He experienced the horrors of two wars and during this time he also covered an immense geographical area. The trip described in this blog is an attempt to retrace his steps from Prague across the Eurasian continent to beyond Lake Baikal in Siberia. The first part of the trip will follow the precisely described route of Josef Švejk, Hašek's inspired literary creation. I left home on April 30 2010 and was back on October 29.

Tuesday, 22 June 2010

Literary shit-houses

Stink wie a' Haizlputza,
wie a'bescheißena Haizlputza.
Cadet Biegler's dream on the way to Budapest reveals some of the difficulties facing translators of Švejk, so during the train journey to Budapest it was time to ponder these. Švejk is regarded a novel that's impossible to translate; the dual-level  Czech language has in itself few parallels abroad. There are further factors like the unique multi-cultural mix of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the huge number of geographical, literary and historical references, the snippets of foreign languages the author inserts, more and more as the novel develops. A further complication is the author's intended and unintended errors in the foreign language. How do translators address these challenges?

One choice would be to keep much of it in the original language. This approach runs the risk that the target audience wouldn't understand it. Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Hungarian, Finnish and Swedish translations use this method to varying degrees. The second approach, used by all three English translations (and many others), is to translate nearly all of it. The penalty here is that the original variety and colour is  lost. Obviously there is no ideal solution, although I would personally prefer the original text left in there, supplied with footnotes. However, not even this is always possible. How does, for instance, a translator deal with the word bešprekung, used by Švejk? It is an adaptation of the German Besprechung (meeting). How can this be conveyed accurately in English or other languages? There are many instances like this throughout the novel.

I have consulted five translations during my work on Švejk, and in some cases all of them struggle. An example is the word Haizlputza which appears during Cadet Biegler's infamous dream on the way to Budapest. Putzfleck Batzer exclaims, after discovering that Biegler has shitted himself: Stink wie a’ Haizlputza, wie a’ bescheißena Haizlputza. This expressions is only one of the many that has caused translators immense problems. I don't know of anyone apart from Grete Reiner who got it right (and she only had to correct Hašek's errors), as she was doing the German translation. First there are misspellings by Hašek. Secondly, the phrase is not in (High) German but Bavarian, so what does this mysterious and no doubt smelly word mean? The correct spelling is Haislputza, so let's merrily lift the etymological toilet lid and seek the smelly truth somewhere down there.

A splendid Hajzl from Šumava
The first syllable Haisl is straightforward; it is the Bavarian variant of the German diminutive Häuserl, literally "little house". In fact it often means toilet, deriving from the times when outdoor wooden shacks served as toilets. The Czech language has even taken up the word in the form hajzl, although the meaning is not "little house" any more. The second syllable -putza indicates cleaning, so it is easy to jump to the conclusion that this is something (someone) that cleans toilets. However, a source from St.Johann near Wörgl in Austria suggests  otherwise: Haislputza : (m) feines Heu, das früher als Toilettenpapier-Ersatz verwendet wurde. We still can't be 100 per cent sure that the meaning of the word in Böhmerwald (now Šumava) was the same as in Tyrol, but it very likely was. The author might not necessarily have picked up the expression from just that area, he knew people from all over Austria and a comparison between the novel Švejk and his earlier writing suggests that he mixed “facts” quite freely.

In other words, it was thin grass that in the past was used instead of toilet paper. It is also a male noun, something that's far from intuitive. From this it follows that the translation to  British English could be something like (on the  level of vulgarity Batzer used). Stinks like an arse-wipe, like a shitty arse-wipe.

The problems the translator faces is thus on multiple levels:
  • He must have noticed that Batzer was from Kašperské Hory. This is stated directly by the author, so that’s the easy part.
  • He must know that the dialect of Kašperské Hory (at the time Bergreichenstein) was a variety of Bavarian, i.e not High German.
  • He must be aware of Hašek's errors. Two are minor, one is significant: bescheißen doesn't make sense in the context used (zu bescheißen means to cheat/deceive).
  • He must finally be able to translate from Bavarian to the target language.
Finally a comment from Hans-Peter Laqueur on Reiner's correction of Hašek:
Reiner did correct Hašek here, and she was right to do so: In German, also in any local dialect, you'd never spell "Haisl" (= diminutive of Haus, in Bavaria and Austria synonymous for toilet, latrine) with a "Z". And "shitted-up" is "beschissen" (passive). "Bescheissen" (active) is a common slang word for cheating. And it is "stinkt", not "stink".

Now, imagine a novel of more than 200,000 words, sprinkled with slang, dialects, sociolects, foreign languages, thousands of factual references, literary quotes and it's understandable that no translation I know of took less than three years to complete. Still some translators have done an overall good job, even though they failed to clean their shit-house properly.

No comments:

Post a comment