"I think German readers are sensitive to our difficulties, our problems, our pessimism; to our complex way of seeing things." – Ferenc Barnás talks us about his books published in German and English, and being one of the guests of Frankfurt Book Fair 2016.
On 19th October you'll be at Frankfurt Book Fair, how does it feel to be representing Hungarian literature at an international literary event?
First of all it's a great honour, after all it's the world's largest book fair, but there's not much time for emotions as the itinerary's pretty full. Last year at the Leipzig Book Fair, for example, there were two events for the launch of the German translation of my previous novel, The Ninth and I really had to be on the ball. It wasn't just the public in the audience, there were experts as well and it does make a difference how well you can represent your book. I think you best represent your country when you know how to represent your own book and its subject matter. So it's a great honour as well as a challenge, a responsibility, and a lot of work. But this is what I've heard;it'll be my first time at Frankfurt.
So what will you be presenting at the fair?
The German translation of Másik Halál ('Another Death'), which came out in Hungary in 2012 and won the Aegon Award in 2013. The German translation was released this April with a fantastic translation by Eva Zador. Thankfully it's already received a great reception in both Germany and Austria among very prominent papers, in Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Die Presse, der Standard.
Photos: Gábor Valuska
You have some experience now of being published abroad and promoting your work abroad, have you found that foreign readers have a certain conception of Hungarian literature? And if so do your works fit that conception at all?
I think among those who do pay attention, there may be a keen audience for Hungarian literature. I suppose it's only a legend but people used to say that when a German publisher gets in trouble, they get themselves a Hungarian author. Perhaps that's just a legend, but you can't forget the successes of the work of Péter Nádas, Péter Esterházy and László Krasznahorkai, and then Imre Kertész's Nobel Prize, plus the recent successes of Krasznahorkai in the Anglo-Saxon world with the Man Booker International Prize. I think all of this drew some attention to Hungarian literature, certainly in Germany. In fact I have experienced it myself, the year before last my first German book came out, and plenty of people approached me at the Vienna Book Fair and at the Leipzig Book Fair.
As regards to what people might think of Hungarian literature and their opinions of it as readers, well I'd have to say that the Hungarian reality is not an expressly cheerful one. I think German readers are sensitive to our difficulties, our problems, our pessimism; to our complex way of seeing things, in Nádas's work for instance, or our playfulness, like in Esterházy. We know that when it's very playful there's something more serious lurking beneath, and when it's very serious there's something playful. I think the German readers are sensitive to that.
But it's difficult to say, at the most every six months there's some sort of new perception. I read the German reviews of Hungarian works. That and German literature have always interested me. Back in the day I wrote my thesis on German literature. And today I think it's very strange, because the moment a country becomes interesting politically, be it in a positive or a negative light, the importance of that country increases in value, the literature gains greater respect. I think this is true today given that Hungary is once again in the spotlight. There was a time when Hungary was being watched, then there was a time when it wasn't – people pay attention to the regions where there're problems. But I don't know, obviously from a sociological point of view you could examine why at a certain moment in time people focus on X or Y region. But certainly, yes, I think a lot of people are now watching plenty of my colleagues very closely.
You've already mentioned the warm reception of your earlier novel The Ninth in the USA, were you surprised at all that an American audience would be interested in a novel set in a Hungarian village in the 60s?
Well, besides the poverty and 1968 – of course 1968 wasn't as significant in the USA as it was here, regarding Prague or the student riots, I know my book isn't about Prague or the riots but I do make a reference to Prague, albeit in one sentence; the student riots aren't mentioned at all – I think the story of a 9-year-old boy told from his own perspective might be interesting for other reasons. Of course, in America there certainly is poverty, a different kind of poverty from the third world, a poverty they aren't so willing to mention it but it exists. Perhaps it's intriguing to Americans because the book has – and you'll excuse for saying this – a kind of universal way of being read which was highlighted by a Boston critic, who beneath the story was able to find a cross-section of the development of a moral conscience. The title of their piece was 'How does one develop moral judgement?' It's a common human theme whatever way we take it; the question of how this develops in a child. So I think the interesting factor isn't that the story takes place in a Hungarian village, nor that it's set in European history in the 60s, but that an American reader is confronted with the issue of how moral sensibility develops in a child.
That's one factor, the other is the novel's linguistic composition – I won't say style because for me style is something external. Literature is conveyed through language. And how this little boy speaks isn't from the most typical child's perspective, ten years ago when this book was first released I used to say that he's nine years old and ninety-nine years old. He sees the sadder half of the world – spiritual, moral, emotional matters – and as an outsider. Not only an outsider of society, of the then Kádár mechanism, but also of his own large family. Good literature always offers a unique story. The fact this novel was unique meant it was able to receive several significant reviews, in World Literature Today and The Times Literary Supplement among others. The one I was most excited about was The New York-based Guernica (an art and politics magazine) because they discussed the sociological aspect of the novel. It's important to me if sociological and real life matters make their way into a book analysis, because it means that the novel relates to our own lives.
And perhaps another thing I'd highlight – which surprised me – is these were sensitive analyses. They didn't write with any sort of cultural superiority. When literature is good, it's good everywhere; be it in Ulaanbaatar, be it in Prague or in a southern US state, or in Ireland. It was an honour for me when The Ninth was longlisted for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. After all, Ireland is a major literary power.
In the American reviews of The Ninth, Paul Olchváry's translation was very highly praised. How did this collaboration come about? Did he seek you out? And if so, what kind of feeling was it when you were approached by a translator, saying, 'I'd like to translate your work'?
I can certainly say that initially it was very flattering and it was a real pleasure to have aroused interest in a foreign translator. By that time Olchváry's translation of Károly Pap's Azarel had perhaps already been published. He lived in Hungary, we started working then, then he moved back to the USA and afterwards we had a long-distance working relationship. Just yesterday he joined for an event over Skype, and he recounted – and he's right – that we translated the book together from one sentence to the next.
I myself don't know English very well, and if my English was ten times better I still wouldn't be as good as a native speaker, but speaking as an author I have a sensitivity to language and I can feel where something needs to be taken away, where something needs to be added, and how we can produce that consistency. The Hungarian version of The Ninth is a powerfully conceptual work. Be it the alternation between short and long sentences or the detached, distancing language. The protagonist speaks about his most painful emotions in such a cold and cool manner, as though nothing happened to him at all, when in reality his classmates humiliate him, circumstances at home aren't ideal, plus he has all sorts of personal shortcomings. To find the language and the young boy's voice, not so as to convey content or what has happened but to capture this mentality, to give it life and affect the reader, we had to analyse the whole book from one sentence to the next. In fact, it doesn't just depend on the translator's ability, but also on their own original approach. I have to say that as the translator Olchváry gave The Ninth it's voice. Not me. It's his book.
The fact that in the USA so many people are giving this book attention, the fact that it featured in The Times Literary Supplement which is of course one of the more prestigious literary reviews in the English speaking world, and the fact that the translation was granted support (PEN America), speaks for itself, it's thanks to Paul Olchváry.
So the German version of Another Death is being released this year, but is the English translation underway as well?
About a third of it's ready, under Thomas Cooper's translation. It's a much more difficult book than the The Ninth. In the Frankfurter review they highlighted that it falls under the tradition of the nouveau roman. So you don't just tell the story and then the action. No. There are numerous levels and perspectives to the narrative. Then there's also the linguistic depiction of strange mental states, such as, insanity, schizophrenia. And in the first half of the novel, the readers find themselves in this state, because it's intentionally presented in such a way that the reader lives it too. For the time being the English translation will remain incomplete, but we haven't given up, we're still looking for a means to translate the important remaining chapters of the novel. Maybe something will happen now in Frankfurt.
As regards to the German version which you're bringing to Frankfurt, you've already mentioned that in the novel the language of insanity is very important, the language of the decay of memory and personality, what kind of experience was it translating this text to German? Because in this case, even working together from one sentence to the next might not be enough.
Yes, that's what happened. I have to mention that with Another Death there are lots of gaps in the text, elliptical elements, silence is built into it, like in music I think it's not just the sounds which are important but the breaks between the music as well. There's no such thing as music without silences. And these little gaps, these little silent sections of the text are crucial elements of the composition. I had to get back into that state-of-mind, which wasn't easy because it's not enough to experience it in Hungarian, you have to feel it in German as well, and then English if we do get the whole thing translated. In the German, we had to create the right texture according to the character of the German language. And in a certain respect we had to be merciless because in German we had to bring to life the exact same world, the same voice, the same narrative position, while setting a personal story and history directly alongside one another in the present. Besides the language of madness, there are much more understandable threads to the novel like the persecution of the Jews in Budapest in '44 and '45, the communist dictatorship of the 50s – under the Rákosi regime, and the period since the system change in '89, those twenty-five years during which Hungarian society didn't manage to resolve the countless problems, countless tensions, countless contradictions. There's been a lot of reaction from German critics to this. One thing that's easily understandable from the title, Another Death is that as the narrator moves around Budapest's streets he sees the once-imprisoned, the victims of the dictatorship, and it's clear how present their world is in Budapest still today, and how much this influences our lives, because Hungarian society hasn't yet dealt with these tragedies which it experienced in the twentieth century. It hasn't confronted them or dealt with them. That's why, to this day, there are still a lot of social problems and social tension.
My last question then is, during the process of the translation of either of these two novels, did anything interesting emerge which hadn't emerged while writing them?
Good question. Yes, the first is that there were times when the translator, be they German or English, would draw my attention to the fact that the Hungarian that's on the page isn't entirely clear - isn't entirely understandable. So the logical English language or the logical German language confronted my own illogical train of thought with the reality that there's a problem within the text.
Secondly, the Hungarian language is rather elastic. It's freer and allows for more ambiguity. And there are situations when the translator says to me, yes, but the German reader isn't going to understand this because it's open to several interpretations, and it's not certain that they'll find the version which is the most suitable to your intention. Namely, in Another Death one of the important characteristics of the writing technique is that it leaves a lot open to interpretation, and relies on the reader's imagination. While translating, on numerous occasions Eva Zador said to me, we have to remove the ambiguity here to give the German reader something to go by, otherwise they won't understand it. By including reference points, it's not that we're adding linguistic crutches but merely reducing ambiguity. Different languages work in different ways. Take German which has a very determined syntax. In Hungarian I can chop and change that, if necessary. Or give the narrator a language which is ambiguous and jumbled because that's the state he's in, his consciousness is in some state of confusion, but if we render this confusion and there's no preamble as to what this confusion is, then it's a problem for the German reader.
The last thing is that during translation new interpretations of my original text emerge, things I hadn't considered entirely. So by placing the two languages up against one another there's a kind of symbiosis, which doesn't produce a new understanding, so to speak, but rather it reveals possibilities which were already present there in the Hungarian and which I hadn't been aware of while writing. It's very exciting.
By all means it's a lot of work. Because I had to read it again as we worked, from one sentence to the next, and I had to relive that world which I brought into existence roughly six years ago but I had to have the German clear in my mind as well, because although I don't create the German text – the German translator does that, and the English translator the English – to help them I have to understand exactly what's going on, or I have to be in that world as well, in two linguistic worlds at the same time trying to tell the same story. At times like these there are surges in one's awareness, an increasing awareness of language, different levels of understanding appear. I suppose it's partially a physiological thing; a year ago I was in France for a while and prepared for an interview in French, but German and English words kept popping into my mind instead of French. Totally confused. So today, we could have talked in English instead of Hungarian, but I wouldn't have been able to explain all these things, the details or the nuances.