Analysis of Lexical Units in Bohumil Hrabal’s Prose

Tereza Heřmanová

My thesis, Analysis of Lexical Units in Bohumil Hrabal’s Prose, deals with the issue of translation from Czech to English. The two works I am analysing are a novella by Bohumil Hrabal called Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále and its translation by Paul Wilson, I Served the King of England. I chose such difficult texts because they have a lot to offer. Bohumil Hrabal has always been my favourite writer, and I became even more appreciative of his style of writing after taking seminars in Czech literature in the 20th century, as I also study Czech Language and Literature at the Faculty of Education. That was the moment when my interest in the writer and his language increased.

When Mr. Němec and I were discussing what I might write my thesis on, Bohumil Hrabal seemed the best choice for analysis, as he is widely translated by many foreign authors. At first, I was hoping to find two translations of one book by two different translators: it would have been very interesting to compare two approaches to one text. There do not seem to be any of these, however. In the end, I chose the novella Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále, whose translator, Paul Wilson, is a very interesting figure. Paul Wilson was born in Canada and studied in Toronto, then in London. He also spent ten years (1967-1977) in Czechoslovakia, where he taught English and became involved with the dissident movement, particularly the underground music band The Plastic People of the Universe. During the time of so-called Normalization in the Czechoslovakia, Paul Wilson participated in many cultural events held by the Czech underground. He was eventually expelled by the Communist government. I found Paul Wilson to be very well suited to translation of the work of Bohumil Hrabal – he knew the culture and history of the country, the language and most importantly the overall atmosphere in Czechoslovakia, as the book is set in the 20th century.

I would like to mention several characteristics and typical features of Bohumil Hrabal’s works, especially Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále. As I mentioned earlier, his texts have a lot to offer, especially in terms of lexical features, which were my focus. But the syntax in Hrabal’s works is also very interesting. His prose is very lyrical and poetic, and language is very important in his novels and novellas. The situations in the novels are related to the author’s efforts to transcribe spoken language in its original form. The author himself states: “This is why I like places crowded with people and places where the mother language is present, new words created and slang spoken, where people ask each other who they are, or who they would like to become.” Spoken language is very important in every book by Hrabal. The storyline is composed of small snatches of conversation, memories, stories and anecdotes, forcing us to pay attention to features of the language, and Hrabal’s “pábení”, which he claims to be a type of poetry. As the author says, a “pábitel” is a person who likes to entertain himself with his own talk, sometimes without the presence of other people. In other words, Bohumil Hrabal’s style can be also characterized as a stream of consciousness, as he uses very long, almost never-ending sentences. One of his experimental works, Taneční hodiny pro starší a pokročilé, comprises one long sentence. In Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále, some sentences are several pages long, connected polysyndetically, and with much repetition of the conjunction ‘and’, as you can see in the example below.

“a já jsem vždycky neměl drobný, i když jsem je měl, a tak jsem prodával dál, až pak už cestující vyskočil do vlaku a dral se k okýnku a natahoval ruku, a já jsem nejdřív položil horký párky, a pak jsem řehtal v kapse drobnými”

The syntax of the whole novella is based on spoken language and therefore very free. There is also profuse repetition of words and phrases, which is, as with the polysyndetic structures, a very poetic element.

„nakonec si oblékl zelenou zástěru a štípal dříví na osvětleném dvoře, nic jiného nedělal, než štípal dříví, melodickými údery sekery štípal, co zvečera nařezal, celou noc štípal, ovšem já jsem poznal a pak dobře slyšel, že štípal vždycky, když k nám někdo přijel“

Bohumil Hrabal also plays with punctuation – he uses the comma where it is grammatically redundant and does not use it where it is grammatically required. Also, he often uses three dots instead of a single full stop to give the impression of never-ending speech. In the novella Obsluhoval jsem anglického krále, his omission of quotation marks is also very peculiar; instead he introduces direct speech with a comma or colon, which is unique.

But as the title of my thesis makes clear, it focuses mainly on lexical units, which are as prominent and important as other features of the text. What helped me most with the analysis was the creation of a language corpus, where I compared the original and translated texts alongside each other. All the lexical units are given in context, making it easier to evaluate the translation.

In the prose I was analysing, language is actualized by the influence of colloquial and informal language, with its abundance of slang, vulgarisms and dialect. Bohumil Hrabal mostly uses dialects typical of Moravia, particularly of the Haná region, located in central Moravia, and Slovácko, located in the southeast of Moravia – e.g. tudyma, přaska, kože, čikuláda, nejrozčmachtanější, sklínka. Examples of slang words that make the text unique include defilírka, gránik, prachy, trégr and tuzér. Also highly typical of Hrabal’s prose are vulgarisms (a on mne poslal do prdele), diminutives (košíček, pokojíček, okénko), and words of German (trégr, štangle) and French origin (kupé, komód, nóbl). Bohumil Hrabal also creates neologisms and uses dialect expressions so rare that there is no record of them in dictionaries or on the internet. These include cveklíčky, rechničky, šteflíčky and trusky; some of these words are of German origin. These highly expressive words, as well as the use of slang and dialect, make the speech more authentic for the reader, as the author uses expressions typical of everyday spoken language.

Lexical features I focus on apart from those mentioned above include cultural words, which may cause difficulties for the translator, colloquial language, archaic words, idioms and proper names.

To sum up, I very much enjoyed writing this thesis and have learned a lot of things, including how to work with a corpus. I have improved my theoretical knowledge, too. However, there is one thing that bothers me – whenever I read Bohumil Hrabal’s work now, I cannot help but wonder how a translator would approach every strange word it contains.