Jáchym Topol: Gargling with Tar

A history of one translation

When the time came and I found myself faced with the problem of what topic to choose for my diploma thesis I thought it would be nice to write a penetrating analysis of a literary translation. For that purpose I picked out the English translation of Jáchym Topol’s novel Kloktat dehet Gargling with Tar, translated by David Short and published in Portobello Books in 2010.

As we know, Czech literature is not among the best-known literatures in the world, the reason probably being not so much the fact that it does not have its exceptional authors, but the fact that Czech is a minor language in a global context and really good authors use it in a way which is very difficult to translate. So if we want at least some of them to be known and loved in the world, and we do, the translations have to be simply perfect.

Bearing all this in mind, I got to work on the analysis, prepared to be as precise as possible. I set areas for the analysis related to features of the text which I supposed to be for some reason challenging for the translator and I started comparing individual original text items with the translation. In short, in the end I had to conclude that the translator translated not only from Czech into English, but also from stylistically marked language into neutral language, which resulted in a considerable loss of extra information – extra, but probably more substantial than the direct. I have to admit that I was quite disappointed. The Jáchym Topol who entered the anglophone world via this novel was quite distant from the Jáchym Topol of the original. Much more distant than I had expected. Nevertheless, my thesis was finished and I had only one more little thing to sort out. It did not even concern the text of the translation itself, but finally, as I could not find the relevant information anywhere else, I decided to contact the translator of the novel, Mr Short. And as a side product, I learnt very surprising facts from him.

He wrote in his email: “… what you need to know is that after I submitted the translation, the had it edited so heavily that I asked them to remove my name from it. Unfortunately, legal reasons apparently made that impossible. So while I have to acknowledge my authorship of the translation, I so disliked the end product after reading the opening pages of the published version that I stopped and have not read it since …” (D. Short, personal communication, October 24, 2016). Moreover, he was so kind as to send me the original version of the translation (D. Short, personal communication, October 25, 2016), so I could compare it with the published version. The result was remarkable. In about ninety per cent of cases where I had objections to the stylistic choice in the published version of the translation, the original version of the translation was all right.

For illustration, here are at least a few of them:

(Sequences of the original text which are characteristic of standard, poetic, archaic or bookish language are in bold in the Czech part, whereas those which are colloquial, slang or even vulgar are underlined. This does not necessarily apply for the English part, because the English counterparts of the original expressions do not always follow their original register. The parts highlighted in blue show differences between the original translation and the published version. )

Czech version Published translation version Original translation version
Krajky měly sestry zakázané jako my cigára. The nuns were not allowed to wear lace, just like we were not allowed to smoke. For the nuns lace was prohibited, like fags were for us.
My byli český domov pro cizí děti, pro zanedbané děti, zlé dětichlapce od cizích státních příslušníků, kteří se na chlapce vysrali, umřeli mu, byli v base nebo zmizeli. It was a Czech home for foreign kids, neglected kids, bad kidsboys, the sons of foreigners who couldn’t give a fuck for them or had died on them or were in prison or had disappeared. We were a Czech home for foreign kids, neglected kids, bad kidsboys, the sons of foreign nationals who couldn’t give a fuck for them, had died on them, were in prison or had disappeared.
Sestry přišly z kláštera, který jim zabrali komunisti. To komunisti je vytrhli z modliteb a poručili jim starat se o sígry, debily, zmetkyzlé chlapce bez vlastních rodičů. The nuns had been driven out of their convent by the Communists. They were snatched away from their prayers and ordered to take care of us orphaned thugs, bastards, retards and juvenile delinquents. The nuns came from a convent confiscated by the Communists. It was the Communists who had snatched them from their prayers and ordered them to take care of young villains, nutcases, retards and bad boys with no proper parents.
Vopičákova postel se sítí byla v rohu a já dbal, aby jeho nejbližšími sousedy byli klidní dlouhokošiláci, a stanovil jsem nábožné pěvce Šklíbu a Martina. Monkeyface’s bed was in one corner with a net over it, and I made sure that his nearest neighbours were gentle longshirts. I also chose two choirboys, Šklíba and Martin, to take care of him. Monkeyface’s bed with its net over it was in one corner and I saw to it that his nearest neighbours were mild longshirts, and I appointed the choirboys Šklíba and Martin.


In the first example, cigára are translated as smoke in the published version, whereas in the original version gives the more stylistically correct fags. Cizí státní příslušníci in the second example are translated as foreigners in the published version, whereas in the original version gives the more accurate foreign nationals. Zlí chlapci in the third example are translated fairly inaccurately as juvenile delinquents in the published translation, whereas in the original translation they are rendered as utterly appropriate bad boys. And stanovit in the fourth example appears as neutral choose in the published version, whereas in the original version the more formal and thus more suitable appoint is used.

How did this happen? It seems that the editor of the translation got the impression that  the stylistic ‘imperfections’ in the text should be corrected and he/she performed the correction, probably without any knowledge of the Czech original, thus spoiling the unique language of the novel. And it happened in spite of the fact that the publisher of the translation had a reader’s report from Benjamin Paloff recommending the novel for translation in which he points out: “The author shifts fluidly between versions of standard written Czech and various substandard forms. In the second half of the book, there is also some creative mixing of Czech and Russian. Such tricks are a signature of Topol’s style, and the translator must be very careful to avoid normalizing the verbal tics that distinguish one linguistic register from another.” (D. Short, personal communication, October 25, 2016).

There now exists an English translation of one of the most charming contemporary Czech novels, but the English reader would struggle to recognize its qualities, because it is under a spell, in a form which prevents it from being fully understood, enjoyed and appreciated. Probably forever.



Topol, J. (2005). Kloktat dehet. Praha: Torst.

Topol, J. (2010). Gargling with Tar. (D. Short, trans.) London: Portobello Books Ltd.    (Original work published 2005).