09. 28. 2018. 17:35

Péter Rácz: As often happens in life, it was love

"If you work at something obsessively, sooner or later you’ll find a way." – says Péter Rácz, chairperson of the Hungarian Translators' House Foundation, speaking in an interview for International Translation Day, about his career, the Translators' House and the literary translation programme.


How did you become a literary translator and what led you towards setting up the Hungarian Translators’ House Foundation in Balatonfüred?


As often happens in life, it was love. An old love of mine was swooning over how beautiful Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling is, and how great it would be to translate it. When the relationship ended (not for the first time, or for the last), I rolled up my sleeves and started translating it from German. Publishers weren’t interested and six years passed before the Európa publishing house took it on: it took that time for them to overcome their ideological qualms. It was the eighties. Thanks to the translation, I honed my German (and my Hungarian, too). And of course I learned that if possible a translator shouldn’t work without a contract. The text is magnificent, and almost every sentence spoke to me; I believed Abraham’s absolute faith. Over the years I heard it recited back to me; others liked it, too, and it was taught at the university. Later I translated two more Kierkegaard, but I didn’t want to do anymore from an intermediary language. As regards the translation of Hungarian literature, I’ve taken part in the Attila József Circle’s (JAK) translator’s camp since the 80s, leading seminars. I got to know the translators’ house in Straelen, when I started translating Martin Buber Haszid’s stories. But it wasn’t until the 90s when the idea of a translators’ house in Hungary came about and I wrote an article on the idea. When I finished the translation of Haszid’s stories, I got stuck into the wildcat scheme of the translators’ house. After some initial difficulties things came together and the house has been going for 20 years. Meanwhile at the Balassi Institute I was asked to teach literary translation, where two years later an independent course for literary translation began: things developed bit by bit.



Could you tell us a little more about the beginnings of the Translators’ House?


After I’d written about my experiences at the German translators’ house in a literary periodical, a group of people began trying to establish a Hungarian translators’ house, but without any success. That’s when I got involved; it took two years to find a suitable building and pull together a huge amount of money for the renovations from a Dutch foundation, a Swiss foundation and the Hungarian state. In the meantime, there were plenty of setbacks which only increased my determination.  First we established the Hungarian Translators’ Foundation as a legal entity. A board of five trustees decide upon the applications of translators who’d like to work for a few weeks in the house. The way the foundation operates, to this day, developed very early on: we try to work thoroughly and efficiently with as little bureaucracy as possible. The most important aspect for us is insuring the best working conditions for the translators. We attract new recruits by holding literary translation seminars for emerging translators, and for a range of languages, ten or twelve every year. The proceedings are usually led by a literary translator with a feel for pedagogy, who are encouraged to invite guest speakers and foreign publishing editors. A great deal of the translators trained via the Balassi Institute program (now into its fourteenth year) turn up at the house sooner or later, when they get their first translation contract with a publisher. One condition of the house is that the translation done there should be published. The average age of the house’s guests is fairly low, about 45. There's more information about the house and its conditions available on our website: www.forditohaz.hu Naturally we can only offer grants to foreign translators working from Hungarian literature.


And what nationalities are these translators?


Every year 120-140 translators visit the house, half of them come with their own commissioned job and are already professional literary translators, whereas the rest come to take part in seminars. Out of all of Europe, I think Greek is the only nationality we haven’t had yet. From the Far East there’s been Mongolian, Chinese, Japanese, Indonesian, Indian, and in the other direction, from across the water, the USA. It’s clear that where the Hungarian language is well-taught, there are more translators, for example in Poland. In 2017, roughly 40 writers were translated into 18 languages, and 28 works translated in the house were published around the world.


How did the literary translation course come about at the Balassi Institute?


If you work at something obsessively, sooner or later you’ll find a way. My interest had been noticed, and I was invited to teach on an optional literary translation class, and then two years later to be director of one-year programme specialising in literary translation alone. What’s special about this course is that a native-speaking mentor will guide and present suggestions towards the young translator’s work throughout the year; this is a huge help, after all on my own I can only unravel the complexities of the Hungarian text. By the time they’ve submitted their larger “masterwork” by the end of the year, they’re able to work on translating new works on their own. I love this job, because every year a diverse, ambitious band of translators gathers from Europe, the USA, the Far East, ready to be enthralled. The teachers make sure that the year is intensive and interesting. We also invite them to get to know the translators’ house, where one day we hope they’ll return with their own commissioned work.



What sort of classes can a student on this course expect?


Although the majority of the students speak and read Hungarian well, Hungarian language and stylistic classes are still necessary. Besides those, every week students take seminars in 19th-20th century prose, contemporary prose, poetry, contemporary Hungarian drama (with frequent outings to the theatre) and poetry translation. There is also translation theory for one semester. Each subject is taught by a separate specialist teacher. Twice a week they have translation practice for which they’re given tasks from the last hundred years of Hungarian literature. For hours at length we analyse and interpret the text, the students expressing their views as colleagues in translation. On top of all that, twice a year we invite two writers or translations for a discussion. Budapest’s literary life is another integral part of the programme. Lastly, this year, for the first time, the students will be taking in all that they can at the – now decades old – Attila József Circle’s translators’ camp.


What sort of Hungarian texts do you like to bring to the students?


Literary translation – assuming you have a bit of talent for writing – is a craft which can be learned, Hungarian literature is incredibly rich, and in every language there are curious and mad people interested in the world of this isolated people, without being deterred by its linguistic difficulties. When choosing texts I always opt for variety, it’s good if they’re confronted with different challenges in language and style. Furthermore it doesn’t hurt if all of us do like the text. With each text I receive a smattering of literary criticism, I’ve heard it said that every Hungarian text contains either sex or murder, or both, are all of Krúdy’s heroes meat-guzzling machos? To some extent I do take their interests into consideration, but I stress that a literary translator has to be able to hold their ground linguistically in all kinds of situations. A few writers on the translator’s menu: Margit Kaffka, Miklós Mészöly, Ernő Szép, Iván Mándy, Péter Nádas, György Pétri, Zsuzsa Rakovszky, Ottó Tolnai, Imre Kertész, Péter Hajnóczy, Kornél Hamvai, Elek Benedek.

Translated by: Owen Good