WE all know about Karel Capek, don’t we? Well, at least we all know one of the words he created: “ROBOT”. He invented that word, in his play, R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) (1920). Except that he didn’t.

In fact, he wrote a letter insisting that the credit should go to his brother Josef.

Apparently, “robot” comes from the word robota, which basically means “serf labour” or drudgery in Czech and indeed in a variety of Slavic languages, such as Bulgarian, Russian, Serbian, Polish, Macedonian and Ukrainian.

It derives from the reconstructed Proto-Slavic word “orbota”: hard work. Capek was keen to point out that the misattribution of the invention of the word should be corrected at the earliest opportunity, so we must get it right.

Capek wrote many things – stories, novels, plays, poems, journalistic articles and essays, and travel books. Every single one of them is helpful, and fun to read – if you have a certain sense of humour or can cultivate it.

In these strange times of what is popularly described as “lockdown”, where we all depend so much upon machinery and indeed, robotics, the prospect of international travel is all the more alluring.

Except that whenever I see films of people in their hundreds on beaches, I want to run away from them. So what sort of “international travels” are worthwhile? And if we can describe them accurately, may they be made possible as a priority, in the brave new world we all look forward to?

Capek may be our best guide here. Lots of paltry writers have made their small fortunes with travelogues since he wrote, but nobody comes close to what he gives us of that sense of seeing things as if for the first time.

And how, in what ways, in what forms of language and mental apprehension we might savour their difference, and luxuriate in their common sense of human beings needing necessary things variously, and take pleasure in them.

His travel books in sequence of publication are Letters from Italy (1923, in English, 1929, translated by Francis P Marchant); Letters from England (1924, in English 1925); Letters from Spain (1930, in English 1931), Letters from Holland (1932; in English, 1933) – these last three translated by Paul Selver; and Travels in the North (1936, in English, 1939, translated by M&R Weatherall).

But there’s a problem: the English titles don’t match those in Czech. Letters from Spain should be A Trip to Spain (Výlet do Španel); Letters from Holland should be Images from Holland (Obrázky z Holandska); and Travels in the North should be A Journey to the North (Cesta na sever).

I’m indebted to my colleague at Glasgow University Dr Mirna Šolic, who pointed this out to me: “Once you replace ‘journey’ with ‘travels’ you lose the epic connotation. Also, replacing ‘images’ with ‘letters’ leads to loss of the visual component and his travel pieces were very visual.”

SHE’S right. The virtue of “Letters from …” gives a kind of consistency to the travel genre but the emphases in Czech are important: these are epic journeys, wide-screen panoramas zooming in on intimate details of places, persons, and languages, with nuanced, sympathetic humour and patience, a humbling sensitivity to difference and an understanding of human commonality in all its variations.

Dividedness is the dark side of diversity. And diversity is what all these books affirm and celebrate. This is emphatic in the visual aspect of the books, in at least three ways: literally, in Capek’s own illustrations, which are wonderfully humorous and perceptive; verbally, in his descriptions of places, peoples and activities; and critically, in his writing about artists, particularly in his books about Spain and Holland.

Letters from England was published in English 1925. It is, alas, mistitled, as its list of contents shows five sections: “In England”, “A Journey to Scotland”, “North Wales”, “Letters About Ireland” and “Back in England” and one only wishes he had devoted as much space to all the nations as he does to England, which is of course the biggest in terms of population but not necessarily in any other regard.

Still, he makes a wonderful job of it and after all he does begin and end by arriving in, and finally leaving, England. (I wonder if one day we shall have a travel book entitled Letters from the UK, beginning with Scotland’s arrival and ending with our departure from it.) Capek never speaks of Britain or the United Kingdom. He is as keenly aware of national differences as of regional ones, as we shall see. Again, I think this is something we can learn from.

I should declare my own interest here, for my attention was first drawn to this book by Hugh MacDiarmid, in his book Contemporary Scottish Studies (1926), where he says this: “The little sketch of gable-ends in Karel Capek’s Letters from England […] tells far more about Edinburgh than the whole of Sir Herbert [Maxwell]’s Edinburgh: An Historical Study.”

MacDiarmid goes on to delineate the shortcomings of Maxwell, the author of what is now one of the thousands of forgotten books about Edinburgh, but that need not concern us here. To understand what he means though, we should have a look at what he’s referring to.

Here it is.

MacDiarmid has more things to say about Capek, and Capek has more to say about other countries. No rush. We’ll come back to them. But the essential observation comes at the end of Letters from Spain.

This is what we need to keep in mind: “Friends, as we are so glad to see each other, let us make a League of Nations; but hang it, they must be Nations with all the proper trimmings, each one with different hair and a different language, well, its own customs and culture, and if need be, all right, with its own God, too; for every divergence deserves to be cherished, simply because it widens the bounds of life. Let us be united by everything that divides us!”

In other words, let’s value independence truly by treasuring diversity.