05. 09. 2018. 09:54

The translator's note – Zsuzsa Rakovszky: The Snake’s Shadow (an excerpt)

translated by Carolyn Haythorn

This season we'll be bringing extracts and translator's notes from emerging translators of Hungarian literature. Carolyn Haythorn translates Zsuzsa Rakovszky's The Snake’s Shadow (an excerpt).


The Snake’s Shadow (an excerpt)

Our memory has been known to trick us; our imagination offers us constructed images as if they come from our own mind’s storehouse, and once in a while the images can be so plain and so precise that it is as if they were indeed reality, not formed from fictive figments of imagination. Our task becomes still more difficult should we try to reliably recall our erstwhile passions: nothing of our most excruciating sorrow nor most violent delight remains in memory, just the names alone, ash and dust. I closed my eyes and it seemed that a wall of fire – which so many times I had escaped in my dreams – spurred forward by the wind, had caught up to me, was collapsing down on me, and I, awestruck, realized that this fire was not the source of pain, but of profound delight, which would melt my soul’s stiff, outer shell, that its sibling, the fire which lived inside me, might now fly about liberated in the outside world, that there it might find kinship in the creatures that dwell in the trees and on the land, that creep in the soil, and that live amongst the stars, that my soul might be all this at once: loam, copse, louse, and star, and that hereafter I might be nobody at all. I opened my eyes and saw that the shadows of the branches of the pine trees above my head could not yet be distinguished from the blackness of the sky, and I wonder, when I looked up and saw a shooting star flying across the black sky, pulling its tail aflame and then disappearing behind the trees, was it real or just a dream?  And I wonder, was it also just a dream when not far from where I was lying down, the grass rustled, and suddenly a large snake drug its thick, ringed body along the ground next to me, so close that my upper arm shivered at the touch of its cold, scaly skin? And, I wonder, was it only a dream when the hand, which just a moment before had been caressing the curve of my shoulder, reached out into the dark grass, grabbed the snake, and threw it into the thickets in the distance?

(translated by Carolyn Haythorn)
TRANSLATOR'S NOTE (by Carolyn Haythorn)


A kígyó árnyeka, or The Snake’s Shadow, was the first novel written by Zsuzsa Rakovszky, published in 2002. It is a historical fiction set in the 17th century which details the life of a young bourgeois woman. Before her prose-debut, Rakovszky was already critically acclaimed for her poetry, the first collection of which, Jóslatok és határidők (Prophecies and Deadlines) was published in 1981. The influence of poetry is clear in the style of her prose, where elevated language, lyrical language, and striking metaphor enhance the narrative, making the read truly captivating.

The main challenge I faced in this excerpt was maintaining Rakovszky’s unique voice in translation. For example, the novel uses archaic language, which serves to emphasize its historical setting.  Initially, I tried to use many archaic words to emphasize this style. However, I struggled to find a balance between language that was too modern and language that was laughably—unrealistically—archaic. Especially in such a short excerpt, it was difficult to indicate the time-period of the text without making the language mechanical, unnatural. For example, in my first draft, I translated röpülhessen szanaszét as might now fly everywhither, which was quickly flagged as strange by my reviewers. In my final draft, everywhither became a more neutral about. Although I ended up replacing most of the truly archaic language of my earlier drafts with more neutral terms, I did check for when the words I used were first recorded in the English language and avoided any terms which were coined too recently. Still, given more time, I would’ve liked play with other characteristics of 17th century English, perhaps looking at differences in syntax in addition to lexicon.

Another feature of Rakovszky’s voice is her very poetic prose. For example, the original contains a beautifully alliterative line, “hogy ott föltalálja fákban, füvekben, a fold férgeiben és az ég csillagaiban lakozó rokonságát, hogy én legyek egyszerre mindez: fű, fa, féreg, és csillag…” I spent quite a while playing with the English translation to try to create the same feel caused by the repetition of sound and rhythm. In the end, I had to forgo the alliteration, and instead emphasized parallel structure, “that there it might find kinship in the creatures that dwell in the trees and on the land, that creep in the soil, and that live amongst the stars, that my soul might be all this at once: loam, copse, louse, and star…” I had reservations about changing the last four words to a much higher register than they are in the original (which would more accurately be grass, tree, worm, and star) but in the end, I felt the change was justified, because it better highlights the poetic nature of Rakovszky’s text. Although I lost the alliteration in this part of the text, I was able to add it elsewhere. In this way, the style is maintained as a whole, even if it is not emphasized in exactly the same places.  

Carolyn Haythorn was born and raised in the United States, just outside of Indianapolis, Indiana. She studied Anthropology and History at Indiana University, focusing on linguistics and Central Europe. She first became interested in Hungary after visiting Budapest in high school. She fell in love with the city, and, interested in language and determined to return to Hungary, began studying Hungarian her sophomore year of college. Upon graduating in Spring 2017, she moved to Budapest to participate in the Balassi Institute’s Literary Translation course, where she currently studies.


Previously on HLO:

Collected voices – Rachel Miller's review

Taking possession of time – István Margócsy's review

VS: the Hungarian George Sand – János Szegő's review

A successful border-crossing – Sándor Bazsányi's review