US translator Norma Comrada on how she learnt by translating Karel Čapek

21-09-2009

Karel Čapek is one of the few Czech writers whose work has transcended borders. Although he died prematurely, aged 48, during the dire year of 1938, in the course of his short lifetime he wrote over 20 prosaic works as well as several plays and travel books. Many of these have been translated into English – and our guest in this edition of One on One is Norma Comrada, an American who translated several of Čapek’s collections of short stories, and his 1938 play The Mother. I met Ms Comrada at a most appropriate venue – Karel Čapek’s study on the top floor of his former villa in the Prague area of Vinohrady.

Karel Čapek is one of the few Czech writers whose work has transcended borders. Although he died prematurely, aged 48, during the dire year of 1938, in the course of his short lifetime he wrote over 20 prosaic works as well as several plays and travel books. Many of these have been translated into English – and our guest in this edition of One on One is Norma Comrada, an American who translated several of Čapek’s collections of short stories, and his 1938 play The Mother. I met Ms Comrada at a most appropriate venue – Karel Čapek’s study on the top floor of his former villa in the Prague area of Vinohrady. This was my first visit to his retreat, but has Ms Comrada ever been here before?

Norma ComradaNorma Comrada “Yes, several times, but not since the death of [Karel Čapek’s wife] Olga Scheinpflugová’s brother Karel who lived here at the time with his wife. It was during the 1970s when I did most of my visiting here, and the early 1980s. The last time was just after the Velvet Revolution, and only Ms Reitmannová, Mr Scheinpflug’s widow, was here at the time.”

Do you personally have any Czech connection? How did you get round to studying Czech, and translating Karel Čapek?

“I’ve always like languages. At high school in the US, in Los Angeles where I grew up, I was a Latin major. I thought that other languages were wonderful. I did a little bit of French in college, and then along came marriage, work and children. So there was no chance to continue my education after a bachelor’s degree. However, the university in the town where I’ve lived now for some 50 years, University of Oregon in Eugene, Oregon, there was a night school. And I did have the money for night school. I didn’t know any Slavic languages, and here they were offering a class on first year Czech. So every Wednesday night for that entire year, I went down the street to the university and took the Czech class.”

Who was the teacher? It must have been somebody who left Czechoslovakia after 1948?

“Of course. His name was Leopold Pospíšil, he was from Olomouc. He was a lawyer, and he owned a chocolate factory. When he came to the United States, his degrees were worth nothing of course, but he did teach that Czech class. By the end of the year, there were only five of us left, and one evening he said that for my homework, I was to translate the first chapter of this book. It was Čapek’s Letters from England – Anglické listy. I was of course totally incompetent at it but I loved the process of translation. And because Mr Pospíšil and his wife lived nearby, sometimes I would translate something just for the fun of it, after class was over and done with. They’d get over, and his wife would make marvellous coffee, and we would argue. They would always be short things because I was working, raising a family and all. Once he gave the book Na břehu dnů which hadn’t been translated into English. I’ve translated practically all of the work that’s not specifically, narrowly Czech so that an English-speaking audience would enjoy and understand, and then I did Matka – mostly short things. Pocket Tales, and than a early play both Karel and Josef collaborated on – The Fateful Game of Love. I’ve translated that, too.

Pocket Tales are today perhaps the most popular book by Karel Čapek. Some other highly regarded works include the trilogy Hordubal, Povětroň and Obyčejný život. Have you been tempted to translate these as well?

“Yes, I’ve been tempted but I have many other things happening in my life, and I’m very slow at translation. And when I’m over here, visiting the Czech Republic, I prefer to sit and listen instead of trying to think, ‘oh dear, what declension is this in, and is this male, female or neuter?’ So I listen to how people use the language, and it just goes slowly for me. So if I were to do the trilogy, it would take a long time. My publisher brought out the trilogy in the early English translation form the 1930s. It’s ok, it just seems to me that it’s dated now. Some of the earlier translations, such as The Gardener’s Year, have always been reissued in the US and probably in England, too, and I thought the old translation of that was fine, I wouldn’t do it. What I really, really want to do and what needs doing by someone who knows English as a first language, is Dášeňka. And then I’d like to do another play. But I was doping this as a hobby. Sometimes a long time would go by and I wouldn’t do anything, and then, I began working at the university down the street, and I got into contact with people in Slavic studies, and they encouraged me to give a paper on Karel Čapek at a Slavic conference. So I did. And you know, since he wrote about anything, it doesn’t really matter what the panel discussion is about – Čapek wrote about it. I did a number of papers, and then I did a number of conference papers, and for Slavics conferences, I organized a Čapek panel. Then I did this at the next level, at the International Slavic Conference in 1990. I don’t have to do this anymore, but I do it sometimes, when somebody writes something that is incorrect. Most people assume, I think, that Karel Čapek have us the word ‘robot’ – well, he didn’t! Josef, his brother, was the one who suggested that word. I translated that particular newspaper article when Karel Čapek set out to correct the record. He did it in an article for Lidové noviny in mid 1930s.”

Karel Čapek with his wife Olga ScheinpflugováKarel Čapek with his wife Olga Scheinpflugová Where do you look to find what Čapek meant when he was referring to all the details of everyday reality in the early 20th century? Where do you look for reference?

“Well, you have to remember, I’m from an earlier part of the 20th century too, I was born in the early 1930s. And so I have a bit of a feel for that. I love reading history, I love to read about the First Republic, and since I’ve begun doing Čapek seriously and giving lectures and talks, I just have to know. This is what I mostly study – the interwar first Czechoslovak Republic, but then previous history too because Čapek was so knowledgeable. And the language of the time, and the changes in the language, and the strong feelings that Czech people have about different times and places and people in history. I have to have a sense of that. I don’t claim to be an expert but I’d better know what I’m talking about when I’m talking.”

As you said, Karel Čapek is unjustly credited for coining the word robot. But besides that, is he a known author in the United States today?

“What can I say? Yes, by some people. When I was in college in the 1950s, Čapek’s Rossum’s Universal Robots, R.U.R, was in the text for European theatre, and everybody in my class read it, and probably a lot of other people too in college and university and high school. That happens less now.”

21-09-2009