04. 30. 2018. 19:10

Adam Z. Levy: The dizzying closeness you can get to a text

Iván Sanders is a translator hero of mine, and I would often drop in at his office hours to ask him questions about things that I was working on in my free time. – Owen Good's interview with translator and publisher Adam Z. Levy.

OWEN GOOD: You recently published your translation of Gábor Schein's The Book of Mordechai with Seagull Books in parallel with Ottilie Mulzet's translation of Lazarus, how did this project come about?

ADAM Z. LEVY: The poet András Gerevich introduced me to Gábor's work when I was in Budapest on a Fulbright fellowship from 2012-2013. Gábor and I were neighbors, it turned out. We started to meet to discuss another translation project I was working at the time, but soon I was stealing away to work on a slim novel of Gábor's that he had given me. It weaves the stories of several generations of a Hungarian Jewish family into a re-writing of the biblical Book of Esther. When Ottilie Mulzet took charge of the Hungarian list at Seagull, she suggested putting the two books—her translation and mine—in a single volume. I jumped at the idea. The books speak to each other in wonderful ways.

What were the most troublesome and the most enjoyable challenges in translating this book?

One of the things I loved about translating the book was the opportunity to work closely with Gábor. I remember getting stuck on a description of the interior layout of a synagogue, I couldn't visualize it, and my translation kept conjuring some architectural impossibility. Gábor took out a big envelope and started sketching the structural differences between Orthodox and Neolog synagogues, which are common in Hungary. Suddenly the image fell into place.
One of the interesting challenges that The Book of Mordechai presents is the way it plays with translation itself. The novel is held together by P.'s reading of the Book of Esther—a Hungarian-Hebrew bilingual edition, with the Hungarian translation credited to Leopold Blumenfeld, who, we later learn, has taken small liberties in his own version to clarify the original Hebrew. Schein has done the same, since the version in the book is, theoretically, Blumenfeld's. All of which is to say that the texts are supposed to look and sound similar, but still remain (subtly!) different. I remember going between an old Hungarian translation of the Book of Esther, the version in the Hungarian edition of The Book of Mordechai, and the English translation of the Hebrew Book of Esther that I'd found at the library just to introduce intended deviations in my translation. Whew! I got twisted up about it at the time, but looking back what could be better than the story of the translation becoming inseparable from the story of the book itself?

How did you begin translating Hungarian literature?

I started learning Hungarian in 2007, when I moved to Budapest to teach English at a high school there, but I don't think it was until 2009, when I moved back to New York for graduate school that I started getting into translation. Iván Sanders is a translator hero of mine, and I would often drop in at his office hours to ask him questions about things that I was working on in my free time. He was so enthusiastic about Hungarian literature and has such an ear for translation. I think those conversations got me hooked.

What do you enjoy about translation?

The dizzying closeness you can get to a text.

Can you name any other Hungarian authors you believe deserve translation, considering an American market?

Ah, I can't believe we've never had any translations of Dezső Szomory, who wrote, among many other things, a long, decadent, solipsistic novel in 1929 called The Paris Novel (A Párizsi regény), about a Jewish journalist who leaves Budapest for Paris to avoid the draft. The opening appeared a few years ago in my translation, but it's the kind of book where you have to crack your knuckles before moving from one sentence to the next.

Transit Books is a non-profit publishing house you founded, publishing both international and American literature. Could you tell us a little more about the mission of Transit Books and why you felt the need to include international literature as part of the mission?

Before Ashley, my wife and co-publisher, and I moved out to California, it always surprised us the way domestic and international literature were never really part of the same conversation. We knew readers, good readers, who never seemed to read works in translation. At the same time, we also knew translators who were working on interesting projects, manuscripts that never stood a chance with larger publishing houses. We founded Transit Books in 2015 to bring a visibility to those works that have always been so near and dear to our heart—often works in translation—and to bridge the divide between those two disparate readerships. We try to keep our ambitions manageable.

Speaking as a publisher and a translator, how do you see the current state of literature in translation in the US?

I think it's a good time in the US for literature in translation. There are supportive networks for new translators trying to get a foot in the door. There are new journals that showcase translation. There are new publishers devoted to promoting works in translation and making the translator visible in the process. There are new prizes cropping up for translators and international authors alike. There's still a lot of work to do—but I think we're on the right track.


Adam Z. Levy is the translator of Gábor Schein's The Book of Mordechai and the publisher of Transit Books.