Labored Lying: On Language, Translation, and Saying Goodbye

A week before my husband and I travel to Prague, I borrow a set of Pimsleur’s Learn to Speak Czech CDs from the library and begin the lessons alone in my car.

Good day, do you understand English? I ask in Czech as I drive across town to the hospital, where I’m visiting a family member recovering from surgery. I understand a little Czechbut not very well, I parrot later, when exiting the parking garage. The drive between the hospital and my house is about the length of one lesson on the Pimsleur CD. It’s never enough time.

Learning new languages has never come easily to me. The German I studied for years in school has mostly fled my memory. I picked up a shallow sampling of Spanish before visiting Mexico City several years ago, but then I felt too insecure to actually use it. Acquiring a few flashes of Czech for this trip at least makes me feel I’m trying. And to my amazement, some phrases come easily. Moc dobre, very well. Nerozumím česky, I don’t understand Czech. 

Others, for whatever reason, refuse to stick in my brain. Na shledanou, Czech for goodbye, is the first to stump me. I can handily repeat na shledanou immediately after hearing Pimsleur’s pronunciation, but a minute or so later, when the lesson prompts me to say “goodbye” in Czech, my mind goes blank. It doesn’t help that I can’t see the word and have no idea how it’s spelled. (Only later, when I look it up, could I compare the sound to the written word—a phonetic spelling would be something like “na-sklah-don-oh.”) I rewind those few seconds on the CD over and over again, determined to commit the Czech goodbye to memory. 

At home, I try a little longer to hold onto it. “Na shledanou,” I tell my cat while feeding her. “Na shledanou!” I like how it feels, the way the “sk” sound pops near my teeth, how the closing “danou” is round in the back of my throat, in the space inside my jaw.

Still, the next time I’m navigating the rainy streets to the hospital, I lose the word. I need to hear it once more and then again, to drill it into my brain to have any hope of maintaining it. It’s fleeting, a flash of foreign sounds continuously slipping from my grasp.

Na shledanou is its own goodbye, self-contained and inscrutable, a word waving from a far distance.

On the plane, I read the English translation of Fingers Pointing Somewhere Else, a short story collection by Czech author Daniela Fischerová. The first story in the collection, “My Conversations with Aunt Marie,” is about a young girl’s relationship with her eccentric aunt. Dana, the narrator, and Aunt Marie both view a writer’s development as something holy, mystical, beyond earthly teachings. 

“Writing is from God,” Dana reflects. “Neither Auntie nor I have any doubt that God is teaching me to write, today and every day.”

For young Dana, writing is not a craft that demands effort, or at least not yet. Instead, it is a gift ushered in on a tide of patience and faith. What a departure from my own history of labor and frustration at the writing desk.

While I might not understand Czech, reading Fischerová’s stories in English places me within my comfort zone. I know how to contemplate a well-written story, to recognize nuance in language, to be swept away by the beauty of words. But once the plane lands in the Czech Republic and I’m surrounded by a foreign language, all my skills disappear, leaving me on uncertain lingual footing. Na shledanou

In Prague, I hold only skims of the language, little decorative phrases like: Excuse me, please. Two beers, please. Can we have another? Can I pay? Thank you! Goodbye! I stumble through conversations with servers and shop employees and the woman selling tickets at the train station. On a tourist-filled street near the Charles Bridge, a woman selling trdelník smiles at my garbled Czech words, which I quickly abandon for English. A beer hall server waits in patient humor as I mime my order. In a stationery store far from the tourist trappings, the employee looks insulted when I ask, in Czech, if she speaks English. (“English? Yes, of course.”) But whenever I do interact with someone who doesn’t speak English, our conversation tumbles to a stop almost at once.

At home, I teach classes on writing. I edit a literary journal. I write white papers and feature articles and annual reports and manuscript critiques and interviews. I am immersed in words. But in a place where I don’t speak the language, all that evaporates and I am reborn as inadequate, defective. 

By my second day in Prague, however, one word rises to the surface, a single bright spot in my mangled attempts at Czech: na shledanou. After repeating it so many times at home, the Czech farewell now comes to me unbidden.

  I begin muttering it to myself as my husband and I walk up the steep hills of Mala Strana. “Na shledanou, na shledanou.” I think I’m being quiet, but my husband hears and starts to laugh. Still, I don’t stop. I say the Czech goodbye again and again, like a moving body gaining speed, like a weight growing heavier in my hand.

I think of all the painstaking work I put into a single short story, or in an essay like this one. All the deletions and missteps and wrong turns, the shaping and crafting and polishing. In Fischerová’s story, while Dana doesn’t yet comprehend writing as a discipline that requires the strain of hard work, she nonetheless invests energy to communicate, to understand how stories can build connections. 

That level of effort is mirrored in the book’s translation into English. In a Central Europe Review interview following the English publication of Fingers Pointing Somewhere Else, Fischerová details how the collection’s translator, Neil Bermel, produced five separate options for the translation of a simple line in one of her stories. Each version, Fischerová explains, “nuanced the meaning slightly differently,” a process she says taught her “more about the spirit of the English language than an intensive course ever could.”

Bermel, meanwhile, writes in his translator’s preface about the dilemma of “this need to look behind the words” when translating fiction. He shares how he studied the rhythm of Fischerová’s prose, how he attempted to mimic her economy with language, and how he approached the Czech expressions that might translate literally but not culturally into English.

“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,” he writes. “Fischerová’s language is deceptively simple and compact. She has told me that she is as proud of what is not in these stories as of what is. Every word is there on purpose; all superfluities have been stripped away.”

Agony, frustration, the act of stripping away—Bermel gets to the heart of the most difficult, invisible parts of the writing process. These are layers of work that will never be seen in the final product, but without them, the piece would surely suffer.

“In the end,” Dana muses in Fischerová’s story, “all writerhood is half-light and speculation.” 

Instead of avoiding conversation with Czech-speaking strangers, I start to seek out new interactions, all so I can say na shledanou at the end. I might stagger through a painfully awkward part-Czech, mostly English conversation, but when it’s all over, my goodbye is spoken with confidence. It’s a way to end the conversation on a high note, to show that there’s some depth beneath my bumbling American exterior.  

Isn’t this partly why I became a writer in the first place? In conversation I too often feel inept, clumsy, dull. My words are halting, my speech unclear or rambling. I reveal too much or too little. Later, after the moment has passed, I might berate myself for what I said or what I left out. When writing, however, I can take the time to edit, to add layers, to express what I’m actually thinking.

In the Czech Republic, saying na shledanou is one small way of correcting the misconceptions others may have formed about me. It’s my chance to set things right, to cut a narrow thread of light through my communication flaws. When I say na shledanou, what I really mean is: You thought you knew who I was, but you’re wrong. I’m more than you imagined.

In “My Conversations with Aunt Marie,” Dana and her aunt speak often about Dana’s future as a writer. But it’s only when a breach occurs in their relationship that Dana discovers her gift for creating imagined worlds. She tells her aunt that she saw a goat in their garden, a lie that she crafts with great enthusiasm: 

“To my amazement, I hear myself sprouting meaningless sentences about the goat. I mix together memories from another time, a fairytale, and labored lying; my imagination struggles mightily, I swim against the current without knowing why.” 

Labored lying is one of the best descriptions of fiction writing that I’ve come across in recent memory. So much effort is expended for a handful of words—like the struggle of learning mere fragments of a new language, or of translating a great writer’s words from one language to another.

Dana uses words like “anxiety” and “drudgery” when describing the process of creating fiction. She also asks herself a question I think all writers have pondered, at one point or another: “Is writerhood really so arduous? So oppressive, so precarious?”

As my husband and I explore Prague and the smaller town of Kutná Hora, I get a thrill whenever I say na shledanou in a real-life situation, or even when I overhear Czech speakers say it to each other. Soon it turns into something of a game. When I say na shledanou to this Czech person, will he or she say it back? I take it as a mild insult if someone responds to my na shledanou with an English “goodbye.” But when I offer up a na shledanou and the person says it back in Czech, I’m ecstatic. 

At the end of our time in Prague, we take a Czech Airlines flight to Paris. The confines of that plane represent the last chance I’ll have to say na shledanou to a Czech speaker during this trip. The flight attendants are saying “goodbye” in English to the departing passengers, but that doesn’t dissuade me. I gather my things, walk down the plane aisle, and take a breath. 

Na shledanou,” I announce, clearly and with feeling. 

The flight attendants beam. “Na shledanou!” they respond in unison, their voices so cheerful and lilting that they’re practically singing. 

Fischerová’s character Dana is confident that she will write a novel of her own—a novel about her aunt’s life, at Aunt Marie’s request. Young Dana contemplates this future task with solemn determination: “I swear that I will be (that I am) a writer. I swear that I will write about my aunt . . . No one, nothing will deter me from this, I swear.”

Her pledge is rooted in the growing understanding that to embark on a novel will require persistence and a certain level of tunnel vision. She also acknowledges that the writer’s process is full of mystery. Her aunt has hinted about a man from her past, but Dana is not intent on uncovering the details just yet. She simply accepts that the unknowable is part of the fabric of her future manuscript: “I do not insist on understanding my own novel all at once.”

To not know the whole of a project from the start, and to trust the creative process will unfold as it may—this lesson gives me heart that the effort we put into language can result in something fully formed and complete. It tells me that yes, our words may be worthy of all that work. It suggests that through writing, we are capable of communicating a reality that reaches beyond the need of translation—to arrive at a truth that is as earnest and as final as the act of saying goodbye.


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