Born in Budapest in 1948 but a resident of the United Kingdom since 1956, George Szirtes is not only an English-language poet but also one of a number of translators working from Hungarian to English. Alongside works by Hungarian novelists and poets Imre Madách, Dezsõ Kosztolányi, Gyula Krúdy and Sándor Márai, he has translated three novels by László Krasznahorkai, the latest of which, Satantango, was published last year in the US by New Directions and in the UK by Atlantic Books. The Budapest Times spoke to Szirtes about translation and about the place of Hungarian literature in the world.
You describe Krasznahorkai’s prose as being “a lava flow of narrative, a black river of type”. To what extent have you had to devise new, creative ways of transposing Krasznahorkai’s linguistic devices into English?
The new way I’ve discovered is by doing one paragraph and then taking a long rest. Of course everything has to be completely rewritten because the order of language in Hungarian is different from the order of the language in English. I think when translating somebody you learn, for Krasznahorkai particularly, how to handle the voice you hear and then to try to make a voice.
In English Krasznahorkai may be slightly funnier; the humour button goes up a bit. The whole style, a very long style, is not a style which is normally used in fiction. It’s like building a castle: you keep adding and adding, and there’s tension there but also there’s always a point at which it will fall down. So there’s a kind of murderous laughter associated with it.
It’s also because the long sentences and the long developments sometimes cover very minor incidents. The example I always give is from The Melancholy of Resistance, where the professor of music is being advised by Valuska, one of the heroes of the book, that there’s going to be a riot in the town and he should board up his windows. This man has never done a day’s physical work in his life. At the beginning of this section of the book he’s standing in front of the window, thinking about the hammer, where to hold it, where to put his fingers, what to concentrate on when moving the hammer. It goes on for a page and a half. It’s funny. It’s funny in Hungarian too but in English the prose expectations are less teutonic. There is already a predisposition to find whatever happens as potentially funny. The humour of Krasznahorkai, which is black humour, is slightly intensified in English.
So you hear this possibility of language, and it helps, because you can then begin to think about how to reconstruct the sentences, you have to find some constructions that work in English and which create a kind of slow build-up. And then of course you listen to your own voice because you’re writing in English, not in Hungarian.
This is not the first Krasznahorkai work you have translated, so how much did you benefit from that?
You get used to it. I translated first The Melancholy of Resistance, then War and War, which was the most difficult, because every chapter is a single sentence. Some of the chapters are eight or nine pages long, so that’s a very long sentence. That took me ages, and of course there are no paragraphs, so just visually you can get lost.
Did his style become more complex after Satantango, his first book?
Yes, it becomes a literary creation. I’m going to be starting another Krasznahorkai very soon, Északról hegy, Délrõl tó, Nyugatról utak, Keletrõl folyó [To the north by a mountain, to the south by a lake, to the west by roads, to the east by a river]. Some of those are short chapters but everything is a single sentence. I think I know what I’m dealing with and what I’m listening to, I don’t have to try to understand the whole message from the start. So it has become easier. Earlier I did about four Sándor Márai novels and, again, you learn how this voice seems to behave.
You received very recently the Best Translated Book Award for Satantango. What do you think appealed to the jury in the book and in this translation?
I think it appealed particularly to Americans because there’s something quite mega and apocalyptic about Krasznahorkai’s vision. It’s very sweeping, which appealed very much to the American imagination. The book was also longlisted for an English book prize, the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, which was not just for the translation but for the whole book, but didn’t make the shortlist. I think the English preference is on the whole for the intimate, the smaller scale, which is less of an advantage for Krasznahorkai. In America there’s a tradition of great universalist works, of the great American novel. This kind of vision in which everything is subsumed under some kind of apocalyptic omen appeals more to the American imagination. That’s my theory, but I don’t know.
Hungary has a fairly small population and a not very well-known language, and yet it really seems to punch above its weight in terms of how well it’s known abroad.
Hungary doesn’t get a bad deal. It probably has more literary works in Anglo-Saxon languages than, say, Slovak or Bulgarian and just about as much as Danish or Dutch, for instance. I’m only guessing now but I think that there is a kind of imperial precedent because of the Austro-Hungarian empire. As far as England goes, that consciousness of once-greatness and then the melancholy following is an identifiable thing. Hungarian novels have the appeal of historical novels. The Bánffy books, for instance, struck a nerve [Miklós Bánffy, 1873-1950, author of The Transylvanian Trilogy and The Phoenix Land]. But even then the readership for such books is very small.