03. 17. 2017. 15:15

What's the point of translating anything easy? – an interview with Peter Sherwood

This year Peter Sherwood is celebrating his golden jubilee, fifty years of translating from Hungarian. To mark the occasion and to celebrate his work, here's the veteran linguist himself explaining how he ended up in such an odd vocation, as a literary diplomat.

You’ve been translating Hungarian literature for fifty years, a noble undertaking but not a popular one; how did you begin?

I was about 15 when my physics teacher at school asked me to help him pick up some phrase-book Hungarian for a holiday he was planning.  This resulted in an epiphany: I realised I was fortunate enough to be comfortable in two languages, both of which I felt to be mine, and this made me wonder whether I could do something useful with them. The first step, I thought, was to take a GCE 'A' level in Hungarian (in 1960s Britain you needed these, that is to say, Advanced level passes in the General Certificate of Education, generally in at least three subjects, to apply for university.Such examinations in smaller languages were cut, ironically, about the time the UK joined what was then still the Common Market.) During the Cold War Hungarian books were not readily available in the UK, so in the interests of fairness there was only one set book for the literature part of the paper, an anthology published by the University of London compiled by the person who (I later learnt) taught Hungarian there. So the first two short stories I translated, while I was still at school, were taken from this anthology. I did not think of translating literature as a vocation, certainly not at the time, or perhaps ever; for me, and I imagine the editors, these translations were more an interesting and unusual alternative to the eminently forgettable juvenilia that my contemporaries produced for the school's magazines. I went on to take a degree in Hungarian (and linguistics) in London, at the only UK university offering such a degree at the time, and soon after graduation was offered a teaching post there. I spent many years developing and refining my courses, and translated literature only as and when the occasion arose, for example when the Hungarian Cultural Centre in London organised 'literary soirées' with visiting poets and writers; after all, for more than 40 years I was primarily an academic, with a necessarily wide range of interests and, indeed, duties. A significant concern of mine, however, has always been bilingual English/Hungarian lexicography: I have been closely involved in the editing of two major such dictionaries. Bilingual dictionaries are of course a crucial prerequisite of, and aid to, translation, whether literary or otherwise, and producing them is an important way of benefiting a large number of people in both cultures, something I have always regarded as extremely important but which I knew, from the outset, I could never achieve simply by teaching Hungarian in the English-speaking world. As my teaching career wound down my thoughts turned more to literary translation -- another way, hopefully, of being a cultural ambassador and reaching a wider Anglophone audience -- and over the last ten years or so I have published translations of two novels and a number of essays, most recently Béla Hamvas's book-length The Philosophy of Wine (2016) and a selection of Antal Szerb's essays on European literature (2017). I enjoy the flexing of intellectual muscle involved in dealing with more difficult material; what's the point of translating anything 'easy'?

You say that you feel comfortable in both languages, do you still have to work to keep them ‘yours’?

Well, you mainly have to read as much and as widely as possible, in both languages.  I don't regard that as work, more as life.

Translators are sometimes conceived of as diplomats of the literary world, do you feel any responsibility as a bridge between two cultures?

I hope it doesn't sound arrogant -- I certainly don't mean it to -- when I say that my working life has been devoted to acting, to the best of my abilities, as the widest possible cultural bridge between Hungary and the Anglo-Saxon world (as the Hungarian state and some academic organisations in Hungary have generously recognised). I think this task is daily becoming more crucial, as -- on the one hand -- Hungary's drawbridges are currently being pulled up, quite violently, and -- on the other -- English becomes, whether one likes it or not, more and more a 'world language'. One direct literary consequence of the latter point is that English translations of Hungarian literature are increasingly being used by translators into other languages to check or supplement their vernacular versions, or even as the direct sources of their own translations. Partly, though by no means solely, for this reason another of my major interests is the rigorous criticism of entire translations of (not just selected extracts from) Hungarian novels into English; any ad hoc journalistic remarks that might be made by (say) reviewers with, usually, no knowledge of the source language are of little use. An extreme example occurred some years ago, when the Times Literary Supplement's reviewer of Sándor Márai's popular (for a while) Embers (A gyertyák csonkig égnek) failed to note, even if he realised, that it was a "double translation": not from Hungarian at all, but from the German version of the work, Die Glut.

Do you make the suggestions or do the publishers?

Publishers have tended to come to me, in so far as they have come at all.

Is there something you really enjoyed translating or a genre you prefer most?

Every work and every genre has its own pleasures (and challenges). I have enjoyed translating everything, from novels, short stories, poetry (though, since I am no poet myself, only when my arm is twisted AND I am really keen on a particular poet: Balassi, Pilinszky and, of those writing today, Zsuzsa Takács and Krisztina Tóth have been among my favourites), through literary and philosophical essays, to plays and film scripts. I have even done an opera libretto.

Is there any particular work you really struggled with?

Every single one of them.

For years you taught Hungarian studies at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London, do you miss that teaching work?

I must confess that after 42 years of teaching Hungarian, at SSEES (now part of University College London) and at the University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill in the US, my enthusiasm for (particularly elementary) language teaching is no longer what it was. I do, however, miss teaching the more advanced, academic courses, especially as most of the students who came, at least in my time at SSEES (somewhat less so in the US), were really keen to learn.

Who were the students who came to learn Hungarian?

In my experience there were three main categories of learner, though these are perhaps less sharply distinguishable these days: those of Hungarian heritage, some of whom were misguided enough to imagine that the language would come more easily to them because of some genetic predisposition (or even simply because they absolutely adored nagymama's unforgettable csörögefánk). A further group was made up of those with a Hungarian partner, for whose benefit, and often love, they were trying to learn the language; these students were often admirably patient and persistent. The final group comprised intrepid linguists and language learners, who had heard that Hungarian is an unusual/ remarkable/ exotic (etc.) language, yet one spoken only a couple of hours away by Wizzair or easyJet (from London, at least); this is the only group that, I found, was never disappointed.

Do teaching language and translation complement each other well?

The answer as far as I am concerned (other practitioners are welcome to differ) is yes, absolutely: language teaching and translation are inextricably intertwined.

You’ve collaborated on many projects with your wife Julia Sherwood, how did that come about?

My Slovak-born wife, who in the UK worked for NGOs, is fluent in six languages (or, as she would have it, six and half if you include Hungarian) and always wanted to translate. When she found that visa restrictions in the US did not allow her to take up full-time employment during our time there, she saw nothing to stop her from fulfilling her ambition by translating for European publishers online. While I work from Hungarian into English, she translates from various languages (especially English but even, most recently, Russian) into Slovak; and together we translate into English from, mainly, Slovak, but also Czech and Polish. When we are working together Julia produces the initial draft(s) from the Slavonic language concerned; I then read her latest version and we discuss any problems she has encountered and also any further issues that may strike me. Interestingly enough, we often find similarities between Hungarian and, in particular, Slovak idiom structure (though perhaps that should not be surprising if we bear in mind that present-day Slovakia was part of historic Hungary for almost a thousand years), so my experience of working from Hungarian can sometimes come in handy. After that we jointly agree a final draft, put the piece aside for as long as the deadline permits, and then, whenever possible, I return to it for a quick final look. -- We maintain a joint website (which, for my part, references only my translation work) at juliaandpetersherwood.com

In your opinion, which Hungarian authors or poets (dead or alive) unpublished in English deserve to be translated?

We must hope that the remarkable Tim Wilkinson recovers very soon and completes his magnificent assault on Miklós Szentkuthy's monumental oeuvre (and also finds publishers for the work of many other, contemporary, writers he has virtually ready for publication.) That would leave, I think, only one last bastion of Hungarian modernism still to be conquered in English translation, Béla Hamvas's very problematic, but unignorable, Karnevál. Several of the late Péter Esterházy's essential works remain untranslated, and some of Péter Nádas's recent works fall into the same category. Of those from the younger generations: I have recently done an extract from Krisztián Grecsó's Jelmezbál and I think I would enjoy grappling with that novel, for example. It would be wonderful if other Hungarian writers were able to capitalize on the recent acclaim that has met László Krasznahorkai's work in the English-speaking world. However, there is, of course, only one László Krasznahorkai -- and he is a hard act to follow.





PETER SHERWOOD taught at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies (now part of University College London) until 2007. From 2008 until his retirement in 2014 he was László Birinyi, Sr., Distinguished Professor of Hungarian Language and Culture in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He received the Pro Cultura Hungarica prize of the Hungarian Republic in 2001, the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Hungarian Republic in 2007, the János Lotz medal of the International Association for Hungarian Studies in 2011, and the László Országh Prize of the Hungarian Society for the Study of English in 2016. His translations from Hungarian include Miklós Vámos's The Book of Fathers, Noémi Szécsi's The Finno-Ugrian Vampire, and a number of essays by Béla Hamvas, including The Philosophy of Wine.  His translations of Antal Szerb's selected essays on European literature are due to appear from Legenda in Oxford in February, 2017.


Tags: Peter Sherwood, Owen Good