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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.)