Vladislav Vancura is one of the best known Czech writers of the period between the First and Second World Wars. At home he is a household name, but if he is not well known abroad, this comes as no surprise. Vancura has often been described as untranslatable. His prose is very poetic, and some would say that his writing has dated. This has not stopped the translator Mark Corner from taking up the challenge of translating what is probably Vancura's best known book "Rozmarne leto", which he translates as "Summer of Caprice" into English. Mark Corner joins us in the studio.
What inspired you to take up such a difficult challenge?
"I wanted something to translate where the language was difficult and involved and demanding. I know that there are some people who think that it is quite untranslatable, but on the other hand people do try to translate even poems. So if this is a prose poem, that doesn't necessarily rule it out from translation. I also feel that in a sense nothing is translatable and in a sense everything is translatable. Of course, when you translate you do inevitably change things. That's true of anything, I think."
Tell us a little about the book "Summer of Caprice".
"It is about a summer in which there is very little but rain, though the sky occasionally clears at night. It is set in a small spa town, which I translate as Little Karlsbad, and there is a little bit of the kind of small town mentality about the people living there, although they are also in many ways very charming. The book centres around three eccentric characters - a major, a canon and someone I translate variously as a bathing superintendent and a magister thermarum and various other strange phrases. He's basically someone who looks after the local swimming pool on the edge of the river."
Here is an extract from near the beginning of the book, which sets this rather nostalgic, atmospheric scene.
This is the moment when, with a song and a game or whimsy, the curtain opens on a tale set in the floating domicile of the Hussey family. Various light structures serving the swimming trade have been built onto Antony's raft-like erection, which has been tied at a point where the poppling Orsh has ripples along its back, sniffing at a sandbank that runs for as much as a hundred yards. In this area the bank on the town side of the river is covered in willows, which reach as far as the gardens of the leather dressers and wafer producers. Each year the willows get out of hand, preserving an unmanicured appearance that almost exceeds the bounds of decency. No one trims them and for those who make their way to the river there is nothing but a smattering of footpaths which are, alas, narrow. At the beginning of each pathway an inscription has been fixed to an indifferently painted pole, which carries its message rather as a female donkey carries her saddle. The announcement reads: River Resort.
So that extract evocatively sets the scene of this provincial riverside bathing place. Before we move on with the story, tell us a little about Vladislav Vancura. He was a very important figure of the Czech literature of the time, both in terms of his popularity and also the fact that he was an experimental writer.
"He was an experimental writer and he had an interest in some of the most important experimental developments of the time. One was film. He wrote "Rozmarne leto" in 1927, at about the time that silent films were giving way to sound and throughout his life he had an interest in film and film techniques. So it doesn't surprise me that this was later so successfully made into a film by Jiri Menzel. I almost think in some ways that Vancura anticipates this.
"He also had an interest in medicine, and you can find some rather difficult medical expressions coming into his writing, which I had to think about for a very long time and also do some research upon.
"Thirdly he has a particular sort of writing style, which is on the one hand rather convoluted and old-fashioned, so you might be feeling that you're almost coming across something like the King James Bible, but then it suddenly becomes - I won't say vulgar - but very down to earth.. I think that to catch Vancura you have somehow to combine these moments of being very down to earth with moments of being high-falluting and you mustn't forget either. You mustn't be pulled too much in either direction. So he has a distinctive style, he was interested in things that in his time were just becoming significant, like film, and he also had the association with resistance to the Nazis. He was executed in 1942."
You talk about this juxtaposition of different styles, maybe one of the most charming things in the book is the way that the dialogue works. There's some very entertaining dialogue, which comes across wonderfully in the film version as well, beloved of many Czech cinema goers. Here is an extract that offers a taste of the dialogue between the main characters, when the three of them, the major, the cannon and the bathing superintendent sit down for dinner together:
"Let's tuck in to the food and drink," said Hugo.
"Bring me some dinner. Cheese full of fat, venison, poultry, lamb,
anything born alive or hatched from an egg. Bring me anything I can eat
that ripens, anything finned or skinned, bring me all those gastropods
consumed in civilised countries. Fetch them here! It is evening, the earth
has done its rounds and that is when custom dictates that we
"Would you say, Major" proffered the canon, "that you have become a glutton or a windbag? Do you wish to treat us to a display or your teeth or your tongue?"
"If I knew my way around words, I would hold my tongue, just as you do, Padre," retorted Hugo. "Right then. I'm not ordering you to take up your weapons, but start attacking the food!"
You say that people might find the book difficult, but I think that if they do find some sections quite heavy going, they will certainly be helped along by the humour and lightness of parts of it.
"I hope so. I think that is its great strength. It is divided into well over fifty sections in what is quite a short book - in effect a novella - and each section has a title. I almost think of them as titles of scenes in a play or a film. You can almost imagine fifty separate scenes in a film, which are brought together in the atmosphere they create. I'm not saying it is completely without a story - things do happen - but the main point of it, I think, is to try to bring out the characters and the nature of life in the village, rather than telling a tale where you're gripping your seat about whether or not the butler did it."
We should also mention this new edition. It is beautifully produced and also illustrated.
"Yes. The Karolinum Press produced it and it has illustrations by Jiri Grus. I think they are wonderful. It is a hardback book with many, many different illustrations, some in a kind of sepia brown, which I think can be very attractive, and some in full colour. They portray the main characters in the book, I think, very well, and I really do say - if you don't like that translation you can always buy the book for the illustrations!"
I believe you are working on a translation of another very well known Czech book from between the wars, which will be coming out soon.
"Yes. I'm working on Karel Polacek's 'Bylo nas pet', and that will be completed by the end of this year and I hope it will be out next spring."
Karel Polacek is another Czech master of the short story and novella, so I'm very much looking forward to talking about that in a future edition of Czech Books. We'll end with another taste of the delightful dialogue in "Summer of Caprice". This is a section called "Comeliness does not become a genius" and it is when Ernesto the musician arrives and disturbs the characters in Little Karlsbad, partly from his own influence, and partly from that of his beautiful assistant, Anna:
Ernesto the magician took no part in these discussions. He stood with
his legs crossed, leaning against the handrail of the pool, observing the
scene and enjoying a smoke. In a nutshell, he stood there watching and
standing there he watched.
"I observe," said the major, "that a crooked chest does nothing to dent the ego of magicians."
"I am not clear how things stand with magicians, but it is certainly the case that Byron walked with a limp. It is also a fact that Homer was blind, Socrates was of bestial appearance and district inspectors stammer," said the canon.
"There's a remarkable arbitrariness in all that," Antony added. "Is it not possible to determine the type once and for all?"
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