Bohumil Hrabal (1914–1997) worked as a railway dispatcher during the Nazi occupation of then Czechoslovakia, a traveling salesman, a steelworker, a recycling mill worker, and a stagehand. His novels were censored under the Communist regime and have since been translated into nearly thirty languages. Milan Kundera once called him “Czechoslovakia’s greatest living writer.” I’m not sure I agree entirely with Kundera’s pronouncement, but Hrabal has certainly stolen my heart.
This past summer my husband and I went to the Czech Republic on a “Hrabal Pilgrimage” to visit all the locations the author had written about in his novel Harlequin’s Millions, a translation of which I was just finishing for an American publisher. We walked the streets he describes in the book, following the same route through Nymburk (“the little town where time stood still”) as the unnamed protagonist, a character based on Hrabal’s mother. We ate sausages and drank beer in the local café in Kersko, a quiet, wooded area where Hrabal spent time living and working in a green and white cottage. Best of all, we had the rare privilege of visiting the former castle, now retirement home, where most of the story of Harlequin’s Millions takes place. Hrabal wrote about what he knew, incorporating details of his life and the stories he heard in his favorite pub and altering them to suit the purpose of his narrative.
Admittedly, I first began to study Czech because I wanted to read Hrabal’s work in the original. The English translations I’d read seemed to tug in all the wrong places. Something was being glossed over, fleshed out, overcompensated for. Somewhere beneath all that was the voice and pulse of the author, I could feel it, but without knowing the original I couldn’t say what it was. Later, when I read those same books in Dutch translation, by Kees Mercks and compared them with the English, I began to see what was wrong. When I had finally learned enough Czech to read the original, it was a revelation.
Hrabal wrote and re-wrote, in a kind of ecstasy, a trance, hoping to achieve the spontaneous rhythm and flow of human speech. He rarely re-read his own work and left the task of editing and polishing to his literary friends (who insisted it was necessary and even had to pencil in the Czech grammatical symbols, which weren’t available on Hrabal’s typewriter.) His often full-page sentences move this way and that, and he definitely favored the comma over the period. Many of the early English translations of his work chopped up all those luscious Hrabalian sentences into digestible 10-word chunks. This may have been an editorial decision on the part of the publisher, but it isn’t fair to either the author or his readers. Other translations retain the structure of the original, but fail to capture the ease with which one clause flows into the next. This, in fact, was my greatest challenge in translating Harlequin’s Millions, subtitled ‘A Fairy Tale’, about an elderly woman in a retirement home coming to terms with the passing of time.
An excerpt (sneak preview!) here below:
“When I first arrived at my new home in Count Špork’s castle, while a few dozen faces peered curiously out open windows at the courtyard and at me, here in the dazzlingly whitewashed corridor old men and women came carefully down the stairs to greet me, steadying themselves on the banister, or swinging down step by step on a pair of crutches, that very first day I saw that along the walls of the corridor and in niches along the stairs were white statues of nude young women, Greek goddesses perhaps, caught unawares by a male gaze and defending themselves, in terror, with raised arms, I saw the statue of the energetic goddess of the hunt swinging back her arm to pull an arrow from her quiver, and pensive statues of naked youths with almost childlike genitals, youths with an aura of blissful ignorance and supple, boyish limbs. . . And here and there an old man and woman came down the stairs past the statues and hobbled out into the courtyard, or suddenly out of nowhere a nurse would come running, her black shoes tapping hurriedly, her starched cap skimming along the stairs like a white seagull, her swift cap and gait made the slow, careful movements of the pensioners seem even slower. I stood here on the first step and when I lifted my head, I saw that the ceiling was decorated with frescos of naked, dancing women and men, dozens of young bodies were writhing about in those frescos, in colorful dances, and their glowing eyes were so concentrated on the dance that none of those dancing nymphs and fauns knew what was happening around them, they had joined hands and the naked bodies of the dancers surged from right to left with an inaudible roar, only their eyes remained motionless, locked in a passionate gaze. And in the faces of the pensioners I recognized a few that I’d known from the little town where time stood still, they looked at me and recognized me too, they had guessed who was behind that toothless, wrinkled face, they’d guessed it was me, the woman whom they’d often run into in the main square, whom they knew from the movie theater and the playhouse, now our eyes met and we nodded our gray heads at each other guiltily, we shrugged our shoulders, there was nothing to be done, such a wonderful beginning, and now, such an end.”
– Hrabal, B., Harlequin’s Millions, trans. S. Knecht, Archipelago Books, New York, 2014
– Hrabal, B., Harlekijntjes miljoenen, trans. K. Mercks, Prometheus, Amsterdam, 2005
– Interview with Kees Mercks, October 7, 2013, Amsterdam