Czech humour in English – Why not?

Jára Cimrman is such a Czech treasure that we all know something of this ‘Jack of all trades’ created by Zdeněk Svěrák and Ladislav Smoljak. Some of us even grew up with the plays of Jára Cimrman Theatre. Is it at all possible to translate typical Czech humour into a foreign language, and preserve the fun? Brian Stewart, the founder, translator, and director of English Cimrman Theatre, answers these questions.

“I think it is possible to translate Cimrman and our productions are proof of that,” says Dr. Stewart. “We believe that humour is universal – we are all humans and capable of the same range of emotions and attitudes that are recognisable in all languages.” As an example, he refers to the play called The Stand-In (Záskok in Czech), which was the first one he co-translated for the English Cimrman Theatre with Emília Machalová. “In Záskok, the character Prácheňský reacts badly to the line ‘Everyone would like to live in České Budějovice’ because he doesn’t want to ‘live in České Budějovice’ where, as an actor, he has had the worst experience of his life. When we started performing the play, it was suggested that we should change the name of České Budějovice to a town that was more relevant to an English-speaking audience. Why? The name of the town is irrelevant – it’s Prácheňský’s reaction that is important. I feel the same about some towns in the UK as Prácheňský does for České Budějovice.”

The English Cimrman troupe try to maintain the “Czechness” in all plays, that is they try to keep all the Czech names of characters and actors. Sometimes it is difficult as some parts of Cimrman plays are uniquely Czech and it is tricky to find a way to translate and maintain the joke. Often, for example in the seminars, which are part of every Cimrman play, a little text is added just to help non-Czech audiences understand more about Czech history and important Czech people, such as František Křižík, Karel Havlíček Borovský, or even Jan Hus.

The English Cimrman Theatre performed the English version of Záskok (Stand-In) in the USA in 2017. Brian Stewart says that the reaction of the audience was marvellous. Some of the spectators were Czechs living in the US, but 99.9 % were non-Czech and knew nothing about Jára Cimrman. They all loved the show. It was very satisfying for the whole cast. “By performing Cimrman in English we hope to take his works beyond the Czech border; the tour to the US proved it could be done, and successfully too,” says Brian, who himself comes from the UK.

Why does Brian Stewart think Cimrman is still so popular after all these years? He says that mainly it is thanks to the specific kind of humour. He also sees Cimrman Theatre as a family heirloom. “It has been handed down to children who remember going on long car journeys to their cottages while their parents played the tapes of Cimrman in the car. And now, they have become fans of Cimrman too.”

Lastly, I asked Dr Stewart to share his favourite passages or quotes from Cimrman.
For readers who are as big a Cimrman fan as I am, here are some of them:
“Everyone would like to live in České Budějovice.”
“I propose we eat the dogs.”
“What moves? I’ll be here the entire play!”
“Čenek has no talent.”

Do you know them? Do you like them? Would you like to experience a different connection to Jára Cimrman? Then, the English Cimrman Theatre is the right choice for you.


Text vznikl v rámci kurzu Angličtina pro žurnalisty pod vedením Mgr. Aleny Proškové.


Foto: archive of Cimrman English Theatre

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