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16. 9. 2010

E. L. Doctorow - Billy Bathgate

The edition I've got is so bad, I couldn't even find a picture of it.
      I've been trying to read this book for months and couldn't get past the first 30 pages, because it's terrible. Well, not the book itself (it's actually quite compelling (for some sensitive people, the sight of this word is obviously too painful) gripping and was nominated for Pulitzer!) but the translation. (It appeared in my favorite used books shop right after I decided to include it on my birth year reading list, so I obviously couldn't resist. Damn you, bookshop!) And when I say the translation is terrible, I mean will-melt-your-brain kind of terrible. I should have been warned by the fact that it says By the scriptwriter of Reghtime on the cover. But more on that later.
      Once I got the hang of deciphering, I started to enjoy the book. The story of how he became a member of Dutch Schultz's gang for a brief time is told by Billy Bathgate himself. He was an ordinary 15-year-old poor boy living with his slightly crazy mother in a Bronx flat in 1935 (I think). One day, Billy got lucky and the gangster boss Dutch Schultz noticed him, the quiet skilled juggler boy. Billy saw his chance there and sneaked into the gangster main office and got lucky again when they didn't kill him right away but employed him as a message-boy. From there, Billy slowly builds his position in the gang. But he soon realizes that he joined Dutch Schultz at the time of his downfall. Dutch has to go to court, but by settling in the country for summer and playing nice, practically throwing money in the farmers' faces, he manages to secure himself a dumb and sympathizing jury and win the case. But that only leads to more hostility from the authorities back in New York.
      Meanwhile, Billy spends a lot of time with Drew, Dutch's mistress who, for the sake of the locals, pretends to be his governess, and slowly falls in love with the 20-year-old girl.
      After the process, Billy is the only one able to deliver messages or bribes to people in New York and the rest of the gang has to hide. But when Billy is reporting to the gang hiding in New Jersey and plotting to get rid of the most inconvenient enemies, the gang is attacked and Billy, by that time in the bathroom, is the only one to escape. Right before his death, the financial brain of the gang gives him the combination to the safe, so Billy takes the money and is eventually able to start a new life with his mom and his and Drew's baby. (Yes, they had a baby, but Drew's not around anymore. She's not the type to stay in one place.)

      The main storyline sounds quite simple, but the charm of the book is in the details, in the way Billy grows up as he witnesses the murders and gets used to the life filled with constant danger. The 1991 film is on my to-watch list.

      Now, a few examples of the wonderful translation:
      Most of the time, the sentences are just slightly off, missing conjunctions or not making much sense, following the English syntax, but you can understand what's going on. The text just feels a bit weird. Like this one: "Kromě toho všeho jsem vychutnával zajímavý a krásný život, kde byl prostor, pohled na Sound, který v mých očích byl oceánem, široký horizont šedého moře, které plynulo a mizelo poklidně jako ty břidlice a kámen měnily polohu, kdyby nebyly přitahovány k zemi."
      But there are also things that look more like a computer translated it. Idioms translated word by word. Yes, here comes the fun. For example this: "Jste moje vychovatelka." "To jsem si myslela, ale asi v době, když ty ses staral o mně." Sounds okay, but in context it doesn't make any sense. So the reader has to stop and think and only when he realizes that the original probably used the words '... but about time you took care of me.' he's back on track.
      Not to mention such trivial mistakes like declining indeclinable words etc... (vstal ze sofy)

      I tried to google the translator - PhDr. Zuzana Čaplová - and found out that her translation won the 1994 Skřipec (an award for the worst translation of the year). So there. Lucky me for buying the book, now I've got something to scare kids with.

      But to end optimistically, I really liked some bits (and I don't know how much of that eerie feel was E. L. and how much Miss Translator but the result is nice) that characterize the book perfectly.
"Svlékala se před pistolníky, vodou, sluncem, život ji odstrojil, pochopil jsem proč s ním šla, to nebylo jako matky a otcové v normálním životě, tady se nebrala v úvahu láska, to nebyl svět lásky, ve kterém žili, to šoustání a zabíjení, to byla surová dospělost hnaná terorem."

1 komentář:

  1. This one is on my "someday" reading list. Lucky for me, I will read it in English. But you made the bad translation sound funny. Sometimes awful can be good, or at least good for a laugh.

    You've got your BYR challenge candles now.