Hard-boiled translation

– Megvan a kés!
– Hol?
– A hátamban.

Jenő Rejtő, Piszkos Fred, a kapitány

We discussed ways in which a literary language might grow through translation, with reference to translations of hard-boiled fiction by Dashiell Hammett, Ross Macdonald, Chuck Palahniuk and others. Unsentimental narratives of violence and sleuthing can pose many an enjoyable problem for the translator. This excerpt is from Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest (1929):

While we were talking about it, plain-clothes men brought in the red-faced bird who had stopped the slug I had missed Whisper with.

Translated into Hungarian almost fifty years later by László Szíjgyártó as Véres aratás (diluting ‘red’ into ‘bloody’ harvest), the passage reads as follows:

Még erről beszélgettünk, amikor két civil ruhás zsaru behozta a vörös képű fickót, akiben megakadt a Suttogónak szánt golyóm.

The translator’s way of dealing with a subject who had stopped a bullet intended for someone else was rather neat. Elements of the poetic came into play elsewhere:

If he was my man, it was a fair bet he wasn’t armed. I played it that way, moving straight up the slimy middle of the alley, looking into shadows with eyes, ears and nose.

The translator makes best of use of the tools available, and will stretch the language where s/he can:

Fogadni mertem volna, hogy ha csak ugyan az én emberem, akkor nincs nála fegyver. Ezért aztán habozás nélkül a csúszós mellékutca közepén rohantam előre, belelesve, belefülelve, beleszimatolva a sötétségbe.

Similarly, Ross Macdonald’s 1956 novel The Barbarous Coast, translated in 1990 as A barbár part by Károly Ross, throws up a number of cultural references which may require explanation, or be ignored:

We climbed the steps to Mrs Lamb’s back porch, and I knocked on the rusty screen door. A heavy-bodied old woman in a wrapper opened the inside door. She had a pleasantly ugly bulldog face and a hennaed head, brash orange in the sun. An anti-wrinkle patch between her eyebrows gave her an air of calm eccentricity.

Ross translates:

Fölmentünk Mrs Lamb hátsó verandájára, s bekopogtam a rozsdásodó zsaluajtón. Egy pongyolát viselő, termetes, idős asszony nyitotta ki a belső ajtót. Kellemesen csúnya a buldogarca s vörösre festett haja volt, amely inkább narancsszínűnek látszott a napsütésben. A szemöldöke között lévő ráncosdás elleni tapasz egyfajta szolid különcséget kölcsönzött az arcának.

In translation, metaphor may become simile. The Barbarous Coast again:

He lay exhausted by his incredible leap from nowhere into the sun.

Úgy hevert, mint aki kimerített a hatalmas ugrás a semmiből a fénybe.

Excerpts from Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club (1996) revealed a combination of experimentation with straightforward error:

The moment Marla is out the door, Tyler appears back in the room. Fast as a magic trick. My parents did this magic act for five years.

From Attila Varró’s 2000 translation Harcosok klubja:

Amint Maria kiteszi a lábát, Tyler felbukkan a konyhaajtóban. A Nagy Illuzionista. Akár az apám, életem első hat évében.

Aside from the choices all translators must make, which are open to discussion, error usually comes about, we concluded, when the translator is tired.

We ended the discussion looking at György Dragomán’s masterful 2005 translation of Samuel Beckett’s Watt (1953), on which Dragomán is writing his doctoral thesis:

Form and content are not easily separated, each can and must be explained away in terms of the other, but the circularity of the argument will be closer to the insane attitude of endless investigation celebrated in the novel than to the ordinary world of logic and reason.

The full article is available in English, the Hungarian afterword to his translation is here.

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