I have a problem in my relationship. I try and I try, but sometimes I think that I’ll never be able to truly understand her. She’s so mysterious, so demanding, and so complicated – often more complicated than necessary, if you ask me.
When I try to find the words to express what I’m feeling, I’m constantly asking myself, “Am I saying the right thing? Should I say it in some other way? Should I even bother saying anything at all?”
It’s so incredibly frustrating. To tell the truth, there are times when I think I should just give up. But I can’t. I need her. And I desperately want my relationship with her to work.
Of course, I’m talking about my relationship with Czech. She’s just impossible!!!
The other day, as occasionally happens, I got a letter from one of Reflex‘s readers, who wrote to tell me that he enjoyed my articles. He then added how much he admired my Czech language skills. “Your grammar is amazing,” he wrote. “It’s better than that of a lot of Czech people.”
It was a lovely compliment and one that I would certainly appreciate, if only it were true. But the truth, as some of my readers apparently still don’t know, is that I write all of my articles in English and that they are then translated into Czech by my longtime friend and colleague Jan Valeška.
Jan is a brilliant translator, who normally specializes in translations from Czech into English. Like most people who are good at their jobs, the reason he’s such a great translator is that he loves doing it. He actually loves the English language.
In addition to his translation work, he’s also been working for the past decade on his greatest work, his opus magnum, his “white whale” (as readers of Moby Dick will understand) – an English-Czech dictionary of English “phrasal verbs.”
If you don’t know, a phrasal verb is combination of a normal English verb with a preposition (like “of”) or a particle (like “down”). Phrasal verbs using the verb “get”, for example, can indicate physical activity: get up, get down, get on, get off, get in, get out – as well as emotional activity: get through, get over, get along.
One of my favorite examples is the vulgar English verb for sexual intercourse: “fuck.” It can be used to make a range of non-sexual phrasal verbs as: fuck up, fuck off, fuck over, fuck with and fuck around. Jan’s dictionary includes them all, and it will therefore be a wonderful educational resource for the Czech nation when it is published…or perhaps I should say “if” it is published.
You see, the only problem with Jan’s dictionary is that it is now something like 200 million pages long. Okay, I’m exaggerating. It’s actually only 100 million pages long.
For the past 10 years, Jan has combed vast expanses of printed English materials – books, newspapers, magazines, the Internet – searching for phrasal verbs and their meanings. I don’t know how many of them he has found in total, but I believe that his wife recently had to move out of their home in order to make room for 40,000 new ones that he found using the preposition “at.”
And very often the meanings of the phrasal verbs he finds are elusive, even for a native English speaker like me. I can’t tell you how many times during the last 10 years I have been in the middle of eating dinner, or driving, or watching a film, or making love with my wife, when suddenly my phone has rung, and it has been Jan, apologizing for interrupting me and asking if I by chance have any idea about the meaning of some obscure new phrasal verb he has located. Our conversation generally goes something like this:
“Steve, do you happen to know what ‘rozum away’ means?” he’ll ask. “I just found it in a book by Thomas Hardy.”
“Fuck off,” I’ll reply.
“It means ‘fuck off’?”
“No, Jan, I’m telling you ‘fuck off,’ because I have no fucking idea what ‘rozum away’ means, and nobody else living today does either, and Thomas Hardy is dead, so we can’t ask him, and my wife is starting to lose the mood.”
[Note to Reflex readers from Jan Valeška: Thank you for your compliments to Steve about his perfect Czech grammar, which, as Steve pointed out, is really mine. I thought you'd like to see what Steve's Czech actually looks like, because it's pretty hilarious. So, instead of the original ending he wrote for this week's story, here's the e-mail he sent me asking me to translate it.]
Ahoj, Yan! Tady je muj historka pro přišti týden. Doufam že nebude ti vadit že udělal jsem malo legrace kolem tvuj slovník. Viš že nedavno udělal jsem v sloupku legrace o mé manželze a taky o šefredaktora Reflexu a ono jim to přicházelo vtipný. Tak jsem si jistý že ty maš stejný smysl pro humor jako oba z nich. Hele, tento tyden já jedu do USA navštivit rodinu. Tak, prosím, přelož tento članěk a zasílej překlad me manželce. Ona ho kontroluje na chyby a pak ho přeposila k šefredaktorovi Reflexu. Vim že mezi vámi česká verze bude perfektni jako vždycky. Diky. S pozdravy, Steve.