Book launch, 22 May: Gwen Jones, Chicago of the Balkans

The evening of Wednesday 22 May is the book launch for Gwen Jones’s Chicago of the Balkans: Budapest in Hungarian Literature 1900-1939 (Oxford: Legenda, 2013) at UCL-SSEES, co-hosted with the UCL Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies. Gwen will be in conversation with Professor Ádám Nádasdy (ELTE) about the book and Budapest literature in general.



The ‘Chicago of the Balkans’ of the title comes from an essay by Lajos Hatvany, ‘Magyar irodalom a külföld előtt’ [Hungarian Literature Through Foreign Eyes], published in Nyugat in 1910. Introducing an imaginary foreign reader to Hungarian history and culture, Hatvany writes:

Ez a szó: Magyarország — eleve és utólag valami korcsmában látott maszatos olajnyomat bizonytalan képzetét kelti. Sivár pusztai tájon tekintélyes nyáj legelész az ösztövér gémeskút körül, — a magyar költő ezt óriási szúnyoghoz hasonlítja, amely az öreg föld vérét szívja ki, kócos-lompos birkabőr-subákba burkolózott parasztok is állnak ott, nagy pipákból pöfékelők, — az egész kép megmártva vöröses alkonyi fényben. […] Magyarország 1867 óta kezdetleges földművelő népből magasabb rendűvé emelkedett, — a közgazdasági gyarapodás, haladás korszaka ez. Ez korszaka az ország európ… az amerikaiasodásának ideje. Budapest a Balkán Chicagójává lesz.

[This word — Hungary — summons up, in advance and subsequently, the uncertain idea of a greasy oil print seen in some tavern. A sizeable herd grazes on bleak plains around the lean shadoof, which the Hungarian poet compares to a huge mosquito sucking out the blood of the old land, while peasants wrapped in unkempt, shaggy sheepskin coats also stand there, puffing on great pipes, and the whole picture is steeped in a reddish twilight. […] Since 1867, Hungary has risen from a rudimentary agricultural people to a higher rank: this is the era of economic growth and progress. This era is the time of the country’s Europ… its Americanization. Budapest will become the Chicago of the Balkans.]

The ‘Chicago of the Balkans’ is not a reference to Al Capone and friends, or even the jazz era of the 1920s, but to Budapest’s rapid expansion and building boom in the last decades of the nineteenth century (for instance, outer Erzsébetváros in Pest was nicknamed ‘Csikágó’ in the 1890s), while most other parts of the country, not to mention the prevailing conservative mentality, in Hatvany’s eyes, remained provincial and backward.

The book spans both the late liberal Habsburg era Budapest, and post-liberal, post-Trianon Budapest, the capital of a much smaller and more homogenous country, and illustrates how discussions of the ‘Jewish Question’ became inseparable from political struggles for the capital city and its culture over a period of four decades. Works by writers from a wide variety of backgrounds are discussed, from Jewish satirists to icons of the radical Right, representatives of conservative national schools, and modernist, avant-garde and ‘peasantist’ authors.

Venue: UCL-SSEES, Masaryk Senior Common Room, 4th floor, 16 Taviton Street, London WC1H 0BW

Time: 6 pm

Weöres translation workshop, 22 May

On Wednesday 22 May, UCL-SSEES is hosting a one-day knowledge exchange workshop to mark the centenary of Sándor Weöres’s birth, entitled Translation in the light (or shadow?) of language, culture and politics [poster pdf]. The event is co-organised by the Centre for Language-Based Area Studies at UCL-SSEES, the Balassi Institute Hungarian Cultural Centre London, and the University of Glasgow Centre for Russian, Central and East European Studies.

weöres tollalVenue: Masaryk Senior Common Room, 4th floor, 16 Taviton Street, London WC1H 0BW

Time: 10 am – 5 pm (registration from 9.30 am)

The work and legacy of Sándor Weöres (1913-1989), one of Hungary’s most influential twentieth-century poets, provide an exceptionally intriguing starting point for discussing the possibilities of translation in its most challenging form, the translation of poetic texts, which, in turn, also challenges the notion and the possibility of translation itself.

Labelled ‘formalist’ in Socialist Hungary, Weöres was banned from publication in the 1950s. Like many similarly sidelined poets, the only way he could see his work appear in print was through translations of literary works during these years of relative silence. He not only translated from Russian, French, Italian, English, and Chinese – often taking a rough translation of the source text as a starting point – but in his poetry he also explored such diverse areas as Eastern philosophy, Polynesian and classical European myths, early modern Hungarian literature, and children’s nursery rhymes. Following his Europe-wide recognition, which included two public readings in London (1966 and 1980) and in New York and Washington, D.C. in 1977, his works have been translated into a variety of languages, including English, French, and Russian.

The first part of the workshop will address Weöres’s work and legacy, as well as broader issues related to the difficulty of translating poetry.

10.15-11.45 Discussing Weöres in translation: George Gömöri, Zsuzsa Varga and Eszter Tarsoly.

12.00-13.30 Discussing translation in Weöres: Ádám Nádasdy, Daniel Abondolo, Philip Barker and Ágnes Lehóczky.

The afternoon will feature a panel discussion between publishers on the commercial, cultural and political considerations that play a part in the commissioning of translations, followed by a translation workshop.

14.30-16.00 Joana Zgadzaj (Stork Press), Susan Kojakovic-Curtis (Istros Books), Clive Boutle (Francis Boutle), and Mike Tate (Jantar Publishing).

16.15-16.45 Hands-on translation workshop

JAK literary translators’ workshop, 2012 (II)

(Continued from the earlier post here.)

The first texts we translated with Péter Rácz at the 2012 JAK literary translators’ workshop were entries from the 2009 Szép magyar szótár by Szilárd Podmaniczky (b. 1963). The ‘dictionary’ is an anthology of aphorisms and reflections, none of which is longer than a handful of sentences, and first published in the weekly Élet és irodalom. Its title translates literally as ‘Beautiful Hungarian Dictionary’ which says approximately nothing to the English reader; I chose to translate it as ‘Hungarian Handbook of Life’, which seemed to me to convey the author’s ironic intention, although we also toyed with the idea of ‘A Hungarian Dictionary for the Edification of its Readers’, which seemed rather wordy. The entries we translated were the following: jelenség, jellem, mamlasz, manó, uzsgyi, válik and zuháré, most of which were relatively straightforward to work with. Questions of social and cultural resonance were discussed, with reference to tropes and concerns in Hungarian literature that may not be so prominent elsewhere, and this was particularly relevant for natives of the wetter parts of the UK when translating the entry entitled ‘Zuháré’, a cloudburst. Where heavy rainfall is common, a sudden downpour is unlikely to merit reflection, and thus the uncommon word ‘zuháré’ might even be translated for UK readers as ‘heatwave’ or ‘scorcher’, and the entry rewritten accordingly if the translator had full licence to translate freely.

The second text was by Mihály Kornis (b. 1949), the first chapter of Végre élsz (1980), entitled ‘Kérvény’, an official application. The format was easily recognisable as turbo bureaucrat-ese, an exercise in exaggerating the clunky language and thinking of red tape to render it even more absurd. The application in question is a request from one István Tábori concerning the length of his life span and major events, including nominations of family members, education and work, surviving the Holocaust, expropriation of family property after 1948, and his moral opposition to the 1956 ‘counter-revolution’. In other words, the applicant is requesting advance permission to submit to the Party-state. Even the applicant’s name, Tábori, is important, although the translator may choose to leave it as it is: tábor is Hungarian for camp, and the -i adjectival suffix at the end of a family name can also denote Jewish heritage (many Magyarizing Jews chose aristocratic names in the nineteenth century).

Problematic phrases included ‘törvényerejű rendelet’, a government decree issued with the full force of law (and a favourite Socialist legislative tool), and ‘összhasználati idő’, a meaningless construct indicating the total amount of time foreseen. Here is an example of one of the euphemisms used:

(d) 1949-ben szeretnék megismerkedni a fiammal. Jó lenne azonban, ha még ebben az évben végérvényesen megszabadítanának az autómtól, üzletemtől és a párttagságomtól.

The applicant is recommending he be ‘definitively liberated’ from his car, business and Party membership in 1949, the first year of the Hungarian Workers’ Party dictatorship and the era of high Stalinism. Discussion of the text turned to depictions of the Holocaust in national literatures, and ways in which translators might explain certain items to the reader without intervening too much or resorting to footnotes.

The final texts we translated with Péter were by Ödön Palasovszky (1899-1980), a neglected Dadaist author, poet and theatre director, whose works were often banned and pulped in the 1920s. Some of Palasovszky’s poems are available in this article on the apostles of the Hungarian avant-garde from the online edition of Irodalmi Jelen, and which includes some of his ‘Punalua’ poems from the mid-1920s. Punalua is a polyamorous tradition of inter-group marriage among Sandwich Islanders, Hawaii and clearly, this was not one of the ‘Christian and national’ activities promoted during Horthy’s regency; even Lajos Kassák regarded Palasovszky as an anarchist.

We were given the choice of translating either the ‘Invokáció’ or ‘A zrí – punalua’, both written in 1926. I opted for the latter, which combines pseudo-religious oratory with revolutionary zeal and the promise of violence. The Hungarian ‘zrí’ may be translated into English as rumpus, ruckus, hubbub, brouhaha, or hullabaloo, all of which sound like splendid Dadist pastimes, as well as frenzy, which my colleague chose as it evokes the sound of the original. There’s no greater challenge for the translator than made-up words, and Palasovszky describes the hordes of ‘zrí’ as brothers-in-arms, children thronging through the streets of Budapest, who must kill him because they love him:

Fölismerték magukat bennem és mindennek homálytalanság ami van, mert ez az ő igazi természetük.

‘They recognised in me themselves and the [homálytalanság] of everything that is, because this is their true nature.’ Homálytalanság resembles komolytalanság (serious-lack of-ness), meaning flippancy or frivolity, but homály means obscurity, darkness or dimness. Here, the English translator needs to invent an equally suggestive neologism that won’t stand out as being invented, but which at the same time makes the reader stop and think, hm, excellent new word.

Once again, we worked with a series of texts that were progressively more taxing, but no less enjoyable for that. It is my understanding that many participants were particularly glad to read relatively unknown, or rather neglected authors for the first time, particularly when their writings seem so fresh and exciting almost a century after publication. Many thanks are due to Péter for his thoughtful and exacting workshops; the official diary of the week’s literary events is available in Hungarian on the literature pages of

JAK literary translators’ workshop, 2012 (I)

The József Attila Kör (JAK) literary translators’ workshop took place this year 22-30 May in Nagykovácsi, just outside Budapest. Each year, the workshop brings together translators from many countries to practice and discuss translating Hungarian literature, and in 2012, participants came from Austria, Croatia, Estonia, Italy, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia and the UK. The programme also includes lectures on various aspects of contemporary poetry, prose, language and publishing, as well as discussions with authors. This year’s guests were Ádám Bodor, György Dragomán, István Lakatos, Krisztina Tóth, Péter Kárpáti and Zsuzsa Csobánka.

Over eight days, we translated excerpts from six works, with tutors András Imreh, poet and translator, and Péter Rácz, lecturer in literary translation at the Balassi Institute.

The first text András chose was by Lajos Nagy (1883-1954), the entry entitled ‘Az elefánt’ from Nagy’s satirical compendium Képtelen természetrajz (1921), a parody of ways in which we categorise things. The volume contains anthropomorphic entries for all sorts of animals, including the snake, the elephant, the eagle, the ant, and so on, as well as human ‘types’ found in Hungary at the time, the millionaire, the Hungarian landowner and ‘the Jew’ (this entry being a caricature of antisemitism).‘The elephant’ contains relatively few plays on words, and only one outmoded term, ‘kávénénike’, which I chose to translate as ‘tea lady’, which isn’t quite the same thing, but suggests a woman of a certain age and social status whose main activity, apart from serving tea, is stockpiling gossip and personal stories. The one deliberately laborious sentence construction was as follows:

Az elefánt hangja trombitaharsogáshoz hasonlít, ami megtévesztően hasonlít ahhoz, amiről az olvasókönyvek mint az elefánt hangjáról szólnak, s amiről azt mondják, hogy hasonlít a trombitaharsogáshoz.


The elephant’s sound resembles the blast of a trumpet, which misleadingly resembles what they write in primers about the elephant’s sound when they compare it to the blast of a trumpet.

In Hungarian, to play the role of the elephant is to be the third wheel, and while ‘az úgynevezett elefánt szerepet játszni’ appears seamlessly in the original text, suddenly introducing a wheel metaphor in the English translation jarred somewhat. It was here that the advantages of working in a multilingual group became clear, as various ways of describing being extraneous to a conversation were discussed. In the end, we chose to refer in the English translation to ‘the elephant in the room’, which loses something in terms of accuracy, but retains the elephant metaphor and suggests not quite being welcome. The main challenge of the text, however, was the volume’s title, Képtelen természetrajz, a pun. A literal translation won’t work — unillustrated/absurd natural history — and so here, the translator needs to make a creative decision to convey the humour and playfulness in the target language, rather than translate the joke itself.

The second text continued with the elephant theme. Composed nearly 200 years earlier by Kelemen Mikes (1690-1761) while in exile in Turkey with Ferenc II Rákóczi, Mikes’s Törökországi levelek [Letters from Turkey] were written in Tekirdağ between 1717 and 1758, addressed to a fictitious aunt and published posthumously in 1794. We translated letter no. 127, dated ‘Constancinápoly, 21. septembris 1737’, where the main challenge was to find the appropriate narrative voice. Since none of us were fluent in ‘eighteenth-century’, and given the time constraints, there was no point in forging or overwriting something unnatural, an imaginary use of language from the 1730s. Instead, the aim was to produce a piece of prose that carries over the elegance of the original, and conveys the wonder (‘csuda’) of seeing an elephant for the first time. Questions arose regarding the two instances of the word ‘karom’, which can mean both ‘claw’ and ‘my arm’, and which Mikes uses to describe the thickness of both tusks and trunk (referred to in the original as the beast’s ‘orr’, nose):

Ez a nagy állat egérszőrű, a feje olyan, valamint írják, a fülei, valamint az asszonyok legyezője; a szájából kétfelől két vastag fog nő ki, mint a karom. […] De amit leginkább csudáltam abban az állatban, az orrát, de orrnak nem mondhatom, mert az orra végiből jő ki egy olyan fityelék, valamint a pulykának, a’ pedig hosszabb fél ölnél, és vastag mint a karom, az úgy hajlik, mint egy korbács.

Although no consensus was reached about which was which, it was agreed that this was a very stimulating and enjoyable text to work with; in a word, ‘csudálatos’.

The final text we translated with András also featured a number of animal metaphors, and foregrounded a purposefully tricky use of language. This was an excerpt from Benő Karácsony’s (1888-1944) novel Napos oldal [Sunny Side, 1934], the opening to chapter 3, entitled ‘Bálnahalászat és egyebek’. Karácsony was born Bernát Klärmann in Gyulafehérvár, today Alba Iulia, and his plays and novels achieved some success in Transylvanian literary life in the 1920s and 1930s. The exact date of his death in Auschwitz is unknown. Nowadays largely neglected, his writing remains striking, even odd: András noted that he seems to have more in common with Czech experimental authors of the period than with any of his peers writing in Hungarian. Karácsony’s endless inventiveness (and therefore tests for the translator) starts with the title of the chapter: bálnahalászat, literally ‘whale-fishing’, which sounds much like bálnavadászat (whale-hunting), so much so that many of us missed the reference to fishing, and translated it straight away as whale-hunting. Our hero and narrator, Kázmér Felméri, is about to get the sack from his office job, while his flights of fancy take the reader and translator into entirely fantastical worlds:

Az igazgatóról meg kell jegyeznem, hogy első pillanatra olyan benyomást tett, mintha a falon lógna, és kubista krétarajzot ábrázolna. Álla alatt a gallér két kemény, egyenszárú háromszöget alkotott, a szemüvege négyszögű volt, a feje trapéz alakú, a zsebkendője romboid, a halántékán és arca süppedékein ötszögű árnyékok képződtek, ujjai között hatalmas hatszögű ceruzát tartott, az órája, amint említettem, nyolcszögű; az egész ember maga volt az Ábrázoló Mértan a középiskolák negyedik osztálya számára. Még a lelke is csupa geometria volt. Szabálytalanságot emlegetett. Aztán valami hosszabb mártás következett pontosságról, lelkiismeretességről, komoly kötelességtudásról és az alkalmazottnak a munkaadóval való termékeny együttműködéséről. A termékeny együttműködés sehogy sem tetszett nekem.

Felméri compares the boss to a cubist work of art, all angular geometric shapes, uses ‘süppedék’ to suggest marsh-like areas of the director’s face, and recounts the ‘mártás’ on punctuality, where mártás can mean sauce, as well as a verbal deviation from the point; South Slav participants translated this using the Croatian word for diarrhoea. The translator has to walk a fine line between faithfulness to the author’s deliberate choice of words that have double meanings, or which don’t quite ‘sit’ together, and avoiding the possible appearance of being a ‘poor’ translator who uses the ‘wrong’ words. Roughly:

I should note that the director, at first sight, gave the impression of hanging on the wall and depicting a cubist crayon drawing. Beneath his chin, the two sharp stems of the collar made a triangle, his head was trapeze-shaped, his handkerchief a rhomboid, pentagonal shadows formed in the quicksands of his temples and face, and he held an enormous hexagonal pencil between his fingers; his watch, as I’ve mentioned, was octagonal, and his entire person was a Descriptive Geometry for secondary school fourth formers. Even his soul was nothing but geometry. He was talking about irregularities. There followed a large dollop on punctuality, conscientiousness, taking one’s duties seriously and the productive cooperation between employer and employee. I did not like this productive cooperation one little bit.

Barely one sentence went by without similar challenges. Felméri describes crows flapping in the wind as boats being tossed on the choppy seas, and one sentence of his whale-fishing fantasy uses two separate animal metaphors to describe the whale’s attempts to get free of the harpoon: ‘A nagy szamár állat meg nekiiramodik, azt hiszi, egérutat nyerhet, pedig a fedélzeten már fenik a késeket, és már nyitogatják a zsíros hombárokat…’, which we translated as: ‘The great ass takes off at speed, thinking he can duck out of trouble, meanwhile on deck, they are already sharpening their knives and trying to open the greasy cargo holds …’

But we are not translating a collection of individual words, but rather the unique rhythms and free associations of the text, and the final product should, like the original, be a flowing composition of discordance and wit. I was reminded of that staple of 1970s British television, Les Dawson, who played with his masterful performance of bum notes and comedic timing:

Many thanks to András for his lively workshops and excellent choices of texts, all of which went down very well with this year’s participants. Back in Budapest, and on my way to pick up a copy of Napos oldal, I bumped into one of the Croatian translators who had also just bought a copy. Here’s hoping that Karácsony’s domestic and international renaissance is under way.

(Part two of this post continues here.)

Panel discussion on the ‘revolution of the voting booths’

I might be a booth, but this is not my revolution!

Almost forty people attended the panel discussion on 8 March 2012 on the ‘revolution of the voting booths’, its historical precedents and impact. At the April 2010 general elections, Fidesz won 53% of the vote, which translated into 68% of seats, a parliamentary supermajority that has allowed the Fidesz-Christian Democratic Peoples’ Party (KDNP) government to initiate an intensive and controversial programme of constitutional, electoral, media, educational and countless other reforms. Given the revolutionary talk of ‘twenty years for twenty years’, we wanted to address the state of current affairs in Hungary, and ask the following questions:

How might historical precedents help us understand the ‘revolution of the voting booths’?

How has constitutional reform been framed in the light of ‘unfinished business’ from 1989?

How is political polarisation reflected in the Hungarian media landscape?

Given the increasing frequency of mass demonstrations, what are the opportunities for building consensus?

Professor Martyn Rady presented a historical appreciation of Hungarian legal culture. Addressing Fidesz MEP (and former UCL-SSEES Jean Monnet Professor of Politics) George Schöpflin’s notion of the discursive deficit, Martyn laid out the four sources of law (custom, juristic opinion, judicial decision and legislative acts) and their relevance in the Hungarian context. While the influence of custom was minimal, and juristic opinion had provided vital definitive statements of law from the sixteenth century until the Communist era, judicial activism—known as case law in the UK—played a minor role, with the exception of the first decade of the Constitutional Court’s activity after 1990. The fourth source, legislative act, was originally imported in the nineteenth century from German legal practice, and was used during the Communist era to regulate the interstitial space between public and private by means of both parliamentary statue and government decree. It was this tradition that provided the primary legal inheritance in 1990, a combination of statue and regulation via ministerial or governmental decree.

Dr Tom Lorman considered the ideological roots of the current government which have been described by some critics as a straightforward continuation of the interwar Horthy era model. Instead, Fidesz had weeded pre-World War II history for non-controversial figures such as Kálmán Széll (after whom a 2011 plan to lower sovereign debt was named, and after whom Moscow Square in Buda has been renamed), in order to present a version of Hungarian history that posits Fidesz as the embodiment of a rightist Hungary, and the sole heir of 1956 and 1989. Second, Tom argued that elements of the interwar népi intellectual movement were mobilised by Fidesz in its search for ‘Hungarian’ solutions that tapped into recurring hostility to (alien) elites. Accordingly, ‘us’ and ‘them’ are defined, and the left’s electoral successes of 1994, 2002 and 2006 are explained with reference to the survival of a network that undermines attempts at true reform. Finally, the problem of the weak state after 1989 was to be solved by bringing, in Orbán’s words, the post-Communist era to a definitive end.

Freelance journalist Vali Tóth outlined how questions of media ownership, political influence and content differed in Hungary and the UK. Political polarisation was reinforced by consumers relying only on sources that confirmed their existing beliefs and prejudices, an issue by no means limited to Hungary (and raised by well-known non-Hungarian George Clooney after the 2005 release of his second directorial feature, ‘Good Night, and Good Luck’: ‘you find yourself going to the place that plays to what your political and social agenda or beliefs are’). However, where a ‘winner takes all’ attitude to democracy allowed all incoming governments to staff institutions with their own personnel, the lack of professional continuity was compounded by a lack of dialogue between the two sides and their respective media outlets.

The discussion that followed was constructive and amiable, precisely what we were aiming for, since we felt representatives of the ‘two sides’ (pro- and anti-Fidesz) slugging it out all evening would be neither productive nor enjoyable. Panellists responded to questions on economic restructuring (or lack thereof) and German and Austrian banks’ exposure in Hungary, media protests, the role of intellectuals, activism among the young and right-leaning university students, changes to the electoral law and dual citizenship reforms, the macho nature of Hungarian politics, Fidesz’s competition with Jobbik for the radical right vote, and the broader ideological project Fidesz intends to carry out regardless of EU infringement procedures or the withholding of cohesion funds.

Wondering about what the ‘two sides’ might have in common, I asked for a show of hands of those who believed that there are indeed two Hungaries, with which over half the audience agreed. Whether the concept of ‘two Hungaries’ explains or entrenches the state of current affairs will be a subject for future discussion. It was agreed there was only one Hungary in 1956, and again in 1989, which would underscore the value of revolutionary rhetoric and (re-)definition of the Hungarian nation as a revolutionary work in progress.

The event was hosted by the UCL-SSEES Centre for the Study of Central Europe and opened by its director, Dr Richard Butterwick.