Ireland’s Good Soldier Švejk reaches Prague

Radvan Markus, photo: David Vaughan

All the characters in Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s great Irish-language comic novel Cré na Cille are dead. The title could be translated as Graveyard Clay and the setting is a graveyard in Connemara. But this is a graveyard where the deceased are more than a little talkative. The book is narrated in many voices, most of them in South Connemara dialect, and has been said to be untranslatable into English, let alone Czech, but now, nearly 70 years after it was first published in Ireland, Cré na Cille has just come out in a vibrant Czech translation. David Vaughan talks to the translator Radvan Markus.

Radvan Markus,  photo: David Vaughan
I first met Radvan Markus at an event at the Irish Embassy in Prague to mark the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising. He was reading extracts from a couple of Irish language short stories, and when I spoke to him afterwards I soon realised that Radvan was steeped not only in Irish literature but also the language itself. He is currently teaching Irish at the Charles University in Prague and has just finished the epic task of translating Cré na Cille. Before talking about the book itself, I asked Radvan how his love affair with Ireland began.

“It happened quite a long time ago in the mid-90s, and the original impulse came from the music. I was still at secondary school and I came across some cassettes of Irish bands, and I really enjoyed that. I started listening to them and eventually started playing the music myself. I also got the chance to visit the country. That led to a widening of my interest, from music to the culture in general – language and literature.”

It’s one thing to be interested in Irish literature and Irish music. It’s quite another thing to become a university lecturer in Irish and Irish literature. That’s quite a leap. How did it happen?

“I finished my secondary school studies and started to study English at the university. Fortunately there were some Irish courses on offer, so I went to Irish classes. At that time I also started translating from the language, which was a great help as it forced me to engage deeply with the language. Eventually I got the chance to attend some summer courses in Ireland, which was of tremendous importance for me. I got the chance to teach the language both in Prague and in Olomouc. And I also embarked on a PhD project, which involved reading Irish language texts.”

We’re here to talk primarily about your translation of an Irish classic by Máirtín Ó Cadhain, first published in 1949. The title is Cré na Cille, which means something like graveyard dust or graveyard clay. In Czech you’ve translated it as hřbitovní hlína…

“… At the same time there is a different meaning to the word ‘hlína‘, meaning clay in Czech, and that is ‘fun’. It was very useful – a gift from above – for the translator, because Cré na Cille, apart from being a great modernist novel, is also a comic masterpiece.”

Tell us something about the book.

Photo: Argo
“There are two most important facts that should be mentioned at the beginning. The book is all direct speech, but you don’t know who is speaking at a particular time, and all the speakers are dead and buried in the same graveyard in South Connemara in the west of Ireland. Through the speech of the characters – their conversations – two main stories emerge: the enmity of two sisters, Caitriona and Neil who is still alive. The book opens with Caitriona waking up in the cemetery and finding out that she is neither in heaven nor hell, but in this liminal place. And there is another plotline, if we can call it that, which concerns the jealousy of the local teacher, the Big Master, of his widow, who eventually marries another man. So, these are the main stories, but there’s much more in the book. There are various themes of conversation that the corpses have, which have quite a broad range – from local gossip, like the dishonesty of the local shopkeeper, to topics such as the Second World War, which is quite important because it is set in 1941.”

At the same time, because they are all dead and buried in the cemetery, it’s a novel in which nothing actually happens. It’s a novel about talking.

“You’re right. Talk is tremendously important in the novel because it’s the only option left to the characters. They cannot move, they cannot act, but they can achieve things with words. Also, differences in the use of language, various registers, are of great importance.”

Each person has their own status, their own class, their own oddities, little ticks, things that they repeat all the time…

“Terms of speech. And, as I said, there’s no other way to distinguish between the various characters, apart from looking at their use of language.”

Which brings us to the enormous difficulty of translating the book.

“I suppose one should start with the basic register that forms the bulk of the book, and this is based on Máirtín Ó Cadhain’s own dialect of Irish in South Connemara. In essence, the translator into Czech has three options. One of them would be to choose some dialect of the Czech or Moravian countryside, to preserve the rural flavour. But this would be very problematic because it would just transfer the novel into a completely different context. Very simply put, a Czech or Moravian village is nothing like an Irish village. The next option would be to use standard Czech, but it would be way too formal for rendering the earthy speech of the characters. But, fortunately there is one more register in Czech, which is called ‘common Czech’ and this is the result of the natural development of the language. This is what I opted for, because at the same time it is sufficiently informal, but it is not a dialect. It is spoken in quite a wide geographic region.”

A second problem is all the local colour in the book. The book has so many different levels and references, direct or indirect, to Irish literature, history, folk legend. It’s very hard to get that across in Czech.

Photo: Yale University Press
“That’s true, but on the other hand it’s only the details that are culturally specific. If you look at the novel as such, it actually addresses themes which are common to western civilisation as a whole. I would say the characters are quite universal types. What helps also is the humour. You don’t really need the connotations to have a good laugh.”

There have been comparisons made between Máirtín Ó Cadhain and one of the great Czech classics, The Adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek. Would you agree with that and did you draw from Hašek as you were translating?

“I would agree with that. Of course, we shouldn’t look for any similarities in the plot or setting of the two novels. That’s different, but on the deeper level, yes. Both novels use a demotic, earthy language to poke fun at various authorities and institutions. Both books abound in elaborate terms of abuse. Also, both novels were compared by prominent critics to the work of the French Renaissance author, François Rabelais, which is in my view a valid comparison. It is also interesting that The Good Soldier Švejk is one of the first books in Czech literature to use common Czech deliberately for literary purposes. Also, if my translation sounds a little bit like Švejk, there is a historical precedent to it, and this is connected with the Irish writer and journalist, Breandán Ó hEithir, who sustained a lifetime interest in Central European culture. Both Cré na Cille and The Good Soldier Švejk were on the list of his favourite books. In 1986, a short time before his death, he even made an Irish-language radio adaptation of The Good Soldier Švejk. When listening to it, one can’t avoid the impression that he deliberately used the kind of language which he knew from Cré na Cille. So, letting myself be influenced by Švejk while translating the novel amounted to continuing in an established tradition.”

Let’s now hear a short extract from the book, first in Irish, then in Czech, then in the English translation by Alan Titley.

“First I’ll explain the context of this particular passage. I was talking about the second plotline, about the schoolteacher and his jealousy. This is a long list of curses directed at the postman, who eventually marries the teacher’s widow…”

Luí fada gan faoilte air! Seacht n-aicíd déag agus fiche na hÁirce air! Calcadh fiodáin agus stopainn air! Camroillig agus goile treasna air! An ceas naon air! An Bhuí Chonaill air! Pláigh Lasaras air! Éagnach Job air! Calar na muc air! Snadhm ar bundún air! Galra trua, bios brún, péarsalaí, sioráin, maotháin agus magag air! Glogar Chaoláin ní Olltáirr ann! Galraí sean-aoise na Caillí Béara air! Dalladh gan aon léas air agus dalladh Oisín ina dhiaidh sin! Tochas Bhantracht an Fháidh air! An Galra glúiníneach air! Deargadh tiaraí air! Gath dreancaidí air!.. . Dlouhý ležení bez obracení! Ať ho naráz schvátí sedmatřicet nákaz archy Noemovy! Ať se mu hnáty zkřiví a žaludek obrátí naruby! Porodní bolesti! Ulsterskou žloutenku na něj! Lazarův mor! Jóbovo kvílení! Prasečí chřipku! Zátku do zadku! Ať si užene slintavku, kulhavku, střečky, bachorní červy, zánět třetího víčka a motolici! Ať mu útrobách bouří jak Vosopasce, dceři Velebřichově! Stařecký choroby Irský pramáti! Ať mu vypadnou oči a bloudí jak Ossian! Ať ho stíhá nesnesitelný svědění žen Prorokových! Sloní nohu na něj! Zánět řiti! Ať ho blechy sežerou zaživa… I hope he lies and never rises! I hope he gets the thirty-seven diseases of the Ark! I hope all his tubes get glutted and his bung hole stuffed! That he gets a club foot and a twisted gut! The Ulster flies! The yellow bellies! The plague of Lazarus! Job’s jitters! Swine snots! Lock arse! Drippy disease, flatulent farts, wobbly warbles, wriggly wireworm, slanty eyes, and the shitty scutters! May he get the death rattle of Slimwaist Big Bum! The decrepit diseases of the Hag of Beare! May he be blinded without a glimmer and be gouged like Oisín after that! The Itch of the Women of the Prophet! His knees explode! His rump redden with rubenescence! Be lanced by lice!.. .

“It’s one of the greatest pleasures, when one can invent these things in the target language!”

And you were just telling me that you have the German translation of the book, which has some rather wonderful oaths in it too…

“I found out when browsing the German translation that at certain points the curses and terms of abuse are exactly the same as I use myself, because some of the curses in Czech come from German.”

Remarkably, given that this is a classic of Irish literature, it’s only just been published in English translation. I think there are two published translations, one from 2015 and one from 2016. Now it has appeared in Czech, and the German translation is also quite recent. How important is this book in the context of 20th century Irish literature and why has it taken so long for it to be discovered internationally?

“Máirtín Ó Cadhain has been considered the greatest Irish language prose writer ever since the publication of Cré na Cille in 1949 but being recognised as a classic did not necessarily mean that people would read it, because there were obstacles in their way. It is not enough to have excellent Irish to enjoy Máirtín Ó Cadhain to the full. One needs to know his native dialect well. That meant that the book tended to be enjoyed more in other forms. There were several dramatic adaptations. There was even a film made in 2007 that was quite successful. But you’re right. The situation internationally only started to change with the publication of the two English translations.”

And all this is nearly fifty years after his death…

“But it really seems now that he is gradually being recognised as one of the major 20th century European writers.”

Where do you go from here?

“I’m thinking of one shorter text by Máirtín Ó Cadhain, which has also been translated into English and German. This is called The Key. It is a satirical text about a bureaucrat who gets locked in his office and breaks the key. He can’t escape and actually dies before he can cut through all the red tape in order to be released.”

It sounds as though it would appeal to Czech readers.

“I hope it would. That’s the immediate plan and then I will see.”