01. 27. 2009. 13:16

"Translations live in an imagined terrain"

An interview with George Szirtes

”It irritates me more than anything when the translator takes upon herself or himself to redress a political imbalance by mangling a perfectly open text just to show that they are not simply co-opting it.” – Poet-translator George Szirtes answers questions by HLO’s brother site, Litera, as part of a series of interviews with translators.

Could you please say a few words about yourself as a translator?
I was a poet first and went to Hungary as an English-language poet (I had published three books and had won important prizes) in 1984. It was following that visit that I became a translator too. I began by translating three difficult poems by Dezso Kosztolányi. Soon I was translating Imre Madách. In 1989 I spent most of the year in Budapest as a British Council Scholar working on Madách and other projects. In terms of translating, the poets came first and the novelists followed. My first translated novel was Kosztolányi’s Anna Édes, a work of which I am still proud. It was glorious prose and a pleasure to translate.
I part edited volumes by poet István Vas and contributed to a Sándor Csoóri and a Sándor Weöres volume of poetry. The rest of my translations are all viewable in the Books section of my website. I seem to have produced some fourteen books of translation and fourteen books of poetry, as well as some miscellaneous books. That is about one a year on average in thirty years. It also includes anthologies of both English and Hungarian writing, poetry and prose. Somewhere, I have a body double, who does half the work for me.
What are you working on right now? What kind of surprises does translation have in store for you?
I am working on three projects.
1. Sándor Márai: Az igazi
2. László Krasznahorkai: Sátántangó
3. Anthology of younger Hungarian poets.
Surprises? In the text itself sometimes. With the younger Hungarian poets (c. 40 years oldest) the tone level: harder, more complex, more uncertainly ironic than those of a previous generation.
In which languages do you feel at home? What does it mean to you to be able to live in and between languages?
I am pretty well embedded in English; I wouldn’t be writing English poems otherwise. For me the two languages complement each other: elements missing from one can be supplemented by the other. For example, all those Hungarian versions of the second person singular are missing in English, as well as the old honorifics. Melancholy in English is something different from the Hungarian bús. There isn’t the equivalent of English understatement in Hungarian, or not quite in the same way. There are many such things, mostly borne out of historical experience.
When do you consider a translation bad and what makes a translation good?
A bad translation is one that has no life in the receiving language. It can still be a good crib or gloss but it cannot be read as art. For me a translation should have a force equivalent, or close to equivalent, to the force of the original in the original language. But there is no such thing as a perfect literary translation and such judgments are inevitably coloured not only by personal but by cultural circumstances too.
What do you think of the existing English translations of Hungarian texts and vice versa? What makes you happy about other translators’ work and what annoys you?
It is the sheer weight of work that demands to be done. In my experience Hungarian literature has many valuable texts, but there are all too few of us to translate them competently into English – maybe five or six people in the world, even fewer for poetry. Since about 1990 I have worked entirely to commission in prose fiction but have had to approach publishers myself in the case of poetry. At the moment my personal danger is that the prose is driving out the poetry.
As concerns translation into Hungarian, I  know there is far more literature translated into Hungarian from English than vice versa. I used to think of Hungarian literary translation in the eighties as a branch of heavy industry. Raw materials were constantly coming in, finished articles came out. Almost every writer I knew was engaged in translation. That is far from the case in England: in fact it is very rare indeed. I think it is admirable that Hungarian translation culture is so active and serious. I wish the corresponding English culture had half the energy or commitment.
I have always read translations, from various languages. I was not a gifted linguist when I was young so I depended on them. In other people’s translations I enjoy exactly the same virtues as I would in a work of fully original literature. Grace, power, shape, the sense (if not the fact, because how would one know it, or even be persuaded of its fully describable existence?) of authenticity.
I used to think that the most annoying aspect of a bad translation was loss of register, an incomplete sense of the modalities of the receiving language. I didn’t like translations that were too locally-coloured or pretended to be slangy London or New York, or any other place. I suspect translations live in an imagined terrain that is not entirely fixed. They inhabit the air between two cultures. I don’t like the moral-political option on translations in which the translator is constantly quibbling about the right of the receiving language to engage with the other text on perfectly natural terms. It irritates me more than anything when the translator takes upon herself or himself to redress a political imbalance by mangling a perfectly open text just to show that they are not simply co-opting it. That is of no help to the original at all; post-colonial guilt may be salutary for the soul but it is poison to the original text.
What was your hardest translating job so far?
For sheer density of text in prose it is László Krasznahorkai’s Melancholy of Resistance. In terms of poetry most of the poems I have tried of Sándor Weöres. I don’t think Krasznahorkai is difficult in his method and purposes, the difficulty is in the mere labour of building parallel sentence structures. Translating a sentence can be exhausting. Also remember I have a prominent profile as an English-language poet and am constantly involved in work that springs out of that side of my life, which, by the way, I consider the main side. Of the various translators from Hungarian I probably lead the most exhaustive literary life as a writer. That in itself can be tiring and render progress more difficult.
Who would you like to translate that you have not had the chance to translate yet, and why? What kind of challenges are you interested in?
I would happily translate Iván Mándy if there were an opportunity. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your point of view) my work as a translator is determined for years ahead. I like the poems of Krisztina Tóth, András Imreh and Anna T. Szabó. I would like to do another volume of Zsuzsa Rakovszky. Maybe Péter Esterházy some time, but he, I think, is already spoken for. Because I myself am a poet my sympathies as a translator tend to be with poetry.
Gabriella Györe
Two translations by George Szirtes

“Speaking Latin among barbarians”: a passage from Sándor Márai’s Az igazi
“When I consider my memories of childhood I discover this anxious, grim sense of directedness behind everything. We worked like robots, going about our rich, refined, ruthless, emotionless, robot work. There was something we had to save, something we had to prove, every day, in everything we did. That we were of a certain class. The middle class. The guardians. We were doing an important job, we had to embody the notions of rank and manners. We were to suppress the revolt of the instincts, of the plebs; we were not to run scared, not to succumb to the desire for individual happiness. You ask whether this is a conscious project?... Well, I wouldn’t exactly say my father or mother sat down regularly at the dinner table every Sunday to announce that week’s program of action or make speeches in which they outlined the next fifty-year family plan. But I couldn’t exactly say that we merely accommodated ourselves to the idiotic demands of class and occasion either. We knew perfectly well that life had singled us out for a difficult series of tests.
It was not only our home, our carefully wrought way of life, our coupons and the factory we had to protect, but the spirit of resistance that constituted the imperatives and deeper meaning of our lives. We had to keep up our resistance to the attractive powers of the proletariat, the plebs who wanted to weaken our resolve by continually tempting us to take various kinds of liberties, whose tendency to revolt we had to overcome, not in the world, but also in ourselves. Everything was suspect: everything was dangerous. We, like others, were careful to make sure the delicate machinery of a pernickety and ruthless society should continue to work undisturbed. We did this at home, judging the world on appearances while suppressing our desires and regulating our inclinations. Being respectable requires constant exertion of effort. I am referring here to the creative, responsible layers of the middle class, in other words not the pushy lower orders who simply want a more comfortable, more diverse kind of life. Our ambition was not to live in greater comfort, or more diversely. Under our actions, our manners, our forms of behavior there was an element of conscious self-denial. We experienced it as a kind of religious vocation, being entrusted with the mission of saving a worldly, pagan society from itself. The task of those who perform this role, under oath and in accordance with the rules of the order, is to maintain that order and to keep secret that which should remain secret when danger threatens the objects of their care. We dined with that responsibility in mind. Every week we dutifully went to the theatre, to the Opera or to the National Theatre. We received our guests, other responsible people, in the same spirit: they came in their dark suits, they sat down in the drawing room, or at the candle-lit dining table with its fine silver and porcelain, where we served good, carefully-chosen food and made empty conversation about sterile subjects, and believe me, there was nothing more sterile than our conversation.
But these empty conversations had a function, a deeper purpose. It was like speaking Latin among barbarians. Beyond the polite phrases, the banal, meaningless arguments and ramblings, there was always the deeper sense that we responsible middle-class people had come together to observe a ritual, to celebrate an honorable compact, and that the codes we were speaking in – because every conversation was about something else – were ways of keeping a vow, proof that we could keep secrets and compacts from those who would rise against us. That was our life. Even with each other we were always having to prove something. By the time I was ten years old I was as self-conscious and quiet, as attentive and well-behaved, as the president of a major bank.”
Anna T. Szabó: Fire, we say
“What kind of spirit, what sort of fire?”
Flesh, we say. Though I don’t know
your flesh. It isn’t mine to know,
merely hidden, bloody, decaying stuff. 
Bone, we say. I hide and lightly touch:
I know its articulation, its perfect
mechanism, but it isn’t you, not half enough. 
Eyes, we say. My lips feel the rapid
trembling motion of your eye beneath the lid. 
Inside your mouth the gentle pink
silkinesses where your body heat
pulses, transfusing tissue,
the eddies of your navel, the secret
valleys between your toes, the spiral
windings of your ears, the cradle
of collarbone and shoulder-blade
where I can drown in your scent
and sleep, those muscles of yours
so toothsome, your heat, your excitement,
the overpowering smell of fresh sweat,
your fierce tight embrace – still none of that is you. 
You are living flame. Bone, flesh and blood,
you blaze where decay may not touch you,
you are movement itself, the prime mover,
occupying your body as you might a nest,
my body too, the way that you push onward,
let nothingness too have life, let flame lick sky
it powers and fills, with no source left to light it – 
fire, we say: what we feel is the burning.

Tags: An interview with George Szirtes, George Szirtes