Public Domain Day 2019: A Reader’s Guide to Paul Selver’s Translation of Karel Čapek’s “And So Ad Infinitum”

DolphinsinPhosphorescentSea-1
“Dolphins in Phosphorescent Sea” by MC Escher. Completed in 1923, enters public domain today!

We made it! At long fucking last, we have made it out the other end, and for the first time in 50 years (with the exception of just two years, 1997 and 1998), works are entering the public domain for the US and almost every other country on Earth. As is tradition on this blog (as of a year ago), every Public Domain Day (January 1st) I write a post related to my love for the public domain, and release one of my own works to the public domain. This year, I’m writing about the first English translation of And So Ad Infinitum, and releasing Tallahassee Ca. 2045 to the public domain! Jump down to the bottom of this post if you just want to read my play, or stick around if you want to hear about insects and bad poetry!

(And if you’re unclear on why today is so special and what the heck the public domain is, you can check out my post from last year.)

Ze života hmyzu (“From Insect Life”) is a play in three acts, written by Karel Čapek in 1920. As such, the original Czech has been in the public domain for more than half a century, and can be read online here. Obscure as it is in the anglophonic world, the play has seen many adaptations and productions, from a 1996 Finnish opera to a 2018 Czech film titled Hmyz (“Insect” in English). It’s been translated into English a few times over the past century, but the earliest translation was done by Paul Selver in 1923—which means it has just entered the Public Domain as of this very day!

Josef_Čapek_-_Karel_Čapek,_Ze_života_hmyzu_(obálka_knihy,_1921)
1921 cover of Ze života hmyzu, illustrated by Josef Čapek

The play itself is fairly simple: Čapek explores and critiques various aspects of humanity through a series of scenes focusing on different insects. The first act focuses on several butterflies, extremely flighty creatures constantly falling in and out of love with each other, not caring at all when their fellow butterflies get snapped up by birds. This is the weakest act in my opinion, as it is fairly repetitive. Then again, I only read the play. I’m sure some skilled actors could really play those hairpin emotional turns the butterflies make, and bring the comedy out of it—but I think it drags on too long regardless.

The second act is a bit disorganized, focusing on a few different insect families, each pursuing some form of a middle class dream, making their way in the working world of bug life. There’s some dull moments here but some equally hilarious moments, and the societal critique is as brazen and entertaining as anything in The Absolute at Large, another satirical work by Čapek (the dung beetles referring to their shit pile as “capital” never failed to get a laugh out of me.)

The third act is easily the strongest, focusing on an ant hill setting out to conquer all the other nests around it. I got lots of Absolute at Large vibes from this one too, as the ants embody the blind, all-consuming, authoritarian nationalism of European countries in the early 20th century, and their war of conquest emulates the horrific wasting of the Great War. More than the other acts, this one really tells a complete story, and utilizes rhythmic, frantic language, with lots of call-and-response between ants, and constant interjections of a blind ant counting out the marching rhythm for all the workers and soldiers. As the act progresses, the count gets faster and faster, and the lines of dialog grow shorter and more choppy. It’s a credit to Selver’s translation that all of this works so well in the English.

Selver’s translation also does a nice job capturing different registers for various characters, utilizing different British sociolects for different insect species. His biggest failing, though, is the poems. Lots of this play is actually in verse, especially the “Tramp,” a human character that comments on the events of the play throughout. While some read perfectly fine and playful, others fall flat, with strained rhymes and muddled rhythm. Also, Selver inserts the n-word in one poem!?!?!!!? It’s of course not in the original Czech, and there’s not even some central European version of it in the original! There’s no Czech counterpart to it! Selver put it in just for a fucking rhyme!

Solifugo_XIX
19th century engraving of Solifugae, author unknown

So yeah. If you’re going to read this play, read it for Act III. In fact, you could just read only Act III (which has the least poetry and no racial slurs) and be pretty happy.

Or, since it’s in the pubic domain, here are some suggestions of how you could adapt it: You could make a radio play of Act III. You could edit all the problem areas so that it wasn’t so shitty, and self-publish it, or stage a production of it. In case you’re wondering where to find this play, don’t worry, I got you: here’s a PDF courtesy of yours truly.

Or you could just read R.U.R. instead, the Čapek play in which he coined the word “robot,” whose Selver translation has also just entered public domain. (Actually it was already in public domain in the US, because the copyright wasn’t renewed, but … enh … the US copyright system does everything in its power to keep stuff out of PD, so it was always kinda dicey. Now it is super duper one hundred percent for real in the public domain.) I mean, that translation might also have problems, I’ve only ever read the David Wyllie translation, which you can also read free here.

Now, just as I released Chimaera Cries ON STREAM!!!!! to the public domain last year, this year I’m releasing another work of mine to the public domain. This time a much more substantial play, Tallahassee Ca. 2045!

In case you didn’t already read the description of it when I first published it several months ago, Tallahassee Ca. 2045 is a full-length play about a group of politically conscious high school seniors who decide to organize a youth rally—a protest to lower the minimum voting age. Just before the protest is scheduled to happen, a massive ice sheet breaks off of Antarctica, causing global flooding. The youth rally becomes a demand for radical change of climate policy, and the student activists are suddenly put under new pressures. The original publication also included an afterword, which I am also releasing to the public domain. Download it all here in these various formats: PDF — Epub — Mobi — Docx

And, because why not, this post is in the public domain.

CC0To the extent possible under law, Francis Bass has waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights to “Public Domain Day 2019: A Reader’s Guide to Paul Selver’s Translation of Karel Čapek’s “And So Ad Infinitum””. This work is published from: United States.

2 thoughts on “Public Domain Day 2019: A Reader’s Guide to Paul Selver’s Translation of Karel Čapek’s “And So Ad Infinitum”

  1. Francis’s I am very excited about your blog. However I bought “F You Now Pay Me “ and couldn’t get it to download. I look forward to reading your material. Let me know if you want any fiction or poetry from me. It may be too old Toney for your readers but… ya never know. Your Superfan, Uncle Ed

    Sent from my iPhone

    >

    • Hey Uncle Ed, thanks! To download the magazine you may need to make an account? I’m not sure. When I bought past issues of the same magazine they just sent a link to my email, but IDK. Absolutely send some of your writing my way! I just got your novel for Christmas and look forward to reading it!

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