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Recalcitrant Language: An Interview with Ottilie Mulzet

July 21, 2014 | by

seiobo hungarian

Art from the first Hungarian edition of Seiobo járt odalent, or Seiobo There Below.

Translators of the Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai are a daring few, but they tend to win awards. This year’s Best Translated Book Award went to Ottilie Mulzet for the first English translation of Seiobo There Below, a dazzling, far-ranging novel even by Krasznahorkai’s standards. At 451 pages, the novel took Mulzet three years to translate; it required familiarity with everything from the terminology of Russian icon painting to the existence of Arcade Fire. The story, told in a series of loosely linked episodes, addresses small matters of death, time, divinity, and the transcendence of art. And that’s not to mention the sentences—intricately constructed puzzles designed to disorient and amaze the reader. They can be up to fourteen pages long.

Krasznahorkai is developing a cult following in the English-speaking world—he’s had one for decades in Hungary—and he draws packed crowds at readings. A recent appearance at Columbia University was so crowded that people were turned away. The author read in a dark room with only a pinpoint of light on the manuscript, for dramatic effect.

I caught up with the woman working under the name Ottilie Mulzet—a partial pseudonym, somehow not surprising from an artist affiliated with Krasznahorkai—to find out how she does it, and what else she has in store.

Tell me about your history with Krasznahorkai. How did you become his translator? How do you work with him?

Before I ever met him, I translated one of the stories, “Something is Burning Outside,” from Seiobo There Below. It appeared on the Hungarian literature website www.hlo.hu, and in June 2009, it was picked up by the Guardian for a series of translated short stories from Eastern Europe twenty years after 1989. I met Krasznahorkai briefly sometime around then. We corresponded, and I mentioned I’d be willing to take on the translation of Seiobo. Krasznahorkai was understandably a little hesitant at first, given the extraordinary complexity of the work. But I translated Animalinside, which was met with a very positive reception and went into a second printing fairly quickly. The following spring, I sent a sample chapter of Seiobo to New Directions.

Krasznahorkai and I communicate a lot by email. If I have any questions at all, he is absolutely wonderful about answering them. We communicate for the most part in Hungarian. There are times when he issues explicit instructions. For example, he didn’t want any of the foreign words in Seiobo italicized, and I could understand why, because they’re even more disorientating when they’re seemingly innocently integrated into the text. For me that was a pretty radical gesture.

What are the strengths and particularities of Hungarian as a language, and what challenges does it present to translate it into English?

I feel extremely close to Hungarian as a language. I love the sound of it, I love how it works grammatically, I love the vocabulary, the astonishing mishmash of words from so many different languages, I love what writers can do with it. Hungarian is an agglutinative language with vowel harmony—it has seemingly endless suffixes and amazing possibilities for compound words, and it has absolutely flexible word order, depending on what you want to emphasize in the sentence. And I would certainly mention the unbelievable elasticity of Hungarian—it’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, where all the most important parts are left out and you just have to know.

English, despite how global it is, is a lot less flexible. Maybe the kind of English that’s spoken in the Indian subcontinent—where it’s partially subjugated to the tendencies of Hindi—would be a more suitable English for translation from Hungarian, but I have to work with the language I know the best. You have to struggle to make sure the sentences don’t seem too jam-packed with information, and yet, when there’s some pretty serious elision going on, you have to test the boundaries of English, with its rigid subject-verb-object structure and having to have all your indicators in place. Hungarian can look like just a splash of ink on the page. There are sentences—or, in Krasznahorkai’s case, subclauses—of just two or three words. I’m intrigued by all of this elision, and fascinated by the problem of conveying it in a recalcitrant language like English—just trying to get English to do something it’s not really meant to do. English today is the global language of commerce and trade, so while it’s dominant, it’s also in some respects deeply impoverished. It desperately needs these transfusions from other languages. Read More »

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Translating Pushkin Hills: An Interview with Katherine Dovlatov

March 26, 2014 | by

dovlatovsergei-1986-photo-alovert-med-size-copy

Photo: Nina Alovert

Sergei Dovlatov, one of the great writers of the Soviet samizdat period, immigrated to New York City in 1978 and published his bone-dry, deeply thoughtful stories in The New Yorker all through the 1980s, until his tragic early death in 1990. Even in translation, Dovlatov’s work is a gateway drug to Russian humor: twenty percent booze, fifty percent understatement, and thirty percent bureaucratic despair. The writer is a household name in Russia, and the publication of Pushkin Hills—the first English translation of his 1983 novel Zapavednik, translated by his daughter, Katherine—has been greeted with celebration in the émigré literary scene. 

The autobiographical novel is narrated by an unpublished writer, Boris Alikhanov, who takes a job as a tour guide at Pushkin Hills, a group of estates affiliated with Alexander Pushkin. Alikhanov’s wife and daughter are leaving him for the West, and he is thus forced to weigh the merits of abandoning his country, his mother tongue, and even Pushkin, his literary heritage. The alternative is to remain in Soviet Russia, where almost everything external is false, and where the absurdities of the Pushkin estate function as a microcosm for the society. As the narrator observes: “Christ, I thought, everyone here is insane. Even those who find everyone else insane.”

Using language to subvert the regime was one of Dovlatov’s specialties, and his novel is rich with characters who speak in tongues—the more insane you are, the more sane, perhaps, in a mad society. Dovlatov writes with a deceptive minimalism—in fact, his humor and linguistic dexterity have made him one of the most difficult Russian writers to translate. His daughter Katherine, who also represents his estate, was happy to discuss her technique with me.

Pushkin Hills was originally published in 1983, after your father had emigrated to New York. But he wrote it in Russian. Can you talk about that?

Father was “nudged” to leave Russia in August 1978. Like many émigrés of the Third Wave, he spent a bit of time in Vienna before coming to New York in the early months of 1979. He knew a lot of words in English, and he could get by on the street or supermarket, but I wouldn’t go as far as to say that he was fluent. He wrote everything in Russian. His writing is language driven, and so of course he wrote in the only language he knew well. Read More »

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