12. 24. 2017. 10:36

Judith Sollosy: No flotsam and jetsam blowing in the wind

After translating Esterházy for so many years, working with Nádas’s book is like switching from dirty dancing to classical ballet. – Owen Good's interview with Judith Sollosy.

How did you begin translating?

When I came to Hungary, I told a close friend of my husband’s that I’d like to learn proper Hungarian by reading Hungarian literature, and he suggested that I read Endre Ady’s short stories. They were such a revelation, I started translating them into English, because I wanted them to exist in English so I could show them to people. This basic drive to make literature exist in English, I think this is why I began translating in earnest.

And why is it you continue? What do you enjoy about the process?

I have always loved the theater and the manipulation of energy that lead to the actualization of the play we aptly call a performance – in short, the dramaturgy of the process of translation, the wrestling with the text, like Jacob wrestling with the Angel. The physicality of the thing. The self-involvement it calls for.  Translation is manipulation and negotiation, allowing words the right of access to meaning, achieving a fine balance between the literal and the suggestive, the story and its melody, knowing what can be willed, and what cannot. (Comment: what cannot be willed is also part of the text.) Translation is dealing with the concrete while keeping one’s eye on the text as a whole, orchestrating the interaction between words, between manifest and hidden content, intellectual (verbal) and non-intellectual content, such as sound and rhythm. Being on guard so you don’t confuse language with communication. Translation is metempsychosis, just ask Pirandello. Translation is theater at its best.

Over your full translation career, were there any works you particularly loved working on and stuck in your memory?

To quote the organist Gergely Rákász, how the dickens can I play a piece if I don’t love the composer? Still, if I could take just one translation on a desert island, it would be Péter Esterházy’s Celestial Harmonies. Especially the first sentence, its opening accord, sticks in my mind: “It is deucedly difficult to tell a lie when you don’t know the truth.” Walking around with this sentence in your head constitutes a moral stance, and it is great fun. What else is in my head? István Örkény’s one minute stories, scenes and motifs from the tales for adults by Lázár Ervin, sentences from the works of Lajos Parti Nagy, Sándor Tar and Pál Závada, they’re with me wherever I go. I turn a corner, and I see an Örkény story unfolding, I hear people talking to each other at the Lehel Square market, and there’s the world of Party Nagy; on my way to catch the train down by the Nyugati Station underpass, I sometimes feel like I’ve just encountered Tar’s universe. You might say that I’m translating in order to take possession of life.

Were there any which were particularly testing?

All good literature is testing, though once I’ve found my way into a text, I don’t send the author to a warmer clime quite as often. But from time to time I forget, a case in point being Péter Nádas’s latest book, Shimmering Details, which I thought it would be less exacting than translating Péter Esterházy’s texts. I thought wrong. From the frying pan into the fire. Nádas is every bit as challenging as Esterházy, with whom he was good friends, except the challenge is of a different nature, as so my response as a translator must be different, too. While Esterházy (attention: oversimplification!) strives for non-intellectual effects, Nádas is intellectual to the core; he is internal and introspective, while Esterházy is external, something of an exhibitionist, enjoying his manipulation of language; while Nádas is basically literal and linear, Esterházy is basically suggestive and often seemingly ad hoc. Their communicative drive points in different directions, and it takes extreme caution on my part not to confuse the two languages and intentions and to protect the integrity of the original. So yes, after having translated Esterházy for so long, I find the Nádas text particularly testing.

Being bilingual, having grown up in the US as a Hungarian American, but living in Hungary since 1975 with frequent visits back to the States, can you say you feel more at home in one literature or the other?

Yes, I think I do. The Bible, the Confessions of St. Augustine, Dickens, Joyce, Kerouac, Christmas songs and Bob Dylan’s lyrics resonate with me in a way that Hungarian literature can’t. Which doesn’t mean that my appreciation of Hungarian literature is less. It’s just different. English literature I experience from the inside. It resonates in a rich cultural and social sphere that is part of me. It feels more natural and takes less effort to read. On the other hand, when I read or translate Hungarian literature, the lack of this primary “from the inside” experience is an advantage because I can say, along the lines of Shakespeare’s Miranda, “O brave new world, that has such sentences in it!” No flotsam and jetsam blowing in the wind.

You’re currently working on Nádas’s new memoir Világló Részletek (English working title, Shimmering Details)—has it been easy to grasp his voice?

A legitimate question, but in this case, it does not apply. Even though no one is more acutely aware than Nádas that the body and the intellect function in close symbiosis, and though many of Nádas’s sentences and passages are the evocative sentences and passages of a poet, still, in Shimmering Details the prose remains intellectually driven. It is thought and not voice that is dominant, and so it is the thought and not the voice that I need to grasp. After translating Esterházy for so many years, working with Nádas’s book is like switching from dirty dancing to classical ballet.

At times like these, would you read past translations of his other works?

If those translations had anything to offer, yes. On the other hand, I read as much as I can, or as much as I deem relevant, of the author’s output because ultimately, any particular work is part of the author’s larger universe of works. It therefore follows that the more at home I am in that universe, the more authentically I can translate any one of its parts.

Beyond the task itself, or reading the original, did you use any other methods of easing yourself into the job, such as reading authors in English who might be comparable to Nádas?

I haven’t read any authors in English comparable to Nádas, but there are thinkers, philosophers, and essayists, both English and European, whose thoughts help illuminate Nádas’s own thoughts on language, consciousness, memory, and the human psyche. John Locke’s On the Human Understanding, first published in 1689, was an invaluable help in this regard, as were some of Bacon’s essays, the writings of Freud, Jung, Steiner, as well as Lacan’s The Language of the Self and Lev Vygotsky’s Thought and Language. I never tire of telling my students that you can’t bluff your way through a translation. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you end up translating the words, and not the text.

You’ve taught for a lot of your life in various institutions, both in the US and in Hungary, do you still teach at all?

I would like nothing better, but ELTE “rationalized” its teaching staff. I loved teaching, and I miss it terribly. Maybe it’s time I started a small master class for translators. I would enjoy it, and God willing, perhaps I could help bring the best out of the future translators of Hungarian literature, and match them up with the writers who suit their gifts and temperaments best. Yes, it’s probably high time.

Would you have preferred to translate full-time all your life, or was teaching important to you?

I couldn’t do anything full time, I would find it boring. I have always preferred trying my hand at various things, though not necessarily at the same time, of course. Luckily, they all seem related and in all probability spring from the same source, whatever that source may be. The things that I did, the things that I am doing now or hope to do in the future (I asked my doctor for at least twenty more years) strengthen and support each other, such as teaching and translation, or editing and translation, or writing and translation, not to mention dancing and translation. Moving about to some inner rhythm makes the missing words materialize. Now if only I were a Pavlova, I could discard my dictionaries….

For a couple of years I wrote feature articles and cultural reviews for newspapers; later came a book on translation and Netting America, an internet book for college students on 20th century American literature and culture that I co-authored. There were articles on translating Örkény and Esterházy, and in 2010 I edited a special Hungarian edition of Words without Borders. And also, once when I felt particularly maudlin (this was late at night), I asked myself what regret I would most especially not like to have on my deathbed, and The Voice said, theater. So I launched into it (Bottom: Let me play the lion too!) and translated plays from English into Hungarian (I’d already been doing it the other way around for years). There was also an Esterházy monodrama of sorts for the Spinoza Theater, and now a book on the phenomenology of translation and another, this time fiction, that are looming on the horizon. But just looming, and just on the horizon.

Are there any Hungarian works, unpublished in English, that deserve recognition in the English speaking world, or that you’d particularly love to work on?

Books by Béla Balázs (especially Hét mese – Seven Tales), Béla Hamvas (especially Karnevál - Carneval), Erzsébet Galgóczy, Péter Hajnóczy (especially Jézus menyasszonya – The Bride of Jesus), Virág Erdős, and Márton Gerlóczy. If I had nine lives, I’d tackle them, especially Hajnóczy. On the other hand, I have translated appreciable chunks of the following books: Mihály Kornis, Alive at Last and Daybook, the second of which could jump-start European existentialist literature into the 21st century, Sándor Tar’s political and psychological thriller, Grey Pigeon, Lajos Parti Nagy’s surrealist Heroes’ Square, and Viktor Horváth’s modern-day picaresque, Turkish Mirror. If it were not quite so long, I’d translate it in full and give it to my friends and relations for Christmas. I also have large chunks of four books by Esterházy on a pen drive, Esti, Revised Edition, Simple Story Comma One Hundred Pages: the Mark Variant, and Pancreatic Diary, a record of his illness and so much more besides. This so much more besides, let this be the last word….