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Michelle Woods reviews

The Good Soldier Švejk (Book One)

translated by Zenny Sadlon and Emmett Joyce

This piece is 3,790 words or about eight printed pages long.

Readers may also wish to read Zenny Sadlon’s 29-page response
to this review in Jacket 40.

Bertholt Brecht was so enamoured with Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk / Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka, that he declared it the greatest book of the twentieth century and intended to have it produced as a Broadway musical, with Kurt Weil opted to write the music. Brecht in the end produced a theatre adaptation (Schweyk im Zweiten Weltkriege, 1944) that modernized the context from that of the Austro-Hungarian empire to that of the Nazi protectorate in Czechoslovakia. The adaptation was not only a rewriting of form, but Brecht, as with most kinds of translation, adapted it with his own political agenda in mind.

Most translations eventually disclose some kind of agenda, and the English translations of the novel are no exception. The first, by Paul Selver in 1939, heavily abridged the novel; the second, by an English diplomat and Švejk expert, Cecil Parrott in 1973, reinstated the material but deliberately anglicized the novel. Parrott’s translation has been retained for thirty years and was recently republished (in 2000) in a new, unchanged Penguin Modern Classics edition.

Zenny Sadlon and Emmett Joyce, however, have produced a new translation of Book One (of four), The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk During the World War available over the internet, and with the stated attempt to introduce a greater sense of the original spirit of the novel. [Note 1]

Josef Švejk, the eponymous hero of the novel, declares himself an idiot because, as he reminds the army psychiatrists, he has a certificate to prove it. Nevertheless drafted, Švejk’s idiocy serves to reflect the idiocy of the regime — the Austro-Hungarian empire and its army. His role as everyman resonates for any person helplessly caught into an autocratic, byzantine regime and this is perhaps why Švejk, this idiot second-hand dog seller, is a popular Czech national icon, resonating along with the works of his contemporary Franz Kafka for Czechs who have lived under similarly crazy totalitarian powers (his name has even become a verb in Czech, švejkovat, and a noun, švejkování). It is a role which is intensely subversive without being politicized, because Švejk’s ambiguous idiocy and his enthusiasm to conform reflects the ambiguities and choices of modern man caught into the machine of history.

Although Hašek was an anarchist, first arrested for sedition at the age of 11, who fought in the Russian civil war for the Red Army, his hero (unlike Brecht’s stage version) is not a political mouthpiece. Švejk’s subversion is rather constructed in his long looping sentences, truths laced with mystifications, perambulations, non-sequiturs and catch-phrases. Švejk’s is an articulation of the irrational that cradles life and whose lullaby makes songs of orders.

The problems with any interpretation and translation of Švejk can be seen as two-fold. First of all, is he indeed an idiot or instead a faux naïf who knows how to work the system? Secondly, how do you begin to translate the poetry of his ruminations, the verbal castle of his self that the world lays siege to? In the Czech version, a real ambiguity is maintained through Hašek’s use of language as to how self-aware Švejk is and it is this ambiguity that motors the humour of the novel, the reader thrust into the same position as the authorities, unsure of whether they are dealing with an idiot or a provocateur.

How far does the new online translation address these issues and to what extent are the translators successful in conveying the tone?


The Czech version of the novel plays with the divide in the Czech language between its literary and vernacular forms. This was possibly one of the most subversive acts of Hašek’s writing — making the vernacular literary — but it is possibly the most difficult element of the novel to translate. Parrott had addressed the difficulty of this in his ‘Introduction’ to his translation, as well as the difficulty in translating the scatological beauty of the novel. His answer was to culturally translate some of this material, certainly to some extent anglicizing Švejk.

Sadlon and Joyce in their introduction to the new translation dismiss Parrott’s translation as a failure ‘in both pratice and spirit ... reading like a hackneyed novel about the British army in the 19th century.’ However, they proceed, in their translation, to produce something not dissimilar in intent to what Parrott had done, often simply transplanting Parrott’s formulations with American-influenced slang.

For instance, as the novel opens, Hašek introduces us to Hašek as a seller of ‘mongrel monsters’ (Švejk CZ, 9) which Parrott had translated as ‘mongrel monstrosities’ (Parrott, 3), but Sadlon and Joyce translate it as ‘mongrel mutants’ (Sadlon and Joyce, 2). Both exaggerate slightly in the translation, but just as Parrott’s translation may seem arguably old-fashioned, Sadlon and Joyce’s translation also has a limited shelf-life because they choose modish slang terms.

This cannot be condemned as such — how else can you produce a good rendition of a text that plays with slang in its own language? In some cases, indeed, interesting avenues are opened up in their use of American slang. For instance, when Švejk is arrested for sedition and sits with other imprisoned innocents, Sadlon and Joyce use the phrase ‘how they had gotten into this mess’ (Sadlon and Joyce, 11) which may suggest to many English-language speakers connotations of Laurel and Hardy, thereby contextualizing Švejk in a domestic comic tradition:

Švejk sat down with those at the table. They were explaining to each other, for the tenth time, how they had gotten into this mess. (Sadlon and Joyce, 11)

However, given Sadlon and Joyce’s claims that this is by far the closest translation, and their lack of acknowledgement that it is simply a contemporary and deliberately Americanized view of the translation, some caveats have to be issued. This is apparent from a literal translation of the Czech version of the above sentences (in the omission of material and the division of the sentence):

Švejk sat down at the table in the company of conspirators, who were, already for the tenth time, retelling how they had got into this. (Švejk CZ, 20)

Parrott in this instance is closer to the Czech version, keeping the ironic reference to the conspirators and using the same lexical structure:

Švejk sat down at the table with the conspirators, who were recounting at least for the tenth time how they had got there.( Parrott, 16)

It is a tough nut to crack. Perhaps the only way to produce a translation that serves the original well, in terms of the slang, is to keep updating it. Given the reluctance of the publishing industry to pay for new translations and new editions, perhaps the internet offers the opportunity for this (with non-copyrighted works), but there also has to be an awareness on the part of readers that this may not be, as the translators might claim, the better translation.

The issue of cultural and historical context is approached in different, but in equally problematic ways, by Parrott and Sadlon. Unlike in Selver’s initial 1939 English language translation, Parrott had included additional historical and contextual information in footnotes. Selver was translating the novel closer to the First World War (referred to as the Great War by Parrott and simply the World War by Sadlon and Joyce), but perhaps it could be argued that the factual information is incidental to the novel. The novel is not about the First World War but about a character who ‘mimics the world around him (the world of stupidity) in so perfectly systematic a fashion that no one can tell if he is truly imbecilic or not ... He amuses himself, he amuses other people, and by his extravagant conformism, he turns the world into one enormous joke’ (Kundera 1988, 49). The war is simply an extreme setting for this rather than being the subject of the novel.

In another more minor case, for example, Parrott footnotes ‘borovička’ and ‘ořechovka’ (Parrott, 118) — two types of alcohol distilled respectively from bilberries and nuts — whereas in the text the important point is that they are two types of alcohol in a hangover discussion about the merits of alcohol. The footnoting of such details may provide local colour (exoticizing the novel for the domestic readership) and may display the translator’s cultural knowledge, but its necessity and intent is debatable.

Sadlon and Joyce, however, decide to approach the translation in a far more appropriative and misleading way — that is, by adding their own material to Hašek’s text without any flagging of this. So, while they retain the Czech name ‘borovička’ they add ‘that liquor that tastes like pine wood’ (Sadlon and Joyce, 102). Hašek makes no such comment. They do not then keep the Czech name ‘ořechovka’, but translate it as ‘nut liquor’ (Sadlon and Joyce, 103)

Both Parrott and Sadlon and Joyce are attempting to convey cultural information to target readerships that would be automatic to a Czech readership (although, in some case with historical information, perhaps not even to a modern Czech readership). Some inside cultural jokes may be lost or less obvious to a target readership, but in the end many are incidental to the whole picture.

For instance, there is a running joke about a Prague district (and this is obvious from the context), ‘Nusle’, in the opening section, which Parrott does not footnote, but for which Sadlon and Joyce add a sentence in the text ‘Nusle is one of the toughest neighborhood’s [sic] in Prague!’ (Sadlon and Joyce, 2). Hašek makes this obvious a couple of pages later when one of his characters thinks that Sarajevo is a wine cellar in Nusle, so the news of violence is unsurprising given that there is always fighting in Nusle. Sadlon and Joyce’s addition, in the disguise of Hašek’s own words, serve only to drive home a joke that is already apparent without the need for knowing the reputation of the district in turn-of-the-century Prague.

Many of Sadlon and Joyce’s additions, indeed, attempt to make certain areas of the text more explicatory, and this only serves to challenge the subtlety of Hašek’s humour. As the novel opens, Švejk goes to a pub where the talk is about the Archduke’s assassination. A police spy, Bretschneider, is also there, and keeps trying to bring the conversation round to the assassination, in order to trick someone into sedition. But the humour is in the unsaid battle between Švejk and the others, who are congenitally unable to stick to the subject, and the spy, who is enamoured with his own unsubtle cunning. After Švejk’s diversion, ranging from a dead field marshal falling off his horse, to missing buttons on uniforms, to prison, to discipline and monkeys, Bretschneider chimes in:

‘In that Sarajevo’, Bretschneider resumed ‘it was Serbs who did it’ (Švejk CZ, 14).

Sadlon and Joyce elaborate on this:

‘In Sarajevo,’ said Bretschneider, returning to his favorite subject, ‘it was the Serbs who killed the Archduke’. (Sadlon and Joyce, 6).

Švejk and the barman, deliberately or not, ignore this and begin a digression on Turks forcing Bretschneider to try and bring them back to the subject:

‘Fine, mister barman,’ chimed in Bretschneider, in whom the hope was raised again that he might get catch one of these two, ‘but admit it, it’s a big loss for Austria.’ (Švejk CZ, 14-15)

Sadlon and Joyce once again spell the intent out:

Bretschneider was once again becoming discouraged, and losing hope that either of the two could be hooked into disloyal conversation. Still, he tried once again:
“Very well, mister pubkeeper,” he ventured. “But, you will admit that it was a great loss for Austria.” (Sadlon and Joyce, 6)

Švejk answers that Ferdinand is a loss, and adds in a non-sequitur, if only he was fatter. Bretschneider jumps in: ‘What do you mean?’ Bretschneider came to life.’ (Švejk CZ, 15). Once again, Sadlon and Joyce elaborate: “How do you mean that?” asked Bretschneider, his hopes suddenly revived.’ (Sadlon and Joyce, 7).

Although the changes are subtle, they are not only additions to Hašek’s text but they also deny the suggestion in the text which is funny for the reader because the reader surmises what is going on, rather than being told it. Sadlon and Joyce feel that they need to guide the reader through the text in two ways. First of all, falsely in the guise of Hašek’s language, and secondly, through dismantling the layout of the text. They literally signpost Švejk’s meanderings by cutting them up into short three or four sentence paragraphs and suggest a logical rhetoric being put forth by Švejk.

For instance, when Švejk is about to face the army psychiatrists he enters into a long ramble about how anyone, whoever they are, can make mistakes, illustrating this point with several non-related examples that literally descend into shaggy dog stories. The humour lies exactly here in the long-windedness and lack of connection which Hašek presents in a page-long monologue, ending in Švejk making exactly the same point as the beginning of the ramble. Parrott presents this monologue in the same format, and the reader reads as Švejk speaks — without a breath. Hašek presents it like a jazz riff which allows Švejk (knowingly or not) to deflect his predicament — making the situation, rather than Švejk, look ridiculous.

Sadlon and Joyce divide each element of his monologue into eight paragraphs (Sadlon and Joyce, 21-2), so the reader is directed into seeing almost logical breaks in Švejk’s speech, when there is no logical connection in it — precisely why the writing is subversively funny. Chapter Four in Book One likewise opens up with Švejk’s reminiscences of the lunatic asylum and again is a page-long perambulation, the unrelated impressions made more humorous because they are so erratically presented. Sadlon and Joyce again divide this up into seven paragraphs (Sadlon and Joyce, 25-6).

These long paragraphs which are the backbone of the novel (in Czech and to some extent in Parrott’s translation) also contain insanely long, looping sentences. Many readers may find Švejk unreadably verbose as a result, but as with Tristram Shandy or Gargantua, it is necessary to read differently, to go with the flow and read it partially for the sound and the rhythm rather than the sense. This is because the presentation of the language has no logical sense, and this is the poetry and humour of the novel.

The Czech language is perhaps more versatile than English in terms of its ability to sustain lengthy sentences, but it is more possible in a translation of Švejk to produce English sentences of comparable length than has been attempted. Once again it is necessary to trust the reader rather than to cut up sentences mercilessly as one would a dinner for a child.

Parrott, in his introduction, at least argues his reasons for doing this:

It is characteristic of Švejk’s way of telling a story that he does not bother about syntax. This of course is an indication of his mentality and a part of his character, but it is also a reflection of the author’s disregard of grammatical rules. In translating Švejk’s lengthy anecdotes it has been found necessary to break up some of his sentences so that the reader can understand their drift and get the point of the story. In doing this the translator risks incurring the charge of having tried to ‘edit’ Hašek. In fact any translator of Hašek has to exercise very considerable self-restraint, since it is often tempting completely to rewrite him. But if this were carried too far the book would not have been Hašek’s any more. It follows from what has been written above that there are passages in the original of The Good Soldier Švejk which may not be too intelligible. In these cases the translator has had to try to make them so. Fortunately these cases are very few and not of vital importance. (Parrott, xxi)

These cases, however, are not few and are of vital importance. The question of what intelligibility is, is the point of the writing. The long, involved sentences and paragraphs are not simply a stylistic feature or worse, as Parrott suggests, a stylistic failure but are the fabric of the text. They are as much constitutive of the meaning in the novel as the choice of words or ideas. For example, in his page-long monologue mentioned above on people’s propensity towards making understandable mistakes, Švejk quotes the example of a man who drunkenly mistakes a church for his house, and the altar for his bed:

Or I can give you the example of how a lathe operator from our place made a mistake. He unlocked the small church in Podolí, because he thought that it was home, he took his shoes off in the sacristy, because he thought that was where his kitchen was, and he lay on the altar, because he thought that was where his bed was, and he covered himself with those cloths with holy inscriptions and under his head he put the gospels and even other sacred books, so that he would have some height under his head. (Švejk CZ, 30)

Or I can tell you of another case. It’s about how a lathe operator in our building made a mistake. He opened some little church in the Podolí neigbourhood with a key, thinking it was his home. He took off his shoes in the sacristy, because he thought it was his kitchen. Then, he laid down on the altar, because he thought it was his bed. And, he covered himself with some of those cloths with holy inscriptions. Under his head, he put the gospel and some other sanctified books, to keep his head up high. (Sadlon and Joyce, 21)

Or I can give you an example of a mistake a turner who lives in our house once made. He opened the chapel at Podolí with his key, because he thought it was his kitchen, and lay down on the altar because he thought that he was home in bed. And then he pulled over himself some cloths with holy inscriptions and put the new testament and other sacred books under his head to make it higher. (Parrott, 27)

Sadlon and Joyce isolate this as a paragraph, unlike Parrott, and present it as a series of short sentences, breaking the passage up into more sentences than Parrott had (although they do include part of a sentence omitted by Parrott). This alters the rhythm of the story, as well as interrupting the internal structure. Parrott contends that this kind of sentence is witness to Hašek’s sloppiness (‘He wrote carelessly and quickly. Sometimes it is apparent that he must have been drunk when he was writing, so confused do his thoughts and sentences become. (Parrott, xviii)), but there is a real poetry to what Hašek is attempting in, for instance, the repetition of internal structure in the passage (‘because he thought’) and, within the wider monologue, the constant repetition of ‘mistake’ and ‘to make a mistake’, which is the key to the passage. There is not only method in the madness, but an intensely thought-through and lyrical method. What Švejk is saying is consolidated, if not relegated, by how he is saying it.

Sadlon and Joyce’s central claim to their translation is that they convey the spirit of the novel, yet this is exactly what they are failing to do. By changing the sentence and paragraph structure, they treat it as if it were just a question of layout rather than integral to the meaning and tone of the novel. It seems that their intent is to make the novel more accessible to a domestic readership through a simplification of style and through additional explanatory information inserted in the text. This is precisely what Parrott attempted albeit sometimes in different ways (i.e. through footnoting) and for a different readership (i.e. British).

In these domestications, both conflict with the spirit of the novel by interpreting the text for the reader, rather than allowing some room for the reader to think and read for themselves. Sadlon and Joyce, most especially through their lexical changes, alter Švejk’s character into a more logical and erudite character. The beauty of the novel should be that we can never work out whether indeed he is so cunning, or whether he is not.

It is possible to order a copy of Sadlon and Joyce’s translation of Book One from Zenny Sadlon’s website, http://www.zenny.com/. The website as well as the PDF version are replete with reviews and positive comments about their translation as well as dismissive comments about the previous translators. The democratization of the translation process has to be applauded but it does carry dangers.

First of all, all of reviews quoted are, it seems, from non-Czech speakers. This suggests that Sadlon and Joyce have been successful in making the translation more accessible to a domestic readership, but is no recommendation that the translation is faithful in spirit to the Czech version.

Secondly, they are correct in suggesting that it may be time for an updated English-language translation of this great and underestimated novel. However, Parrott’s translation is by no means a ‘clumsy rendition’ as they suggest, and perhaps the major problem with their translation is that it consolidates and expands on the limitations of Parrott’s version.

It is unusual that professional translators, with all the knowledge of the pleasures and pitfalls of the translation process, be so damning about previous translators. It would serve their cause better if they were more forthright about the technical decisions of their translation process and state why exactly their translation is qualitatively different, if they really believe it is so.

Brecht’s Schweyk tells Hitler at the end of the play that ‘they’ve left it to me to say whether or not / I should heap you with shit or riddle you with shot’ (Brecht, 138), which succinctly sums up the limitations of a reviewer comparing any translation or adaptation. But the important issue is not to dismiss other versions of the novel — the most illustrative exegesis of any work in translation may come from comparing different attempts, be they successful or not. Such a comparison may also uncover issues of deliberate or unconscious stylistic or ideological manipulation of a work on the part of the translator, and it is important to recognize these in any understanding of a work in translation.

Hašek in his epilogue to Book One (in defence of his use of unrefined language) wrote: ‘Life is no school for refining behaviour. Each person speaks the way they know how’ (Švejk CZ, 185). While it is positive that the canonized translation has been challenged, it seems that the English-speaking world is still waiting to hear Švejk speaking the way he knows how.


Note [1] — Editions consulted in this review:
— Jaroslav Hašek, Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka (Prague: Práce, 1951), my translations;
— Hašek,The Good Soldier Schweik, trans. by Paul Selver (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1939);
— Hašek,The Good Soldier Švejk, trans. by Cecil Parrott (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973);
— Hašek,The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk During the World War, trans. by Zenny Sadlon and Emmett Joyce (http://www.zenny.com/);
— Berholt Brecht, Schweyk in the Second World War, in Collected Plays: Seven (London: Metheun, 1977), trans. by William Rowlinson;
— Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel (London: Faber, 1988), trans. by Linda Asher.


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