I begin this piece in the cafe of the Theatre Divadlo bez zábradlí waiting for the beginning of a production of Hrdý Budžes, a novel and play the author, Irena Dousková, would, according to her website, have translated into English as B. Proudew. This, like many a translation between languages as divergent as are Czech and English, is both ingenious and flawed. My own solution, Proud Beethachoo, is at first sight at least, clumsy. Not perhaps so ingenious, it nonetheless makes the hero of the piece sound less like an accountant, less like an English name (Budžes itself does not sound like a Czech name), and more like the mangling of a phrase heard on the school radio by a clever, worrisome little girl with a surplus of imagination, which is what we discover him to be.

I first heard of the novel in what I suppose must have been the summer of 2004. I was sitting with a friend outside of a cafe called the Halfway House. Staffed by sufferers of schizophrenia and run by a Dutch company called Green Doors, it was a small building in the form of a shrunken 80s Pizza Hut situated in a park popular with dog walkers. At that time it was overlooked by the austere skeleton of a 20 floor building which had been left standing unfinished for twenty years, reputedly when the laws on asbestos changed. In that, my first 2 year stint in Prague, I developed quite an obsession with the place and building both.

Irena described the novel as a period piece. I didn’t yet know the period described was known as normalisation, the brutal period of reinvigorated repression mixed with a new form of sophisticated manipulation which followed the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968. Until that point, my forays into Czech history had been passive and entirely secondary to my assiduous, indeed obsessive, if at times unsystematic, study of the language.

What I had instead was a series of sense impressions, observations and second-hand memories recalled and fashioned together somehow, a particular communist aesthetic – utilitarian and cheerless – that claustrophobic feeling of the eternal return of the mundane, the persistent denial of the small pleasures, of food, of aesthetics, of that alien idea that beauty is truth, truth beauty. In part, it was unavoidably imaginative: what might they have broadcast through those now rusted megaphone speakers hung from buildings and lampposts for village radio, and how would I have reacted to it when I struggle with everyday noise pollution and can’t drive three miles without changing the radio station a number of times – at the adverts, at songs or voices or opinions I don’t care for? How would I have taken to there being one type of cheese when I have such problems with food intolerance as it is? How about the clips of television news and what passed for entertainment that I had seen? The joyless rows of tower blocks formed of preformed concrete and those refractive panels of imperfect glass, those sewer pipe playgrounds. The echoey “category four” pubs with the slammed down beer glasses. The White Swan department store with the bakelite phones in the lift in the event of emergency, its top floor restaurant with the painted over windows and the cabbage and deep fried fare; if its wares were pared down somewhat, if it were shorn of the surrounding contemporary context and imagined as the peak of the new attempt at harnessing a few perks of consumerism as being, with television, an opium of the people the regime could stomach. Grim, the lot of it.

The novel Irena described had this atmosphere. It was, she said, hilarious for those of her generation who remembered those precise things described. She gave an example, of a perfume which had real flowers inside which everybody bought as presents, another of razor blades she could remember. She suggested we get together and read it sometime. I didn’t take her up on it. I am not so sociable, and reading, despite the many difficulties it causes me, is a refuge of sorts. I didn’t exactly forget about what she had said – it was stored away in the peculiarities of my memory – but neither did I pursue it.

It was not, then, until July 2009, during one of my visits to Prague, that I was given the book. “In memory”, so runs the dedication, “of a YouTube Evening with a superb curry.” It is signed by a number of people, some of whom I don’t see anymore on account of the, for me, insuperable complication friends’ divorce introduces into your social life, some of whom I don’t see or hear from having embarked on an ill-advised fling, others, such as Irena, I see at work now I’m back in Prague, or see when my hand is forced by events or one of those peaks of restiveness that have me introduce a little human contact into my largely semi-reclusive schedule.

I had struggled in my usual fashion with the YouTube evening. I don’t know that I know what I believe people ought to do on social occasions but I do seem to have a clear enough idea of the many things they shouldn’t. Sitting around a laptop showing one after another short video certainly fell under the rubric of one of my many aversions.

Leaving Britain in 2003, I had an abundance of such aversions. So many things seemed superficial, unseemly and inauthentic. “Phony”, I suppose, in the words of Holden Caulfield, one similarly affected by such an all-embracing alienation.

By then, I had develop a theory that Caulfield (I was later to add Walter Mitty and Billy Liar), had difficulties with inattentive attention deficit disorder, were caught up in their own thoughts and daydreams and struggled to engage with the outside world, so rarely did it Fosbury flop over the bar of their boredom threshold.

Until recently, I had largely understood my own difficulties as being those of manic depressive illness. By that time I incorporated Asperger’s syndrome and attention deficit disorder into the troubled master status by which I understood myself and my own comprehensive failures as a human being. Shortly before going away, I had given my ex a copy of J D Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. They were intended as manuals to understanding how my mind worked (and how it didn’t). Or rather, perhaps, they were intended as a test, which I was certain she would fail, since how could anybody be expected to understand so much or to wish to cope with it. I think I hoped she would fail the test. In escaping Britain, I was, of course, attempting to escape myself. I wanted to cut all ties.

By 2009 I had not much progressed myself in learning to understand or tolerate my failings. It was something I found difficult to confront, which meant that the intermittent attempts I made to tackle my own problems, insofar as they demanded others’ cooperation, had rather began to get off the ground before I gathered it all up, the various insights I had made, and slammed it all into a box I could lock tight and forget about.

I had cooked the ‘superb’ curry. Cooking, keeping occupied, doing something productive, this was a tried and tested way of making social life more amenable. With it behind me, I drank, further triggering my ADHD, those Walter Mitty fantasies, raising that bar, distancing me from those around me until all that could bring me into something resembling focus was Katka doing all that she could to indulge her passion for foreigners and “intelligent men” (a rather ironic passion, I later unfairly decided, since she was no bright spark herself.)

My life had fallen to pieces a few months before. I had spent the preceding few months as a total recluse, writing on an old typewriter in the summerhouse of my parents’ house in the English Midlands. I would make occasional forays to Birmingham library, get out regularly on my roadbike, occasionally go for a drink with a druggy friend of mine (incorporated into my fictional world as Johnny C.O.S.S.H.) with whom I’d worked at a college for young adults with behavioural problems (the kind of place where people like us who didn’t fit the system one way or another could find a bohemian ecosystem to support us while we, wittingly or otherwise, wrote off any chance of our CVs ever transporting us back to what straights, neurotypicals, and what I termed “scabs” called the real world). Essentially though I wrote all day. I was working, among other things, on a collection of short stories called Liquid Loves, and a novel, Call Them Soldiers.

At this time I had been fighting for some years for a diagnosis and treatment for the tangled disorders asperger’s syndrome and attention deficit disorder. This fight was made the more difficult by the fact that over the years – the long, eventful years of those painful vicissitudes of relative acceptance and outright rejection, relative functionality and systemic breakdown, all laid out on the longer-term fluctuations of mood I had known since my fifteenth, sixteenth year, like an AM radio signal over a carrier signal, I had found a number of ways to live with my condition.

In the summer holidays following my second year at university, I had stayed behind on my own. Already, I had spent many an hour reading about nutritional therapies for neurodevelopmental disorders. Now I travelled to the medical library every day and read, taking perhaps an hour to read a paragraph with those long tangential reveries I know so well. Now I travelled to the medical library every day and read, taking perhaps an hour to read a paragraph with those long tangential reveries I know so well.

I had discovered a lot. I had, over the year, found a wide range of trigger foods, the benefits of exercise and cooking from scratch and that, to summarise, if I expended what energies and organisational capacities I had into the efforts to live like a monk, I could just about function.

By doing so, and though there were endless mutterings at the college I worked at (those people who might be expected to be the most sympathetic are often the least) and, somewhat invidiously, anybody who has worked extensively with asperger’s syndrome, usually takes me for an aspie on a first meeting, the parochial gatekeeper psychiatrists I had the pleasure of dealing with typically considered me an unlikely candidate for either ADD or asperger’s syndrome (the diagnostic criteria of which they usually looked up in my presence) on account of my being relatively high functioning, something those closest to me may have had reason to doubt.

Angry, frustrated, depressed and social phobic, on account of the then quite justified belief that in trying as hard as I could to maintain my condition, essentially a full-time job, I could function on such a level as to satisfy others of the applicability of the normal social criteria by which they judge others, and to comprehensively fail by them every time.

It was not a fun period.

My head sprinted ahead with ideas, characters, plots, beautiful and complete: whole worlds were there.

Meanwhile, writing, a word-finding problem, a memory piqued by an emotion associated with what I was writing, could trigger a reverie or series of thoughts which could pull me away from the story for tens of minutes at a time. Stopping it, pulling my thoughts back into focus again like somebody trying to gather up chess pieces and continue a game after they have been knocked all over the table, I might write another sentence or so before the process repeated.

The interminable process with the NHS was not going to reach a conclusion any time soon; the diet I knew to improve my condition did so to a noticeable degree now that I had the time to focus on it, and in combination with the regular blasts on my road bike, I could certainly focus for longer than ever before, but even in my most hypomanically optimistic spells, I couldn’t believe that I would soon have a completed manuscript which might, with luck, sell to a degree that I might keep body and soul together without necessitating my getting out into a world that had always made its disappointment in me abundantly clear.

I was, besides, depressed. I still believed there might be people who could give a shit about me. Time and again, I suppose, I latched onto memories of Prague. People with asperger’s syndrome are often drawn to life abroad. They do well with languages. Eccentricities are often forgiven in ex pats. For one, they can be written off as cultural differences or lost in translation. Additionally, those who seek life abroad are seen as romantic types, likely to have strong personalities which might, naturally, be wayward in the manner of those British colonialists of old. A handful of people who hold these or similar beliefs are, at any rate, likely to form a supportive ecosystem for an intelligent aspie at any rate, whose eccentricities count to little more than being mad north north west and whose interests and perspective are likely to be fresh and stimulating. Were it not for the familiar “reciprocal reactions” in a term employed by the obviously aspergic R. S. Thomas – that is, the suspicion of acquaintences which trigger a self-reflective social vigilence which invariably leads to social faux pas large and small – the aspie, despite his awkwardness, would likely in many cases be much in demand.

And so, in 2009, I travelled once again to Prague, got out among people – something which was productive in itself, something the aspie needs – because of my contact with that rebarbatively complex language. I challenged that by then long-entrenched social phobia, discovered myself to be capable of telling stories, amusing people, and even being the centre of attention, and, despite the anti-social direction of my thoughts on that YouTube evening, put myself back on track to be among people.

I determined to move abroad once again. I got on the internet, looked for jobs in the Ardeche, and wound up in North Wales.

I first recall Hrdý Budžes becoming a serious habit in the winter of 2010. I had failed to take up climbing as I had hoped in one of the many series of reveries I had had before moving out to Snowdonia from my reclusive spell at home in order to work at a hostel. Pace Billy Fisher, the attentionally addled protagonist of Keith Waterhouse’s Billy Liar, whose thoughts on number one and number two thought, two various strands of what could be considered internal inattentive-type ADD mind states which I will, intrusive reveries are not on the whole willed or purposive. Pace perhaps every lecturer and writer of York Notes-style guff since Walter Mitty was written, these reveries are not a volitional attempt to escape a mundane existance. Occasionally, however, they do serve the needs of the subconscious. Being on the autistic spectrum, I struggle with change. Having ADHD, I need it, or prompt it, or bring it on myself; that is, on the one hand, I crave it, on the other, whether I want it or not, I screw up one thing or another, go arse about tit on a regular basis, and leave myself no other option but to move on. A story I’m brainstorming right now deals with these, let’s call them adjustment reveries, where my brain finds a way around the fears and near-unbearable anxiety that precedes any change, by imagining itself into the new place any which way, imagining new routines, habits that will make that life bearable.

I had taken up running in that first year, took part in regular fell runs and run with one or two of those kind of friends I often make, the kind I often hang out with, usually one-to-one, often during some kind of activity. Both would soon move away, leaving me in a self-contained flat on site at the National Mountain Centre of England and Wales, where I worked as a kitchen hand, and so, going out of my mind, despite the view, surrounded by the kind of extroverts who thought nothing of hanging off a crag in a sleeping bag overnight and who’s idea of winding down was watching Borat or hanging out invariably describing climbs move by move.

I was rather self-conscious about clacking away at my Olympia SM3 typewriter (an E-bay purchase and subsequent cross country road trip the compulsion of which makes me cringe) as I had at the hostel and, besides, the psychic pressures and emotions summoned by the place and my situation – my now entrenched underemployment not least – conspired with the habitual rut I had got myself into with an overdeveloped reliance on that typewriter, to stall whatever projects I had been working on. I was unsettled and anxious, and couldn’t be without a project to root me. That and the perhaps more or less arbitrarily positive impressions I still harboured of Prague pulled me back again to the language, I dug out a notebook I had from years before in which I had set about translating one of the plays set around Czech genius Cimrman, who had, in a typically Czech touch, had to be disqualified from a series Greatest Czech on account of being fictional, and I set to translating the novel.

In translating a novel, the structure is, of course, there for you. A translation doesn’t die because you have a couple of beers or a post-run flapjack or two and you can’t think for two days. It doesn’t get tangled up by a racing head offering tangent upon tangent. The structure is there and countless “efforts” of discipline can be made around it.

I believe the aspergic savant Daniel Tammet once learned Icelandic in a week. I’m no savant. Learning Czech was hard. I had started at 24, a time when I made an inadvertant palimpsest of every book I attempted to read. The manager of the hardware shop I worked at would accuse me of getting a “glassy eyed” look mid-way through his instructions. It was, and remains as much a matter of sheer bloody mindedness as obsession, that I learned the language.

That winter I often stopped for a glass of Penderyn, the peaty welsh whisky, repairing to the alienation of the centre bar at ten o’clock.

That winter the snow piled high and icicles hung from the stones of the old cottages for months up there in the foothills of the mountains. In shorts and a t-shirt, and with a semi-professional headtorch, I ran in the woods behind the centre with snow above my knees at points. I returned with red legs. The novel opens and closes at Christmas.

I started my own writing, did a creative writing course at Bangor, put translation on the back burner. My brother had at any rate put a dampener on it. What did I hope to do with it. What indeed? Yet another obsession, it had started as a heuristic, a way of getting contact with the language. Possibly, it was nothing more than a procrastination exercise. What was I doing with my life?

The next lonely winter brought the familiar atmosphere back again and I returned to it. And to Helenka, the rather sad, lonely girl who so captivatingly narrates it.

I had seen the play in the series of YouTube videos taken from its run in 2003 when it was filmed for česká televize. There are many ways to read any book of any real worth, of course, but there are, broadly speaking, four ways to approach this one. But then, perhaps, approach is the wrong word, suggesting an active choice of stance, an intellectual position taken towards the material. Having read the book many times, and having experienced it in many ways, I would say that what I bring to it on any given occasion is much more likely to be out of my control.

In one scene in the book, Helenka creates something of a problem in the theatre where her parents work, by asking the director, avowedly now comrade director, if the socialist play being rehearsed is a comedy or a tragedy. The same could be asked of the book. The play answers it clearly enough: it’s a comedy. The standing ovation the lead actresses received for the reprise of her role as an eight year old girl over ten years on from her first appearance in the role is a reflection of the energy the part demands. She first appears on stage in skis with a suitcase around her neck. She will later appear on a bike, roll in the snow, dance and sing, and talk more or less continuously. In what it demands of the main actor, its use of a minimum cast of actors to play various supporting roles, and its structure as a stage play, it most reminds me of another period piece, Jeffry Bernard is Unwell.

As for the novel itself, and though much of the difficulty of its translation resides in the capturing of that voice and, in particular, the comedy it delivers on every page, it is not quite so simple.

It is not, I think, solely because of my own tendency towards lability of mood, nor my having been stuck among an intellectually ungifted set in snowdrifts in North Wales that has seen me read the novel as laugh out loud funny even after several iterations of reading the dialogue to myself in Czech and English. Counting on my fingers, now sat in a Tea House near Peace Square, I can see an alternative title might have been Four Funerals and a Wedding, and the first death is, in my edition, on the second page. This is no Goodbye Lenin, nor even one of those misty-eyed Czech films that sends up communism, yes, but in such a gently mocking fashion and on the level of plastic tea spoons that melt in hot tea and unbreakable plastic glasses that smash (and admittedly, the odd Pythonesque assassination of a postal worker), that the result is an anodyne nostalgia which could inadvertently make the job of communicating the repression of those years to the newly minted iPad generation so much more difficult. There is plenty of tragedy and indeed, even that backdrop to the humour which in those Hřebejk films is a saccarine nostalgia, is a melancholy, wistful air.

But then too, there is the other manner in which a reading may fall one way or another. Helenka, being 8 years old, having an ideal position to witness, if not to understand the events around her as the cultural repression of Gustav Husák’s Normalisation starts to bite in the theatre, occupies a similar place as narrator to Mark Haddon’s Christopher in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. Of course, being unpopular and a little dreamy, but nonetheless neurotypically normal, Helenka is not only ideally placed to tell the story of the moves and intrigues in her parents’ circle, she is also able to tell the story of childhood for those of us who were intelligent but not always popular or socially gifted as infants. As ever, in the most specific of stories is the general. When Helenka talks of her love for Miluška Voborníková (prompting her to dance and sing a Eurovision-like number in the play), it is more than a device. Indeed, Helenka makes a number of discoveries, moral and otherwise, that would seem to be given undue weight if this were purely a cleverly told tale of the iniquities of that peculiarly Czech form of communism that emerged in the 1970s following the concessions initially won in the Prague Spring.

I was hungover in theatre. There had been a few whiskies the night before and a water pipe with flavoured tobacco. The combination of the two had left me incapable of ordering my thoughts. I ran about for much of the day listening to an audiobook and trying to find a shop that stocked blackwing pencils (another habitual rut to get stuck in, like the Olympia typewriter, as perhaps the trick that would work for me, draw me in to working forever more). It strikes me now that Helenka, with her obsession over colouring pencils, would empathise. I planned a hundred projects including a Studs Terkel-like oral history project of Austerity Britain and interviews with Czechoslovakian political prisoners which might precede it in the wake of the evident politicisation of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes staged some time ago by the Social Democrats. Despite the energy of the performance, I had for this reason, problems following it at times just the same as I tend to drift in and out of films at the cinema, distracted by the competing upcoming features of my internal projections.

Nonetheless, getting on for four years on from that YouTube evening, I had now seen the stage play of a novel I had myself translated from Czech. Whatever I now do with it, if indeed anything at all, that is the sum of a lot of days of taking charge of just such days where I could barely put one thought in front of the other, because when I turned up in Prague ten years ago and first took a language course that took place in the former home of Czech manic depressive comedian and film actor Vlasta Burian, it was never written in stone that I would get to grips with the language.

Now that I am well on my way to doing that. But quite aside from that, the more I think about and practice translation the more I cleave to the idea that, as far as literary translation is concerned, this is not solely, perhaps not at all, a job for academics. If indeed, I were more capable of sitting in a cork-lined room full of dictionaries and texts, to my mind, I would be less, not more qualified to do this work well. The complexities and idiosyncracies of my head and the mess they can make of my life, and the extremities of experience they can lead me towards, the variety of people I meet in the many different jobs I have had, all provide resources I can draw on which are equally as important to conveying the quiddity of the work into another language and set of reference points, as the words and idiomatic expressions in the source language itself.

If I had had a more staid existence and had not experienced the extremities of mood and emotion I have known over the years (and known and experienced in such a variety of situations and social contexts), I would no more easily be able to feel my way into a story set in a different time and place and among a different kind of people as I would if I didn’t have the words of the language the story was told in. Time and again too, I ask myself, as I translate, not only what is the most precise meaning of a work, and the precise associations it strikes up, but also, who would speak it. Would a mechanic say it? A theatre director? A pathologist? A bohemian? I have read a lot of translations which suffered greatly because the question of precision was delimited to the precision of meaning. Either the translator had not the breadth of experience in his own language to recognise the range of register it permits (being surrounded, let’s say, by privileged students and highly educated colleagues) or didn’t have the literary awareness to know the importance of asking such questions and tuning in the ear to them as one translates.

I am constitutionally in favour of amateurism and suspicious of the idea of expertise. That it is increasingly considered that every job ought to be certificated and backed up by formal education is something that makes me angry. I have no doubt that it makes more sense with translation than it does with creative writing, but I do not believe I have any reason to consider my skills as a translator to be any the less valuable because my route to the language was via the pub, in cafes, even in bed, rather than at university.

The translation isn’t ready yet. I’ll not send it anywhere until I feel it is ready. I don’t work to deadlines. It progresses when it progresses and stalls when it stalls. When I am commissioned to translate something, as I have been in the past for a few short frivolous pieces in the past, and surely will be again, I will work to a stricter deadline. I have started other translations and abandoned them, mainly short story collections – a form I love and for which I have very high standards. For now I translate what interests me and what I consider to be valuable. Hrdý Budžes is both. I had started, and had by the by invested a great number of hours on a translation of Petr Šabach’s Hovno Hoří, that is, Shit Burns, the collection of stories which inspired Hřebejk’s famous Pelíšky, only to lose faith in it as a piece of work. Unsystematic as I can certainly be at times, I’m no dilettante. There’s a seriousness to what I do and the idea of giving up a piece of work because of the many artistic and moral flaws discovered in the process of picking apart its many layers and meanings, is far less abhorrent to me, than would be submitting it for publication with those flaws in mind. Another might not see those flaws. Well then that other is better placed to translate and advocate for the work, and I would wish them well.

The more I read Hrdý Budžes, and the more I see it (I have today booked for another performance, for which I will turn up a little more fresh), the more convinced I am of its worth. Should I convince anybody else of the same I would be very happy. For the moment, I am happy to pick over it from time to time, to let it set me on a hundred little research errands, guide my hand in the antikvariáts as it last did today, discover in it, of it, or from it something new*, and to live with it.

If I were ever to succeed in securing a reputation as a literary translator, I am sure that I would be unable, professionally, to dedicate a fraction of the time to each commission, or indeed those works I stumble upon and propose myself, as I have to Hrdý Budžes. I may become more slick, more sure of my methods, certainly more confident (if I were to meet Irena Dousková and discuss her work at the current time I would most assuredly be nervous at first, possibly apologetic), but I am not certain I would be the better translator for any of that.

Now, another look at that toilet graffiti in chapter 3.

 

* In reading over this text and giving it the once over (not enough, I know, but this is a blog post, and, therefore, essentially a distraction from other priorities for which I have little enough time as it stands), I have discovered that the lovely illustration of which I am now so familiar, was drawn by talented Lucie Lomová, whose first graphic novel I picked up at a book fair a couple of days back and who’s work I very much look forward to reading. Such discoveries go on and on.

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  1. […] I have known Lucie Lomová’s work for years. A few weeks back I posted on Hrdý Budžes, a book that was gifted to me a few years ago, and which I have translated into English, something […]

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