10. 10. 2018. 11:04

Árpád Vickó's speech for Balassi Prize for Translation 2018

The Balassi Prize for Literary Translation was awarded to the Serbian translator Árpád Vickó whose acceptance speech you can read below in English.

Ladies and gentlemen,

friends and colleagues!


A friend of mine, whose books are a constant feature on my desk, once wrote – regarding European mentality and European culture – arguably there is no one who makes a greater personal sacrifice for the European exchange of ideas than he or she who gives body in their own language to another’s otherwise inaccessible perspective, not only breaking down language barriers, but spatial and temporal divides, too.


I would like to radicalize this thought with the words of a legendary Serbian translator, Branimir Živojinović: in the culture in which we live, all literature and all philosophy began with translation. Joseph Brodsky was thinking on a similar wavelength when he wrote that literary translation was the father of civilization. Borges claims that every original work – in its initial process of creation – is itself a process of translation. From here it’s only one more step to modern views which extend the sphere and validity of translation even further, such as Roman Jakobson’s, who claims any form of communication is translation, and Octavio Paz, who says culture itself is translation, especially in its modern structure. “This century is the century of translation – writes Octavio Paz. – Not only are we translating texts, but traditions, religions, dances, the art of love and cuisine, fashions, put simply the most diverse customs and practises (…) Of course other periods and other peoples translated, too (…), but none of them aware of the fact that while translating we are changing what we translate, and most of all we are changing ourselves.”


“Literary translation,” writes Kornélia Faragó, “must be interpreted in the broadest sense; as a crossing between two different cultures, as a dialogue between two different cultures, as acceptance of what’s alien, of the other, as personal transformation and re-evaluation. Consequently, translation is in essence a necessity of life – particularly for smaller linguistic communities, and particularly now, as accelerating processes of integration, which have come into the foreground, suggest there is only one world-culture. That’s why mutual translation between smaller languages is a very important task, because integration policies threaten to narrow translation to one language, and we have already seen that works written in smaller languages aren’t able to evoke the response their excellence deserves. Consequently, I can only stress the significance of Umberto Eco’s claim that Europe’s metalanguage isn’t English, but translation.


I’m not a poet, I’ve always been amazed by poets. I am one of those translators who expresses their poetic impulse by rendering poems into their own language. With one or two exceptions, I’ve only translated poets’ works where the conceptual layer was key, or the imagery was similarly clear. Or I chose poems which are effective on a purely semantic level, and not ones which are effective on an almost exclusively rhythmic and acoustic level. Of course, this “almost exclusively” is an important distinction, and isn’t to be forgotten. One aspect among others which is typical of postmodern thought, is that philosophy leaks into poetry and that’s where it becomes real. I have striven to protect that – for example Tolnai’s clarity, energy, intonation, and the personal flourishes of his original style. Today accuracy and beauty aren’t in conflict. Translators can achieve beauty through accuracy.


This is how I see the greater worth to my work, and in broader terms, this would be the ars poetica which is closest to me. What I am trying to do, whithin the space of my lifetime, is to make Hungarian literature accessible and in so doing – according to some thinkers – also to enrich the culture of the target language.



The speech was given on Thursday 27 September in the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.


Árpád Vickó

Translated by: Owen Good