Can This Book Be Saved? | Feature | Chicago Reader

Can This Book Be Saved? 

Two crusaders set out to rescue an overlooked classic of European literature.

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By Zak Mucha

"If anyone asks me to pick three literary works of this century which in my opinion will become part of world literature," Bertolt Brecht once said, "then I would have to say one of them is [Jaroslav] Hasek's The Good Soldier Svejk." Hasek's book, written shortly after World War I, may be the first satirical absurdist antiwar novel. It's considered a classic in central European countries and has been translated into 53 languages, including Vietnamese.

Yet the book is nearly unknown in America. Mike Joyce and Zenny Sadlon think that's because none of the book's virtues, beyond its satire, are evident in the only English translation currently available. That translation was done by Cecil Parrott, a British ambassador to Czechoslovakia in the 1960s. "Have you ever seen a diplomat, British or American, who actually spoke the language?" asks Joyce. Sadlon, a professional translator and interpreter whose native language is Czech, suspects that Parrott had a secretary or someone with a passing knowledge of both languages translate the original into English before he polished it up. "There were just too many mistakes," he says disgustedly, "and too many liberties taken."

Joyce and Sadlon became friends while working at the Voice of America bureau on South Dearborn. Joyce, who was born and raised in Cicero, had owned and tended a tavern for years before becoming a reporter. Sadlon who'd come to Chicago in the early 70s, became a journalist when he joined the navy. Later he worked a series of odd jobs and studied at the University of Illinois at Chicago before becoming a Czech correspondent for VOA.

Sadlon had known since he was a student in Czechoslovakia that The Good Soldier Svejk was a classic, but he reread it in English and doubted his memory of it. He thought Parrott's translation was a different book and wanted a second opinion. He knew Joyce was a voracious reader. "It took me three years until I gave Mike the book," he says. "I was afraid to give it to him because--see, my wife is an insomniac, and when I started reading Svejk to her several different times, guaranteed, within 20 minutes she'd be dead to the world. This is a testimony to how bad the book is. Finally I said, 'Mike, just go through it and let me know what you think.'"

"I got through the dreck and saw there were some sparks in there," says Joyce. "Parrott read like a hackneyed 19th-century British army novel."

Sadlon showed Joyce some specific places where the translation was way off. Finally Joyce told him, "Well, I don't want to run your life, but you've got to retranslate this thing."

"I needed that like I needed a hole in the head," says Sadlon. But the idea had been brewing in his head for years, and he passionately loved the book. "OK, I'll do it," he told Joyce. "But you have to help. If I'm going to do it, you're going to do it with me."

Jaroslav Hasek was born in 1883 in Prague and was writing satirical articles for Czech newspapers by the time he was 17. He also published poetry and numerous short stories. The writing job that paid him the best was at Animal World magazine, where he worked quietly at his desk writing articles until irate letters started coming in from zoology professors. He was fired when his employers learned that rather than doing any research, he'd written descriptions of hybrid monkey dogs and other fantastical creatures.

Hasek had a taste for practical jokes. In 1911 he and a couple of his drinking partners ran for parliament calling themselves the Party of Modest Progress Within the Limits of the Law. Sadlon and Joyce see this as evidence that Hasek was using humor to get at a deeper truth. "He must have been a very insightful man, very lonely," says Sadlon. "He really was trying to decipher life."

Hasek's life changed radically when he was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I. He spent time in military hospitals and garrison prisons, but he also won a silver star for bravery during battle. Most photos of Hasek show him with a slight smirk, puffy eyes, and a wide, beer-bloated face. There are pictures of him attending literary salons, working on ice-breaking crews, swimming in a woman's bathing suit. There are also police mug shots. Only in his military pictures does he appear thin, somber, and sober.

Like many Czech soldiers, Hasek let himself be captured by the Russians, then joined other POWs fighting in a special unit against the Germans. Some of them broke away and formed the Czech Legions to fight for Czech independence, though when the Russian Revolution started, Hasek, whose point of view had shifted far to the left, wanted to join the Bolsheviks. Leaders of the Czech Legions, who disliked the Bolsheviks, tried him and were ready to hang him for treason, but he escaped to Russia.

Eventually Hasek resurfaced as a deputy commissar in Siberia, where he wrote political tracts. "I grew up in a communist country," says Sadlon. "Once you get into the political ideology department of the Red Army, that's big." He also married a Siberian woman, though he didn't bother divorcing his first wife, whom he'd left in Prague. He didn't have a good track record as a husband. "He'd say, 'I'm going across the street with a pitcher to get some beer for after dinner,'" says Sadlon. "And he'd be gone for three weeks."

In 1920 the Communist Party ordered Hasek to return to the new state of Czechoslovakia, and he reluctantly went. "It was assumed he would be facing charges for treason and bigamy," says Sadlon. "And he goes back anyhow." In Prague people knew he had a new wife and had fought for three different armies during the same war. "People on the street, former friends, wouldn't even spit on him," says Sadlon. "He was persona non grata."

Unable to find work, Hasek began writing The Good Soldier Svejk, sitting in taverns, paying for his drinks by letting people read chapters from the book. Sadlon remembers that he wasn't particularly impressed when he read Hasek's earlier writings--the short fiction and magazine work. "But I realized what happened was, doing this for years, he learned his craft. When he started writing this book, he didn't have to worry. He wasn't a rabble-rouser. This guy was just sick and tired of all the bullshit. He was looking for the truth."

At the beginning of the novel Svejk, having been discharged from military service after a military medical commission pronounces him an imbecile, is making his living by selling mongrel dogs as purebreds after forging pedigrees for them. He and a bartender are arrested in a tavern for treason for talking about the recent assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand. Svejk is sent to jail, and when the police too decide that he's an imbecile, he's transferred to a madhouse. He manages to persuade the doctors that he enjoys being in the asylum, and they release him. He's drafted again and eventually becomes assistant to a field chaplain, a raging drunk who curses throughout his sermons and chases women.

The first edition, which was sold as three separate books, was financed by Hasek's few remaining friends and published in 1921. Hasek himself peddled copies to shopkeepers, who displayed the books in their windows. He'd planned to complete Svejk's story in six installments, but he died shortly after beginning the fourth one. "He basically drank himself to death at 40," says Joyce. For years before he died Hasek reportedly drank an average of 35 steins of beer a day. In the last days of his life he was confined to bed, unable to walk, complaining about the doctor's order to stay sober. Shortly before he died he said, "Svejk is suffering."

Hasek hoped his novel would be seen as more than satire. In an afterword he wrote, "I do not know whether I will manage, through this book, to achieve what I wanted. Just the fact that I heard one man cussing at another by saying: 'You're as stupid as Svejk,' does not very much attest to my success. However, should the word Svejk become a new epithet in the flowery wreath of defamation, I will have to be content with this as my contribution to the enrichment of the Czech language."

"Svejk" did become a part of the everyday language of central Europe--"svejking," "svejkism," and the verb "to svejk" are all still used. Czechs even speak of themselves as a nation of Svejks. When Gustav Husak assumed the presidency after the 1968 Prague Spring he told people in one speech to "Stop svejking!"

"The masses love the gags," says Sadlon. "They used to have competitions in Czechoslovakia when I was growing up. In the town where Hasek retired to write the rest of the book, people would gather in summertime for a festival. They'd get onstage and recite the book by heart. The guy who got the farthest without making a mistake would win. These were nothing but beer and Svejk orgies."

Curiously, communist officials held up The Good Soldier Svejk as a model work of literature. Joyce says, "The communists, to their eternal regret, I think, elevated him to the pantheon of their communist writers because of his military record." In 1968 the publishing arm of the Czech army even printed its own edition. Joyce and Sadlon have a hard time understanding how the apparatchiks could have missed seeing that the book is a condemnation of bureaucracy, totalitarianism, religion, and the general social order.

Some Czechs still debate whether Svejk was a despicable imbecile. Joyce and Sadlon see him as an archetype, a subversive everyman shuffling and whistling his way through an upended world. They see his continually saying "Yes, sir" to his superiors as his way of protesting the system in which he's trapped--a way of saying "Yes, sir. I will be as absurd as you have made the world around me."

In January 1997 Sadlon and Joyce began working on their translation. At night and on weekends Sadlon translated the original Czech, and each morning he went to the Voice of America office with a stack of pages for Joyce to take home to edit. Sadlon says any doubts he'd had about Hasek's talent were eliminated when he began translating Hasek's introduction. "The book is excellent," he says. "Having to take the book apart sentence by sentence, word by word, led me to believe the guy was ahead of his time."

Joyce and Sadlon argued about word choices, about slang, about which English idiom was the closest equivalent. When Sadlon would come to a difficult passage he would go back and look at Parrott's version. He says he invariably found Parrott sloppier and more pompous than he'd realized. One passage in Parrott's version reads: "The whole establishment of the office of the judge advocate was magnificent. Every state on the brink of total political, economic and moral collapse has an establishment like this. The aura of past power and glory clings to its courts, police, gendarmerie and venal pack of informers." Joyce and Sadlon's version reads: "The apparatus of the military courts was grandiose. Such magnificent machinery is usually present and at the disposal of the government of any country approaching a comprehensive political, economic and moral crash. The limelight of bygone might and glory bolsters these courts, as well as the local police, the state security office, and all whoring informer scum."

Another Parrot paragraph reads: "The spirit of alien authority pervaded the building of the police headquarters--an authority which was ascertaining how enthusiastic the population were for the war. With the exception of a few people who were ready to admit that they were sons of a nation which had to bleed for interests completely alien to it, police headquarters presented the finest collection of bureaucratical beasts of prey, to whom gaols and gallows were the only means of defending the existence of the twisted clauses of the law." Sadlon and Joyce's version reads: "The spirit of foreign authority wafted through the police headquarters. The authorities were charged with finding out to what extent the subject population was enthusiastic for war. There were several exceptions. But, most people didn't deny that they were the sons of a nation that was doomed to bleed itself empty for interests totally alien to them. Police headquarters was also home to the most beautiful gathering of bureaucratic birds of prey. As a means of defending the existence of their convoluted articles of law, they had an affection for the use of hard-labor prisons and the gallows."

Joyce and Sadlon say that the differences might seem minor taken individually, but over 800 pages they shift the book's perspective. "It's not just a word-by-word mistake," says Joyce. "This guy got everything wrong. There was an attitude of 'look at these funny people.' I really think it was translated from the point of view of an upper-class Englishman--and Hasek was what we'd call a lounge rat, a pub crawler. Hasek was trying to expose probably exactly what Parrott represented."

After three months Sadlon and Joyce had a draft of the first book, and they spent a couple more months tightening up the language. Joyce says, "Some people have said to us, when you have a classic of this stature you can't mess with it too much." But they believe they've turned out something that's close to its original form for English readers. Sadlon, who's both proud of his work and tired of doing it, says, "I cannot imagine anyone coming after us and doing it again." At least they want a chance to let readers decide who knew Svejk better.

When Sadlon and Joyce began taking their book to publishers, they found that very few people had ever heard of the original. And those who had often responded, "Well, there already is a pretty good translation." Sadlon groans when he repeats this comment. One publishing house that specializes in Czech literary fiction responded to a letter from Sadlon and Joyce that said readers were being denied a classic because of Parrott's poor translation: "If you're going to put down translators, at least you should have the decency to name the translators and to not use words such as 'deny' which implies gross negligence....Such disrespect does not lead a publisher to want to take your own translation seriously."

Trying to find a publisher who'll read two books just to compare them hasn't been easy. One editor who'd never heard of The Good Soldier Svejk suggested Sadlon and Joyce find an agent. "We don't need an agent," Sadlon responded. "Look at the European sales." A publisher asked, "Can you substantiate these numbers?" Still irritated by that response, Sadlon says, "What does he want? Receipts from bookstores? I should go to all the bookstores in Japan asking for copies of receipts for the past 50 years?"

Sadlon and Joyce still don't have a publisher. But they've divided their book into three parts just as Hasek did, and they've put the first three chapters of the first book on their Web site (www.zenny.com), where they can be downloaded for free. The rest of the 200-page first book can be downloaded for $9.95. They're still working on the second and third books, and hope to have them available sometime next year.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kim Knight.

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