02. 20. 2006. 11:15

A passion for Hungarian fiction

An interview with translator Len Rix

Magda Szabó's novel, The Door, is on the long list for this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. HLO interviewed the translator of the novel, Len Rix, who has also translated Antal Szerb's cult novel, Journey by Moonlight.

As far as I know, you not only translate, but also speak Hungarian really well. How did you get acquainted with Hungarian culture?

In fact, I don’t speak Hungarian as fluently as I should, having no one around to converse with on a regular basis. I have been aware of Hungary since 1953 (football!) and 1956 – when I was just 14, and filled with awe at the heroism of those kids, many of them no older than myself, taking on the Soviet tanks in the streets.
My first university degree was in English, French and Latin, and languages have always interested me, but I heard Hungarian spoken for the first time only in 1989. I was utterly enchanted, and decided I simply had to learn it. I went to the library and borrowed a Teach Yourself Book. The date was 23rd October 1989. It was only some time later that I realised the significance of that date.

When and how did you start translating Hungarian literature?

Some friends lent me the old Bánhidi-Jókai-Szabó Learn Hungarian – an absolutely wonderfully old-fashioned grammar book some 500 pages long, and I worked my way through it, using language tapes for the pronunciation. The magic of it all simply grew and grew. As a circle dancer I became aware of folk music, and groups like Sebo and Muzsikás, and I was knocked flat by them! It was an extraordinary period in my life: like discovering a whole new area of existence.
After six months of this, one of the friends I mentioned put a small book in my hand and said: “Len, you must read this. Every educated Hungarian knows and loves this book.” It was Antal Szerb’s Utas és holdvilág. Within a few pages I knew it was a great European novel, and I determined not just to translate it, but to try and give it a translation of the literary quality it deserves.

Which Hungarian books have you translated so far?

While I was looking for a publisher for Utas és holdvilág – Journey by Moonlight –, the poet and novelist Tamás Kabdebó was shown what I had done, and invited me to translate his Minden idok – a novel based on the events of 1956. It came out in 1995, under the title A Time for Everything. At this time I was also translating a lot of poetry.
Then, years later, out of the blue, a phone call came from Klára Morvai at the Hungarian Book Agency to say that Pushkin Press were interested in Journey by Moonlight. (Pushkin specialise in “little-known” European fiction.) They accepted my text, allowed me to redraft it extensively and published it in 2001. Since then it has sold over 20,000 copies in the English version.
Because of its success, I was asked by Harvill-Secker to do Magda Szabó’s The Door, which came out last October. And I have since done Szerb’s Pendragon Legend, which will appear later this year (in May, I believe) and his Martian’s Guide to Budapest, in the latest issue of the Hungarian Quarterly

Which of these books was the greatest fun to translate? Why?

The two Szerb novels were both enormous fun, in their different ways. For me, the pleasure really kicks in only after I have produced an accurate, fairly literal translation, and the business then begins of refining and polishing. This drives you deeper and deeper into the text, not just as language but as a coherent artistic structure. You make more and more subtle connections, you begin to see the deliberate parallels and ironies, and discover more and more of the wit and humour. At this point, you are as much into literary criticism as conventional translation, and it is all discovery.

Which of the books was the greatest challenge to translate? In what ways?

The final challenge with Szerb was stylistic. His language is always kept as simple as he can possibly make it, and this makes for a real elegance, but there are some intensely poetic moments. He also uses a lot of free indirect speech, teasing the reader by allowing the deliciously unreliable voice of Mihály's self-deception to merge with that of the reliable omniscient narrator. To capture all this in English was very much a labour of love.
Magda Szabó was a challenge of a different kind. Her sentences can be three times as long as his, a paragraph might last two or more pages, and her punctuation is very much looser than you can get away with in literary English. I had to work much harder establishing not just the literal meaning but the rhythm of the writing. And rendering all that into fluent, easy, natural-sounding English was quite an undertaking. I think her style is influenced in part by her experience as a Latinist. She exploits the capacity of Hungarian, which perhaps derives from its long association with Latin, to create these enormous sentences, using its full grammatical resources, in the manner of Sallust or Cicero. Luckily for me, I used to be a Latin teacher.

Can you think of anything particular – cultural or linguistic differences – that a translator has to be aware of when translating Hungarian literature into English?

This is a major question. One of the reasons why Hungarian literature is so little known in Britain is the poor, that is to say, heavily literal, quality of some past translations. You can’t just render the literal meaning, you have to find parallel idioms or recreate nuances, rhythmic effects and so on. You have to take each line as if it were a line of poetry. Even so, there are fundamental differences in taste. You can say things in Hungarian that sound merely sentimental in English. And colloquial registers call for very careful treatment. You have to accept that for some things there are simply no direct equivalents.

In Hungary, it is only on rare occasions that the translator gets the opportunity to choose the book to translate. How is it in Britain? Was it you or the publisher who chose Magda Szabó’s The Door?

I don’t think any British publisher would allow a translator to nominate work: all that is driven by the perception of what will fit neatly into their current schedule, and what will succeed in the market. They would listen politely, of course, but make their own decision in the end.
Pushkin decided to do Journey by Moonlight because of the success of the novel in Italy, and Harvill-Secker were certainly influenced by the Prix Femina awarded in France to the French translation of the novel, La Porte.
I agreed to do The Door because it was a fresh challenge, and because I found the opening pages very powerful and promising. (They wanted a rapid decision!) Harvill made it clear they were offering it to me because they thought well of the way I translated Journey by Moonlight.

When you started translating The Door, did you have a marked view on Magda Szabó’s works and her place in literature? If you had, did it change during the process of translation? If it did, in what sense?

At that point I knew little about her. Until recently I was a full-time teacher of English language and literature, with no time to devote to read Hungarian novels other than those I was working on.
I think I saw quite quickly why she is so enormously popular. But I also, rather quickly, formed some reservations about her methods of writing.

Who are your favourite Hungarian writers then?

I greatly admire what I have read of Zsigmond Móricz, Mór Jókai, Dezso Kosztolányi, and the last great generation of poets (especially Weöres and Nemes Nagy), many of whom seem to me startlingly original. But my hero is Antal Szerb – not just his wonderful books, but the man himself, with his wit and charm, his kindness and gentleness, and his extraordinary conduct in utterly inhuman circumstances.
The only other work I have since read by Magda Szabó is Pilátus. I very much admired the steely self-discipline of the writing. It seemed to shed an interesting light on The Door.

How did the British audience like your version of The Door? How did critics react?

The Door has been immensely well received. It sold 1200 copies between October and Christmas and is now in its second printing. It was given notice in all the major journals such as The Times Literary Supplement and the London Review of Books, and in all the quality newspapers – always in the most favourable terms. It has even been long-listed (last 16) for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. It is praised for the scale of the achievement, the intensity of the writing, and the intelligence with which the issues are handled.

In the case of The Door, I think it is a decisive question whether the reader takes on the point of view of the narrator or not. Being a person who hates to be manipulated, I rejected Magda’s viewpoint and could not get to like Emerence. Nevertheless, the text stirred me to a certain extent; it was not easy to keep my distance to the end. I still do not know whether my attitude was against the intention of the text or not, though I know it is not the most important question. What do you think? To what extent could you identify with the narrator as a reader? Did your feelings change during translation?

I have to say I have sympathy with you here. First, I’m still not sure that Szabó maintains a sufficient ironic distance from her representative in the book. There are several points where a disaffected reader might think that she introduces details partly to remind us of her own real-life accomplishments (the Kossuth prize, her enormous popularity and so on). Otherwise why create a character so very like herself? But I begin to think more and more that the character of the “lady writer”, with all her vanity, is in fact “placed” and that Szabó has it all under control.
And as for Emerence, there seems to me a clear intention to make her a representative of the Hungarian people – the oppressed and exploited peasantry who have suffered so much. But she is not just the people, she’s their very soul. So she is presented in terms that might seem well “over the top” and invested with all sorts of mythical attributes: a Valkyrie, a Madonna, one of the Fates, a little Jehovah, Medea, and so on. There is a certain gratuitousness in some of these comparisons, and this still makes me uncomfortable.
But, on balance, one cannot deny the achievement. The book isn’t just moving, it is reassuringly funny – always a sign that the writer knows what she is doing. And let’s not forget Viola. He plays an important role in rooting the book in normality. There’s a wonderful moment when the lady writer returns late at night from one of her lofty Vergilian communings with Emerence, slips into bed, and listens to Viola rustling around on his blanket. “I knew when he finally fell asleep, because he snored like a man.”

You have said that your views on Magda Szabó are constantly changing. In what ways?

They may still be changing. I think most of my unease arises in the first half of the novel, and that thereafter the writing gets steadily more impressive. The text is often deeply moving in its honesty and moral clarity: for example, the writer’s account of her emotions – the horror and self-revulsion she feels – when the dying Emerence mumbles on her fingers to show a “Viola-like” affection. There’s no doubt she is a very powerful writer.
What I can’t yet decide is – as I mention above – whether what I think of as inconsistencies and defects are fully accommodated in some overall ironic framework. As a translator I gave her the benefit of the doubt, as you have to. Any seriously good book requires years, and many re-readings, to understand.
Can I give you my final answer in five years’ time?

Dóra Elekes

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