" and "All Quiet on the Western Front," it was one of the great novels to emerge from World War I.
The iconoclastic Hasek, who died in 1923 coincidentally the year of Heller's birth -- has a big reputation in Europe. German schools teach his novel as part of the "core European heritage." It ranked No. 11 on Poland's recent list of 100 most important books of the 20th Century.
But "Svejk" is virtually unknown to most Americans.
Zenny K. Sadlon and Mike Joyce believe its obscurity is due to a clumsy English translation done in the 1960s by a former British diplomat that makes it a ponderous read.
So the two men, reporters in the Chicago bureau of the Voice of America until they lost their jobs recently in a cutback, re-translated "The Good Soldier Svejk" (pronounced shvake) in an "artistic crusade" to elevate its stature. The previous rendition, they say, is encumbered by profuse footnotes and its language is ornate and stilted, masking the charms of the zany, irreverent original.
"`Svejk' has been translated into 54 languages, and regular people anywhere will pick it up and laugh because it's the truth," says Sadlon, a Czech refugee. "It's a survival manual for any kind of situation of oppression.
"You've got to get `svejked' to get into it. It's a little guy facing this empire . . . . He is still confounding intellectuals to this day in the Czech Republic. Is Svejk really an idiot? Is he despicable? Admirable? All that, and yet the book is very clear."
Sadlon and Joyce note that the book has been turned into a play by an Irish playwright and made into a film three times. "There has been a [Svejk] TV series in Poland and there are Svejk lovers' clubs all over the place," Sadlon says. "The German defense minister is known as `The Good Soldier Rudolf,' and you know it has nothing to do with Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer. It's a reference point in Central Europe, for sure."
Set in Central Europe during World War I, as the Austro-Hungarian Empire is collapsing, "The Good Soldier Svejk" focuses on a working-class soldier's experiences as he makes his way to the war front.
Unwilling to be cannon fodder for an emperor he loathes, Svejk rebels by feigning stupidity (military physicians declare him an imbecile) and, in the process, he makes a mockery of his superiors. He never fights the war.
When he's sent to a madhouse for his political remarks following the shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Svejk pretends to like it and he's booted out. He's drafted again and ends up in a garrison prison. Then he's assigned to a drunken field chaplain. Later, in a card game, the priest loses Svejk's services to a conniving, libidinous officer. And so it goes.
Sadlon, who grew up in Chomutov, near the East German border, read "Svejk" as a 15-year-old student when it was re-published with great fanfare during the 1968 Prague Spring. He loved it.
Four years later, after graduating from a secondary school in electrical engineering, and chafing under the tightening grip of socialism, Sadlon finagled a trip to a spa in Cyprus to convalesce from chronic bronchitis. "At the time you could not leave the country on your own as a tourist," Sadlon says. "There had to be at least three people from the same place of employment. You never knew who was watching. That kind of thing."
Sadlon took the opportunity to defect. He first tried to leave Cyprus on his own, then was smuggled out by American diplomats to Lebanon, where he became a ward of an international church organization. After holing up for seven months in Beirut, Sadlon, by then 20, arrived in Chicago as a refugee on May 21, 1973.
Among other jobs, Sadlon worked as a busboy, waiter, electrician, insurance underwriter for a Czech company and translator and writer for the Czech-American newspaper Denni Hlastel.
As a student at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Sadlon read the British diplomat Cecil Parrott's English translation of "Svejk" and wondered why he had loved the novel so much the first time around. "Well, I thought: How is my English? But I was reading Kant in school so maybe I was not doing badly reading. It had to be the translation," he says.
Later he read the Parrott translation aloud to his insomniac wife and it always put her to sleep within 20 minutes.
While working at the Voice of America, Sadlon, 47, decided to get another opinion. After three years of hesitation, he pressed it on his co-worker and friend, Joyce, 56, an Irish-American who grew up in Cicero, holds two journalism degrees and reads voraciously.
"I told Mike: `Here's the book. You either read the whole thing or you don't start it. If you're not going to finish it, I'm not going to give it to you.'
"He read it and I thought: He's been `svejked.' But he said: `Well, [the humor] is somewhere in there, but you've got to re-translate it.'"
It was exactly what Sadlon had been thinking.
A professional translator who has worked for former President George Bush and retired Gen. Colin Powell, Sadlon began the daunting task by doing a literal translation from the Czech each evening. The next morning he would bring in 5 to 8 pages for Joyce to take home and edit. Then the duo would haggle over the wording.
"Once in a while Mike would change something, and it was totally different and it was funny," Sadlon remembers.
Joyce says they were "like Talmudic scholars, breaking words down by syllables. A word might mean two things. Our main goals were a faithful translation that would appeal to popular readers everywhere. It also had to work, to be accessible to today's reader. Hasek might have a rambling paragraph that took up half of a page with little punctuation. That's not readable anymore."
Hasek, who was born in Prague in 1883, started out in life as a bank clerk, although he was writing satirical articles for Czech newspapers at 17. He published poetry and many short stories, in which the character Svejk first appeared. Hasek also was an editor of anarchist publications for three years.
After being drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I, Hasek was captured on the Russian front and held as a prisoner of war. He became a member of the Czech liberation army in Russia but later joined the Bolsheviks, for whom he wrote propaganda.
Upon his return to Prague, the capital of the newly created country of Czechoslovakia, Hasek devoted himself to writing.
He conceived "The Good Soldier Svejk" as a cycle of six novels, but only three of them and a part of the fourth were completed by the time he died of alcoholism at age 40 in 1923. He wrote in taverns and published the novels on his own, bringing them out one at a time between 1921 and 1923.
While Sadlon and Joyce are critical of Parrott's translation of "The Good Soldier Svejk," they recommend his biography of Hasek, "The Bad Bohemian." It reveals Hasek in all his complicated splendor -- bigamist, drunk, recipient of medals equivalent to the Silver Star, deputy commissar of a provincial town near Ukraine and lonely artist who said, shortly before his death, "Svejk is suffering."
Parrott's translation of "Svejk" included all three books and the fragment of the fourth, but Sadlon and Joyce only tackled Book One for starters. (It can stand alone, and they've begun work on the second volume.) They finished their translation in 1997 and spent much of the next year trying to interest a mainstream publisher.
"We had a funny letter from Harold Evans at Random House," Sadlon says. "When he got our marketing package, he must have freaked because we were saying millions of copies had been sold. He said: `The book business is hard. Send the manuscript. Can you substantiate these numbers?'
"I'm thinking: What does he want? Receipts from Japan and Vietnam?"
The pair managed to document "Svejk" sales figures through 1983, but it didn't help their cause.
In 1999, Sadlon started a Web site and offered their new translation as an e-book. Soon after, they learned about a technology known as "print on demand" that allows books to be produced quickly and in small quantities outside the realm of the publishing establishment. They signed up with 1stBooks in Bloomington, Ind., and their translation of "Svejk" became available in paperback a few months ago.
They solicited blurbs from Chicago novelists and got raves from Larry ("Paco's Story") Heinemann and Don ("American Skin") De Grazia.
Sadlon and Joyce were energized when Richard Seltzer, a novelist, Internet consultant and online book reviewer who compared both translations, called theirs a "must read."
In contrast to the Parrott translation published by Penguin, Seltzer wrote, "the diction in the new translation flows naturally . . . 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. . . . 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."
David Powelstock, assistant professor of Russian and Czech literature at the University of Chicago, called Hasek "a central figure in Czech literature."
"Hasek was a very erudite, literary person, and with the character Svejk he veils a fairly serious indictment of the Austro-Hungarian Empire," according to Powelstock. "It sort of echoes the way Czechs and some other East Europeans responded to later events of the 20th Century, with what one might call a small-nation mentality. They maintain a sense of sanity and perspective through irony and humor.
"There's no doubt that the scenes [in the book] are brilliant, but the book's real power is the creation of Svejk and the way he interacts with his world, which manages to reveal its absurdity."
Although Powelstock has read only excerpts of the lively new translation of "Svejk," he readily acknowledged that entrenched translations often do good books a disservice.
"Books that have a kind of status in Europe get translated at some point and very often the mistake that's made is thinking that, because it's a great book, it must be kind of solemn in translation. And everything gets translated in the same kind of standard literary style.
"`Svejk' is certainly a book that has wanted re-translation, but it's difficult to get re-translations published. The only reason writers like Hasek stay in print is because publishers like Penguin or Oxford Classics keep them in print. They do that by keeping their expenses low. It's often the case that the translation they have is the one they don't have to keep paying anyone for. They usually don't want to pay for a new one."
In an afterword to the first volume of "The Good Soldier Svejk," Hasek wrote that he hoped that the name Svejk would enter popular culture. "Should the word Svejk become a new epithet in the flowery wreath of defamation, I will have been content with this as my contribution to the enrichment of the Czech language," Hasek wrote.
In one of their few footnotes, Sadlon and Joyce noted that Hasek's wish has been fulfilled. Not only the name Svejk, but the verb "to svejk" and the words "svejking" and "svejkism" have become an integral part of Czech culture.
"The Czechs themselves speak of being `a nation of Svejks.' Svejk is for them a source of both great pride and shame," they wrote.
Sadlon has been a U.S. citizen since 1979, but there's obviously still a little bit of Svejk in him. When he returned to Prague for a visit in 1988, he could not resist a stop at the travel agency that arranged his fateful spa trip. He thanked them and told them how much better he feels.
"I svejked them and it gave me satisfaction," he says with a grin.
Sadlon and Joyce's translation of "The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Svejk" can be purchased through their Web site, zenny.com
, as well as through 1stBooks.com, Amazon.com and other online booksellers. It also can be ordered at some bookstores.
LOST IN THE TRANSLATION
A clunky translation can doom a novel. The differences are subtle at times, but here are the opening passages of the two English translations of "The Good Soldier Svejk":
"And so they've killed our Ferdinand," said the charwoman to Mr. Svejk, who had left military service years before, after having been finally certified by the 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."
Zenny K. Sadlon and Mike 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 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 (excrement). Neither one would be much of a loss."
"But Mr. Svejk! They killed Archduke Ferdinand, the one from Konopiste, the fat one, the religious one."