Author Archives: FriCi

Book launch, 22 May: Gwen Jones, Chicago of the Balkans

The evening of Wednesday 22 May is the book launch for Gwen Jones’s Chicago of the Balkans: Budapest in Hungarian Literature 1900-1939 (Oxford: Legenda, 2013) at UCL-SSEES, co-hosted with the UCL Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies. Gwen will be in conversation with Professor Ádám Nádasdy (ELTE) about the book and Budapest literature in general.



The ‘Chicago of the Balkans’ of the title comes from an essay by Lajos Hatvany, ‘Magyar irodalom a külföld előtt’ [Hungarian Literature Through Foreign Eyes], published in Nyugat in 1910. Introducing an imaginary foreign reader to Hungarian history and culture, Hatvany writes:

Ez a szó: Magyarország — eleve és utólag valami korcsmában látott maszatos olajnyomat bizonytalan képzetét kelti. Sivár pusztai tájon tekintélyes nyáj legelész az ösztövér gémeskút körül, — a magyar költő ezt óriási szúnyoghoz hasonlítja, amely az öreg föld vérét szívja ki, kócos-lompos birkabőr-subákba burkolózott parasztok is állnak ott, nagy pipákból pöfékelők, — az egész kép megmártva vöröses alkonyi fényben. […] Magyarország 1867 óta kezdetleges földművelő népből magasabb rendűvé emelkedett, — a közgazdasági gyarapodás, haladás korszaka ez. Ez korszaka az ország európ… az amerikaiasodásának ideje. Budapest a Balkán Chicagójává lesz.

[This word — Hungary — summons up, in advance and subsequently, the uncertain idea of a greasy oil print seen in some tavern. A sizeable herd grazes on bleak plains around the lean shadoof, which the Hungarian poet compares to a huge mosquito sucking out the blood of the old land, while peasants wrapped in unkempt, shaggy sheepskin coats also stand there, puffing on great pipes, and the whole picture is steeped in a reddish twilight. […] Since 1867, Hungary has risen from a rudimentary agricultural people to a higher rank: this is the era of economic growth and progress. This era is the time of the country’s Europ… its Americanization. Budapest will become the Chicago of the Balkans.]

The ‘Chicago of the Balkans’ is not a reference to Al Capone and friends, or even the jazz era of the 1920s, but to Budapest’s rapid expansion and building boom in the last decades of the nineteenth century (for instance, outer Erzsébetváros in Pest was nicknamed ‘Csikágó’ in the 1890s), while most other parts of the country, not to mention the prevailing conservative mentality, in Hatvany’s eyes, remained provincial and backward.

The book spans both the late liberal Habsburg era Budapest, and post-liberal, post-Trianon Budapest, the capital of a much smaller and more homogenous country, and illustrates how discussions of the ‘Jewish Question’ became inseparable from political struggles for the capital city and its culture over a period of four decades. Works by writers from a wide variety of backgrounds are discussed, from Jewish satirists to icons of the radical Right, representatives of conservative national schools, and modernist, avant-garde and ‘peasantist’ authors.

Venue: UCL-SSEES, Masaryk Senior Common Room, 4th floor, 16 Taviton Street, London WC1H 0BW

Time: 6 pm

Weöres translation workshop, 22 May

On Wednesday 22 May, UCL-SSEES is hosting a one-day knowledge exchange workshop to mark the centenary of Sándor Weöres’s birth, entitled Translation in the light (or shadow?) of language, culture and politics [poster pdf]. The event is co-organised by the Centre for Language-Based Area Studies at UCL-SSEES, the Balassi Institute Hungarian Cultural Centre London, and the University of Glasgow Centre for Russian, Central and East European Studies.

weöres tollalVenue: Masaryk Senior Common Room, 4th floor, 16 Taviton Street, London WC1H 0BW

Time: 10 am – 5 pm (registration from 9.30 am)

The work and legacy of Sándor Weöres (1913-1989), one of Hungary’s most influential twentieth-century poets, provide an exceptionally intriguing starting point for discussing the possibilities of translation in its most challenging form, the translation of poetic texts, which, in turn, also challenges the notion and the possibility of translation itself.

Labelled ‘formalist’ in Socialist Hungary, Weöres was banned from publication in the 1950s. Like many similarly sidelined poets, the only way he could see his work appear in print was through translations of literary works during these years of relative silence. He not only translated from Russian, French, Italian, English, and Chinese – often taking a rough translation of the source text as a starting point – but in his poetry he also explored such diverse areas as Eastern philosophy, Polynesian and classical European myths, early modern Hungarian literature, and children’s nursery rhymes. Following his Europe-wide recognition, which included two public readings in London (1966 and 1980) and in New York and Washington, D.C. in 1977, his works have been translated into a variety of languages, including English, French, and Russian.

The first part of the workshop will address Weöres’s work and legacy, as well as broader issues related to the difficulty of translating poetry.

10.15-11.45 Discussing Weöres in translation: George Gömöri, Zsuzsa Varga and Eszter Tarsoly.

12.00-13.30 Discussing translation in Weöres: Ádám Nádasdy, Daniel Abondolo, Philip Barker and Ágnes Lehóczky.

The afternoon will feature a panel discussion between publishers on the commercial, cultural and political considerations that play a part in the commissioning of translations, followed by a translation workshop.

14.30-16.00 Joana Zgadzaj (Stork Press), Susan Kojakovic-Curtis (Istros Books), Clive Boutle (Francis Boutle), and Mike Tate (Jantar Publishing).

16.15-16.45 Hands-on translation workshop

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

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.)

Panel discussion on the ‘revolution of the voting booths’

I might be a booth, but this is not my revolution!

Almost forty people attended the panel discussion on 8 March 2012 on the ‘revolution of the voting booths’, its historical precedents and impact. At the April 2010 general elections, Fidesz won 53% of the vote, which translated into 68% of seats, a parliamentary supermajority that has allowed the Fidesz-Christian Democratic Peoples’ Party (KDNP) government to initiate an intensive and controversial programme of constitutional, electoral, media, educational and countless other reforms. Given the revolutionary talk of ‘twenty years for twenty years’, we wanted to address the state of current affairs in Hungary, and ask the following questions:

How might historical precedents help us understand the ‘revolution of the voting booths’?

How has constitutional reform been framed in the light of ‘unfinished business’ from 1989?

How is political polarisation reflected in the Hungarian media landscape?

Given the increasing frequency of mass demonstrations, what are the opportunities for building consensus?

Professor Martyn Rady presented a historical appreciation of Hungarian legal culture. Addressing Fidesz MEP (and former UCL-SSEES Jean Monnet Professor of Politics) George Schöpflin’s notion of the discursive deficit, Martyn laid out the four sources of law (custom, juristic opinion, judicial decision and legislative acts) and their relevance in the Hungarian context. While the influence of custom was minimal, and juristic opinion had provided vital definitive statements of law from the sixteenth century until the Communist era, judicial activism—known as case law in the UK—played a minor role, with the exception of the first decade of the Constitutional Court’s activity after 1990. The fourth source, legislative act, was originally imported in the nineteenth century from German legal practice, and was used during the Communist era to regulate the interstitial space between public and private by means of both parliamentary statue and government decree. It was this tradition that provided the primary legal inheritance in 1990, a combination of statue and regulation via ministerial or governmental decree.

Dr Tom Lorman considered the ideological roots of the current government which have been described by some critics as a straightforward continuation of the interwar Horthy era model. Instead, Fidesz had weeded pre-World War II history for non-controversial figures such as Kálmán Széll (after whom a 2011 plan to lower sovereign debt was named, and after whom Moscow Square in Buda has been renamed), in order to present a version of Hungarian history that posits Fidesz as the embodiment of a rightist Hungary, and the sole heir of 1956 and 1989. Second, Tom argued that elements of the interwar népi intellectual movement were mobilised by Fidesz in its search for ‘Hungarian’ solutions that tapped into recurring hostility to (alien) elites. Accordingly, ‘us’ and ‘them’ are defined, and the left’s electoral successes of 1994, 2002 and 2006 are explained with reference to the survival of a network that undermines attempts at true reform. Finally, the problem of the weak state after 1989 was to be solved by bringing, in Orbán’s words, the post-Communist era to a definitive end.

Freelance journalist Vali Tóth outlined how questions of media ownership, political influence and content differed in Hungary and the UK. Political polarisation was reinforced by consumers relying only on sources that confirmed their existing beliefs and prejudices, an issue by no means limited to Hungary (and raised by well-known non-Hungarian George Clooney after the 2005 release of his second directorial feature, ‘Good Night, and Good Luck’: ‘you find yourself going to the place that plays to what your political and social agenda or beliefs are’). However, where a ‘winner takes all’ attitude to democracy allowed all incoming governments to staff institutions with their own personnel, the lack of professional continuity was compounded by a lack of dialogue between the two sides and their respective media outlets.

The discussion that followed was constructive and amiable, precisely what we were aiming for, since we felt representatives of the ‘two sides’ (pro- and anti-Fidesz) slugging it out all evening would be neither productive nor enjoyable. Panellists responded to questions on economic restructuring (or lack thereof) and German and Austrian banks’ exposure in Hungary, media protests, the role of intellectuals, activism among the young and right-leaning university students, changes to the electoral law and dual citizenship reforms, the macho nature of Hungarian politics, Fidesz’s competition with Jobbik for the radical right vote, and the broader ideological project Fidesz intends to carry out regardless of EU infringement procedures or the withholding of cohesion funds.

Wondering about what the ‘two sides’ might have in common, I asked for a show of hands of those who believed that there are indeed two Hungaries, with which over half the audience agreed. Whether the concept of ‘two Hungaries’ explains or entrenches the state of current affairs will be a subject for future discussion. It was agreed there was only one Hungary in 1956, and again in 1989, which would underscore the value of revolutionary rhetoric and (re-)definition of the Hungarian nation as a revolutionary work in progress.

The event was hosted by the UCL-SSEES Centre for the Study of Central Europe and opened by its director, Dr Richard Butterwick.

‘Vortex’ screening and discussion

Around thirty people joined us on 7 March to watch ‘Vortex’ (Örvény), a 2010 documentary (trailer), and discuss the issues the film raises with its creative producer and co-director, John Oates.

‘Vortex’ was shot by John Oates and Csaba Szekeres over a six-month period in the village of Told (population c. 350) in Bihar County, and follows the lives of three Roma families struggling with extreme poverty, substandard housing, acute health problems, intimidation by loan sharks and the threat of children being taken into care. The vortex of the title is described by one of the overworked and under-resourced social workers as a vicious circle whereby all attempts at improvement (or escape) are frustrated by the social environment, habit, and life in general; another villager repeats ‘nincs kiút’ (there’s no way out).

John spoke of the ethical issues involved in making the film, its reception in Hungary and the complex processes of building up trust with the villagers. Discussion turned to the problem of language as barrier rather than bridge, referring to the scene in which communication breaks down between a health worker and the mother of a four-year-old child who had not yet developed speech, family bonds, the art workshops for Roma children run by Nóra L. Ritók, who also appears in the film (Nóra’s blog is here), and the work of Biztos Kezdet, a programme based on Sure Start (UK).

Co-director Csaba Szekeres defines the essence of the film as follows: ‘Faces, human fates, decisions that seem inexplicable and the depths of hopelessness. Through the screen, we come so close to these people whose fates will make all of us think, and compel us to act. Only then does the question arise: but what can we do? What must we do?’ These are the questions the film poses. Further reviews of the film (in Hungarian) are available here and here.

The event was kindly hosted by the UCL-SSEES Centre for the Study of Central Europe.

Discussion on contemporary Hungarian politics, Thursday 8 March 2012

Centre for the Study of Central Europe, UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies

Thursday 8 March 2012, 6-8 pm, Room 431, 16 Taviton Street

 Informal discussion on contemporary Hungarian politics

Since Fidesz won the general elections in 2010 and proclaimed a ‘revolution of the voting booths’, the Hungarian government and its far-reaching reforms have attracted a great deal of critical attention, both domestic and international.

This informal discussion for students and staff at SSEES addresses the recent constitutional, electoral and media reforms, and the controversies surrounding them, and asks the following:

How might historical precedents help us understand the ‘revolution of the voting booths’?

How has constitutional reform been framed in the light of ‘unfinished business’ from 1989?

How is political polarisation reflected in the Hungarian media landscape?

Given the increasing frequency of mass demonstrations, what are the opportunities for building consensus?

Please confirm your interest in attending this event by writing to e.tarsoly[at] or hungarian.studies[at]

Speakers: Dr Tom Lorman, UCL-SSEES, Prof. Martyn Rady, UCL-SSEES, Vali Tóth, Hungarian Radio correspondent

Chair: Dr Gwen Jones

Screening of ‘Vortex’, Wednesday 7 March 2012

Centre for the Study of Central Europe, UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies

Wednesday 7 March 2012 at 4pm, Room 432, 16 Taviton Street, London WC1H 0BW


A production by the Hunnia FilmStudio and the Open University

Presented by co-director John Oates

John Oates is a researcher in early childhood development and a Senior Lecturer at the Child and Youth Studies Group with the Department of Education and Language Studies at the Open University. In 2009 he co-directed the social documentary feature film Vortex (Örvény) with Hungarian documentary film director Csaba Szekeres. Filmed over a period of six months, the film shows the lives of Roma families in a small village in Hajdú-Bihar county, Eastern Hungary, near the Romanian border. Unemployment is close to 100% in this community, and the isolation, poverty, and discrimination against the Roma create a situation in which families find it hard to live decent lives. The film focuses on the experiences of three families, following the various hardships and setbacks they faced over the period of filming and beyond.

The screening of the 76-minute film will be followed by a discussion with the director and wine reception.

Please confirm your interest in attending this event with Eszter Tarsoly: e.tarsoly[at]

Further links:

A short OU news article about the award-winning film, and another on the OU’s first documentary film premiered in the UK at Amnesty International.

Entry at the documentary page.

The film trailer on youtube.

Friday Circle 2.0 in 2012

The old website is gone, although highlights will be available soon.

The site was originally set up in 2006 to document discussions, seminars and other events held by and for teachers and students of Hungarian literature and culture in London, and details of our activities in 2012 will be posted here shortly.

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.

Translation seminar with Len Rix

On Thursday 27 March, we once again had the pleasure of Len Rix’s company, this time discussing his translations of Antal Szerb, Utas és holdvilág, 1937 (Journey by Moonlight, Pushkin, 2000), Magda Szabó, Az ajtó, 1987 (The Door, Vintage, 2005), and his article ‘In Praise of Translation’, recently published in the Hungarian Quarterly.

Len described the two novels as personal, quasi-autobiographical works, both dealing with an exploration of the religious mentality, where core personal tragedy is sublimated. Szerb’s brutal self-dissection relies on form and parallelism but, in contrast to Szabó, is somewhat tempered by his heterodox Catholicism. The novel moves between different perspectives using narrative voice to scrutinise bourgeois conformity and façades. Szabó, however, puts her Protestant guilt ‘out there’ for all to examine, and is far more puritanical and judgemental, to the extent that the text is over-charged, and occasionally vulgar. There are very few shades of grace here.

Both texts condense the whole novel in the first chapter, which we read and discussed in the original, draft and final translation. Particular challenges for the translator included the ubiquitous ‘még’ and ‘már’, the countless roles played by ‘is’, rhythm and syntax, and rhetoric.

Regarding the faithfulness and the translation of Hungarian literature, while an older generation of Hungarians in the West see it as their duty to ‘protect’ Hungarian literature from translation and publishers continue to observe a cautious parochialism, successful translations have ‘lifted’ the literal text and made it accessible to an international audience. Here, sales figures speak for themselves.

It was a great pleasure to welcome Len as a guest, in particular for final-year BA students interested in pursuing translation as a career.

Roundtable discussion and exhibition at the centenary of Nyugat

On 11 December 2008, the Friday Circle convened a roundtable discussion and exhibition celebrating the centenary of literary journal Nyugat (West, 1908-41). Anniversary events in Hungary included a year-long exhibition at the Petőfi Literary Museum, numerous talks, lectures and public events, a Nyugat 100 bus that toured the country for six months with a mobile exhibition, and a number of important archive resources being made available online, from audio recordings of Nyugat authors reading their works, texts and graphics, to personal correspondence.

Our contribution was intended as a reflection on Hungarian literature, culture and translation at Nyugat’s centenary. To this end, we invited speakers and guests to a roundtable discussion at the University College London Wilkins Refectory, to discuss the anniversary and broader questions of Hungary’s contentious relationship to ‘the West’, over coffee and Hungarian patisserie.

Following a welcome from Dr Daniel Abondolo in the chair, Tim Wilkinson, translator (Imre Kertész, Péter Zilahy, a number of academic monographs on history and culture) and essayist, opened the roundtable. Noting that Nyugat was by no means a representative cross-section of Hungarian literature at the time, Tim introduced the notion of the literary canon in order to address its scope and validity. If a major writer such as Dezső Szomory had dropped out of Hungarian literary life, then the construction of the canon should be the subject of critical attention. Tim then presented figures from the Nyugat era and from the past fifteen years, on the number of translations of Hungarian literature published, their authors (living or dead) and translators, observing that no great progress had been made in terms of quantity. Although the ‘free adaptations’ of Mór Jókai’s novels had a contemporary equivalent in popular translations of questionable quality, the translator can today choose from a wide range of excellent authors and works.

Len Rix, translator of Antal Szerb, Magda Szabó, and others, continued with the theme of difficulty in finding and navigating Hungarian literature in translation. He stated his aim as a translator, to acquaint English-speaking readers with Hungarian literature, and then introduced a discussion of the foibles of the publishing industry. Publishers are timid, translators do not receive royalties, and editors might insist on ‘no adverbs’. For Hungarian literature to move from the margins into the mainstream, it needs translations that will catch on, and intelligent marketing expertise. In conclusion, Len rephrased Tim’s observation that the books would then have no difficulty selling themselves.

Dr Zsuzsanna Varga of the Centre for Russian, Central and East European Studies at the University of Glasgow, presented her work in progress: a searchable database of Hungarian Literature in English translation, 1969-2007. The database lists works of fiction, drama, and lyrical poetry, the best known and most widely translated genre of Hungarian literature, and focuses mainly on texts published in the UK and in Hungary. It includes monograph-length translations of Hungarian fiction, individual poets’ volumes, the contents of historical and thematic anthologies of poetry and short fiction, as well as many periodical items. The database included, at the time of Zsuzsa’s presentation, almost 3,500 titles.

Informal discussion broadened out to include Hungary’s view of ‘the West’ as superego, Nyugat as a ‘rainbow coalition’ of writers who didn’t agree on much, translation anthologies, the establishment of an East European film network at Sheffield Hallam University, and a selection of photographs and images from Nyugat.

The accompanying exhibition held in the School of Slavonic and East European Studies Library presented a selection of original journals, first editions and newspapers from the Library’s rich collection. Original and facsimile issues of Nyugat from 1908 to 1939 were on display, together with accompanying notes highlighting the early Secession aesthetic, the breadth of subjects addressed by contributors, and the diverse authors and works discussed in ‘Figyelő’, the reviews section, the austerity and pacifist controversies of First World War issues, as well as personality clashes, and changing editorial styles and staff, such as that imposed by the Second anti-Jewish Law in 1939, towards the end of the journal’s existence. Debates on aesthetics and ethics could be followed in the context of social and political upheavals over the first half of the twentieth century. Visitors could peruse newspapers from the first years of the twentieth century, Nyugat’s peer and rival journals, and a small number of first editions. We highlighted graphics and illustrations throughout, from portrait photographs, caricatures and illustrations, for instance of a ‘modern’ bookshop in England in 1934, to maps, advertisements for shoe cream and personals. The exhibition notes can be viewed or downloaded in pdf format here.

A reception followed at the SSEES Masaryk Senior Common Room.

The co-convenors, Dr Gwen Jones and Eszter Tarsoly, would like to extend warm thanks to all those who took part, in particular SSEES library staff who suggested and organized the exhibition, and Jenny Rasell, for her assistance and enthusiasm on the day.

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.

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.

Translating János Háy, ‘Petőfi híd’, 2007

János Háy’s short prose piece ‘Petőfi híd’ (Petőfi bridge) is one of seven short stories named after Budapest bridges, published together in Házasságon innen és túl (Budapest, Palatinus, 2007). BA student Malcolm Lesley translated ‘Petőfi híd’ as part of a finalists’ language project on translation and translation criticism. Reading the original with Malcolm’s translation, we discussed questions of equivalence, the problematic notions of fidelity and transparency, and difficulties specific to the text. To begin with:

Csak a felszín locsogott, minden fület eltömített a hangja.

Malcolm translated Háy’s first sentence last, not least because of the nod to the opening stanzas of Attila József’s 1936 poem ‘A Dunánál’:

A rakodópart alsó kövén ültem,
néztem, hogy úszik el a dinnyehéj.
Alig hallottam, sorsomba merülten,
hogy fecseg a felszin, hallgat a mély.

All further allusions to ‘surface din’ in the translated Háy text then had to refer back to the opening sentence.

An old lady, overdressed on a warm spring day because neither her neighbour Mariska nor her children would be able to look after her if she fell ill, makes her way to the Danube. She engages in a mild bout of competitive morbidity with a woman ten years her junior and, having thought about how the noise might cover her pain, decides to make her way over to Buda. Going at her own pace, neither fast nor slow, she notices the handiwork of ‘delinquents’ (as they are called on TV), economics students she believes to be bankers, and sociology students she believes to be beggars, while traffic whizzes past. She is unable to see details on the other side of the river until she reaches the top of the Buda steps. Worried about the wind on bridges, she wonders how many people who passed her by, which reminds her of the time she lied to her husband about his terminal cancer. The old lady reaches the steps, takes in the scene, and slowly turns around, ‘like a lorry in a tight space’, to face the Pest side again:

Majd elmesélem, gondolta magában, majd elmesélem a Mariskának, hogy láttam ma Budát.

Malcolm’s translation:

I’ll tell her, she thought to herself, I’ll tell Mariska: today I saw Buda.

Malcolm felt that humour needed to be prominent in the English translation, otherwise the mortality, if not morbidity, of the original might threaten to overwhelm.

Ob-Ugric 12: Khanty (Tsingala)

The final class was spent looking at a text in a southern dialect of Khanty, Tsingala, on the heavenly origins of the bear. Western dialects of Khanty divide into North and South; Tsingala is related to Demjanka, Konda, and Krasnojarsk. These forms are probably no longer used.

The text was noted down in 1899 by Vasilii Yakovlevich from ‘two old folks’ in a village on the Irtysh, reproduced from E. Vértes (ed.), K. F. Karjalainens Südostjakische Textsammlungen I, Helsinki, Suomalais-Ugralainen Seura, MSFOu 157, pp. 113-5, and translated as ‘A medve égi származásárol’ in E. Vértes (ed.), Hadmenet, nászmenet. Irtisi osztják mesék és mondák, Budapest, Európa, 1975, pp. 5-6.

FlailingpawMan and TjaperwomanMother have a child, a bearcub whose bear-ness and sex are circumlocuted. The bear is let down from heaven on a metal chain by the Sevenridgebacked one, and looks for food in all seven lands (seven being sacred). Hungry, he raises his paws to Sanke father and asks for food; Sanke replies he should eat a brown horse, so he does. He digs himself a cave and goes into hibernation, and in spring his lair is discovered by a hunter’s dog. The hunter tells the bear: eat me if Sanke has intructed you to do so, but if not, I shall kill you, although of course killing a bear is the most taboo expression of all: ‘nuŋət ītə pājəŋ xǎttəŋ tūrəm pāɣəttam’, translated by Vertes into German as ‘so töte ich Dich’, and into Hungarian as ‘leszállítalak a véres alsó világba’.

The amount of repetition and parallelism (R&P) would suggest that the text is particularly archaic. Tsingala’s word order was pretty similar to Hungarian, while a number of lexical items were also familiar, including jāŋx (to go), which is also found in the Ómagyar Mária Siralom, and kət kittət (two hands), Cf. HU két kezet. The present tense marker, however, was -λ- (similar to the ‘ll’ in Welsh), while the past marker was -ø-.

The classes were fantastically rewarding and, having also served as an introduction to historical and comparative linguistics, enabled one to refute crackpot linguistic theories. On a broader cultural note, the origins of the Hungarian language will always be tied in with ideas of the origins (and therefore belonging) of the Hungarian people, to the extent that fantastic visions of the latter will inform the former. While the premises of the nineteenth-cenutry ugor-török háború may not have survived in tact, the desire and search for anchorage most certainly have. Nor might it might  do Russianists any harm either to acknowledge languages and cultures native to Russian territory.

Ob-Ugric 11: Khanty (Pim)

The second Khanty dialect we studied was an Eastern variant, Pim. The text is from László Honti, Chrestomathia Ostiacica, Budapest, 1984, pp. 166-7. It is the tale of a wife-hunt, one of the favourite activities in Uralic folk tales. Three women sing while they fish:

ěj kimλem räp-räp-räp, pä kimλem räp-räp-räp
egyik ruhaalj-am, rep-rep-rep, másik ruhaalj-am rep-rep-rep

They are noticed by a man:

ěj-λätnə måńť-konə ťě wär ŏjəγti
egy-kor-ban férfi-tól ez dolog észrevétetett

Like in the Mansi tale of the mouse, the object becomes seen to the viewer. The women return home to cook, and put death-cap mushrooms in the pot. The man watches as they become inebriated from eating the poisoned fish. The largest woman (ěnəλ păr-ne), a shoe-mender, sings:

pįkəm ńįrət jånttə ne, jånttə ne, jånttə ne
čăkəm ńįrət jånttə ne, jånttə ne, jånttə ne

szétrohadt cipő-k foltoz-ő nő,
tönkrement cipő-k foltoz-ó nő

The middle woman (kötəp păr-ne), a wood gatherer, sings:

jukəŋ äwi, jukəŋ ne,
jukəŋ äwi, jukəŋ ne

fá=s (= fából való) lány, fá=s nő

The third woman (koλəmət păr-ne), a roofer, sings:

jom-juγ tŏjnə λåjəγtam wuλəm,
pěťar-juγ tŏjnə λåjəγtam wuλəm

zelnice-fa tető-n lóg-vá-m lát-om [sc. magamat],
berkenye-fa tető-n lóg-vá-m lát-om

A storm lifts up the house and the women in it; the large woman ends up in the middle of the river, the middle woman ends up in a tree, and third woman is stuck to the roof by her plaits. Once the storm dies down, the man appears, and brings the large woman to the shore, sits the middle woman next to him, and extracts the third woman and her plaits from the roof. They take him into the house, where he marries the third woman, takes the middle woman as his seamstress, and the large woman as his wood-carrier.

The present tense marker is λ, whereas the past is unmarked, e.g.:

wĕ(j) (to take):

wĕ-ø-λ-ət vitték 1 direct object, 3rd person plural
wĕj-ø-təɣ-ø vitte 1 direct object, 3rd person singular
wĕj-ø-ø vitt 1 direct object, 3rd person singular


or wu (to see, find): wu-λ-λ-el (HU: látja); wu-λ-ø-əm (HU: látok).

måńť-ko-nə ťě wär ŏjəγt-i férfi-tól ez dolog észrevétetett by man this thing was noticed
pom-ət köt-nə tŏγə-jăγr-i hínár köz-ben bele-gabalyod-tat-ott by mid-reed-s she was entangled

Ob-Ugric 10: Khanty (Kazym)

Khanty (also known as Ostyak) is a complex chain of dialects spoken by people who live in a vast, roughly L-shaped area along the Ob, the lower Irtysh, and tributaries. According to the most recent fitures (1989 census), there are some 22,000 speakers of Khanty; of these, 62.9 per cent were native speakers (i.e. c. 14,000). Khanty speakers make up about 1 per cent of the population of the Khanty-Mansi Autonomous Okrug.

On both historic-phonological and syntactic-typological grounds, these may be broken into two major groupings, East v. West. The East group further subdivides into (1) the Far Eastern dialects Vach and Vasjugan, and (2) the Surgut group, which includes Jugan, Malij Jugan, Pim, Likrisovskoe, Tremjugan and Tromagan […]. The West group subdivides into North and South subgroups. Clearly southern are the Demjanka dialects and Konda, Cingali, and Krasnojarsk. Clearly northern are the Obdorsk dialect and the Berjozov subgroup, consisting of the Synja, Muzhi, and Shurikshar dialects, and, to the South, Kazym.

Daniel Abondolo, ‘Khanty’, in Abondolo (ed.), The Uralic Languages, Routledge, 2006, pp. 358-86 (358-9).

Photo: Janno Sim

Khanty consists of three main dialects, Northern, Southern and Eastern, each of which have many sub-dialects; the northern dialect is closer to northern Mansi than it is to other dialects of Khanty. Khanty-speakers are spread over a considerably larger area than Mansi, whose dialects are largely mutually intelligible. Because the Khanty are also much greater in number, and their dialects so different from each other one could, as Wolfgang Steinitz  (1905-67) did, dedicate oneself to Ostyakology and collect Khanty bear-feast songs; whereas the dearth of Mansi materials and speakers means that we cannot really speak of an -ology, although introducing oneself as a Vogulologist would be fun. Steinitz used Marij (also known as Cheremis, a Finno-Volgaic language spoken in today’s Mari Republic and along the Vjatka river basin as well as in Tatarstan, Udmurtia and Perm) and Ostyak in order to reconstruct Proto-Ugric, while the Fennic school focussed, as one would expect, on the reconstruction of Proto-Finnish. Together with Selkup and Estonian, Khanty is one of the most dialectically fragmented Uralic languages.

We studied Khanty texts from the three main dialects, each of which required their own grammar. Northern Khanty dialects have two or three cases, while Eastern variants can have up to sixteen, as well as some other unique linguistic features, such as ergativity. The voiceless lateral fricative λ, similar to the ll in Welsh, is found in northern and southern regions, but not in the central areas. Because the dialects are so disparate, no standardised version has ever emerged, and it seems that Russian is the lingua franca of Khanty speakers. Once again, transcription problems are myriad.

Continue reading

Ob-Ugric 9: Mansi (Tavda, cont.)

Our final Mansi sessions were spent studying a folktale in Tavda, a southern dialect which, before it died out in the 1920s, was probably the closest to Hungarian. Reflecting on his visit to the lower Tavda river area in 1894, Munkácsi initially assumed that Tavda was a separate language:

A Tavda folyó alvidékén csekély számban fönmaradt vogulok nyelve a vogul nyelvterület lenönállóbb s legsajátosabb része, mely első tekintetre olyan benyomással hat a figyelőre, mintha benne nem is egy tájbeszédnek, hanem az uráli ugor nyelvek egyik külön tagjának őriződött volna meg végső maradványa.

Bernát Munkácsi, A vogul nyelvjárások szóragozásukban ismertetve, Budapest, MTA, 1894, p. 244.

A mere forty pages of Tavda exist: texts collected by Munkácsi from the late 1880s onwards and, later, by Artturi Kannisto in the early 1900s (see Kannisto, ed. Matti Liimola, Wogulische Volksdichtung, 6 vols., Helsinki, 1951-63), which are collated (and treated as one dialect) by László Honti in System der paradigmatischen Suffixmorpheme des Wogulischen Dialektes an der Tawda, Budapest, 1975.

Although stress nearly always fell on the second syllable, Tavda had an accusative marker (-mee/-mii), and vowel harmony where front and back vowels largely corresponded with those in Hungarian:

Tavda N. Vogul Hungarian English
äämp āmp eb dog
käät kāt kéz/keze- hand


Its other cases are: lative, locative, ablative, instrumental, comitative, and translative. Tavda is paratactic, which means that there is no subordination in sentence formation, where words can be placed in any order. Some relics of parataxis (in other words, where there is no accusativity) still exist in Hungarian, such as háztűznézni, könyvolvasás, kézmosás. In terms of the text we studied, the verb system has a passive marker inserted before the durative or the past marker; an indicative and imperative mood (the latter only in the second person); and momentaneous and durative present tenses and one past tense. Like Hungarian, there is no definite/indefinite disctinction in the past tense. There are no definite forms in the passive, or in intransitive verb forms. Personal possessive suffixes may be familiar to speakers of Hungarian:

s1 -(ə)m/-aam p1 -(ə)w
s2 -(ə)n p2 -((ə))n)ää/-((ə)n)aa
s3 -iit’ii/-eet’ii p3 -ään/-aan


Some examples, in which the sequence of morphemes is the same in Tavda and Hungarian include: niim (HU: nőm); käätəmən (kezembe); torəm (torkom). Of course, Hungarian has long since developed European features on top of the Uralic characteristics, such as the definite article, and agreement between definite noun phrases and verb forms.

The text is the story of a hunter who, having killed and skinned a reindeer and put it in the pot, is astonished when a wind blows up, the pot tips over and the reindeer jumps out and flees. He goes to the nearest village and tells a man there he has seen a miracle, and recounts the tale. The listener, a ploughman, invites him to stand with him on the plough, while he relates an even more fantastic story: he once came home to find his wife in bed with another man, and when the woman hit him and commanded him to turn into a black dog, he turned into a black dog. The dog came across some ploughmen who, believing Torem had sent them a guard dog, gave him food while he guarded their dwellings for a week. The dog then guarded the dwelling of the landowner, whose wife bore him a son. The baby was stolen. She had another son, who was also stolen. When the third son was born, the dog stopped the thief by biting his leg, and was rewarded with bread and sugar, even a ribbon around his neck. One day, he set off hunting for rabbits with the landowner, but instead returned home to find his wife in bed with another man. She beat him, and commanded him to turn into a sparrow, which he did. He flew off and started eating oats with horses in a field, where he was caught by two children and taken to their home. Their father, the baby thief, whips him and commands him to become a man. He becomes a man. They feed him and, when he leaves, the old man presses a whip into his hand and tells him to go home, whip his wife and turn her into a mare, and to whip her lover and turn him into a stallion. He does just this. The narrator harnesses the mare and stallion to his plough, on which narrator and hunter are standing. The hunter says, now that is a miracle!

Lexical items of interest: the words for black dog (śarnəšk), sugar (sääkäär), bed (krawāť) and miracle (t’iwa) are from Russian (чорнышка, сахр, кровать, диво), while Tatar borrowings include tüs (hunting), pajtəl (mare), and sol (oats).

Although it would be misleading to say that Tavda is ‘easy’ or even remotely intelligible for Hungarian speakers, the text provided numerous ‘whoah!’ moments. Having studied Mansi now for a few months, this was plain sailing. The Hungarian morpheme-by-morpheme crib sheet provided was immediately understandable. The following original and Hungarian crib, in which the ploughman begins his story, will illustrate the beauties of Tavda (transcription simplified in the interest of legibility).

tü kom länt: “tiťi ńokor ťiwa?! äm ťiwa wāsəm. āləs äm niim,” länt. “äšnäl jisəm, niim māt kom jōrtəl krawāť ašt šänəwtäktiim koji. nii noƞläkətəs, ńärəmtəs tupiinək, šäwräpəwsəm päntä, läws: ālsən näw kom, iń sown šiiməl ämp!” äm sowsəm šiiməl ämpəw, künpāšəwsəm. äm kajtsəm.

Ez ember mond: “Emez milyen csoda?! ÉN csoda láttam. Volt én nőm,” mond, “munkából haza jöttem, nőm más férfival együtt ágyon ölelkezve fekszik. Nő felugrott, vett dorong, vágott féjjen, mondott: “Voltál most(ig) férfi, most válj fekete eb!” Én váltam fekete ebbé, kiűzettem. én futkároztam.

Károly Makk, Szerelem, 1971

On 2 November, students and teaching staff watched Károly Makk’s 1971 film Szerelem (Love), winner of the Jury Prize at the Cannes Film Festival that year, and arguably one of the greatest Central European films of all time. Two short stories by Tibor Déry (1896-1977) form the basis of Szerelem, for which Déry also wrote the screenplay. ‘Szerelem’, written in 1956, follows the encounter between B. and his wife, upon B.’s release from prison after a seven-year stretch. The reader observes B.’s hesitant reactions to life outside, as well as his anxiety about re-uniting with his wife, and seeing his son for the first time. ‘Két asszony’ portrays the tense but close relationship between Luca and her mother-in-law, an elderly lady of Austrian origin, now bedridden. Luca brings letters from János, her husband, and apparently a famous film director in the US, to the old lady who, while anticipating his return to Hungary, eagerly interweaves the details of her son’s fantastic life with her own memories. It is only after she dies, and in the last sentence, that we discover János is in prison.

At the age of 62, Déry was imprisoned in 1957 for his activities prior to and during the 1956 Uprising, and was released in 1960 in the first post-1956 amnesty, when he wrote ‘Két asszony’, based on the letters Déry’s wife wrote to his mother during his imprisonment. Like the old lady in Szerelem, Déry’s mother was of Austrian origin, and after he was allowed to publish again in 1962, he published their correspondence under the title Liebe Mutter! Younger followers of writers who, like Déry, were deemed polgári or individualista, also found it difficult to publish in the 1950s, and essentially stayed on the margins until the 1970s.

In an interview on the Second Run DVD of Szerelem, Makk recalls that when he told Déry in the early 1960s of his plans to combine the two stories into one film, Déry replied, ‘Te egy reménytelen csacsi fiú vagy, egy young angry man!’ The film could only be made after the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, which Makk describes as a decisive turn, at least in terms of cultural policy in Hungary. He also expands on the prison subtext: it was only once permission was finally given ‘from above’ that the studio director, who had served time inside with ‘culture dictator’ György Aczél, could accept the film. In the two weeks following its first screening, the wives of high-ranking commanders complained to their husbands for sitting on Szerelem until then, for they too had undergone the same distress while their men had been in prison: ‘a nők diadala is volt’ (Makk).

Makk gathered the inimitable ensemble of Lili Darvas as the elderly lady, Mari Törőcsik as Luca, and Iván Darvas as János; and chose János Tóth as cinematographer. Tóth’s method of blending past and present (in Makk’s words, ‘múlt és jelen külön is legyen, de együtt is szóljon’) was to use flashbacks which, as our guest Dr Cesar Ballaster noted, was a popular technique throughout the Eastern Bloc in the 1970s. Flashbacks demystify collective memory by means of individual memory, and introduce uncertainty as a counter to the monologic narratives of the Party-state. Such an emphasis on subjectivity, and the juxtaposition of shots reminiscent of black and white photographs, create a dreamlike, timeless quality which, as the old lady tires, becomes further and further removed from reality. Luca is fired from her teaching job because of her husband’s incarceration, while the old lady dreams of her son’s life in a French castle on the highest mountain in New York. After her death János, who has until now been present largely in his absence, is released from prison and returns to the flat, which his wife now shares with co-tenants.

When Szerelem was awarded the Cannes Jury Prize in 1971, one of the jurors apparently told Makk that although the film, and in particular the actors’ virtuoso performances, had greatly moved him, János’s incarceration required explanation, for it was highly unlikely that such an individual would have committed a serious crime. It is precisely the pointlessness of the prison sentence that constitutes one of the major narratives of the film: János’s release is never explained, neither to him, nor to the viewer. In the taxi on his way home, the driver asks, ‘Politikai?‘ , a question János need not answer.

Discussion included the ways in which cinema placed broader historical concerns within ensemble dramas of individual lives, beginning with Szerelem and continuing throughout the 70s and 80s, and whether the viewer can pinpoint the era depicted in the film. Our conclusion was that, despite the use of terms such as kitelepítés (forced relocation, usually from cities to the countryside) and társbérlők (co-tenants), which would suggest the early 1950s, one cannot say for certain that Szerelem was not a contemporaneous document of Hungary in the late 1960s. Indeed, the trauma suffered by the characters could easily have taken place at any point in the interwar years. In any case, Makk and Tóth’s deliberate transpositions of past and present undermine any attempts to tie the film to any specific point in time.

Further reading:

Déry Tibor, Szerelem és más elbészélések, Budapest, Szépirodalmi, 1963;

— ‘Szerelem’ in Irodalmi forgatókönyv. Filmkultúra, 3, 1967, 4, pp. 102-29.