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Authors: Daniela Fischerova,Neil Bermel

Fingers Pointing Somewhere Else

BOOK: Fingers Pointing Somewhere Else
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Originally published in Czech as
Prst, ktery se nikdy nedotkne

Czech original edition © 1995 Daniela Fischerová

English translation and translator's preface © 2000 Neil Bermel

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used

or reproduced in any manner without written permission,

except in the context of reviews.

E-Book Editions:

Sony ISBN 978-1-936053-18-7

Kindle ISBN 978-1-936053-19-5 Adobe

ISBN 978-1-936053-20-9


16 Windsor Road, North Haven, CT 06473

[email protected]

Our books are distributed by

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Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication

Fischerová, Daniela.

[Prst, ktery se nikdy nedotkne. English]

Fingers pointing somewhere else / by Daniela Fischerová ;

translated from the Czech by Neil Bermel. -- 1st English-language ed.

“Garrigue book.”

ISBN 0-945774-44-3 (cloth : alk. paper)

1. Fischerová, Daniela. Translations into English. I. Bermel, Neil. II. Title.

PG5039.16.I82P7713 2000

891.8'636--dc21 99-16409 CIP


Czech Pronunciation Guide

Translator's Preface

My Conversations with Aunt Marie

A Letter for President Eisenhower

Boarskin Dances Down the Tables

Far and Near

Two Revolts in One Family


The Thirty-Sixth Chicken of Master Wu

Translator's Preface

In the final story of this collection, Fischerová puts her finger on a problem all translators face. At one point, an old man stares critically at his young but decrepit nephew and thinks: “How old he looks! At thirty-one I looked my thirty-one years, but I aged differently. There was a powerful current of youth, and a powerful current of old age surging against it, and their waters mixed with a roar, like a dam bursting. But him — he's a ditch full of dried-up mud.”

The narrator follows this interior monologue with the comment: “He saw this image with absolute clarity, but he did not think it, and if he had had to describe his nephew's aging, he would not have found the word
nor the word
nor the word

All translators struggle with this need to look behind the words, to return to the essential images that underlie them. And yet, a piece of literature doesn't reduce to a collection of pictures, sounds, smells, flavors. A literary translation's success hangs on the goals and compromises the translator adopts when working with the author's prose, trying to balance these two ways of perceiving the text.

Authors like Daniela Fischerová, who chooses her words with extraordinary care, tempt the translator to bend all his effort to literal meaning. Fischerová's prose constantly surprises in the way it combines unusual images and situates words in unexpected proximity to each other, keeping the reader slightly off balance, attentive to the linguistic medium as well as the literary message. This sense of unsteadiness and heightened awareness is central to the experience of reading Fischerová in Czech — but it is not all there
is to it.

In the end, translating the literal meaning of a sentence is straightforward. The agonizing, frustrating, hair-pulling bit is reducing the first draft to something readable that mirrors not only the author's meaning but also her style and impact. Fischerová's language is deceptively simple and compact. She has told me that she is as proud of what is
in these stories as of what is. Every word is there on purpose; all superfluities have been stripped away. Can a translator ignore this sort of mandate? A translation that fails to account for the economy and sound of the original will give the reader a radically different — and probably markedly inferior — experience.

At each juncture, then, I have tried to recreate in English this balance between sense and style. This is where, I suspect, I am a bit obsessive. Right now, as I finish up the translation, I frequently count words and syllables on my fingers, asking myself if, for instance, I can really justify having twelve words where Fischerová gets away with only eight. I also scan the meter, read aloud, and measure the text visually, flipping back and forth between the original and the translation, trying to see whether the aural and visual impact of the two texts is roughly parallel. These are all primitive tools, but the translator needs some defenses against verbosity.

As you may have gathered, what I hope you won't find here is one of those zealously “faithful” translations that give you the feeling you're reading something in an unfamiliar language, but with English words. I have no interest in such translations, either as a reader or as a translator. They serve no one outside the academy, and as I am also a teacher of Czech, I propose that those occasional academicians who want to study Czech literature in gory detail make the effort to learn the language. We could use the business, anyway.

Here are a few of the balancing acts I've done in this translation.

Fischerová constantly twists clichés and proverbs to fit her themes, a tactic that inevitably puts the translator on the rack. In “Letter for President Eisenhower,” the narrator, a young girl, writes about her first essay, “A Merry Christmas Party,” which she says was
vycucaná z prstu
, ‘made up.' She then goes on to say that
vycucanym detem se v ní dejí vycucané veci,
literally ‘in it, made-up things happen to made-up children.' The problem is that the expression
vycucany z prstu
literally means ‘sucked from one's finger,' echoing the ‘finger pointing somewhere else,' Fischerová's image for fiction and storytelling. The children and events are literally ‘sucked out,' not ‘made up.' This image will not survive in English, but I resisted using the pedestrian
. Instead, I substituted another metaphor:
My “Merry Christmas Party” was made up out of thin air. About thin-air kids doing thin-air things.
In this resolution, the unusualness of the combinations (
thin-air kids, thin-air things
) mirrors the effect in the Czech. Although the original allusion is lost,
thin air
becomes a forward reference to later in the story, when the narrator writes a scenario about mountain climbing. So the reference to creativity survives, if in an attenuated form.

In other places, I simply let the author's words stand, even though I knew their impact would be diluted by their cultural journey. For instance, in the story “Dhum,” a doctor describes his fascination with women who are “as bitterly beautiful and neglected as an October grave.”
An October grave?
In Czech culture, All Souls' Eve falls in the first week of November; after nightfall, people visit the resting places of their deceased friends and family to light candles in their memory. On the days leading up to it, the cemeteries are crowded with people brushing the gravesites free of leaves, pulling weeds and cleaning the stones, preparing for the holiday. But by the following October many of the graves are overgrown and desolate once again. Without this cultural context, half the impact of the simile is lost. But the image of a grave in cold autumn is still striking enough, I felt, to survive the transition.

Sometimes, however, respecting the original is of dubious value to the English-language reader. Czech, like many European languages, distinguishes between a formal and informal
). The use of one or another conveys a wealth of information about a relationship. As might be expected from a writer so interested in language, Fischerová remarks on this distinction at points. When speaking of a friend in the story “Far and Near,” the narrator says, “we never stopped saying
to each other.” And when two characters speak English in the story “Dhum,” the narrator notes that the Czech one “subconsciously translated the English
.” Here, as a translator, I simply throw up my hands. Footnoting the sentence and explaining it exhaustively would solve one problem while instantly creating another. The Czech sentence explains matters economically in five words, not fifty. It does not distract the reader from the flow of the text nor introduce a new and unfamiliar concept. So I let such instances lie. In the first case, I translated it as
we never dropped the formalities,
while in the second I left it out altogether. And as for the rest of the
relationships in this book, interesting or no, they go unremarked and unmentioned in the translation.

BOOK: Fingers Pointing Somewhere Else
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