I recently had the opportunity to engage poet and translator George Szirtes in a dialogue about the art of translation and discuss with him the effect that immersing oneself in another language (and mode of thought) has had on his own art. The germ for this interview sprang from a brief dialogue that we had on one of the comment-threads posted on George’s wall. I mentioned not really trusting translations, saying something naïve about the experience of reading a translation as being similar to reading through a foggy mirror.
George handled this bald statement with his usual aplomb, drawing my attention to the other half of his career and pointing me towards his translation of Gyula Krúdy’s The Adventures of Sindbad. I read the book, and loved it (the gently humorous, melancholic stories read like the product of a single mind, without the blurred double-vision I had experienced in the work of lesser men). And so, with the encouragement of Daniel Medin, we embarked on this discussion through the auspices of Facebook’s chat function.
Bethany W. Pope: I will get the most obvious questions out of the way first. How did you begin making translations? What first attracted you to the art? What is the biggest challenge?
George Szirtes: I returned to Hungary for the first time in 1984. There had been a brief, curtailed family visit in 1968 when the invasion of Czechoslovakia sent us scurrying out. By 1984 I had written three books of poetry in English that had been well received, and, in the course of writing the third, I felt ever more strongly that I should return to Hungary because there was something important there I had to make contact with in order to continue. So I applied for the first, and possibly last, time in my life, for a travel grant to Hungary and got it from the Arts Council. It was just for three weeks at Easter (I was teaching in schools at the time and had to tie it in with the holidays.)
I must add that I spoke little Hungarian at the time, not having spoken it for twenty eight years, but could understand a reasonable amount. The trip had no connection with translation, but I was greeted by a delegation from PEN and on the last day there I gave a reading at the house of the British Council representative that was attended by a good number of Hungarian writers and editors, one of whom asked me if I was willing to translate a few poems by Dezsö Kosztolányi.
I was so disorientated and delighted with the whole three-week visit—I knew it was a life-changing experience—that I said yes. I would have said yes to anything at that moment. The editor was a marvellous man who is still a friend. The poems were technically demanding and I was given literal translations and notes for them.
That is how it began. Everything else followed, including the 19th century classic verse-play, Imre Madách’s The Tragedy of Man. Fiction came a little later.
B.W.P: Which is more important to you, the literal word-for-word translation of the text or reconstructing the atmosphere of the piece?
G.S: There is no such thing as a literal word-for-word translation, at least not one that will sound anything like literature. There is however a difference between that impossibility and the other, the full rendering of meaning in terms of atmosphere or anything else. In translating you are entering a world with rules and manners that have meanings (plural) for the native reader. You are trying to understand some aspect of those meanings and to transplant it into the receiving language using any means possible, which will include a degree of lexicographical fidelity as long as it works.
B.W.P: In your translation of Gyula Krúdy’s The Adventures of Sindbad I noticed that the atmosphere of the piece—that slightly humorous melancholy—had a lot in common with the tone and atmosphere of your own work, most recently found in your tweets about the ageless crustacean doctor and his lobsteresque paramour. How much influence does translation have on your own work?
G.S: Sindbad was a pleasure to translate because I felt I understood Krudy’s world as soon as I entered it. There may be a difference between the person who is primarily a translator and the one who is primarily a writer who translates. The two may overlap, and there are translators who become writers in the act of translating. For me it was a writerly recognition. Krudy’s Hungary was not my Hungary, not by a long chalk, but it was a real world, particularly in the minds of close friends. The humorous melancholy in Krudy is, as I discovered, an aspect of my own imagination, one that working on Sindbad brought to light. It is possible to hope that any engagement in translation will bring out some latent possibility in the writer-translator.
The Adventures of Sindbad was the second work of fiction I translated (the first was Anna Édes by Kosztolanyi) but by that time I had translated a good many poems and the verse-tragedy. Sindbad came along at the right time. I think my imagination was ready for it, ready, that is, to render it into English but also to feel it as a voice that might be adapted to my own. Most of my translations have been a kind of enrichment of voice. I have learned a great deal from them.
I should add that the longer poems I wrote as a result of my first 1984 visit, that constituted the backbone of the resulting book, The Photographer in Winter (1986) are not at all Sindbad like. They are darker, heavier, more cavernous things.
B.W.P: Translation seems to me like something very similar to what I do when I write in the person of my ancestors. In my collection A Radiance, I wore their psyches as a way of inhabiting the people I love and bringing them closer. Has the fact that you were forced out of Hungary influenced your need to reconnect with your heritage in this way, and is that what you are doing when you engage in an act of translation?
G.S: It wasn’t so much the language I was reconnecting with back then as with a spirit of place that was, I felt, latent but unembodied in my own work. That is a more precise way of putting it than I felt at the time. The language was in the place. Since then I think it is likely that the language itself has reoccupied part of my neural system.
My ancestors are an absence. I never knew any of them as people and have no record of them in terms of documents. Two or three photographs, that’s all. I have no dynastic sense except in that I am of a race of people that have generally been chased from place to place and are occasionally murdered, which equips one with a vulnerability based on expectation. Krudy didn’t have that problem. He had a Hungarian version of it: the evanescence of location.
B.W.P: How has living and working so long in the UK influenced your take on Hungarian culture? I was wondering if existing for such a long time outside of it made it easier or more difficult to connect with the writers with whom you work?
G.S: I really only know Budapest culture at first hand. Capitals are not the same as the provinces. Budapest offered so many possibilities. There was a democratic resistance there before 1989 that was intelligent, deeply read, ironic, inventive, affectionate yet brusque. I think that culture has turned out to be more brittle than I thought it would be, but I could be wrong. In terms of their relationship to me, they were welcoming of me, but my nine months there in 1989, under the historical pressure of that year, showed me I could not be of them. In terms of my working relationship to them, they have given me far more than I could have hoped for. My “real” life is in my immediate family and in the English language. They have enriched that language for me, by entering it with me. They have expanded me. There’s nothing difficult about working with them.
B.W.P: Do you prefer to work with poets who are living or poets who have already died? I know that Dezsö Kosztolányi’s work was offered to you, but how do you decide which authors you will work with?
G.S: Of the poets I have translated, the living and the 20th century easily outnumber the past. All my individual volume Hungarian poets were alive when I translated them (though all but one are dead now), as to the others, many continue to be happily alive. In terms of fiction I do what I am asked to do, that’s if I want to do it. Both Krasznahorkai and Yudit Kiss—my most recent authors—are alive. The rest were modern classics that I took on commission. They needed translating as they had not been translated before. It’s a big, rich, unexplored field in terms of the English language.
B.W.P: Have you ever had difficulty connecting with an author whose work you are translating? If so, do you find that the difference in styles affects your ability to do the work?
G.S: There is a more strident tone in some schools of Hungarian poetry that are difficult to render into English without sounding bombastic. Maybe if the translation were freer, then it might be possible but the poems are usually those appearing for the first time in English and I can’t take them over to the degree they might need to be. It may be just me, of course. I may not have that voice in my locker. But I suspect it is English at large that is the true problem. Think of it as music that sounds a bit heavy or sentimental to us, but might sound right in its own cultural context. In a nutshell: I can’t translate everyone.
B.W.P: What was the biggest effect that the fall of communism and the rise of the Third Republic had on Hungarian writing? What about on your own work?
G.S: That moment is still working itself out. The voices of those writing before that time are not utterly changed. I edited an anthology of post-1989 poetry from Hungary for Arc, New Order which was an attempt to answer that question for myself. What that seemed to say was that poetry had moved closer to the personal lyric on the one hand, and that it was still possible to establish a public space for satirical song on the other. Virág Erdös is a successful example of the latter.
Recent political changes in Hungary have been very unsettling. It looks to me like a violent shift rightward towards authoritarianism and fascism, a distinctly ’30s revival, something rather barbaric. I have tended to comment on this in prose—in this respect I am an outsider.
B.W.P: Is there anything that you think that readers should know about your work that I have not covered?
G.S: In terms of translation it might be worth saying that there are very few good literary translators out of the Hungarian into English. To count them on the fingers of two hands worldwide would be generous. And yet there is a great deal of outstanding Hungarian writing, historical, modern and contemporary that is well worth translating. That imposes an obligation to continue the work, though my determination now is to translate just one contemporary author of fiction, László Krasznahorkai. I would like to carry on translating poetry though, because there are even fewer people who can do that.
George Szirtes is a Hungarian-born English poet and translator. He received the T. S. Eliot Prize for Reel (2004), and his latest collection is Bad Machine (2013). Bethany W. Pope is an award-winning author of the LBA, and a finalist for the Faulkner-Wisdom Awards. Her first poetry collection, A Radiance was published by Cultured Llama Press in June.
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