by Bernie Langs
After years of feasting on nonfiction books, I find myself binging on works of fiction these days, and most recently, of all things, Hungarian prose. Having read the German W.G. Sebald and the Austrian Thomas Bernhard, who both write with no paragraph breaks, I was not taken aback when I realized that the book my brother had insisted that I read, The Melancholy of Resistance by László Krasznahorkai, had none as well. Yet, in comparison to the other two, this book was dense, lengthy, and boasted long, convoluted, and incredibly beautiful sentence structures. In fact, that’s an understatement. The language of this book is a tour de force. It is a lesson in how the writer’s sheer passion for his craft sweeps the reader into the palm of his hand, to be taken on a journey, which is a touch surreal and more than a touch apocalyptic.
Melancholy tells the tale of a small Hungarian town that receives a visit from an odd circus, the main attraction of which features the remains of a gigantic whale. It is the dead of winter and expectant crowds build as they believe that something magical is in the air around the circus. The colorful, simple, and overly good-hearted character, Valuska, gets caught up in the goings on, which culminate late in the book when the crowd reaches a frenzy. There are pages and pages of writing devoted to the inner machinations of Valuska and his intellectual, older friend, Eszter. The reader rides along with the powerful and difficult sentences, until the last pages, which are devoted to a horrific, yet scientific, analysis (the subject of which I will not reveal for those who wish to read the book).
As soon as I finished reading Melancholy, I located the translator of the book, George Szirtes, and emailed him exultant congratulations on a
triumphant piece of work. Mr. Szirtes lives in the UK and has won acclaim and awards for his work as a translator and as a long-standing poet. He graciously agreed to answer a few brief questions for Natural Selections.
Bernie Langs (BL): How did you come to get the commission to translate Melancholy? How much did you interact with Mr. Krasznahorkai while working on the translation?
George Szirtes (GS): I think New Directions [Publishing Company Corporation] commissioned me on the basis of my other fiction translations, particularly Kosztolányi’s Anna Edes, which I first translated for Quartet and then was picked up by New Directions. I’m not entirely sure. There was no interaction between the author and myself until near the very end.
BL: I once asked an Italian whether I lose something by reading the works of the ancient Romans in English and not in Latin. He laughed and asked me, “Well, do I lose something by reading Shakespeare in Italian?” I found the language in your translation transfixing and engrossing. But how much are we English readers missing from the flavors, textures, etc. of the original?
GS: What are readers missing? Frankly, I don’t know. The flavors, textures etc. of the English are bound to be different from those of the Hungarian, but then the reader of the translation is not Hungarian. Translation is not a matter of effecting a direct transfer, but of finding favorable circumstances for the book to survive as a voice. It is therefore vital for the translator to hear the book as a voice, a voice that is partly text-as-language and partly an imagined, but convincing, trick of speech. The first draft is an attempt at direct transference; the second is the building of a voice.
BL: The book is without paragraphs, and the sentences are long and convoluted. How much of a struggle was it to translate? How long did it take you?
GS: New Directions insists it took me ten years. I think it took me six. I was working on a great many things in the meantime—in fact, I generally am. I also have a feeling that Quartet might have started the project but that New Directions took it up. Beyond that, it was my first Krasznahorkai book and it took time to adjust to a voice, in which the long paragraph and the long sentence form such an essential part. It was finding the right English language circumstance that took time. The voice had to avoid sounding stilted in English. It had to be odd but natural: a little nagging, a little insistent, a little comical, a little muttering, a little prophetic, and, at an underlying level, deeply apocalyptic. One has to lodge one’s sense of such qualities in a language that behaves differently. That’s done by instinct, of course, not by calculation.
BL: I am reminded in Melancholy of works written by Thomas Bernhard and W.G. Sebald. There is also a hint of Kafka. I thought the book was a masterpiece. Do you think it will stand the test of time and be remembered as a major piece of fiction?
GS: I actually introduced Krasznahorkai to Sebald at the UEA [Creative Writing Course]. I had suggested Max [Sebald] as a possible blurb writer. Unfortunately I forgot to tell him and he rang me one day, sounding cross at having received a great pile of paper. I apologized profusely and he laughed and said he thought it was a marvelous book. He went on to write the blurb and, a couple of years later when Krasznahorkai came to England, we went to Max’s office and had some coffee. Yes, I do think the book will stand the test of time. It is not only marvelous for its voice, but the thoroughness of the concept—all those macrocosms and microcosms—offers a vast architectural space for the imagination to inhabit. In some ways it is my favorite Krasznahorkai. But yes, Bernhard and Kafka, certainly.
BL: You are well known as a poet. How do you enjoy working as a translator as compared to the creativity of writing your own work?
GS: I am a poet first and a translator second. At one time I was an artist too but the poetry always takes precedence when it comes. I started translating after my first return visit to Hungary in 1984 and have been going ever since without a break. Sometimes I resent the time, but I am always glad to have done it, provided I think I have done the original some justice. And I have learned a good deal in the translating process, both about poetry and prose. I think translation is an act of shadow creation or shadow boxing. It keeps you fit and informs your own technique. You are using the same creative muscles in translation as in your own writing, but you don’t have to invent everything: you just have to listen intensely, both to the original and to your own stream of language. The act of intense listening is the key to writing generally. In many ways, but far from all, I feel the translation is my work as much as the author’s, that the author is in fact one of my own potential masks. You learn the mask as a joint creation.