“We Were a Handful”: A Czech children’s classic that takes us from provincial Bohemia to the jungles of India.

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We have featured Mark Corner in this programme before. He has translated several well known Czech works from the first half of the twentieth century, including Vladislav Vancura’s whimsical short novel ‘Summer of Caprice’ and the Czech novel that comes closest to the atmosphere of P.G. Wodehouse, Zdenek Sirotka’s ‘Saturnin’. Now Mark has turned to another writer from the same period, Karel Polacek, and one of his best loved classics, “Bylo nas pet” which Mark has translated as “We Were a Handful”.

Mark Corner
What was it that made you want to translate this particular book?

“I was attracted by the idea of translating a children’s story. The main character is a boy of probably about ten to twelve, because girls are still more of an embarrassment than an attraction to him. He’s a boy who wants to present himself as more adult than he is and pretend that the adult world is something that contains no dangers or problems for him. And so that presents a lot of difficulties and challenges for a translator. Apart from that Polacek is a very good writer, not enough of Polacek has been translated and this is a very good children’s story in its own right, and I think would be an enjoyable read.

Here is an extract from the book that is typical for Polacek’s style and for the atmosphere of the book.

You might like to know what a jungle is.

A jungle is like the forests we have at home, except that it’s not the same as a forest because a jungle is terribly untidy. There are no signs to say that you shouldn’t frighten the animals, light fires, pick mushrooms or other fruits of the forest under pain of a fine. You don’t get those signposts showing you how to reach the best views and places of historical interest. You don’t even have benches for people to sit on when their legs get tired.

There’s nothing like that in a jungle where the undergrowth does what it likes and all the plants are tangled up with each other and nothing is where it should be and it’s as if in our class the teacher has suddenly been summoned to the head’s office and there’s no one there any more to watch what we’re doing.”

The narrator travels to the Indian jungle, but in rather a special way…

“Yes. He comes down with scarlet fever, and this makes him very ill, gives him a very high temperature, and so he starts to have hallucinations, and that provides a lot of challenges for any translator. In and out of coming to and realizing that the doctor is next to him, he goes on a trip to India, which he so enjoys that he comes back to fetch his family and takes them to India with him.”

He goes off to the Maharajah’s palace, where a great banquet is being prepared for the wedding of one of his friends with an Indian princess.

The palace was a real hive of activity and everyone was dashing hither and thither. The hustle and bustle was biggest in the kitchen because this was where they were preparing the wedding feast. There were loads of monkeys there and they all had their hands full and were being rushed off their legs. There were other animals there too, all of them at work doing something. There was an elephant turning the mincer to make rissoles, and another elephant had a coffee mill between its legs and was grinding coffee with its trunk. Plucking poultry was the job of one small monkey while another was washing the vegetables and a third peeling the potatoes. A huge snake called an Indian rock python was kneading dough for apple strudel and a couple of parrots were sorting peas. A ginger tom who looked like our Honza was whisking egg-white and never even took a nibble for himself on the sly. I found this odd because Honza would wolf down everything and the Pa would hurl a shoe after him because of the way he goes for everything he can lay his paws on. There was a bear chopping wood, a dog stirring thickener into the soup and it looked as if the whole place was there for one thing only – work.

The scenes in India are a wonderful journey in the mind of a young boy. You can see how his imagination has combined with bits of knowledge about India that he has picked up and with experiences that he has had in his own life.

“Yes. The experience of the circus coming to town, for instance, where he is perfectly healthy and is describing something that actually happened, and the trip to India, which we have to understand is something that he hallucinates while he is ill, and then he comes out of the illness temporarily, he is very thirsty, a doctor takes his temperature, then back he goes into the fantasy world which the illness has brought on. So he is going in and out of consciousness. It’s quite a challenge, but it’s very imaginative on Polacek’s part.”

In what ways is it a particular challenge for a translator? Is it partly because it’s a novel that was written over seventy years ago and in some ways has dated?

“I don’t think that is too much of a problem, though it can be a little difficult, because I like to keep a certain consistency, using words that would be used at a particular time and not another. Sometimes you can get that a bit wrong and anachronisms can creep in. But I think the real challenge is always to allow the characters to come across and to be accurate in the way that you communicate the characters. I think in some ways the most important aspect of being faithful as a translator is to be faithful to the characters that you are trying to convey in another language.”

Did you have some parallels in mind with particular characters that you have come across in English literature?

“I was imagining some kind of Enid Blyton type ‘Famous Five’, but it is not like that. It’s not an adventure story, with plot and development and catching criminals and so on. It is very much, I think, a part of its time and place. I get such a strong sense from it of people growing up in a small Czech town in the first half of the twentieth century that really I tend to forget the parallels with something in English.”

Karel Polacek grew up in the provinces – in small-town Eastern Bohemia. His later life story is very tragic. During the German occupation he was sent to a concentration camp because of his Jewish roots and he died, tragically, in 1944 in Auschwitz.

“Yes. Here is an extract that conveys something of how humour can deal with tragedy, and how sometimes you might think it is almost slightly mocking, but then you see that really it is not. There is actually a lot of humanity in it. This is about a friend whose father lives in the poorhouse.”

Now I go round to the Zilvars, the people from the poorhouse. That’s the most fabulous place of all, but I don’t say anything about it at home because they’d only be against it. Mr. Zilvar was in the Great War, during which he was wounded by enemy gunfire. So he goes begging from house to house and has a wooden leg. I’d like to have a leg like that and I long for one so much that it gives me dreams in which I go around with a wooden leg that makes a heavy “Plonk! Plonk!” sound and people come running out of their homes, each one of them marvelling at my wooden leg, with me feeling very proud. I’ve set my heart on mending my ways, and when they’re mended I’ll ask the family to give me a wooden leg for Christmas, and then the lads will really have something to see.

The poorhouse also has some ladies who go begging and they spend every evening counting what they’ve been able to beg during the day, and then they get into arguments. Mr. Zilvar can’t stand it when they argue a lot. He unfastens his leg and flings it at the old hags and then they stop arguing. Zilvar boasted that his pa’s the chief beggar because he gets the most money and so the others have to listen to what he says. He coughs a lot in the night because of a blood clot. He told me this and was very proud of it.

All the times I wanted to get hold of his leg, if only just to be able to touch it, and Zilvar said “Wait till Dad’s asleep. I’ll take the leg off and we can play with it.”

So that’s what happened. When Mr. Zilvar was asleep he removed the leg and I was overjoyed. We played at begging and I was the cripple. Zilvar was everyone else. I walked around asking people for alms. Zilvar played someone who gave help and then someone who didn’t. When he played a big shot with a plaque on his door saying ‘Helping the local needy’, he always put on a swagger, rolled his eyes about in a horrible way and said: “The answer for the workshy is to do some work” or “Be off with you, there’s far too many of your sort round here.”

That is a typically Czech kind of gallows humour…

“If you look at it from the point of view of social issues, there is a lot going on here. There is war and peace, and there’s disability and there’s social discrimination and there’s hypocrisy. It is all treated with humour, but I don’t think it belittles it.”

Your translation of the book has just been published in a hardback edition by the Karolinum Press, the publishers attached to the Charles University in Prague. The book also has beautiful illustrations.

“These are by Jiri Grus, who did the illustrations for my translation of ‘Caprice of Summer’, and they were so good that the Karolinum asked him to do the illustrations for ‘We Were a Handful’.”

They are in the book illustrating tradition that uses watercolour sketches to create a sense of atmosphere and nostalgia.

“Yes. They do. What I like so much are the expressions that come through. There is a wonderful picture of Honza the cat on page nine. You can see the personality of the cat. You don’t just see any sort of cat. You think – Ah, that’s Honza!”

And this is just a pencil drawing, almost as if it is just scribbled into the margin. Will the book be easily available?

“I really hope so. The Karolinum does make its books available on its website, so you can order through the internet. The university bookshop in Prague will definitely have copies and I would very much hope – certainly this has been the case in the past – that other bookshops in Prague and the Czech Republic will have this book.”

The website of the Charles University Press is: www.cupress.cuni.cz.