05. 28. 2018. 13:38

Erika Mihálycsa: It’s like caviar

Love of poteen/pálinka/țuica runs deep in both populations, I guess. I think perhaps a sense of unease in language may be common – both the (English-speaking) Irish and Transylvanian Hungarians speak a minor version of the language – Owen Good's interview with lecturer and translator Erika Mihálycsa.

OG: You're a rarity among translators, you're by birth a Romanian citizen, but you translate in both directions between Hungarian and English, publishing in both. Already being bilingual with Hungarian and Romanian, how did your new relationship with English begin?

EM: In all truth, I don’t think my case is all that rare, at least not among people brought up in multi- or bilingual environments, such as Transylvania. Even if Romanian was not a family idiom for me but an acquired language, I think its presence from early childhood made it evident that we never speak in one language alone, and that translation is ever-present where language is used. My relationship with English started relatively late – my first foreign language being German (which I learnt privately, from a fantastic teacher who was Romanian, so we quickly developed a way of communicating across German, Romanian and Hungarian; in many ways I have been continuing this early exercise in to-and-froing and hybridization ever since). I started learning it at school, then read English at university and became a researcher specializing in twentieth-century British and Irish literaure. For long years now most of my reading has been in English, to which I owe most of my greatest literary loves and discoveries, so it doesn’t seem so odd that I should translate between these two languages. In the case of literary translation, with the exception of some types of writing I think what counts most is how far and wide you have read in the target language literature, what kind of styles you can command, how you can juggle with target-language literary traditions and the way they have been sinned against. In any case, at a certain point I had the audacity of assuming thatI was sufficiently equipped (or, on a Beckettian note of humility, sufficiently ill-equipped) to try to bring/wring across texts that spoke to me very urgently, into English.


OG: How did you begin translating?

EM: Literary translation proper started with a few poems by Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath which so gutpunched me when I came across them (I was a first-year student) that I sat down almost at once to try and render them in Hungarian. The pattern remains: translation always starts with a very strong impact a text has on me – and more often than not, this impact has to do with strangeness, since most of the writers I translated are writers of excess in one form or another. It is I who choose the texts (or much rather, the texts choose me), then, if I think the translations are satisfactory, I send them to magazines, to publishers – only few times have I translated anything on commission. I also didn’t have any schooling proper in literary translation: at first I made all possible mistakes, then started getting more and more attentive to the texts’ particular oddities, effects of style, including the less conspicuous oddities of phrasing, word order. One thing I had to learn (in translating into Hungarian) was to produce “bare” lines – in Hungarian translation, especially poetry, the penchant to over-rhetoricise, embellish and “dress up” with language effects is still strong, as translations of Paul Celan’s poetry sadly demonstrate. William Carlos Williams obviously taught me a lot. I have to add that in my academic work one of my passions is translation studies, especially Joyce in (Hungarian, Romanian, Italian, German) translation – those cases of recreating a vast array of events of style and language in another language taught me a lot about the limitations and surprising possibilities of translation. On the whole, I’m convinced that writers like Joyce and Beckett tend to make us much closer readers.


OG: You translate an array of Irish authors and poets into Hungarian: Beckett, O'Brien, Durcan, McGuckian, Donoghue, Friel, McCabe, Tóibín, how did the attraction for Irish writers begin and has it changed over the years?

EM: It all started in my student years, with an Irish Studies MA program – I was obviously drawn by the fact that the most daring and exciting modernists writing in English tended to be Irish. Soon enough I came across a very peculiar member of the author class who went under half a score of pen-names, among them Flann O’Brien. That writing was truly like nothing I have ever encountered before – and still, was relatively unknown. So the translation project dearest to my heart started: by 2006 I had produced a (nearly) full translation of At Swim-Two-Birds, when I learned quite casually that another PhD candidate from the Hungarian far West had also translated the novel, and was likewise looking for a publisher. Thanks to the mediation of professor Ferenc Takács, the primum mobile of Joycean and Oirish studies in Hungary, what followed was not a flamboyant string on swearwords on both sides, but a joint work running for more instalments than Isaura, that I still consider the best thing I’ve done. From our two versions we wrote, over a period of two years, a third, joint translation text, different from both our initial versions. Since the whole novel is made up of sixty-odd style parodies, working on it was supreme fun and sheer pleasure – I imagine fusion jazz players’ jam sessions to feel like that. After long delay, the book came out from a small publisher 2009, and has probably sold twenty copies since. It’s a quare one and one that takes a lot of beating.

My enthusiasm for Irish writers remains, and I continue to propose their novels to publishers. I think that even the “old masters” are scandalously underrepresented in Hungarian – Banville’s novels written since the nineties for instance, if translated at all, are few and far between and have come out from small, weird presses rather than the more prestigious ones, with covers suggestive of romance and chick lit rather than of one of the greatest stylists of our days. I don’t know if John McGahern’s frightfully bleak and sobering response to Joyce’s A Portrait, The Dark, stands a chance of appearing in Hungarian, or, for that matter, the work of Aidan Higgins; even Tóibín himself, certainly one of the most visible contemporary Anglophone writers, only started circulating in Hungarian after the filming of Brooklyn… On the whole I think this is a time of shrinking in Hungarian publishing, well in line with the country’s political turn.

One Irish writer I particularly admire and have been following is Medbh McGuckian: her poetry is entirely unique, something that provokes and forever defeats our attempts to understand, to tease out her compact, mind-boggling images into conceptual language, symbolism and the like, and so exorcise them away. I would love to have the chance to contribute to a selected volume of her poetry in Hungarian.


OG: As someone from Northern Ireland, I often hear that there exists some sort of similarity between the Transylvanian and Irish people, and I must admit that while translating Zsolt Láng, I found Flann O'Brien and Samuel Beckett to be useful models in my translation. Is this connection or similarity apparent to you in the two cultures' literatures?

EM: Well, love of poteen/pálinka/țuica runs deep in both populations, I guess. I think perhaps a sense of unease in language may be common – both the (English-speaking) Irish and Transylvanian Hungarians speak a minor version of the language, at an angle to the linguistic standard, and this is almost bound to lead to a more intense preoccupation with the nature of language. Of course this streak has long been there in Irish literature, well before political independence, as epitomized by Stephen Dedalus’ “unrest of spirit” – whereas in Transylvanian Hungarian literature I don’t think it is much present before the 1980-90s. But I think similarities stop there – not least because, well, Transylvanian literature has so far failed to produce anything to match not only Flann O’Brien or Beckett in quality and radicalism, but also the Irish writers of the generation of McCabe et al. The present mid-generation of Transylvanian writers, to whom Láng also belongs, started from a very interesting position, having inherited the ballast of pre-1989 “lamentriture” – the nationalist-nostalgic writing that bemoaned what was perceived as the imminent destruction of the Transylvanian Hungarian community by the Ceausescu regime’s aggressive assimilation policies. It was this new generation of writers who programmatically exposed the pious façade of their forebears’ writing, showing how these forms of collective nostalgia reinforced nationalist mythologemes, fictionalized the past and conveniently sidestepped individual responsibility; and this did come indeed with a strong ingredient of language criticism and an appetite for non-linear forms and non-mimetic writing, something that Irish literature had been producing since the days of Joyce.


OG: The writers you translate from Hungarian into English are less wide-ranging and often limited to a poem or a short story for publication in journals. I wonder that being a Hungarian speaker, who must read a fair amount of Hungarian literature, do you see a common trait in the pieces you choose to introduce to the English world? In other words, what is it that, a few times a year, stops you in your tracks and compels you to spread this Hungarian short story or that poem further into the English-speaking world?

EM: Given my background, it is probably not surprising that I’m not much drawn to contemporary forms of realism and literature that is primarily about story-telling. The work I’m interested in, as a reader and as a translator, takes (often major) risks, is experimental. What compels me to translate are, ideally, singular voices of writers who are also thinkers through their medium, writers who come with no agenda, whose texts are not about the aggrandizing of egos. They can also tend to be uncomfortable – for a sense of hyper-lucidity in rendering an image, in capturing x-ray images of the pathology of our everyday, in exposing the clichés in our use of language and habits of thinking.

The writer and poet whose texts most refuse to leave me alone (in both senses of the word) is Zsuzsa Takács, whom I consider one of the major poets of our time. Her poetry is not easy to describe: what I experience in her taut texts is a form of precision of word and image combined with all-pervasive compassion – something that is at the same time profoundly personal and fragile, and yet dialogic. It is liberating without being comforting. By now I’ve translated a fair amount of both her poems and short prose – hoping that an English-language publisher may be found for them.

A translation work of sorts that has come to occupy a lot of my time is connected to a writer who couldn’t be more different from her – maverick Modernist Miklós Szentkuthy. I edited, for Contra Mundum Press, Tim Wilkinson’s translation of Black Renaissance, Szentkuthy’s 1939 novel, the second in the monstre series St. Orpheus Breviary, which meant extreme close reading, tampering with word choices and syntax and rhythm, taking occasional intertextual liberties and also quite a bit of sherlockholmesing for the notes. His modernism is truly unlike anything I know: at times it seems a surrealism without the agenda, extreme phenomenology, all in an endlessly self-generating theorizing where one learned digression triggers off another series of digressions, a bit like the chains of association in stream-of-consciousness writing – all tongue-in-cheek. He is exhilarating, baffling, exasperating, at times shriekingly funny, at times lapsing into the crudest purple prose – and strikingly strange. I have come to relish his peculiar hybridization of Hungarian – whether commenting on Tacitus or writing a fictional letter by Monteverdi on Brunelleschi, he would dot the pages with that jocose urban lingo of the 1930s, derived from German and Yiddish, that has since sadly disappeared from Hungarian usage, not to mention the wealth of French, English, Italian, Latin that lubricates the passages. As a friend said, it’s like caviar.


OG: Which untranslated Transylvanian authors and poets do you believe demand recognition in English?

EM: In the generation I mentioned there are a few distinctive voices who would certainly deserve international recognition. One of my recommendations would be Zsuzsa Selyem, a writer of ruptured prose forms, as often as not adopting non-human perspectives, who offers a wry look at (East/Central European, Hungarian/Romanian/Transylvanian, family, men’s/women’s, etc.) historical traumas – a lesson in humility, I’d say, one that is bound to corrode our unthinking assumption that we should by default be centre-stage. Her It’s Raining in Moscow, an unusual family history spanning over a century of the history of Transylvania, revisits and, as I see it, radically exhausts a genre that became popular after the regime change: it is narrated by a host of animal voices (including that of a bedbug and a fly), who relativize our privileged points of view of human sufferers of a history that happens above our heads and ceaselessly victimizes us, with savage humour. Fragments of it appeared in World Literature Today and in Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction series, and it recently came out in Romanian – I hope that an adventurous press may discover it and a complete English translation may follow.

Another author who definitely deserves attention is András Visky: playwright, theatre-maker, dramaturg and poet, he already has a selected volume of plays in English out from Intellect / Chicago University Press, and his plays have been widely translated and performed. Yet he remains untranslated as a poet – I think that his writing-apart of scriptural texts is a unique experiment that deserves translation.


OG: You recently edited a special Hungarian women writer's issue of Words Without Borders, do you think Hungarian women are well-represented in English translation?

EM: Honestly, I don’t think women writers are very visible in Hungarian in the first place, the domestic canon is still overwhelmingly masculinist and continues to affect contemporary women writers. The only Hungarian woman writer with measurable visibility in English appears to be Magda Szabó. Even the writer and psychologist Alaine Polcz is well-nigh unknown, despite having been translated: One Woman in the War, her unshrinking depiction of bodily trauma, of the punitive rape suffered by thousands of women (herself included) at the end of WW2 from Soviet troops, and of the quick social silencing of this experience, counts among the important books about the experience of war. I hope that the WordsWithoutBorders issue may draw attention to some of the contemporaries, of whom two (Zsófia Bán and Krisztina Tóth) have a volume forthcoming in English.


Erika Mihálycsa is a lecturer in twentieth- and twenty-first century British and Irish writing at Babes-Bolyai University Cluj, Romania, and is a Joyce and Beckett scholar. Her translations from English into Hungarian include fiction and poetry by Beckett, Flann O'Brien, Patrick McCabe, Julian Barnes, Jeanette Winterson, George Orwell, Anne Carson, Medbh McGuckian, william carlos williams, and others. Her translations of contemporary Hungarian short fiction and poetry have come out in World Literature Today, Words Without Borders, Two Lines, Trafika Europe, Music and Literature, The Collagist, Numero Cinq, and elsewhere. She has published short prose in both Hungarian and English. Together with Rainer J. Hanshe she edits the literary and arts journal HYPERION - For the Future of Aesthetics, issued by Contra Mundum Press.