Corto's Reviews > The Good Soldier Švejk

The Good Soldier Švejk by Jaroslav Hašek
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I’m writing this review after finishing Book Two of “The Fateful Adventures of the Good Soldier Svejk in the World War”.

In this review, I’m going to include my thoughts on the differing Cecil Parrot and Zenny Sadlon translations, as I feel which translation you read will give you a different experience with the titular character, and the story in general. In short, the Sadlon translation gives the reader a novel with extraordinarily more depth and layers than the Parrot translation.

“The Good Soldier Svejk” is little known here in America, but apparently is a folk institution in Central and Eastern Europe, and is especially important to the people of the Czech Republic, the land of its inception. On the surface, it’s a comedic and satiric take on World War One from the Czech perspective. In the Parrot edition, there are many moments of slapstick and levity.

Conscripted Private Svejk is challenged with navigating the Czech bureaucracy, and is beset by one amusing situation after another. One reviewer calls him a, “European Forrest Gump”.

A deeper look, with more context reveals something else entirely. While the slapstick and levity remain, the book becomes more caustic. It’s not only the tale of a man beset by the absurdity of military bureaucracy, it becomes a story about a man who is a symbol for a subjugated country that exists within a larger dystopian governmental structure. The eponymous subject of the book, Svejk, is a man caught in the grinding gears of a police state, doing his best to survive not only the government’s machinery, but the war that it’s feeding him into. (Additionally, the book is not solely about Svejk. He is often a medium used to describe the state, culture and nature of Austro-Hungarian Czechia.) Svejk is not Forrest Gump. Gump was a symbol of America’s loss of innocence in the 1960’s and his author’s attempt to grapple with the change in American culture into the 1980’s. Gump is, in today’s parlance, “on the spectrum” and his responses to the situations he’s thrust into, are viewed in awe that someone with those intellectual “challenges” can rise to the occasion and succeed.

Svejk, is a different animal altogether, and this where the importance of what translation you read, comes into play.

When reading the Parrot edition, readers often question, “Is this guy an idiot, or is he extremely clever?”. Certainly there’s room for a lot of interpretation here. In the Sadlon translation, there is no mystery, Svejk is doing what it takes to survive, and that perception is possible through the clarity of the translation.

To what do we owe this crystal-clear focus and lack of confusion? In my opinion, it’s very simple. Sadlon is a native Czech speaker, and Sir Cecil Parrot wasn’t.

I don’t want to bash Parrot here. He served as a diplomat to the Czech people, and obviously had a great deal of love for the country and the culture. Translating this sprawling book must’ve been quite an undertaking, so we can’t fault his earnestness in wanting to bring this wonderful story to the English speaking world. However, having read 60% percent of his translation, and the same content in the Sadlon translation, I can say that Parrot’s vernacular obscures the subtleties and nuances that make a huge difference in what Hasek was communicating to the reader. I can’t state this enough, the Sadlon edition is a much different book that unmasks a significantly more intricate picture of World War One era Czechia.

I know some will consider attacking a Penguin Classics edition as sacrilege (Parrot’s publisher), but the differences exist. Sadlon’s translation is not 100% polished – but the problems I had with a couple of the words he used are minor and inconsequential. Sadlon was criticized for using the vernacular of modern American English, but to that I say, so what? Is it better to use far outdated British vernacular that doesn’t adequately communicate the story? Is Svejk not supposed to be the story of an Everyman for …every man? Should the story not be more accessible to today’s English language readers (even if they’re British?) If Hasek were the equivalent with a more florid writer, I might take issue. But in both the Parrot and Sadlon translations, the story is described in plain, concise diction and delivery. There is no grandiloquent exposition that would require the literary strengths of a Melville or Faulkner, and would require a poetic translator. If you are interested in a spirited and expertly argued debate about the translation, google Michelle Wood’s review of Sadlon’s edition in Jacket Magazine (Jacket2. org), and then make sure you read Sadlon’s robust rebuttal (which is linked at the top of Wood’s review).

As I stand, at halfway through the four books of the Sadlon edition of Svejk’s story, what I’ve read is an amusing, shocking and poignant snapshot of a country at war and on the precipice of its own independence. It’s a compelling story, not only for following the adventures of Svejk and his beaming countenance, but I became invested enough, that I want to see how this turns out for him and his country.

I will add more thoughts when I finish the novel.

(And apologies to everyone who hates the name, "Czechia"...)
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Reading Progress

Finished Reading (Kindle Edition)
Finished Reading
April 18, 2014 – Shelved as: to-read (Other Paperback Edition)
April 18, 2014 – Shelved (Other Paperback Edition)
Started Reading (Other Paperback Edition)
January 11, 2018 – Finished Reading (Other Paperback Edition)
January 31, 2018 – Shelved
January 31, 2018 – Shelved (Kindle Edition)
January 31, 2018 – Shelved as: my-anti-library (Other Paperback Edition)

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