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.)

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