Pavel Eisner

11. 1. 2013

01_Pavel_Eisner_FotoPavel Eisner

„One thing is the maturity of the national language, the level of the national linguistic culture is something different. It can happen that the linguistic culture of a nation lags behind its language. In your case this holds true, you Czechs. You have a Stradivarious in your hands, and play it like a fiddler; you inherited a pipe organ and you believe you have a barrel organ; accordingly many voices cackle in your courtyard.“

This condemnation of their linguistic culture some Czechs could deem audacious considering the fact that it stems from a German native speaker had these words has not been written by Pavel or Paul Eisner who is a staunch stalwart of beauty as well as the unacceptability of the Czech language, author of feuilleton pieces and popular scientific texts on the Czech language, primarily however also a translator and mediator who has made a considerable contribution to the cultivation of the Czech national linguistic culture.

Pavel Eisner was born into a Prague Jewish family in 1889 in which mostly German was spoken. He thus learned Czech (similar to many of his later friends, e.g. Max Brod) from a Czech nanny and from the Czech maid. Thus, he sometimes spoke of his double native language. His father, a businessman, chose a more practical education for Pavel Eisner and enrolled him in a middle school with a focus on the exact sciences. Only after the death of his father in 1910 was Pavel Eisner able to devote himself to humanistic subjects. At the Prague German University he completed his studies in Romance, German and Bohemian Studies.

His translation activities he always subordinated a higher goal, namely the nearly idealistic illusion of Czechs and Germans living together peacefully in one common state. A basic prerequisite for the possibility of living together he considered getting to know each other while he viewed ignorance as dangerous. He was convinced that both peoples could inspire and enrich each other. Pavel Eisner was a consequent mediator between both cultures.

Already during his time as a student he began to translate literature, at first acquainting the German-language audience with Czech classics but also with modern authors. His translations of poems were published in the anthology entitled “The Latest Czech Poetry” (1916), he translated Vrchlický, Březina, Sova, but also devoted his work to older authors. In the cultural-historic edited volume “The Czechs” (1928) he for instance translated sections of texts by Jan Hus, Petr Chelčický or Comenius.

In the 1930s Eisner began to translate German authors into Czech, whereby he concentrated on authors from the Bohemian lands who wrote in German. Again his goal was to introduce the inhabitants of Czechoslovakia to the work to their German-speaking fellow countrymen. He was one of the first to have discovered the genius in Kafkas work and made an effort to get the Czech publishing houses to pay attention to Kafka. Already in 1927 he wrote Otakar Fischer, a Czech specialist in German Studies, about Kafka: “He is a genius, ten Nobel Prices are still little for this great mind, and amongst the Czechs no one has budged.” In the year 1935 his translation of the Castle was published, in the 1950s he translated the Process. At least as important as his translations of Kafka’s works are also Eisner’s interpretations of these works. He also translated other German authors from Prague such as for instance Franz Werfel, Egon Erwin Kisch or Max Brod.

This nearly educational activity he not only carried out with translations. He edited a reader called “Fellow Countrymen. German Prose from Czechoslovakia” (1930) intended for Czech secondary school students in which he introduces German-language authors from Bohemian lands. Based on the texts by Adalbert Stifter, Max Brod and Franz Werfel and the still today relevant didactic pointers they were able to improve their German language skills.

Due to the occupation of Czechoslovakia and as a result of his Jewish heritage, Pavel Eisner lost his position as translator at the Czech Chamber of Commerce and as editor in the daily newspaper of the Prague Press. He was however able to save his life thanks to a lucky compilation of circumstances, compared to many of his other colleagues. After the war there was hardly any interest in German-language authors from Bohemia in Czechoslovakia and the fight for a peaceful life together in one country between the Czechs and the Germans seemed definitely lost. It was probably because of this that Eisner from now on primarily devoted his time to the modern German novel and translated amongst others almost the entire work by Thomas Mann. In addition, he also wrote popular scientific works on the Czech language. The introductory quote is from the essay “The Goddess Awaits” („Bohyně čeká“) from the year 1945. What followed were the monumental „The Temple and the Fortress“ („Chrám i tvrz“, 1946) and „Getting to the Czech Language by Splintering and Listening“ („Čeština poklepem a poslechem“ 1948). The following thoughts on the word connection „to command a language“ is taken from the last mentioned book:

„The virtuously commands his poetic instrument – wait, honoured, it is more complicated. A language one cannot command; and of all languages the least the native language. Language dominates us – if it only would dominate! It laughs at us and sticks its tongue out at us.“

Maybe Pavel Eisner did not dominate language, but he was clearly his devoted servant.

by Miloslav Man

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