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“The Good Soldier Švejk”

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(The following is a post by Helen Fedor, Reference Specialist in the European Division.)

The most famous work by Czech writer Jaroslav Hašek (1883-1923), and probably the best known work of Czech literature, is “Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka za světové války” (The adventures of the good soldier Švejk during the world war), or as it is known in its English translation, “The Good Soldier Švejk.” The most translated Czech novel—read in some 60 languages—it satirizes bureaucracy, the military, and war.

Jaroslav Hašek. “Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka za světové války.” Prague: K. Synek, 1948-49. Illustration by Josef Lada. Švejk rubs ointment into his knee while the cleaning lady tells him of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand—an event that triggered World War I and brought about Švejk’s many adventures.

Set in Austria-Hungary, the book opens with the 1914 news that Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria (1863-1914) has been assassinated in Sarajevo, an event that would trigger World War I. Josef Švejk, the antihero, enlists in the army and spends the war blundering from one ludicrous adventure to another. He seems earnest in his desire to carry out his orders, yet takes them to extremes and frustrates his superiors. For example, when Švejk is assigned to the barracks in České Budějovice (in southern Bohemia) as a prelude to going to the front, he manages to miss all the trains heading there. In his ‘zeal’ to reach the barracks and join the rest of his battalion, Švejk meanders all over southern Bohemia, vainly searching for České Budějovice, gets arrested as a suspected spy and deserter, and is escorted to the barracks.

Švejk bears more than a passing resemblance to the author, Hašek, who loved practical jokes, had a checkered career, and was himself drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army. Hašek’s pretended suicide attempt (by jumping off Charles Bridge into the Vltava River in Prague) ended with the police taking him to a mental institution. Also, during elections to the Austro-Hungarian parliament, Hašek ran for office as a member of his own newly founded Party of Moderate and Peaceful Progress Within the Limits of the Law. He eventually joined the anarchist movement and was arrested and imprisoned more than once.

Jaroslav Hašek, Karel Vaněk; illustrations Petr Urban. “Švejk za první světové války, v ruském zajetí a v revoluci” [Švejk during the first world war, in Russian captivity, and in the revolution]. Prague: XYZ, 2009. As Švejk and 40 other captive soldiers are being transported eastward across Russia, his train pulls out of a village station without him, and despite his pursuit, strands him there. The illustration shows Švejk running after the train.
Jaroslav Hašek. “Osudy dobrého vojáka Švejka za světové války.” Prague: K. Synek, 1948-49. Illustration by Josef Lada. Two soldiers escorted Švejk to the home of the chaplain for “spiritual consolation” before his hanging. By the time Švejk and his escorts got there, the soldiers were drunk, and Švejk ended up guarding them while the chaplain (himself drunk) unsuccessfully tried to telephone the barracks, mistaking a coat rack for his nonexistent telephone.

Hašek planned to write the Švejk story in six parts. The first three were published 1921-23, but Hašek died in 1923, while working on part four. After his death, his publisher asked journalist and humorist Karel Vaněk to complete the work. Vaněk finished part four and later also wrote about Švejk’s adventures in Russian captivity and during the Russian Revolution.

The most famous illustrator of Švejk’s adventures was Josef Lada. His classic illustrations are instantly recognizable and have come to define Švejk, even though Hašek apparently never saw Lada’s drawings. A more recent illustrator is the delightful Petr Urban whose artwork is shown here.

Two other sequels to the Švejk story were set in the Nazi-controlled Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia (1939-45); both were written in the 1940s by anonymous authors. The first was the English-language “Švejk in the Protectorate,” published in London, 1942, by the exile publishing house The Czechoslovak. This small booklet begins with an account of the 1939 assassination attempt on Hitler: “So they’ve nearly killed our Adolf…,” echoing the opening words of Hašek’s novel. The preface of this work describes it as “a cruel and bitter satire where laughter is mingled with the fighting spirit of revenge and hatred.”

“S̆vejk in the Protectorate,” London: “The Czechoslovak,” 1942.
Medius (pseud.). “Loyální občan Josef Švejk v protektorátě Čechy a Morava.” Prague: K. Synek, 1948.

The other work, “Loyální občan Josef Švejk v protektoráte Čechy a Morava” (Loyal citizen Josef Švejk in the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia), was published in Prague by the unknown ‘Medius,’ in 1948. Only part one of this work was ever issued. The Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia was established on March 16, 1939, after Germany had occupied Czechoslovakia. Germany had already annexed the Sudetenland, composed of territory in the northern, southern, and western parts of the Czech Lands (Bohemia and Moravia), in October 1938; an independent Slovak Republic had been established on March 14, 1939.

The first English translation of Švejk was published by Paul Selver in 1930, but it was an abridged version that reduced the book to less than two-thirds of the original. Perhaps the best known English-language translation of Hašek’s book is  by Cecil Parrott, originally published in 1973. His translation used Lada’s original drawings, and included maps showing Švejk’s travels.

“The Good Soldier Švejk and His Fortunes in the World War,” Cecil Parrott (trans.). London: Heinemann, 1973.

The very first translation of Hašek’s book however, was into German, by Grete Reiner, in 1926. “Die Abenteuer des braven Soldaten Schwejk während des Weltkrieges” (The adventures of the good soldier Švejk during the world war) was published in Prague, which had a large German-speaking population.

Ms. Reiner, a native of Prague who was later killed at Auschwitz, was the executive editor of the anti-fascist magazine, “Deutsche Volkszeitung,” (German’s people daily ), and was largely responsible for spreading Švejk’s fame throughout Europe. Her translation, burned by the Nazis in 1933, was said to be one of playwright Bertolt Brecht’s favorite books. In 1927, Brecht himself wrote a stage adaptation based on the first three parts of the Švejk story. The songs for this production were written by Hanns Eisler, an Austrian who later composed the national anthem of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany).

“Die Abenteuer des braven Soldaten Schwejk während des Weltrieges.” Transl. Grete Reiner, Illus. Josef Lada. Prague: A. Synek, 1926.
“Schweyk im zweiten Weltkrieg.” (Svejk in the second world war) Berlin: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1962, c1957.

Since then, Švejk has inspired further plays, films, comic books, several restaurants (in Prague, throughout the Czech Republic, and abroad), statues, an opera, TV adaptations, a BBC radio broadcast, an animated film, and books such as Joseph Heller’s “Catch-22.” No doubt Švejk will continue to inspire future generations.

Comments (5)

  1. The restaurant U Kalicha [At the Chalice] figures in to Svejk’s adventures and is alive and well in Prague. Their website gives interesting background to the real characters in the first section of the saga.

    “Kalich” is translated as “goblet”, but I believe that Chalice is the more accurate word, referring to the Hussites’ emphasis on receiving the chalice (wine) as well as the host in communion.

  2. I dutifully report that it baffles me why would a Library of Congress recycle the less than desirable translation of Mr. Hašek’s record of my adventures done by a British Sir Cecil Parrott since a superior translation by an American has been in existence since 1997 (digital version of Book One), 2000 (Book One paperback) and 2009 (remaining two volumes in paperback). As the author of the new translation documented in 2010: “I don’t know what his standing is in the eyes of modern theoreticians of translation, but the German writer Rudolf Pannwitz believed, as he wrote in his Die Krisis der europaischen Kultur (The Crisis of the European Culture) that “The basic error of the translator is that he preserves the state in which his own language happens to be instead of allowing his language to be powerfully affected by the foreign tongue. Particularly when translating from a language very remote from his own … ” Ms. Woods, [a reviewer of a later translation] conceded that “Cecil Parrott… deliberately anglicized the novel” which is the direction opposite to the course suggested by Rudolf Pannwitz. Indeed, Sir Cecil wrote in his Note On The Translation: “If the reader finds a certain monotony [as this reader did] in the words chosen by the translator I hope he will realize that the bandsman has to operate within the limits of his instrument.” The question is whether the common instrument of the English language is as limited as Sir Cecil’s personal instrument of his Czech or even his English. Not being aware of Sir Cecil’s admission of “certain monotony” I expressed my own impression this way: “What is stunning is the poverty and one-dimensional lexical register of the translator’s mother tongue. The translation shows traces of two authors, an Englishman and a Czech. A Czech who, for example, chooses the wrong English equivalents, and an Englishman who does not know it. [The word “kůlna” is rendered as “barn” instead of “shed”, “háj” as “wood” instead of “grove”, “loupež” as “larceny” instead of “robbery”, “oslové” as “mules” instead of “asses”, etc.] In addition, the translation is made from an erroneous point of view.” On the point of his English, Jasper Parrott, Sir Cecil’s son recently wrote of his father’s labors: “He spent therefore many hours savouring and trying out all sorts of different vulgarities and even obscenities a curious occupation for someone who was otherwise highly disapproving of the lazy argot of the times.” Nevertheless, one indication that Sir Cecil ultimately failed in rendering the “lazy argot” is that the quintessential English term of abuse, “bastard” and the adjective “bloody” are used and misused in his version incredibly too often. In Part II, for example, he used the word “bastard” to render into English such varied words (my, sometimes multiple renditions in parentheses) as “chlap” (sonofagun, guy, man), “kluk” (boy), “podlci” (moral degenerates), “lotry” (crooks), “sběř” (pack of rabble) and “pahejl” (stumpfoot). Once he even substituted “bastard” for “he”, once added “bastards” after “Hungarian” and “bloody ass” in front of “such as Lieutenant Dub” just for good measure.” Many others view the new translation as much better: “”… 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. … Parrot’s vernacular obscures the subtleties and nuances that make a huge difference in what Hašek 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 …” – Corto’s review on Goodreads

  3. What an excellent article! Though I count myself as a Švejk enthusiast – indeed one who has read the Czech Academy of Science’s two-volume Czech encyclopedia cover-to-cover, and in connection to one of my own recent books was called upon to research on the Armenian translations of Švejk, there was much new and surprising information in this well-researched, well-written and beautifully-presented article. Please accept this brief note as a small expression of my sincere appreciation!

    Haig Utidjian, PhD

  4. By way of a post-script to my previous comment, I wish merely to add that my late lamented friend, the distinguished Venetian composer Guido Turchi has, I believe, composed an opera with an Italian libretto based on The Good Soldier Švejk. I am not sure of the details, but believe that it may have been staged at La Scala in the early 1960s, having been composed in the fifties. Indeed, Ricordi have published a vocal score of the work (which I do not, alas, possess). The title is “Il buon soldato Svejk”. Perhaps we may yet be so fortunate as to see and hear the opera one day!

    Haig Utidjian

  5. Where does one find the entire Schweik, to include the finished 4th, 5th and 6th volumes by Vanek? My grandparents were Czech and I have a great appreciation for the Czech attitude toward militarism. I recall, while on active duty in Germany in the 70’s, surprising 2 Czech border guards at a trout farm near Traunstein. They ran off with the fish but left behind their rifles, radio and other equipment. We returned it all to them the next day.

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