Monthly Archives: October 2008

Translating Magda Szabó, Disznótor, 1960

Madga Szabó’s 1960 novel Disznótor is a remarkable exercise in minimal reference tracking. Reference tracking – who is being referred to – can cause problems for many students (and translators) of Hungarian. Because Hungarian lacks gender-specific personal pronouns and grammatical gender, the student might, for years, encounter trouble deciphering whether the person being spoken about is male or female. Translators from Hungarian can also fall into a switch reference trap: a switch reference is a clarification of which third person is being referred to. In a conversation between a man and a woman, for instance, a sudden reference to ‘a férfi’ should be translated as ‘he’, not ‘the man’.

Disznótor brought Virginia Woolf to mind, in terms of the purposely difficult text in which everything is shown and nothing is told. The density of the text is partly due to the novel’s structure: events over the course of one day are narrated by means of seventeen interior monologues. The 1965 translation by Kathleen Szasz, Night of the Pig-killing, tackles the problem of whether and how to translate given names in a rather uneven way, by assigning acceptable (Sándor becomes Alex, Geréné is Mrs Gere) or frankly weird (János becomes Jonas, Anti becomes Tóni, and Imre becomes, inexplicably, Péter) ‘equivalents’. Where reference tracking occurs at a much later stage in the original, however, the translator clarifies identity and gender as early as possible; moreover, the identities of the narrator and subject are frequently, and, one assumes, deliberately unknown. Szabó very occasionally assists the reader by highlighting emphasis one would pick up from speech:

Paula felhívta az iskolában, bejelentette, hogy valami gyűlés van, tovább bent kell maradnia. Ha éhes, kérje el Andreától a vacsoráját, és Szalayt okvetlenül meg kell hívni a disznótorra, ő szóljon neki.

The translator must use his/her knowledge of the entire text, not to mention his/her wits, to clarify who has to stay, and who is hungry, whereas who must invite Szalay to the pig-killing is marked by the author.

Paula telephoned him at school, saying she had to attend some sort of meeting and would have to stay late. If he got hungry he could ask Andrea to give him his dinner. Yes, Szalay had still to be invited to the pig-killing, he had better speak to him.

From the opening lines of the chapter entitled ‘Sándor’, the translator pads out the sparse text and provides no less than three masculine personal pronouns for a sentence that contains none in the original:

Délutános volt, de felkelt jókor, nem szeretett heverni.

He worked the afternoon shift but he got up early, because he didn’t like to idle in bed.

An English-language translation will require reference tracking by means of personal pronouns, but also references to events alluded to elsewhere in the text. Szabó can switch the subject from sentence to sentence:

Hát sose lesz már nyugalom odabenn?
Először hol sír, hol nevet a néni, aztán ajtócsapkodás, szaladgálás, beveszi magát a fürdőbe, hányik. Kiment a hátsó szobába, hogy ne hallja a hangot, nem mintha ő is felémelyednék tőle, csak hát jó az ilyet még hallani sem.

Will she never be quiet in there?
First the old woman laughs and cries, then doors slam, running footsteps sound, and she shuts herself up in the bathroom and vomits. Mrs Gere drew back into the inner room so as not to hear her; not that it affected her in any way.

It is up to the translator how much s/he leaves the reader in the dark, to do the work themselves. Disznótor, a goldmine of stylised ambiguity, and a challenge to the most ambitious translator, is, at present, best enjoyed in the original.

Further reading: a short article marking Szabó’s 88th birthday, in which János Háy describes Szabó as ‘like rock ’n’ roll: intense, radical and smashing’, and Szabó’s (1917-2007) obituary in the Guardian.