Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Joey Jump-up!

As if more evidence were needed that it's hard to pull apart knowing a language from knowing a culture ...

There was a post yesterday at Britské listy about direct election of the president in the Czech Republic. When Czechoslovakia was set up after World War I, the system was established that the people elect the parliament, then the parliament elects the president. This procedure was retained when the country was re-established after World War II, and through the communist period, though the parliamentary elections at the time were predetermined, so the election of the president was a formality of power rather than a real political event. Parliamentary election of the president continued into post-communist Czechoslovakia and then into the Czech Republic after the "Velvet Divorce" in which Czechoslovakia became the two independent states. The parliament recently changed this, so in 2013, the successor to current Czech president Václav Klaus will be chosen in a direct election by the voters, not by the parliament.

Yesterday's post was titled "The direct election of the president is just a pacifier," the point being that the new form of election won't accomplish much of importance, but is mostly about distracting the public from things the politicians don't want them to be thinking about.

"Now that the candidates for president include Vladimír Dlouhý, Ladislav Jakl, and Pepek Vyskoč from Putim, the dance of the candidates has assumed an utterly grotesque character." Who are these people the writer is talking about?

Czech Wikipedie will tell you that Vladimír Dlouhý is a politician, the first minister of industry and trade in the new Czech Republic back in the early 1990s. The same source informs you that Ladislav Jakl is a former journalist and currently the director of the political section of the Office of the President of the Republic.

And Pepek Vyskoč from Putim? Czech Wikipedie won't tell you who he is.

He's this guy (the one with no hat, not the police commander):
He's a character from one of the most famous Czech novels, The Adventures of the Good Soldier Švejk in the World War. He's the town shepherd, a half-wit (or maybe a quarter). He often bleets when he talks.

The police commander has been ordered by his district superior to find a paid snitch to get information about the mood of the populace regarding the war. He can't think of who to get, when into his office walks the shepherd, bleeting. The commander pulls him aside, slips him a coin ("borrowed" from one of his officers), and speaks with him confidentially. "If you hear anyone say that the Emperor is an ass, or that we won't win the war, you come tell me." He sends him out, and as the fellow reaches the door, the police officer says to him, "Pepku, vyskoč!" ("Joey, jump!") and the man does an odd little jump.
Afterward, he's dictating a report for his superior, about how he's found a paid informant. He's not sure of the shepherd's name, so he asks the underling who's taking dictation. "I've only ever heard him called Pepek Vyskoč."

"Alright, then," says the commander, "our informant is Josef Vyskoč."

The next day the priest comes to commander all concerned and asks to speak to him in private. "The shepherd told me you said the Emperor is an ass and that we won't win the war!"

That's Pepek Vyskoč from Putim. A world of denigration hurled at the presidential field in four quick words. And a grammar book or dictionary won't be of much use in helping you figure out what the writer means. Knowledge of a language is tied up with knowledge of a culture.

Well, that's less true now than it used to be, thanks to Google ... (How do you think I refreshed my memory of who Pepek Vyskoč was, or found the picture above?)

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