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 prae.hu.

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