English Has Its Own Music

From The Los Angeles Review of Books:

TRANSLATORS PLAY A crucial role as gatekeepers of world literature. We are currently witnessing an important era in literary translation where many platforms and institutions dedicated to the art and craft of literary translation recognize and celebrate this essential role played by translators.

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Ottilie Mulzet’s recent recognition on the global stage is a case in point. She has made a name for herself as translator of both contemporary Hungarian and Mongolian literatures. Most recently, her rendition of László Krasznahorkai’s Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming received the 2019 National Book Award for Translated Literature. Her text clearly displays not only the brilliance of the author but also Mulzet’s own genius in recreating his characteristically unwieldy, bleak yet surprising, somber yet agile prose. Despite the long — and, at first glance, unnecessarily detailed — lines that run, more often than not, across half a dozen pages, the text is remarkably accessible.

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CHAMINI KULATHUNGA: Most of the books you’ve translated have won or been nominated for major translation awards. And others have attracted a considerable amount of attention in the contemporary literary world. What are some of your early attempts at translation? How were they received by readers?

OTTILIE MULZET: My first attempts at translating occurred a few years after I began learning Hungarian. As I’ve mentioned before, I grew up in a closed adoption in Canada, and I never even knew the background of my birth parents until I was in my late 20s. At the time, I was still deep in my love affair with French literature (I had studied for 18 months in Paris), and as I began my search — a long, tedious, draining, and partially underground process due to the records being permanently sealed — I was unrealistically hoping that one of them might turn out to be French. When I received the letter from the agency telling me only the “non-identifying information” that my mother’s background was Hungarian, I only had the vaguest of ideas concerning Hungary. To be honest, I was somewhat influenced by the portrayal of Eastern Europe in US mainstream media, and I imagined it to be a rather gray, sad communist country. My first visit there occurred before 1989, and what I found instead was a really vibrant place where the importance of literature and music seemed palpable. I immediately became fascinated and intrigued by this very strange language and its meter-long words (visible on the country’s signage, etc.). When I came home, I was determined to start learning it. For quite a while, I did my translations only for myself. Hungarian was quite literally a “graspable foreignness” to me — a foreignness I had to grasp, linguistically, intellectually, emotionally, in the endeavor of trying to understand something about my own maternal background.

Somehow, the whole project of translation only really took off for me once I moved to Europe in the late ’90s. I began attending the Attila József Circle Literary Translation Camp, and I began working at the Hungarian Translators’ House in Balatonfüred. I did translations into English and wrote articles for Soumar, which was an early internet literary magazine run by the Hungarian Institute in Prague. Soumar is no longer around, but I also ended up doing many translations and essays for Hungarian Literature Online (hlo.hu), which is still very much active.

My first published book was an earlier version of Szilárd Borbély’s Berlin-Hamlet, put out by FRA in Prague, which is an excellent small press working mainly in Czech. Trying to get attention for Borbély’s work while based in Prague was challenging: I mailed out review copies myself, even sending copies to various libraries in the US and UK so that the book would be available in some library collections (the publisher, understandably, had little budget for distribution). I had a reading in the tiny but atmospheric FRA basement café in Prague, attended by a few appreciative friends. One of my first big breaks was when George Szirtes included some poems from Berlin-Hamlet in his anthology New Order back in 2010. I had mailed him a copy, too. Beginning in 2008, I also did a lot of translations, and wrote essays, for the website Hungarian Literature Online.

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What is the nature of your editing process? What do you pay special attention to when editing your translations?

I line-edit against the original at least two or three times, then I edit for clarity and, hopefully, ever greater nuance, at least two or three more times, and this, of course, is still before the beginning of publisher’s editing process. I don’t use any kind of software, but rather have a printed PDF in front of me with the translation on my laptop. I like to have the PDF to scribble notes about rhythms in the text, special vocabulary, and other observations. It feels important to me to still have this one tactile link to the text. In some instances, for example, as with some of Krasznahorkai’s longer sentences, I sometimes mark up different sections of the sentence in different colors. I have a special set of colored markers and pencils for that.

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In one of your interviews with The Paris Review, you used this interesting simile to describe the extreme elasticity of the Hungarian language: “[I]t’s like a rubber band. It can expand and expand, until you think, well, this rubber band is going to break at any moment now, or it can shrink into just a few sparse words.” What are some of the linguistic resources you make use of in English when you’re translating a text from Hungarian?

Probably the most salient example of this would be “The Rebuilding of the Ise Shrine” in Seiobo There Below, which is one sentence running to 46 pages in the Hungarian and 50 pages in my English translation. I kept reading it aloud to myself over and over to make sure that the English flowed. I don’t so much use specific techniques as try to ensure that the reader stays anchored without over-explaining. A lot more can be suppressed in a Hungarian sentence, and in narrative in general. For example, in Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming, every section begins in medias res, in the middle of a character’s dialogue or ruminations: the narrative has shifted either slightly forward or backward in time (like a tango step), and no indication is given as to who is speaking; this emerges usually after five to 10 lines, although the English reader has more clues than the Hungarian one because Hungarian doesn’t need gender. Interestingly, I was about to write “Hungarian lacks gender,” which demonstrates how easily one internalizes English-language norms!

In general, I think that monolingual English readers are far less tolerant of ambiguity. “Lack of clarity” is perceived as a defect of style in standard English, but for me a great deal of the aesthetic pleasure in a Krasznahorkai text lie in his deliberate disorientating strategies. Another example of a Krasznahorkai narrative strategy would be the final walk of the Baron in the City Forest, when suddenly he is accompanied by Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the former archbishop of Buenos Aires, and the current Roman Catholic pope. The entire incident is written as if it were really happening, but since it is a memory, it must be occurring in the Baron’s head — and yet for me, at least, these passages exist in a liminal space: what they describe is both real, and a dream. Perhaps there is something in the grammar of Hungarian, and the fact that it is a heavily contextual language, that allows for that kind of hovering quality. In a recent conversation, Krasznahorkai said that these figures are absolutely real for him: elsewhere, he has stated that also, for him, Josef K. and Prince Myshkin are not fictive characters. For me, Krasznahorkai’s figures are real: I have bumped into the characters from Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming while in Hungary. And so if Krasznahorkai is channeling something while he writes (he has referred to himself “taking dictation” from these figures), then I am also just channeling what he has already channeled.

In terms of linguistic resources, more than anything else, I feel that I have to suspend a lot of what I’ve absorbed as “good normative English,” while at the same time very much drawing upon everything I’ve ever read in English. I think reading as widely as you can in your target language is very important. Maybe it’s also about having a good technical repertoire as to how to construct a sentence, while at the same time forgetting about it while you’re translating. Perhaps it’s something like being a musician who has to try to thoroughly master technique, so as not to be confined by it.

Link to the rest at The Los Angeles Review of Books

PG had never thought much about the process of translation of a book from one language to another.

After considering the OP, he suspects that machine translation programs likely have a very long way to go.