01. 10. 2018. 08:31

A Double Interview on Translating Antal Szerb

Two exciting new translations of works by Antal Szerb have appeared recently: Peter Czipott's new translation of Journey by Moonlight for Alma Books and Peter Sherwood's translation of a selection of Szerb's literary essays, Reflections in the Library. Here, we're pleased to bring you a double interview with the two Peters, whom Mark Baczoni asked about the pleasures and challenges of translating Szerb, and the way these two new translations came about.

Peter Czipott, Journey by Moonlight already existed in an English translation by Len Rix, which did well for Pushkin. How did the idea to re-translate it come about?

Peter Czipott: The British publishing house, Alma Books, had published my co-translation (with John Ridland) of selected poems by Sándor Márai (The Withering World).  A few years later, Alessandro Gallenzi, Alma’s co-founder, emailed me to ask if I’d be interested in translating Antal Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight for its Evergreens series, which offers a large selection of high-quality English and translated classics at affordable prices.  I replied that of course, I’d be interested – but I wondered whether the market would support a third English version (after Peter Hargitai’s translation, first published by Püski-Corvin in the US in 1994 as The Traveler, and the Rix translation).  I had never read either one, but I’d enjoyed Rix’s translation of Szerb’s Oliver VII immensely.  Alessandro responded that although Rix’s translation had its merits, he believed that I would be able, as a native speaker of Hungarian, to capture the deeper nuances of the original and, as a native English speaker, to offer a vivid and accurate alternative version.  He asked me for a sample translation to compare to the Rix, and when I sent him my attempt a few weeks later, he Skyped me the next day in considerable excitement: he felt that my dialogue, in particular, was both more natural and more scintillating than Rix’s.  That led to a contract and eventual publication.

Peter [Sherwood], How did Reflections in the Library come together in the first place?

Peter Sherwood: 'Come together' is spot on! As I understand it, some years ago Professor Ágnes Péter (formerly head of the Department of English Studies at ELTE, Budapest) was at a conference in London on the reception of Byron on what we used to call 'the Continent', when she met Professor Elinor Shaffer, the well-known comparativist at the School of Advanced Study, University of London.  Here Ágnes discovered that Elinor was a great admirer of Szerb's novels in the fine translations of Len Rix.  When Elinor learnt from Ágnes how Szerb was at least as much loved in his homeland for his enormous range and readability as a literature scholar, the two distinguished ladies resolved to make a selection of Szerb's essays on European literature available in English.  I came into the picture as translator relatively late in the day, in the autumn of 2014.  Predictably, the funding of such a volume in our time presented almost insuperable problems, but when our 'lead editor', Dr Zsuzsanna Varga, began to apply her incomparable organisational and interpersonal skills to the project, the book truly began to turn into a reality: the observant reader will note that the logos of no less than five Hungarian bodies that supported the project can be found on the verso of the title-page, and there was some welcome UK backing, too. Thanks to Elinor, the volume has appeared in the prestigious Studies in Comparative Literature series of the Modern Humanities Research Association, published by its imprint, Legenda.  It was also Elinor who secured a foreword to the volume from the noted comparativist Professor Galin Tihanov. So the book is, not least, a fine example of collaboration between scholars – in this case five scholars – in the UK and Hungary.  I only hope it isn't a case of too many cooks...

The period of the volume's gestation was even longer than its title-page suggests: although that bears the date 2016, the book was not in fact available until March 2017.

How did you select the essays?

PS: I'm glad you asked me that... The person chiefly responsible for the selection was certainly Ágnes, whose 'wish list' we had, sadly, to winnow down, though to varying degrees Elinor (who could read the essays in András Horn's fine 2011 collection, Gedanken in der Bibliothek, from the Swiss publisher Schwabe) as well as I and Zsuzsanna also had some say. We were keen to show Szerb's unparalleled essayistic skills, in full spate in his pioneering piece on Blake, for example, as well as some of his brilliant vignettes, often drawn from his histories of European and world literature and demonstrating his ability to characterise an entire oeuvre in a few deft pages. We also wanted to ensure that the nineteenth as well as the twentieth century were represented, so that his profound interest in both the Romantics and Modernism could be on display.

As for Journey by Moonlight, Peter [Czipott] did you read Rix’s text before you started? Was it difficult to dissociate from it? Did you want to dissociate from it?

PC: I have not read either prior translation to this day, specifically to avoid the risk of even subconscious influence.  When it came time to edit what I had naively considered to be my final, polished text, Alma’s splendid editor, Christian Müller (who speaks no Hungarian) used the Rix translation as a comparative reference to catch errors in my version.  (Happily, we found only one error of omission in mine, an inadvertent elision of two subordinate clauses – and one error of meaning in Rix’s.)  After publication, I also looked up the Hargitai translation online out of curiosity about a single word choice: the English for repülőtér.  (I chose “airfield”, and Hargitai used “aerodrome”: both excellent. For multiple reasons, translating it as “airport” would be a mistake. Curiously, the US-published Hargitai’s word choice is more British than mine! I haven’t looked up Rix to see which word he selected.)

Actually, there was also one instance where I asked Christian to let me know what Len Rix had written.  This concerns a letter that Mihály has failed to receive.  The addressee is given, in the original, as “Kövér a káposzta” – certainly an odd replacement of Mihály’s name, which also explains why Mihály’s boarding-house landlady hadn’t delivered the letter to any of her guests.  I rendered it as “Cabbage is round”, adding an endnote explaining its allusion to an old Transylvanian children’s song and the coded message it entailed – information impossible to smuggle directly into the novel’s text without spoiling the atmosphere.  I was curious as to how Rix had handled it.  He wrote: “To the rotund cabbage”, which ignores the point entirely, although it might be more amusing (Mihály is described elsewhere as having an athletic build).

You kept his title. Did you think about changing it? If so, why, and if not, why not?

PC: The choice of title was Alma’s.  I think it’s a fine title, much more idiomatic English than a literal translation of Utas és holdvilág, such as Traveler and the Moonlight, which Hargitai uses in his most recent version.  Given the extensive critical notice the Pushkin Press translation received when first published – though chronologically second to Hargitai, it was the first to be widely distributed – I agreed that coming up with a different title might impede sales rather than help them.  (Interestingly, the German translation’s title, Reise im Mondlicht, mirrors Journey by Moonlight, while the French, Le Voyageur et le clair de lune, mirrors the original and Hargitai’s English.)

Reflections in the Library is aimed more at academic readers. Was that always going to be the case? Who was Szerb writing these essays for? How does his register reflect that?

PS: It is perhaps inevitable that a collection of essays on European literature by a Hungarian scholar written in the middle decades of the last century will appeal primarily to an academic readership, especially as the series in which it appears is, on the whole, a forum for doctoral theses.  Not least, I'm afraid it is priced prohibitively for most individuals  (though I am told it will be available in paperback in 2018).  This is of course very regrettable, as Szerb's name is familiar to an expanding coterie of 'general' English readers, who may be curious to find out more about his work beyond his novels and short stories – and would discover that his fiction and his scholarship are fascinatingly intertwined.

In his prose, Szerb’s sentences can often, as Hungarian sentences do, contain a number of sub-clauses, wrapped one in the other, which is a stylistic challenge in English, where they tend to become run-on sentences. What was your approach to that?

PC: This is a recurring challenge in translating Hungarian prose – even when sentences don’t extend to several pages à la Krasznahorkai!  My approach was to consider the context and tone of the longer sentences in Utas.  Often, they don’t stand out, and in such cases, I felt justified in breaking them into two (rarely more) sentences, if needed for the sake of English idiom.  In some cases, however, the sentence length clearly serves a specific purpose: for example, Rudi Waldheim’s passionate erudition is rendered as a river of words, and in such cases, it’s important to convey that fluvial flow in English sentences of unusual length – Rudi hardly stops to take a breath.  The trick, of course, is to do that while still making it a pleasure to read in English!  And here I tip my cap (again) to Christian Müller, who found a few remaining passages of translatorese in what I had thought was polished prose, and whose tactful nudges significantly improved the published text.

(How) does your intended audience influence the tone or register of your translation?

PC: One key consideration I kept in mind was that the book, published in the UK, needed to reflect British idiom, not American.  Setting the spell checker to “English (United Kingdom)” is not sufficient!  The other consideration – one that’s independent of the intended readership, actually – is that the novel plays out in 1937, so anachronisms should be avoided, especially where the Hungarian dialogue is informal, or even slangy.  One example: Tamás Ulpius describes his father as an “undorító fráter”.  The second word is particularly tricky.  Were the novel set within the past few decades, one could write “total jerk” or, taking liberties, even “utter arsehole” – but they’d be inappropriate, coming from the mouth of a 1930s aristocrat.  “Bloke” or “chap” doesn’t convey the proper scorn. I settled on “revolting brute”, without believing the choice to be in any way definitive (I wonder what Rix and Hargitai used?).

The other concession to the broad spectrum of readership we hope for is the appearance of discreet asterisks leading the more inquisitive reader to endnotes explaining some of the rather abstruse references in the novel – without, one hopes, distracting the reader from absorption in the novel’s ambience (as in, for instance, the case of “Cabbage is round”).

PS: Szerb lived and breathed literature and was also, most unusually, an effortlessly brilliant populariser, who never talked down to his audience ­– indeed, you might say that in some respects he talked "up" to them, making few concessions in respect of his learned allusions and references. Yet he continues to offer Hungarians an almost magical entrée to a wonderfully wide range of literature, without the often jargon-ridden turgidity of much postwar literary scholarship. I can only hope I have helped Anglophone readers gain an inkling of this enduring, extraordinary achievement.

What were the biggest challenges in translating Journey by Moonlight?

PC: Greater challenges than matters of sentence length, idiom, tone, and dealing with obscure allusions?  Szerb is such an exquisite stylist that his prose approaches poetry, so choosing the (or a) right word is constantly a crucial issue.  Maintaining Szerb’s tone of “neo-frivolity” (his coinage) and modulating it appropriately are also key to conveying his spirit to Anglophone readers. Undertaking such challenges is, however, the great joy and privilege afforded to a literary translator.

What were the biggest challenges in translating the essays in Reflections in the Library?

PS: Above all, I had to do quite a lot of research to raise myself to anywhere near Szerb's level; I'm not sure I always succeeded.  For example, I must confess that the work of Stefan George was new to me, as well as daunting, and I had to do some boning up on him and certain other writers (No, I'm not owning up to any more gaps in my education...).  In addition, there was the matter of the many illustrative quotations from the texts, nearly always in Hungarian: these had to be hunted down (not as straightforward as it sounds: Szerb rarely cites anything as helpful as chapter and verse), both in the original and also, in the case of non-English writers, in the best translations I could find. Here I am happy to acknowledge my debt to the bibliographical expertise of Zsuzsanna, who saved my bacon on more than one occasion, though any errors of course remain my responsibility.

If you mean specifically linguistic challenges, well, it was hell, all of it. It always is, or at least should be, if the writer is worthwhile.  Perhaps unexpectedly, non-fiction can be in some ways more difficult to translate than fiction, as there is less wiggle room for originality and inventive 'solutions'.  Whereas in fiction or poetry you may be able to compensate for the loss of one feature (rhyme, say) by supplying another (say, alliteration), in non-fiction, and especially in essays of this kind, that is rarely an option.

What makes Szerb's essays on world literature relevant to a 21st century audience in the UK?

PS: I should first point out that while Szerb did indeed produce a prodigious History of World Literature (this, too, is now available in German and there is also an English version, at present – UK and US publishers please note! – still in manuscript), our selection is limited to European writers.  I would say that it is relevant in our time for a number of reasons.  It was John Galsworthy who wrote à propos of his friend, the great English literary outsider Joseph Conrad, that “Prisoners in the cells of our own nationality, we never see ourselves; it is reserved for one outside looking through the tell-tale peep-hole to get a proper view of us.”  As a great European whose mother tongue is famously not Indo-European, Szerb is an 'insider outsider', who can offer us an original and uniquely valuable perspective on Europe's literary culture.  In particular, as he looks through the tell-tale peep-hole, he gives us, if not a 'proper view', at least many insights into (in our collection) Blake, Milton, Byron, Shelley, Keats, G.K. Chesterton and Katherine Mansfield.  Also, at least for me, Szerb's essays on Cervantes and Proust, for example, were truly revelatory and I hope he will prompt others, too, to re-read these classics with greater understanding.  Finally and most broadly, as Hungary continues to be in the headlines for what are not always the best of reasons, I think it more important than ever to remind the Anglophone world that the country has been for at least a millennium an integral, if very distinctive, part of Western culture (as many of your readers will know, the title of its leading early twentieth-century literary journal, Nyugat, means 'West'), and it is my hope that this volume will, in its small way, provide further proof of that unquestionable truth.