10. 17. 2018. 12:58

Árpád Vickó: Our entire civilization is the work of translators

"The question of whether translation is necessary, is similar to asking whether literature is necessary, which is like asking whether we need love or grief." – an interview with Árpád Vickó, winner of the Balassi Prize for Literary Translation 2018.


When and why did you begin translating literature?

I began somewhere in the beginning of the seventies, when the editorial offices of two important Novi Sad-based journals, the Hungarian Új Symposion and the Serbian Polja were in the same building, on the second floor, next door to one another – behind one door sat Ottó Tolnai, and after him Magdi Danji, János Sziveri, behind the other sat Iskov Bosko, then Petrinovic Franja, and Zivlak Jovan. In the seventies almost every young poet or prose-writer who appeared in Sympo was published in my translation in the pages of Polja.

My first independent volume of translation was published in 1976 by Narodna knjiga publishing house, a bilingual collection of Pál Böndör’s poetry. Now over forty years old, I recently flicked through it and – if I might – I still don't find much reason to be unsatisfied. At the time I felt this was working for me. It was my kind of thing. In the same year, Tolnai’s novel Rovarház was published. Now looking back, I now see that with the translation of these two volumes, especially Tolnai’s experimental, language-rich prose, I earned my stripes. And why? In those days – in the eighties and nineties – you could live off this.



Are there certain linguistic phenomena which differ drastically between Hungarian and Serbian that are revealed in translation?

The Serbian and Hungarian cultures are neighbouring cultures, and both belong to Christian civilization. This makes translation easier. The Serbian and Hungarian languages however are not related. This makes translation seriously difficult. And, of course, history. Serbian culture was several hundred years behind (or is still behind) the rest of Europe. For example, there was no nobility in Serbia, consequently there are no forms of address of that sort (Mylord, Your Lordship, Your Grace, Your Excellency, etc.). To this day the Serbian language still hasn’t developed a reliable philosophical language. And it’s up to the translators to fill this gap.


You grew up in Novi Sad. What was the literary culture there?

I started out in Hungarian, and my first books were Eclipse of the Crescent Moon, Dick Sand, A Captain at Fifteen, Jules Verne, James Fenimore Cooper, Mark Twain, and so son. My first four years at primary school were in Hungarian, and then with my very sparse Serbian I dropped into a Serbian department, a completely alien linguistic and cultural environment. I absorbed it. I attended a Serbian secondary, and at university I studied Serbo-Croatian language and South Slavic literature. I read world literature in Serbian and only became aware of Hungarian literature later. The writers around Symposion had a strong effect on me, Tolnai, Végel, Bányai, and the younger ones, Sziveri, Alpár Losoncz, Kornélia Faragó, Beáta Thomka. Symposion was up-to-date with the contemporary literature of Hungary. At some point in the autumn of 1978, I was living in Budapest on a two-month scholarship, that’s when Sándor Radnóti and Csaba Könczöl “showed me the way”. And I got to know several writers whose works I later translated – István Eörsi, György Petri, György Konrád, Esterházy... That’s when I came across the works of Örkény, Ottlik, Antal Szerb, Szentkuthy, Mészöly, and Nádas.



You live in two languages and at least two worlds…

Language, or the literature embodied within it is an exceedingly stable world. It's a real wealth to have more than one. There are no drastic changes in these worlds. On the contrary – we can see that what’s most essential is permanent. Essential homes, essential friendships, essential questions. What changes in our lives is mostly superficial. The worlds in which I live are reliable, their values are stable.


People often say translators are linguistic diplomats, bridges between cultures; do you find this to be true?

They’re much more. I don’t like the metaphor of a “bridge” which supposedly stands between two cultures, I always shudder when I hear it – we aren’t bridges, silent, unable to speak, open to be puttered across by anyone who pleases. It’s nothing new at all to see that world literature in Goethe’s understanding is the work of literary translators. When I’m asked a question like this, I always answer – and I’ll do the same now – that our entire civilization is the work of translators. It might be a startling stance to take, but if we think about it, it’s true. Translation stands at the very basis of every culture, every literature and every philosophy. Their role, therefore, is exceptionally large in the foundation of society. It’s through translators that this multilingual human race is able to exist as one verbal planet, where kindred spirits come into contact by crossing linguistic borders. Thanks to translators, people have been – one might as well say – in personal contact for two thousand five hundred years, as György Konrád aptly wrote, and I fondly quote: “ploughing across the borderlands of time and death.” The question of whether translation is necessary, is similar to asking whether literature is necessary, which is like asking whether we need love or grief. Of course, we both know ever more people to whom these categories mean nothing.



Your work has contributed to the dialogue and good relations existing between Hungary and Serbia – how do you see situation of Hungarian translation today?

In Serbia, except for one or two shorter periods, the culture of translation was fairly rich; the key principle being that the most important works of world literature must be translated into Serbian, and so the translation of the most significant writers in Hungarian literature was constant. Hungary, ever since attending Frankfurt designed a well-thought-out strategy towards funding translation, and then put it into practice, too! This financing of translation still functions today on the same principles, but with fewer funds. But if they were to increase the sum tenfold, it would still be Hungarian culture’s cheapest and most effective means of promotion abroad. And I must add that luckily the highest quality material is available, because contemporary Hungarian literature is in the vanguard of European literature.

Forever paying attention to the developing trends of a Serbian intellectual context, I consciously strove to make what I translate enter into the circulation of Serbian culture. Sometimes it was successful, sometimes it wasn’t. There was a fantastic period; in 1987, Prosveta in Belgrade published György Konrád’s Cinkos in Serbian, preceding the book’s Hungarian publication by two years, and this book shortly had the greatest effect in the then Yugoslavia; the first edition quickly ran out, and the second, selling an unbelievable thirty thousand copies. The rest of the Konrád translations, mostly his prose but some of his later volumes of essays, too, were destined for the same. These books became one of the most important reference points for the so-called “other Serbia”, the independent, European orientated Serbian intelligentsia forming in the nineties; Konrád was cited by the most important significant Serbian writers and thinkers, and is still cited to this day.





For more interviews with translators of Hungarian


Erika Mihálycsa: It's like caviar

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

Judith Sollosy: No Flotsam and jetsam blowing in the wind

Translated by: Owen Good