Viktor Janiš and the art of jumping through linguistic hoops

Viktor Janiš, photo: David Vaughan

Why did the communists ban comics? Why is it so hard to translate the 19th century English novel into Czech? And what does this have to do with a 17th century battle in Prague? We find some of the answers in this week’s Czech Books, with David Vaughan.

Viktor Janiš,  photo: David Vaughan
In a recent edition of this programme we spoke about the complexities of translating poetry, but prose brings up equally difficult challenges. Viktor Janiš is one of the Czech Republic’s most prolific and successful translators from English into Czech, focusing in particular on contemporary fiction. His work is not always easy, but Viktor insists that nothing is untranslatable. Over the years it has become something of a tradition for Radio Prague to ask Viktor how many books he has translated so far. When we asked him five years ago, the figure was at 45. So when we met a couple of days ago, I began by asking him about his current tally.

“I guess it would be almost 80 by now, but I’m cheating a little bit because there are about 30 graphic novels among them and they don’t really count, do they?”

Well, they are novels…

“They are novels. Some of them are quite long, about 600 pages, so I guess they do.”

In fact, graphic novels are particularly popular in the Czech Republic at the moment and there seem to be several Czech serious writers who have chosen the format of the graphic novel.

“After several spluttering starts they enjoy a sort of renaissance. Of course, they were banned under the communist regime…”

Why do you say “of course”? What possible reason could the communists have had for banning graphic novels?

“That’s a very pertinent question, but the communists, of course, hated almost everything. Comics are almost always pure fun and the communists weren’t big fans of pure fun.”

But I know there were children’s comics, such as the famous Čtyřlístek. Was there nothing else?

“For decades there were none and then in the ‘70s there were the children’s comics called Čtyřlístek and there were comics published by the children’s magazine ABC, but overall, no comic books as such.”

… which is interesting also in that before the war there were the very famous comics by Jaroslav Foglar, the Fast Arrows – Rychlé šípy – so there was a tradition going back over 70 years.

“Sure, and it’s a great pity, because those comics are popular even now.”

We’ve spoken to you several times in recent years about bad translation – that there is a great deal of bad translation around in this country. If you have a country with a language spoken by only 10 million people, a great deal has to be translated. Are things still as bad as they have been in the past when you’ve talked to us about it? These days there are far more Czech translators who have had the chance to travel, who have grown up learning English from a much younger age, travelling to and from English-speaking countries. So do you think that generally the standard of translation is going up?

“Yes, fortunately! I think that in the beginning of the ‘90s it was quite bad, since under communism only 400 translations appeared every year. You had just eight publishing houses and not all of them published translated fiction, which meant that you only had to have translators for 200 fiction titles, or even non-fiction titles. After the fall of communism, the number of publishers stretched to almost 4,000 and of course there weren’t enough translators to go round. What’s more, there weren’t enough editors to go round, because if the translator is bad, then you still have your guardian angel in the form of the editor and even bad translations can be repaired, or at the very least neutralized so they won’t be offensive. And there just weren’t people with enough experience to do that.

“So, to return to your question: yes, there is a new generation of translators. Funnily enough, the problems are different now. I have a little theory: under communism there wasn’t much contact with the West, so you couldn’t find any native speakers if you wanted to consult some problems with a translation and of course the dictionaries weren’t exhaustive, there was no internet, and so the main problem was with understanding concepts. But, at that time the people who were translating were almost always excellent stylists. And now that has disappeared.

“The most important books, the books that will be written about in the newspapers, will almost always get a good translator. What we don’t know about is how well the mysteries are translated and generally the sort of fiction that doesn’t get reviews.”

You mean popular fiction…

“Yes. I’m not underestimating the impact of such literature, because these books are read – and then influence the language consciousness of the country.”

In spoken Czech there’s already quite a strong influence of English syntax – an extreme example would be something like “Mějte hezký den!”, a literal translation of “Have a nice day!”

“Fortunately, it’s almost always on a lexical level, which I can understand, and I don’t bear any grudge…”

You mean just words that creep in…

“Yes, single words. You can’t really stop it, even if you have laws about that, like the French do.”

One of the problems translating from English to Czech must be that English is spoken by many millions of people in many different countries around the world in many variants, dialects and accents. When it comes to translating into a language which is spoken by 10 million people in a fairly small geographical area, it must be incredibly difficult to get across the huge diversity of English.

“Dialects are almost always a problem. Sometimes it just can never be done. I have yet to see a convincing translation of Jamaican dialect. It just does not lend itself to translation. You can have the same problem the other way round. For instance, I would love to see an English translation of a novel by Ivan Landsmann called Pestré vrstvy (Different Coloured Layers). Now, this is written in an Ostrava dialect of miners. I suppose that the natural approach would be to translate it into Yorkshire dialect, but it just wouldn’t feel the same, even after an incredible effort. Now the usual theory in the other direction is that you translate into very colloquial Czech, but somehow this does seem a little bit like an acknowledged failure.”

“What I find difficult is usually not the idioms, but style registers. It’s all connected with history. After the Battle of the White Mountain in the 17th century…”

… and any conversation in this country sooner or later ends up with the tragedy of the Battle of the White Mountain…

“… we sort of lost our aristocracy. That’s why it’s so difficult to translate novels from the 18th or 19th century in England, or any novel where people from higher circles appear, because their sort of speech is different somehow. After several words or sentences you can just pigeonhole them and there is no natural equivalent for that in Czech. Victorian novels have been translated heavily into Czech – novels by Dickens, Thackeray and others – but, somehow, not everything that was in the original is in the Czech.

“But it wouldn’t be interesting if there weren’t obstacles, if there weren’t the hoops to jump through. It’s an indescribable feeling, when you finally manage to translate something that you weren’t even sure was translatable.”

What, in your opinion, is the best Czech translation of all time – a Czech translation of a novel that has not only been extremely good but also influential?

“I would have to say that this is a novel that is little known in the Anglo-Saxon countries, but is beloved here. It has been reprinted at least five times and it’s by an American Jewish author called Leo Rosten – who, by the way, wrote the book ‘The Joys of Yiddish’ – and in English it’s called ‘O K*A*P*L*A*N! My K*A*P*L*A*N!’ In Czech it’s called ‘Pan Kaplan má stále třídu rád’. It was translated by Antonín Přidal, one of our foremost translators, and the difficulty, the sheer bloody difficulty of this translation, was in the fact that it was about a school that prepares immigrants for taking some exams, so that they can become citizens of the United States, and it’s about a teacher, trying to teach them English grammar and English vocabulary, style etc. It’s extremely funny in English, but all the jokes are based on the language. So just a shell of this novel remained and all the contents had to be inserted or implanted by Antonín Přidal, and he succeeded brilliantly. It’s so laughing-out-loud funny.”

Which just proves that there’s no such thing as an untranslatable book…

“If you have the right person!”