English “stands in” for Czech in first translation of Cimrman classic

'The Stand In', photo: archive of Cimrman English Studio

For the first time ever, non-Czech audiences have the chance to get acquainted with Jára Cimrman, a unique phenomenon of Czech culture. The fictional character has enjoyed immense popularity with Czech audiences for more than five decades. One of the Jára Cimrman plays - The Stand In – was recently translated into English and is now being staged in Prague’s Jára Cimrman Theatre by a group of Prague-based, English speaking actors. I went to see the final rehearsal.

'The Stand In',  photo: archive of Cimrman English Studio
Záskok or The Stand In was written by Zdeněk Svěrák and the late Ladislav Smoljak in 1994 and is considered to be one of the best Cimrman plays. Set in 1910, it tells the story of a small, unsuccessful, traveling theatre company, whose repertoire often includes plays by the playwright Jára Cimrman.

In the play, the company’s leading actor suddenly disappears and they are forced to replace him at short notice with a stand-in: the renowned actor Karel Infeld Prácheňský. However, his inability to remember the text, the character he is playing and even which play he is in leads to considerable chaos and much comedy.

The play was translated by Emília Machalová, along with Brian Stewart, the director of the English Cimrman Studio. Mrs Machalová says they were prompted by their discussions about Czech humour:

“For a long time I thought Cimrman was beyond comprehension to the English. But then I thought that this specific sense of humour was part of our culture, without which you can hardly understand who Czechs really are: they have a great sense of humour, they like double meanings and they like to make fun not only of themselves but also of their history.”

The Stand In is perhaps easier to grasp for foreigners, because it doesn’t have as many references to Czech culture and history as the other Cimrman plays. Still, the whole translating process took more than a year:

“I did the basic translation and Brian Stewart put the finishing touches to it. Then we went through it again and discussed individual passages to make sure that nothing was missing. We wanted to get as close to the original as possible. It took several months to finish and then we went through it again, to see if the actors can understand it. Afterwards we sent it to Mr Svěrák and he passed it on to his daughter, who is an English teacher. She did a final check and only then Mr Svěrák gave his agreement to stage the play.”

Zdeněk Svěrák,  photo: Šárka Ševčíková
To make sure that non-Czech audiences will really understand the Jára Cimrman phenomenon, Zdeněk Svěrák provided the English version of Záskok with a short letter of explanation:

“The idea of Cimrman is a hoax and not to be believed. It is a hoax that craves exposure since its aim is humour. The spectator knows full well that it is a deception but relishes the way that Cimrman is blended seamlessly into history and to great comic effect.

“The question is: why is this literary figure so popular with the Czechs? Perhaps the reason is that this small nation feels that it would like to give the world something large; a nation that was ruled and occupied by others for centuries sees itself, historically, as the underdog and so can relate to Cimrman. But at the same time it is clear that this humour, which mocks a nation’s greatest legend, could only happen if the cultural environment is devoid of nationalism and capable of self-reflection.”

When I spoke to the actors ahead of the final rehearsal of the play, they told me that for many of them it was indeed quite difficult to grasp the humour behind Jára Cimrman:

Peter Hosking:

“I first discovered Cimrman in the basement of the Petřín tower. I wandered into the museum there, not knowing anything about Jára Cimrman, and it took me about ten minus to realize that the whole thing was a joke. After that I became interested in Cimrman but the plays remained inaccessible to me because of the legend. So this play is a great step forward for me personally in understanding the whole legend of Jára Cimrman, really.”

Brian Caspe:

“I think it was quite early in my time here. I have been here since 2002. It is one of these things you hear about and friends of mine quoting lines from it. It is not something that I really understood until recently, as my Czech improved, because it is very specific and it is so dependent on the word play and the cultural references and things that are so close to Czech soul.”

'Záskok',  photo: archive of Jára Cimrman Theatre
But as the director Brian Stewart points out, Cimrman plays are not specific only in the language used and the many references to Czech history and culture, but also in their specific style of acting – or rather non-acting:

“The difficulty we had is that I know we are supposed to be amateur actors, but I have five professional actors. For them, the fact that the characters stay in place for a long time and don’t move very much, it very hard, I think. We tried to keep it as a kind of an impression, a blurred version of Cimrman.”

So instead of just imitating the Czech version of the play, the actors had to find their own, individual approach.

Adam Stewart:

“We are not imitating the original performance. I think we have got our own twist on this play. We have invented our own je ne sais quoi.”

Michael Pitthan:

“We would like to mirror the original, but as expats, as foreigners, we also realize that without the background knowledge that Czechs have a foreigner coming to this material wouldn’t necessarily understand why it is so dry, why there is such a flat delivery, so to speak.

“So we injected what we think would work for foreigners and as the read-through told-us the slight heightening in style, if you will, does work. The words stand on their own, the translation is brilliant, and because the translation is so good, Smojak’s and Svěrák’s work has just come through and that’s what has been a real pleasure working on.”

“Yes, it is a very funny script.”

'The Stand In',  photo: archive of Cimrman English Studio
To make sure that all the jokes will really get through to the English-speaking audiences, the Cimrman English Society organized a public read through before hitting the stage.

Adam Stewart:

“We did a read-through in June and we got some fantastic feedback from non-Czech speakers and Czechs who speak English.”

Michael Pitthan:

“What was especially exciting and felt like a great honour was that Mr Svěrák was here and although his English is not great just like our Czech is not brilliant he was very happy and excited to see his work translated into English.”

Adam Stewart:

“He obviously enjoyed it. And it was amazing performing for him and speaking to him afterwards. We got a great response and I think that’s why we feel that it does work in English because we did have that response in June. And as I said we are sold out tomorrow night so we hope we will receive the same response.”

Peter Hosking:

“Another thing that appeals about doing these shows is this theatre. It is like playing in somebody’s home. It is a space that feels so loved and warm and intimate. Everybody here has been so friendly and supportive. It has been really fantastic. “

Adam Stewart:

'The Stand In',  photo: archive of Cimrman English Studio
“Yes, it is like an unofficial National Theatre, I think.”

The Stand In premiered on stage of the Jára Cimrman Theatre in October and will be rerun several times during November and December. Meanwhile, Emília Machalová and Brian Stewart have already started working on another translation, so that the legend of Jára Cimrman can be spread further beyond the borders of the Czech Republic.