Category Archives: Translations from Czech

From Czech: THE POET by Karel Čapek

(My translation of Karel Čapek’s short story Básník, which was published in Povídky z jedné kapsy in 1929)

PDF

It was an entirely routine case: at four in the morning a car had run over a drunk old woman in Žitná Street and had sped off. And now the young Trainee Detective Inspector Mejzlík was tasked with finding out which car it was. A trainee inspector takes something like that seriously.

“Hm,” said Detective Inspector Mejzlík to Police Constable 141, “so you saw, from a distance of three hundred yards, the car speeding away and a body lying in the road. What did you do first of all?”

“First of all, I ran to provide first aid to the lady who’d been run over, sir.”

“First of all, you should have observed the car and only then have taken care of the old granny. But perhaps” – Inspector Mejzlík scratched his head – “perhaps I’d have done the same. So you didn’t get the number of the car. But did you get anything else about it?”

Constable 141 hesitated. “I think it was a sort of dark colour. sir. Maybe blue or red. It wasn’t easy to see, because of the smoke from the exhaust.”

Inspector Mejzlík frowned. “Jesus Christ! How am I supposed to locate the car? Am I meant to run up to every driver and ask, ‘Did you run over an old granny by any chance?’ Well, what would you do?”

Constable 141 shrugged his shoulders in lower-rank helplessness. “Well, one witness appeared, sir, but he doesn’t know anything either. He’s waiting over there, sir.”

Inspector Mejzlik was feeling more and more annoyed. “Well, bring him over.”

When the witness came over, the inspector looked at his crib sheet and, without even looking at him, asked mechanically, “Name and address?”

The answer came loud and clear. “Jan Králík, mechanical engineering student.”

“So you were present at four o’clock this morning when an unidentified car ran over Božena Macháčková.”

“Yes, and I can confirm that the driver was culpable. You see, Inspector, there was no other traffic on the road. If the driver had slowed down at the crossroads…”

How far away were you standing?”

“About ten yards. I was accompanying my friend from… from a café, and when we got to Žitná Street…”

“What’s your friend’s name? I haven’t got a note of that.”

“Jaroslav Nerad, the poet,” the witness replied, with a note of pride. “But he wouldn’t be able to tell you anything.”

Inspector Mejzlík realised he was clutching at straws. “Why not?”

“Because he… he’s a poet. When the accident happened, he burst into tears and ran off home like a little child. The thing is, we were in Žitná Street when, all of a sudden, a car came speeding up behind us…”

“What was its number?”

“Sorry, Inspector. I didn’t notice. I was just watching as it sped towards us, and I was just saying to myself that…”

“What make of car was it?”

 “A four-stroke combustion engine, but I don’t know anything about makes of cars.”

“And what colour was it? Who was in it? Was it open-top or not?”

The witness looked confused. “I don’t know. I think it was black, but I didn’t really notice because, when the accident happened, I was saying to Nerad, ‘Look! Those scoundrels have run someone over, and they’re not going to stop.”

Inspector Mejzlík wasn’t happy. “Hm… That’s certainly an understandable and ethically correct reaction, but I’d have been happier if you’d noticed the car number. It’s amazing, sir, how inattentive people are. Of course you know the driver is guilty, and you know those people are scoundrels, but you don’t think to look at the number plate. Everyone can judge, but to observe things really closely… Thank you, Mr Králík. I won’t detain you any longer.”

An hour later, Constable 141 rang the doorbell at the house of Jaroslav Nerad’s landlady. Yes, the poet was at home, but he was sleeping.

A few moments later his little, anxious eyes were peeping round the door at the constable. Somehow he couldn’t remember exactly what had happened, but he did understand, eventually, why he needed to go to the police station. But he wasn’t keen on the idea. “Do I have to? The thing is, I can’t remember anything. Last night I was a bit…”

“Pissed?” suggested Constable 141 sympathetically. “I understand, sir. I’ve known a lot of poets. So, get yourself dressed, please. Shall I wait for you?”

This led to a discussion between the poet and the constable about the best places to go at night, about life in general, about unusual phenomena in the skies, and many things besides. Politics was the only subject neither of them was interested in. So their journey to the police station was accompanied by a friendly and informative conversation.

Inspector Mejzlík was waiting for him. “You are Mr Jaroslav Nerad, poet. And you witnessed an unidentified car running over Božena Macháčková.”

The poet took a deep breath. “Yes.”

“Could you tell me what the car looked like? Was it open-top or closed? What colour was it? Who was inside it? What was its registration number?”

The poet racked his brains for a few moments. “I don’t know. I didn’t notice.”

But the inspector was insistent. “Don’t you remember any details at all?”

“None at all. I never pay any attention to details.”

The inspector assumed an ironic tone. “So if you didn’t observe the details, would you care to say what you did observe?”

“The general mood. You know, the empty street… the beginnings of daybreak… the woman lying there…”

And then it struck him. “I’ve just remembered I wrote something about it when I got home!” He rummaged in his pockets and pulled out a quantity of envelopes, bills and suchlike. “No, that’s not it,” he muttered. “Nor this… Hold on, maybe this.” He was staring at the back of an envelope.

“Would you be so good as to show me that?” asked Inspector Mejzlík.

“It’s nothing,” said the poet. “But if you like, I’ll read it to you.” At which point his eyes bulged and, drawing out the long syllables in a sing-song voice, he recited the following:

Dark houses march left right halt

dawn plays its mandolin

girl why do you blush

let’s go 120 horse-power

to the end of the world

or Singapore

Stop stop the car flies

our great love bites the dust

trampled girl flower

swan’s neck breasts

the drum sticks drum

why do I cry so

“That’s it.”

“Would you mind awfully,” said the inspector, “to tell me what that’s supposed to mean?”

The poet looked surprised. “Well, of course it’s that terrible accident. Don’t you understand it?”

The inspector frowned. “I think not. Surprisingly enough, I didn’t manage to recognise in it that, on Žitná Street at 4 a.m. on the 15th of July,  a car with registration number such and such ran over a sixty-year-old beggar called Božena Macháčková; and that she was taken to the General Hospital, where she is in a critical condition. As far as I am aware, sir, your poem makes no allusion to those facts. So, no, I didn’t understand it.”

The poet rubbed his nose. “The details you’ve just mentioned are just the raw, outward reality, Inspector. But a poem is the inner reality. A poem contains free, surreal ideas that evoke reality in the mind of the poet. Do you see? Visual and aural associations, for instance. If the reader surrenders to them, he’ll understand.”

A note of admonishment had crept into Jaroslav Nerad’s voice.

“What nonsense, Mr Nerad! Let me have your masterpiece for a moment, would you? Thank you. Right, here we have, hm… ‘Dark houses, march left right halt.’ Kindly tell me what that’s meant to mean.”

“Well, that’s Žitná Street,” explained the poet calmly. “Two rows of houses, you know?”

“And why couldn’t it be the Národní Avenue just as well? … Eh?”

The answer was immediate. “Because that’s not so straight.”

“Well, continuing… ‘Dawn plays its mandolin’… That’s fair enough. ‘Girl, why do you blush’… Where did she come from?”

“The blush of dawn,” said the poet laconically.

“Ah! Sorry… ‘Let’s go 120 horse-power to the end of the world’… What about that, eh?”

“The car must have been coming.”

“And was it 120 HP?”

“That I can’t say, but it means it was going fast. As if the driver wanted to fly to the end of the world.”

“Ah, like that. ‘Or to Singapore’… Why on earth to Singapore exactly?”

This was met with a shrug. “I don’t know. Maybe because Malaysians live there.”

“And what did that car have to do with Malaysians? What, I ask you?”

For a while, the poet knitted his brow and shifted about uncomfortably as if that one had really got him cornered. But eventually he said, “Maybe the car was brown. Something was definitely brown. Why would I have said Singapore otherwise?”

“So there you have it,” said the inspector. “The car was red, blue or black. What am I meant to make of it all?”

“Choose brown,” said the poet. “It’s a pleasant colour.”

Inspector Mejzlík read on: “Our great love bites the dust. Trampled girl flower.” That’s the drunken beggar woman, is it?”

The poet became annoyed. “I’m not going to say ‘drunken beggar woman,’ am I? She was simply a woman. Don’t you understand?”

“Oh! Right! … And what about ‘swan’s neck breast, the drum sticks drum’? Is that what you call ‘free association’?

Here the poet felt really confused himself. “Let me see it again.” He gazed at the piece of paper. ‘Swan’s neck breast, the drum sticks drum.’ What’s that meant to mean?”

“That’s exactly what I’m asking,” muttered the inspector rather contemptuously.

“Hold on.” The poet frowned again. “There must have been something there that reminded me of… Listen! Doesn’t the number two remind you of a swan’s neck?” He pulled a pencil out of his pocket and wrote a 2.

“Ah!” Now it was Inspector Mejzlík’s turn to frown. “And what about ‘breasts’?”

“That’s easy, isn’t it? Number 3 – two semicircles.”

“And then you’ve got ‘The drum sticks drum’.” A note of excitement was entering the inspector’s voice.

The poet thought again for a moment. “A drum and drum sticks… A drum and drum sticks… That could be number 5, couldn’t it? Look!” and he drew a number 5. “The belly is like a drum, and above it are the drum sticks…”

“Wait!” said Inspector Mejzlík. He wrote down 235. “Are you sure the car’s number was 235?”

“I didn’t notice the number at all,” said Jaroslav Nerad. “But there must be something in it. Where else could it have come from?” He gazed at the poem again. “And, you know what? That’s the best part of the whole poem.”

Two days later, Inspector Mejzlík paid a visit to the poet. The poet wasn’t asleep this time. He had a young woman with him, and his efforts to find a free chair for the inspector proved fruitless.

“Don’t worry!” said the inspector. “I only popped in to say that the car really did have registration number 235.”

The poet looked non-plussed. “Which car?”

“Swan’s neck breasts, the drum sticks drum,” said the inspector, without stopping for breath. “And Singapore as well!”

“Ah! I wondered what you were talking about for a moment,” said the poet. “So you see – inner meaning. Would you like me to read you some other poems, now that you’ll be able to understand them?”

“Not just now,” said Inspector Mejzlík hurriedly. “When I’ve got another knotty case.”

TRANSLATIONS FROM CZECH

 

From Czech: THE THEFT OF DOCUMENT 139/VII(C) by Karel Čapek

(My translation of Karel Čapek’s short story Ukradený spis 139/VII, odd. C, which was published in Povídky z jedné kapsy in 1929)

PDF

At 3 a.m. the telephone rang at garrison headquarters.

“Col. Hampl here, from the general staff. Send me two military policemen immediately. And tell Lt. Col. Vrzal… Yes, yes, from Intelligence… to get over here right away. Yes, now, in the middle of the night! Yes, by car! Yes, now, damn it!”

And that was that.

Lt. Col. Vrzal arrived an hour later at the house, which was out in one of the posher suburbs. He was greeted by an elderly and terribly anxious man in civies, i.e. in shirt and trousers.

“Lt. Col., the most god-awful thing has happened… Sit down, sit down… A bloody wretched stupid stupid thing! A right ruddy bastard of a thing! Can you imagine? The day before yesterday the chief of general staff gave me a document and said, ‘Work on this at home, Hampl. The fewer people who know about it, the better! Don’t say a word in the office. So, off you go! I’m giving you leave to work on it at home. But be bloody careful! Bloody careful.’”

“What sort of document was it?” asked Lt. Col. Vrzal.

Col. Hampl hesitated for a moment.

“Well, I suppose you better know. It was from Section C.”

“Ah!” Lt. Col. Vrzal began to look extremely concerned. “And…?”

“Well, it’s like this… I was working on it all day yesterday. But what the ruddy hell am I meant to do with it at night? Stick it in a drawer? That would never do… I don’t have a safe. And if someone knew I’d got the document, I dread to think what’d happen. So, for the first night, I hid it under the mattress. And it got pretty well scrunched up, believe me!”

“I expect so,” said Lt. Col. Vrzal.

“No surprise there,” sighed the colonel. “My wife’s even heavier than me… So the next night she suggested putting it in an empty macaroni tin and keeping it in the pantry. Because she locks the pantry at night and keeps the key with her. You see, we have a terribly overweight maid, who’ll eat anything she can lay her hands on. My wife said nobody would ever think of looking for it there. Well, I thought that was a good idea…”

Lt. Col. Vrzal interrupted: “Has your pantry got a secondary window on the inside?”

“Blast it!” groaned the colonel. “That never occurred to me! No, just the outside. I was so busy thinking about the Sázava case and other stupid things like that, that I completely forgot about the window! Damn the bloody thing!”

“And so…?” asked the lieutenant colonel.

“Well, what do you expect? At two in the morning, my wife hears the maid shouting her head off downstairs. So she goes down, and there’s Mára bawling, ‘There’s a thief in the pantry!’ So my wife runs for the key and wakes me up. I grab my handgun, run downstairs and unlock the pantry and… Bloody hell! The window’s been prised open and the macaroni tin’s gone. And so has the thief.” The colonel heaved a sigh. “End of story.”

Lieutenant Colonel Vrzal drummed his fingers on the table. “Did anyone know you had that document at home, Colonel?”

A picture of woe, the colonel shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know, my friend. The ruddy spies aren’t so thick as you might think.”

But then he remembered he wasn’t speaking to a mere private. “I mean to say, Lieutenant Colonel, they’re very clever people. But I didn’t tell anyone, without a word of a lie. And in any case, how could they know it was in the macaroni tin?”

“Where were you when you put the document into it?” asked the lieutenant colonel.

“Here, at this table.”

“And where was the tin?”

“Hold on a minute… I was sitting here and I had the tin in front of me.”

The lieutenant colonel leant against the table and stared at the window opposite. In the dewy dawn he could make out a red-roofed and grey-walled house. Deep in thought, he asked, “Who lives there?”

The colonel thumped the table. “Ruddy hell! That never occurred to me! I think he’s a Jew, the man who lives there. He’s a bank manager or something. God damn it! I can see it now! Vrzal, I think we’re on to something!”

“May I take a look at the pantry?” the lieutenant asked warily.

“Certainly. Come with me. This way.” And the colonel eagerly led the way.

“Here it is. The tin was on the top shelf over there… Mára, this is none of your business! Be off with you to the attic or the cellar!”

The lieutenant colonel put on a pair of gloves, clambered up to the window and had a good look at it. “Prised open with a chisel. The frame is soft wood, Colonel. A boy could have done it easily.”

“Damn it!” hissed the colonel. “Can’t we even make a half-decent window in this country?”

There were two figures on the other side of the grill.

“Are they the military police?” asked Lt. Col. Vrzal. “Good. I’ll take a look from outside. But I must request that you don’t leave the house without permission, Colonel.”

“OK,” said the colonel. “But why?”

“So that you’re here in case… The two soldiers will remain where they are, of course.”

The colonel took a deep breath and swollowed with difficulty. “I understand… Would you like some coffee? I could get my wife to make some.”

“There’s no time for that now,” said the lieutenant colonel rather sharply. “Of course, don’t say a word about the stolen document to anyone. Unless… unless you get a phone call. And something else: tell the maid the thief only stole some tins.”

“But listen,” begged the colonel. “You will find that document, won’t you?”

“I shall certainly look for it,” replied the lieutenant colonel, clicking his heels.

The colonel spent the rest of that morning slumped in an armchair like a broken man. When he wasn’t expecting the two military policemen to come and arrest him at any moment, he was trying to think what Lt. Col. Vrzal was doing in order to bring the huge, clandestine machinery of the secret service to bear on the problem. But then, imagining the hoo-ha that must have broken out at headquarters, he groaned.

“Karel,” said his wife for about the twentieth time – she’d made sure to hide his gun in the maid’s wardrobe – “wouldn’t you like something to eat?”

“Leave me in peace, for Christ’s sake!” he growled. “I think the Jew next door must have seen it.”

Sighing, his wife returned to the kitchen in tears.

The doorbell rang. The colonel stood up and straightened himself, so as to submit to his imminent arrest with appropriate military dignity. And he wondered which officers they’d sent.

But instead of officers, it was a little red-haired fellow who entered the room, with a bowler hat in his hands. He had squirrel-like teeth.

“How do you do, sir? My name is Pištora. I’m from police headquarters.”

“What do you want?” the colonel blurted out, trying to shift his stance, at the same time, from Attention to At ease.

Detective Constable Pištora grinned, in rather too familiar a way for the colonel’s liking. “I believe your pantry’s been burgled. And here I am!”

“And what’s it got to do with you?” snapped the colonel.

“Well,” replied Detective Constable Pištora, still grinning, “this is our patch. Your maid, she mentioned to the baker this morning that your pantry had been burgled, and so I says to the superintendent, ‘How about if I hop over there and take a look?’”

The colonel was already shaking his head. “It’s not worth it. They only took… they only took a tin of macaroni. You can forget about it.”

“That’s strange,” said Detective Constable Pištora, “that they didn’t snaffle anything else.”

“It is strange, Detective Constable Pištora, but it’s none of your business.”

But the detective constable merely smiled beatifically as a thought occurred to him. “I bet someone disturbed them!”

“Yes, no doubt. And now I bid you good day, Detective Constable.”

“Ah! But!” said the detective constable, smiling and frowning at the same time. “I think I need to take a look at your pantry before I take my leave, don’t you?”

The colonel was about to explode, but instead he just sighed. “Come on then.” And he led the little man to the pantry.

The detective constable’s eyes darted about the narrow room. “Well, well, well! Window prised open with a chisel. Must’ve been Pepek or Andrlík.”

“What on earth are you talking about?” asked the colonel.

“It was either Pepek or Andrlík who done it. But I think Pepek’s in the clink at the moment. If it had been just the glass that was taken out, that would’ve been Dundr, Lojza, Novák, Hosička or Kliment. But this job’s down to Andrlík.”

“I sincerely hope you’re right, Detective Constable.”

But the detective constable was frowning again. “Or… or perhaps there’s another pantry specialist in the district. But surely not? That’s to say, Mertl also does windows with a chisel, but he never goes for pantries, sir, never.” Detective Constable Pištora grinned. “I think I’ll go and have a feel of Andrlík’s collar.”

“And give him my regards while you’re at it,” growled the colonel.

It’s unbelievable, he thought when he was left once more to his own gloomy ruminations, it’s unbelievable how incompetent our police are! If only they’d look for finger prints or footprints! A specialist approach. But to go about it in such an airy-fairy way! … They’d be no match for one of those foreign spies! … I wish I knew what Vrzal’s up to.

Unable to resist, he reached for the phone. After half an hour of huffing and puffing, he finally got through. “Hello, Lieutenant Colonel,” he said in a mellifluous voice. “Hampl here. I was wondering… how far… I know you can’t say anything, but I only… I know, but if you’d just kindly tell me if it’s already… Ruddy hell, still nothing? … Yes, yes, I know it’s a difficult case, but… Just a moment, please, Vrzal. A thought just occurred to me. What about if I offer ten thousand to whoever catches the thief. I don’t have more, but you know, for a job like that… Yes I know that wouldn’t be possible, it would be a private matter. I couldn’t do it in my official capacity… Or what about making the offer to the police detectives, eh? … No, of course you wouldn’t know about that. But if you somehow hinted to them that Colonel Hampl has promised ten thousand… OK, so leave it with your station manager. Yes, please, my friend! … Forgive me for interrupting you… Thank you.”

Colonel Hampl felt much relieved after this generous decision on his part. He felt that at least now he was himself involved in some way in the hunt for that damned, thieving spy. He lay down on the sofa, because all the alarums and excursions had tired him out, and he was soon dreaming of a hundred, nay! two hundred, nay! three hundred men – all of them red-haired and squirrel-toothed like Detective Constable Pištora – searching trains, stopping cars speeding to the borders, waiting for their prey behind street corners and suddenly stepping out with the words, “I arrest you in the name of the law. Come with me and keep your mouth shut.” And then he dreamt that he was doing a balistics exam at the military academy.

Groaning, he awoke and found himself bathed in sweat.

Somebody rang the doorbell. The colonel jumped to his feet and tried to arrange his thoughts. But the squirrel-toothed detective constable was already entering the room.

“It’s me again!” he said. “It was him, sir, just as I said.”

“Who?” asked the colonel, still struggling to reorganise his thoughts.

“Who?” Detective Constable Pištora was so taken aback by the question that he even stopped grinning. “Who else? I told you Pepek’s in Pankrác jail.”

“Why on earth do you keep going on about that Andrlík fellow, Detective Constable?”

The detective constable’s eyes were almost popping out of their sockets in disbelief. “Because it was him who stole the macaroni from the pantry of course! We’ve got him down the police station already. So that’s that, but I just wanted to ask… He – Andrlík – says there wasn’t any macaroni in the tin, it was just some bumf. So, is that right?”

“My good man,” exlaimed the colonel hurriedly, “where is that… erm… bumf?”

Detective Constable Pištora grinned. “In my pocket… Now where have I…?” He started searching his pockets. “Aha! Is this it?”

With tears of relief in his eyes, the colonel snatched the precious, crumpled Document 139/VII(C) from the constable’s hand. “My dear man,” he sighed, “I can’t thank you enough…” He turned and called his wife. “Come here, my dear. It’s Sergeant… Inspector… erm…”

“Constable Pištora,” said the little fellow, giving a full-on squirrel smile.

“He’s found the stolen document,” the colonel continued shouting to his wife. “Do come here, and bring the cognac and some glasses… Constable Pištora, I’d… you’ve no idea… that’s to say, so that you know… Have a drink, Constable Pištora.”

The constable grinned. “But it was nothing! … Just some bumf, sir! And I almost forgot: the tin’s at the police station, Madam.”

“Blow the tin!” said the colonel, now with a big smile on his face himself. “But my dear Constable Pištora, how did you manage to find the document so quickly? Your good health!”

“Cheers!” said the constable. “But, heaven help us! It was really nothing. When it’s theft from a pantry, we go after Andrlík or Pepek. But Pepek’s doing two months at Pankrác. If it’s an attic, we go for Písecký, Tondera the Cripple, Kaner, Zima or Houska…”

“But… but… but… Constable. Listen, what about if it’s a case of espionage? Prosit, Constable!”

“Thank you kindly… Well, espionage, we don’t cover that. But brass keys, that would be Čeněk or Pinkus, copper wire we’ve only got one, Toušek, at the moment, and if it’s beer pipes, that would have to be Hanousek, Buchta or Šlesinger. We’re on to it straight away, sir. And safe-breakers… we get them from all over the republic. So many of them! Twenty-seven at the last count, but six of them are in the slammer.”

“Serves them right,” said the colonel bloodthirstily. “Drink up, Constable!”

“Thank you very much,” said Constable Pištora, “but I don’t drink a lot, me. Thank you, cheers! … All these… these crooks and criminals, they’re not too bright, sir. Each of them’s only got his only little trade, and he plies it until we catch him. Like this Andrlík. Ah! he thinks, as soon as he clocks me approaching. That’ll be Constable Pištora about that pantry. ‘Constable, it weren’t nothing, all I got was some bumf in a tin. And I had to scarper before I could do anything else.’ ‘Doesn’t matter,’ I say to him, ‘you’ll get a year at least all the same, you twit.’”

“A year’s prison?” asked Colonel Hampl, sympathetically. “Isn’t that a bit much?”

“But it’s burglary,” said the constable, displaying his teeth once more. “So, my regards, sir. I’ve still got a shop-window to do. That’ll be Kleček or Rudl… If you should need anything else, just ask at the station. All you have to do is say Constable Pištora.”

“Please, Constable Pištora. I wonder if you would… erm… for your help… That’s to say, those papers are… nothing special certainly, but all the same… I wouldn’t want to lose them, you know. So, perhaps you’d accept this for your help,” and he pressed a fifty-crown note into the constable’s hand.

Surprise and gratitude caused Constable Pištora to put on a serious face. “But there’s really no need,” he said, as he hurriedly pocketed the banknote. “It wasn’t anything… Thank you very much, sir. And if you ever need anything else…”

“I gave him fifty crowns,” the Colonel told his wife in the warm after-glow of his benevolence. “Twenty would have been enough for a PC Plod like him, but…” – waving his hand magnanimously – “the main thing is, the ruddy document’s been found.”

TRANSLATIONS FROM CZECH

From Czech: UNBREAKABLE, by Hana Hindráková

October 2019

I recently translated a novel by the Czech author Hana Hindráková. It’s called Unbreakable (Nezlomný in Czech) and is based upon the life of a street child in Kenya who grew up to become the director of a centre for street children. The press release reads as follows:

CZECH AUTHOR BECOMES KENYAN CELEBRITY

And that happened literally overnight, during the book launch of the English translation of her latest novel Nezlomný – Unbreakable, which is published by Moran Publishers in Kenya.

The book launch took place on 10 September 2019 from 2 pm in the main hall of the Kenyan National Library. Despite the African understanding of time, it really did commence at 2 pm, by which time the hall – which has capacity for 150 people – had filled up with about 400.

Six-year-old Moses, a former street child, started the event with a short prayer. “When Moses prays, God listens,” said Joseph “Njoro” Njoroge, the main hero of this book, and director of the Global Hope Rescue and Rehabilitation Centre for street children. After this, everyone sang the Kenyan national anthem.

After a performance of dance by boys from Joseph’s centre, there were a number of speeches by the book’s “godparents”, including the Kenyan MP Joseph Manje and Dr Adam Piňos. Dr Piňos was deputising for the Czech Ambassador in Kenya, Martin Klepetko, who had been suddenly called to a diplomatic briefing with the Kenyan Minister of Foreign Affairs and was therefore unfortunately unable to take part in the book launch.

“This is an amazing event that has important diplomatic significance,” Dr Piňos said.

During the event, most of the copies that had been made available were bought, and three days afterwards a third of the print-run had been sold. There is a great deal of interest about the book in Kenya, and a second print-run will follow soon. In addition to Kenya, the book is being sold in other East African countries where Moran Publishers operate.

“It’s like a dream,” said the author Hana Hindráková, smiling. I’ve never before given so many interviews on the day of a book launch or sold 500 books or had so many photos taken. She was the principal guest of the live morning show on Metropol TV, and she was also interviewed by the well-known Kenyan television station KTN and by other journalists, of whom there was a large number at the book launch.

“And I hope,” Hana added, “that the book will help to change attitudes towards street children and their general situation. As soon as you manage to imagine what lies behind their stories, you look at them in a completely different way than as little, stinking thieves.” And she explained that she and the book’s translator, Francis K Johnson, had decided to donate their royalties to Joseph’s centre for street children.

 

From Czech: THE BLUE CHRYSANTHEMUM by Karel Čapek

(My translation of Karel Čapek’s short story Modrá chryzantéma, which was published in Povídky z jedné kapsy in 1929.)

PDF

S

o let me tell you – said old Fulinus – how Klára came into the world. It was that time when I was managing Prince Lichtenberg’s park in Lubenec. And the old prince, he was some connoisseur, Mr Čapek, believe me! He used to get mature trees sent over from Veitsch in England, and when it came to Dutch tulip bulbs – seventeen thousand! But that’s by the by. It was when I was walking down the street in Lubenec one Sunday that I met Klára. She was the village idiot – a deaf-mute and as mad as a hatter, but wherever she went she hee-hawed, but hee-hawed like the happiest person in the world. What is it, Mr Čapek, that makes those village idiots so happy? I was just going to get out of her way, so that she wouldn’t give me a kiss, when I noticed she was carrying a bouquet. Just some dill and some common-or-garden weeds from the meadows but, all of a sudden, I noticed something that made me stop in my tracks. In amongst it all, Mr Čapek, that nutty woman had a big, blousy chrysanthemum, which was blue! And what a blue, Mr Čapek! A bit like Phlox Laphamii, but with a touch of slate-grey and with a deep-pink border. And the inside was a beautiful saturated blue, like Campanula Turbinata. But even that’s not everything. The point is, Mr Čapek, in the case of the Chrysanthemum Indicum, a colour like that was – and to all intents and purposes still is – completely unknown! Some years ago I visited old Veitsch, and Sir James was boasting about how, the year before, they’d had a chrysanthemum – imported from China – that had bloomed with a touch of lilac but unfortunately it had died in the winter. And here was this cackling scarecrow of a woman with a chrysanthemum as blue as the bluest blue you can think of!

Continue reading From Czech: THE BLUE CHRYSANTHEMUM by Karel Čapek

From Czech: THE FORTUNE TELLER by Karel Čapek

(My translation of Karel Čapek’s short story Věštkyně, which was published in Povídky z jedné kapsy in 1929)

 

PDF

A

nyone with half a brain will realise that this incident couldn’t have happened here or in France or Germany. As is well known, here and in those countries judges are required to punish wrong-doers according to the letter of the law rather than according to their ineffable acuity as superior gentlemen. This story involves a judge who made a judgement based not on the relevant sections of law but on his trusty common sense. So, as you will see, it has to do with England or, to be more precise, London, or, to be even more precise, Kensington; or perhaps Brompton or Bayswater – anyway, somewhere thereabouts. The judge was His Honour Judge Kelly and the woman who was the object of his ineffable acuity was Miss Edith Myers.

Continue reading From Czech: THE FORTUNE TELLER by Karel Čapek

From Czech: AMONGST PEOPLE by Karel Čapek

(My translation of Karel Čapek‘s short story Muž, který se nelíbil, which was published in Povídky z jedné kapsy in 1929.)

“I’ve got something for you,” said Mr Pacovský to Sergeant Kolda.

Before the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed, Mr Pacovský used to be in the mounted police, but after the war he just couldn’t adapt to the new situation. So he retired and travelled a bit before, finally, leasing the Bella Vista inn. Although it’s rather out of the way it’s beginning to become quite popular with tourists.

“Sergeant Kolda,” said Mr Pacovský, “I don’t get it. This fellow Roedl has had a room here for a fortnight. Which is no problem: he’s paying his way, doesn’t get drunk and doesn’t gamble, but… could you come and take a look at him some time?”

“What’s the matter with him?” asked Sergeant Kolda.

“That’s just it!” blurted out Mr Pacovský. “I’m damned if I know. There’s nothing special about him, but… How should I say it? I just don’t like the look of him!”

Sergeant Kolda scratched his head: “Roedl, Roedl… The name doesn’t ring a bell. What does he do?”

“I don’t know,” said Mr Pacovský. “He says he works in a bank, but I can’t get him to say which bank. There’s something fishy about him. He’s polite and everything, but… He never gets sent any post. It’s like he’s hiding from people. And I don’t like it.”

“How do you mean,” asked Sergeant Kolda, “‘he’s hiding from people?’”

“Well… he’s not exactly hiding from people,” said Mr Pacovský, “but… who on earth wants to go to the countryside in September? And whenever a car stops in front of the inn, he’s off to his room like a flash, even if he’s in the middle of his dinner. So, as I say… I don’t like the look of our Mr Roedl.”

Sergeant Kolda scratched his head again. “You know what, Mr Pacovský? How about this? Tell him you’re closing the inn for autumn. Let him go to Prague or wherever and then he can be someone else’s problem. Easy!”

The next day, which was a Sunday, a young Constable called Hurych – aka Márinka or Panenka – was returning from a walk. On the way he thought he might stop off for a drink and so, when he emerged from the woods, he headed directly to the Bella Vista. And, at the very moment when he was lingering at the back door of the inn to take a few puffs on his pipe, he heard a window being opened on the first floor at the rear of the building, and something hitting the ground with a thud. So he ran back to the courtyard and caught hold of a man who’d just jumped out of the window.

“What on earth are you doing?” he demanded. “Jumping out of the window like that?”

Apart from being pale, the man he was holding by the shoulder didn’t look overly concerned.

“Why shouldn’t I jump out of the window?” he replied, almost in a whisper. “I live here.”

“Well, even if you do,” said Constable Panenka after a pause for thought, “it doesn’t seem right to be jumping out of the window.”

“I didn’t know it was illegal to jump out of windows,” said the man, in a matter-of-fact way. “Ask Mr Pacovský. He’ll confirm that I live here. My name’s Roedl.”

“OK,” said Constable Panenka. “But show me your papers first.”

“Papers…?” said Mr Roedl. “I don’t have any papers with me, but I can write off for them.”

“We’ll do that ourselves,” snapped Constable Panenka. “Come with me, Mr Roedl.”

“Where?” said Mr Roedl, who’d gone even paler. “What right… what right have you to arrest me?”

“Because I don’t like the look of you, Mr Roedl,” said Constable Panenka. “Now kindly come quietly.”

At the police station, Sergeant Kolda was sitting behind the desk in his slippers, smoking his long pipe and reading the official bulletin. When he saw Panenka coming in with Mr Roedl, he wasn’t amused:

“Christ Almighty, Márinka! What the hell? Can’t I even have a bit of peace and quiet on a Sunday? Why do you have to bring people in on a Sunday, of all days?”

“Sir,” declared Constable Panenka, unperturbed, “I don’t like the look of this man. When he saw me entering the Bella Vista he jumped down into the courtyard from a window and wanted to get lost in the woods. And he’s got no papers on him. So I arrested him. He says his name is Roedl.”

“Ah!” said Sergeant Kolda, suddenly interested. “Well, well, Mr Roedl. So you’re here at last.”

“But you can’t arrest me,” said Mr Roedl.

“No, we can’t,” agreed Sergeant Kolda. “But we can keep you here, can’t we? Go back to the inn, Márinka, search Mr Roedl’s room and get his things brought over here… Have a seat, Mr Roedl.”

“I… I refuse to say anything,” spluttered Mr Roedl. “I shall make a complaint!… I protest!…”

Sergeant Kolda sighed. “Bloody hell, Mr Roedl! I really don’t like the cut of your jib. So I’m not going to waste my time. Sit there and keep your mouth shut.”

Having said that, he picked up the bulletin again and carried on reading. And it wasn’t until some minutes had passed that he said:

“Do you know, Mr Roedl, I can see in your eyes that’s something’s not right with you. If I were you, I’d spill the beans and have done with it. But if you don’t want to, you can have it you own way.”

Even paler, and with sweat running down his face, Mr Roedl sat there. Sergeant Kolda watched him for a while. Then, harrumphing, he got up and went over to rearrange the mushrooms he was drying under the stove.

“Look, Mr Roedl,” he began again after a while, “we’ll find out who you really are and then you’ll be sitting in the clink with no-one at all to talk to. Don’t be an ass!”

But Mr Roedl remained resolutely silent and Sergeant Kolda, muttering to himself in annoyance, began cleaning his pipe.

“Well,” he said, “look at it this way. It could take up to a month for us to find out who you are. But that month won’t be knocked off your sentence. And that would be a pity, wouldn’t it?”

“And if I talk,” said Mr Roedl, “that would…”

“That would mean you’ll be remanded in custody,” Sergeant Kolda explained, “and that’ll be taken into account. But as you wish. I don’t like the look of you and I’ll be glad when they take you off to the regional court. So that’s how things stand, Mr Roedl.”

Mr Roedl sighed. His eyes flitted around the room and he looked even more woebegone and haunted than before. “Why does everyone say they don’t like me?” he asked, barely audibly.

“Because you’re afraid,” Sergeant Kolda replied calmly. “You’re hiding something, Mr Roedl, and no-one likes that. Why don’t you look people in the eyes? You’re hot and bothered, aren’t you Mr Roedl?”

“Rosner,” came the anxious correction.

Sergeant Kolda thought for a moment. “Rosner, Rosner… Now, which Rosner would that be? The name sounds somehow familiar.”

“Ferdinand Rosner.”

“Ferdinand Rosner,” repeated Sergeant Kolda. “That’s definitely familiar. Ferdinand Rosner…”

“The deposit bank in Vienna,” offered the pale, crestfallen man.

“Ah, yes!” cried Sergeant Kolda. “Now I remember: embezzlement! Yes, yes… Rosner. My dear Mr Rosner, we’ve had an arrest warrant out for you for the last three years!… So you’re Mr Rosner.”

Sergeant Kolda seemed to enjoy repeating the name.

“But why didn’t you tell us straight away? I was almost going to kick you out… Guess what!” he shouted at Constable Hurych, who was just entering, “it’s Rosner, the embezzler.”

“But…” came a single, painful monosyllable from Mr Rosner.

“But you’ll get used to it, Mr Rosner,” said Sergeant Kolda. “You should be glad it’s out in the open. But, dear me, where have you been hiding for the past three years?”

“In sleeping cars and in swish hotels – the sorts of places where they don’t ask who you are and where you’re from.”

“Well I never!” exclaimed Sergeant Kolda, rather more sympathetically. “You were having the life of Riley, weren’t you?”

“Yes and no,” said Mr Rosner. “I couldn’t go into any old pub, where the cops might come and poke around, could I? I had to live beyond my means, like it or not! And I never stayed at a place longer than three nights, except here – and that’s where you caught me.”

“Never mind!” said Sergeant Kolda. “The money had run out, hadn’t it, Mr Rosner? So it was the end of the road, however you look at it.”

“It was,” agreed Mr Rosner. “But let me tell you, I couldn’t have endured carrying on. Christ! This is the first time in three years I’ve had a proper chat with anyone! I couldn’t even have a decent meal in a restaurant – as soon as anyone started staring at me, I’d be looking to take my leave. I imagined every other person was working for the police. Even Mr Pacovský.”

“Well, that’s hardly surprising,” said Sergeant Kolda. “He used to be a policeman.”

“Exactly,” muttered Mr Rosner. “So how can you ever escape? And why did everyone look at me like that? Do I look like a criminal or something?”

Sergeant Kolda took a good look at him. “Well, to tell you the truth, Mr Rosner, I don’t think you do now. Now you look pretty much like an ordinary person. But a while back, my friend, I really didn’t like the look of you. I don’t know, something about you… Well, Márinka will take you to the court. It’s not six yet, so they’ll discount today from your sentence. And if it wasn’t Sunday today I’d take you there myself, so you could see… erm… that I don’t have anything against you. It must have been the result of not having a home to call your own, Mr Rosner. But now you’ll be OK. Arrest him, Márinka!”

“You know what, Márinka?” said Sergeant Kolda later that evening. “I was getting to like that Mr Rosner. Quite a nice fellow, wasn’t he? I don’t think they’ll give him more than a year.”

“I asked them to give him two blankets,” said Constable Panenka, rather sheepishly. “He’s not used to sleeping on planks.”

“Quite right,” said Sergeant Kolda. “And I’ll tell the guard to have a chat with him every now and then. So he can see he’s back amongst people.”

From Czech: Midnight Mass, by Jan Neruda

(My translation of the short story Svatováclavská mše by Jan Neruda, which was published in Povídky malostranské in 1877)

Portrait by Jan Vilímek

I  was sitting at the bottom of the steps leading up to the choir lofts and could hardly breathe. Through the iron grill of the door, which stood ajar, I had a good view of the nave – as far as the silver tomb of St Jan on the right and the sacristy on the left. Benediction had finished a long time ago and St Vít’s cathedral was empty except for two people: my mother, who was kneeling at the tomb, lost in prayer; and the old sacristan, who was making his last round before locking up. He walked past me, only a few paces away, and turned to the exit under the royal oratory, where I could hear him turning the key in the door and then trying the handle to make sure it was locked. Then he carried on and, as he did so, my mother got to her feet, made the sign of the cross and walked off beside him, and both of them were soon hidden from view by the tomb. For a few moments I could only hear the echo of their footsteps and snatches of conversation before they reappeared over by the sacristy. I heard him shut the door and, once again, there was the sound of locking and making sure with the handle. Then they continued to the exit on the right. There were two metalic clicks, after which I was alone in the cathedral and unable to get out. A wave of heat seemed to sweep across my back – a strange feeling, but not unpleasant.

Continue…

From Czech: THE LOST LETTER by Karel Čapek

(My translation of the short story Ztracený dopis, which was published in Povídky z jedné kapsy in 1929.)

 

“Boženka,” said the minister of state to his wife as he took another generous helping of salad, “I got a letter this afternoon that I think will interest you. I’ll have to present it to the council of ministers. If people get to know about it, a certain political party will find itself in a pretty pickle. Take a look at it yourself.”

Continue…

From Czech: Two Frankfurters and a Detective, by Karel Poláček

(My translation of the short story Dva párky a detektiv, which was published in Lidové noviny on 12 September 1937 and, in book form, in Soudničky [Little Stories from the Courts] in 1999)

Prague Regional Court

11 September 1937

T

hey say it’s not what you know, it’s who you know. Without friends in the right places you won’t get anywhere. And, in these grim days, you can’t even get two frankfurters with mustard without friends in the right places, as is shown in the following incident.

Continue reading From Czech: Two Frankfurters and a Detective, by Karel Poláček

From Czech: INCONTROVERTIBLE by Karel Čapek

(My translation of the short story Naprostý důkaz, which was published in Povídky z jedné kapsy in 1929.)

“The thing is, Tondo,” said investigating magistrate Slavík to his best friend, “it’s a question of experience. I don’t believe any excuses, any alibis or any blah-blah-blah. I don’t believe either the accused or the witnesses. People lie, even when they don’t mean to. Say a witness swears blind he’s got nothing against the accused… it’s quite possible that, deep down, so deep down he’s not even aware of it himself, he hates him for whatever deep-down reason. And everything the accused says has been plannned to the last jot and tittle. And everything the witness says might very well be governed by a conscious or unconscious desire to help or hinder the accused. You can’t believe anyone, that’s what I say.

Continue reading From Czech: INCONTROVERTIBLE by Karel Čapek

From Czech: READING WRITING RIGHT by Karel Čapek

(My translation of the short story Tajemství písma, which was published in Povídky z jedné kapsy in 1929.)

“Rubner!” said the editor-in-chief. “Go and take a look at that graphologist, Jensen. He’s doing a demonstration tonight for members of the press. They say he’s quite a sensation, that Jensen. Write me a few lines about it.”

Continue reading From Czech: READING WRITING RIGHT by Karel Čapek

From Czech: PC MEJZLÍK’S DILEMMA by Karel Čapek

(My translation of the short story Případ Dr. Mejzlíka, which was published in Povídky z jedné kapsy in 1929.)

A pub in Prague. Mr Mejzlík, a young police constable, is having a drink with his elderly friend Mr Dastych.

M: (Frowning) It’s like this, Mr Dastych. I need your advice. I’ve had a case I can’t make head or tale of.

Continue reading From Czech: PC MEJZLÍK’S DILEMMA by Karel Čapek