03. 03. 2009. 09:01

An "earie" instinct

An interview with translator Tim Wilkinson

In this latest addition to the series of interviews on our sister website Litera, Tim Wilkinson looks back on his career as a literary translator while also discussing his personal dreams and revealing which works have offered the greatest challenges, yet still proved to be the most rewarding.

What are you currently working on?
My most important job for the next few months—and I mean this literally—is a translation commissioned by Corvina Publishers, Budapest. The title of the book is Humanism, the Renaissance and Culture: Studies on the Development of Hungarian Culture from the 14th to the 16th Century. This text is a compilation of at least ten to twelve different subjects and appears to be quite promising, at least judging by what I have seen already, which is about half of the book. I suppose this is not “a literary work” in the strictest sense of the term, but I don’t usually make much of a distinction in something that is, after all, mainly a matter of opinion. I’m happy to do translations like this, and regularly translate similar scholarly studies for The Hungarian Quarterly. Yet I’m almost always working on a piece of literature, too; at the moment this is the first volume of The Breviary of St. Orpheus by Miklós Szentkuthy, entitled Marginalia for Casanova.
Does a translation ever catch you by surprise? What type of surprise have you experienced?
I’ve only ever been surprised in a pleasant sort of way, such as all the times I am amazed by how truly great the original text is! To tell the truth, I’ve long grown used to surprises like these because Hungarian literature is an absolute treasure trove of fine works, with each one more impressive than the last. It’s an enormous pleasure to work with them.
Which authors would you like to translate and why, if you had the time?
I often translate just for my own pleasure, independent of whether I’ve been commissioned or not by a publisher. If I manage to “sell” one of these translations later on, then all the merrier, but there’s usually no guarantee that this will ever happen. Consequently, I’ve done translations of works—usually one or two—written by ten to twelve different authors, but these manuscripts are still slumbering in the depths of my desk drawer. There is also a list of authors I haven’t translated yet, but would if I only had the time. Among them are István Szilágyi, László Végel, György Spiró and Dezso Tandori, whom I’ve lately included. Ádám Bodor and Péter Lengyel are also on this list, but I know others are already translating them.
What kind of challenge excites you the most when it comes to translating?
There’s a very simple answer to this question. There are forty or fifty excellent Hungarian authors I would like to see “transplanted” into English-speaking literary circles, in the hope that as many as possible become an everyday part of English literature. Practically speaking, there’s nothing more difficult than achieving this!  
What language or languages are you most comfortable using? What does it mean to you to exist between languages, constantly moving from one to the other?
English will always be my first language, and it’s essential for things to stay that way, too. At the same time, day by day I feel increasingly at home in Hungarian and more comfortable with using it. I can’t say the same for my German, even though fifteen or twenty years ago there was a time when I read quite a lot in German, something I think is important even today.
In your opinion, what results in a bad translation? And what, do you think, really makes a translation come alive?
When reading a translation or any other piece of writing, it’s extremely obvious if a solid knowledge or understanding of the language just isn’t there. I wrote about this when Imre Kertész received the Nobel Prize. The first English translation of Kaddish for an Unborn Child was painfully bad and fully deserved my criticism that the child, in this case, was actually stillborn. There was hardly a decent sentence in the entire translation—true, Kertész does use rather lengthy sentences in this novel, but that is no excuse. The translation of Fatelessness was barely any better. (In this translation, for example, nine chapters were made into eleven, and I’m talking about the most basic level!) Last year there was an obviously young, American critic writing for an Internet journal who accused me of committing sacrilege, as if I had sent the Rosenberg couple to the electric chair. But if some person (or persons) does not possess a sufficient knowledge of either Hungarian or English, is this something that should remain unmentioned in a critique of the translation? 
Unfortunately, there is a long list of English “translators” who really aren’t a great help to Hungarian literature. What makes a translation good? That’s obvious: exactly the opposite of everything I’ve already mentioned. Knowledge, understanding, the right kind of style… these are all very important. In a nutshell, if someone has never learned to write in good, polished English—his or her native language—then this someone will never be a good translator. It’s as simple as that. 
What has been your most difficult task as a literary translator?
As far as language is concerned, there have been a few challenges, mostly in texts I’ve done for The Hungarian Quarterly. One time I had to translate an excerpt from János Lackfi’s novel, Mortuary, which was particularly hard given that I couldn’t always tell who was speaking. (Gender is naturally important in English, while it doesn’t matter in the least in Hungarian since there’s only one pronoun for the third-person singular.) When I was translating a chapter from Imre Oravecz’s A Hill Walks, I ran into so many architectural terms that I really couldn’t have said what a few of them were even in English! For the most part, I mainly have problems with the many kinds of technical language used in different professions. In this instance, the right solution can almost always be reached. So far I’ve never been faced with a text that made me sweat so much that I was forced to abandon it.
How do you perceive literature translated into Hungarian? What is the Hungarian attitude toward translation?
I really can’t answer this question very well since I’m not familiar with the issue. I don’t have much time to read Hungarian literary translations. If I’m not reading Hungarian works in the original, then I’m concentrating on works by English (or to be more exact, American) authors. It’s extremely important for a translator to keep abreast of his or her native language.
As a translator, what excites, infuriates, or just plain annoys you about other people’s work? What kind of mistakes tend to reappear?
Given my previous answers, perhaps it’s obvious that I don’t spend much time on the problems other English translators have. I have more than enough work of my own, especially since the process of developing and maintaining my own language skills and ability is an enormous task.
As far as my professional background is concerned, I’ve really never had any specialized training in translation. In 1970, at the beginning of October, I married a Hungarian girl in Budapest, then I spent the next three years or so working at the Central Research Institute for Physics. This is how I learned Hungarian. Call it an “earie” instinct.
(NB. Tim Wilkinson gave the interview in Hungarian but consented to have it translated into English for the fun of it. The translation by Maya LoBello fully reflects the original Hungarian.)
Previously on HLO
An interview with George Szirtes

Translated by: Maya LoBello

Tags: Tim Wilkinson