Monthly Archives: July 2008

Translating Grendel, Tömegsír, 1999

As part of our translation series, we discussed an excerpt from the novel Tömegsír (Mass Grave, Kalligram, 1999) by one of our favourite authors, Lajos Grendel (b. 1948), with a view to thinking about untranslatability. The premise of Tömegsír is simple: following post-1989 property restitution, an academic moves back to his family home in a small town referred to only as ‘T’. In the course of digging a well, a mass grave is discovered underneath the narrator’s property.

‘T’ is the prototype Central European small town, and the site of an ensuing farce. It never becomes clear who the bones belonged to, or how they ended up under the house. In this excerpt the town’s mayor explains the intricacies of post-communist identity to the narrator, who has been offered (threatened with?) honorary citizenship of T.:

 — Mi nem vagyunk azok – mondta. – Akik azok voltak, ma már nem azok. Nagyot fordult a világ – mondta – kereke. Én azelőtt is az voltam. Most is az vagyok, de a mostani azom nem ugyanaz az az, ami a régi azom volt. Azelőtt mi ellenségként állhattunk volna szemben egymással, de most ez megfordult. Most barátok vagyunk, segítünk egymásnak és egymáson. Közös a vektorunk – mondta még. – Az azunk többé nem ugyanaz az az. Tudja, én  másvalaki voltam tegnap, noha ugyanaz vagyok, az orrom például nem lesz se nagyobb, se kisebb, de ez mind nem számít.

Grendel, Tömegsír, second edition, 2006, p. 21

Both the mayor’s confusion, and translation difficulty, hinge on ‘az’; no one English word would work for each and every instance of ‘az’ (the, that, them, those). Rather, the translator would have to render the mayor’s difficulty in expressing his muddled thoughts into nonsense, and somehow replicate linguistic clumsiness for the play on ‘az’. For instance, ‘az azunk nem ugyanaz az az’ could be ‘we are not the we that we were’. However, it is the ‘az’ to which the speaker refers that has changed, not him or his surroundings, and it is the ‘az’ that remains constant in the text, it is not ugyanaz az az! Ultimately, the text is so deeply embedded in Hungarian that any attempt to lift it out would ‘kill the patient’ in the process.

I would be interested to check against the Slovak translation, Masový hrob.

A good Hungarian-language article on Grendel’s prose works is Sándor Olasz, ‘A megtörténtek paródiája. Grendel Lajos regényei’, in Új Forrás.