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Posts Tagged ‘Laszlo Krasznahorkai’

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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Ah, Bless, and Other News

April 30, 2014 | by

Heinrich_Zille_Die_Witwe

Heinrich Zille, Die Witwe, 1929.

  • The winners of this year’s Best Translated Book Awards: in fiction, László Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo There Below, translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet; in poetry, Elisa Biagini’s The Guest in the Wood, translated from the Italian by Diana Thow, Sarah Stickney, and Eugene Ostashevsky.
  • Jenny Diski, bless her, on aging, or something like it: “I must accept that I was old because my hairdresser says, ‘Ah, bless,’ in response to whatever I say in answer to her questions. ‘Are you busy today?’ ‘Just regular working.’ ‘Ah, bless.’ ‘How was the weekend?’ ‘A friend came to stay.’ ‘Ah, bless.’ The other day, when she asked, I said: ‘I’m being interviewed by a journalist from Poland.’ ‘Ah, bless.’ … The ah-bless alters or confirms whatever it’s responding to, and in my mind’s eye (altered and confirmed) I see a small, nondescript old lady going bravely about her business. There are other signs that I am no longer young, but the ah-bless is the most open and public.”
  • In 1968, Charles Simic witnessed a group of disgruntled poets settle things the old-fashioned way—with fisticuffs. “I stood on the porch watching in astonishment with the Chilean poet Nicanor Parra and the French poet Eugène Guillevic. They were delighted by the spectacle and assumed that this is how American poets always settled their literary quarrels; I tried to tell them that this was the first time I had seen anything like that and it scared the hell out of me, but they just laughed.”
  • A series of photos compares public spaces in North and South Korea. (The shot of the Pyongyang Metro is especially poignant.)
  • Guillaume Nicloux discusses his new film, The Kidnapping of Michel Houellebecq, starring, yes, Michel Houellebecq: “He is also really annoying to the captors. He is always asking for wine and cigarettes, he asks for another visit from the prostitute, he is really tiresome for them. He gets angry. He begs our sympathy, but at the same time he behaves really badly.”

 

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What We’re Loving: Good Friday Riffs, Your New White Hair

April 18, 2014 | by

Samuel Johnson’s portrait by James Barry

Samuel Johnson’s portrait by James Barry.

It took me twenty-five years to read Jane Eyre. The first twenty-four and three quarters were tough going—I almost never made it past the death of the annoying Christian schoolmate. Rochester drove me up the wall; so did passive-aggressive Jane. Then a couple of months ago a friend gave me a beat-up old pocketbook edition. This time it took. When I realized a couple of pages were missing, I read them on my phone. When the paperback got lost in the coatroom at Café Loup, I started taking my iPad to bed (a reluctant first). When the same friend presented me with a Folio edition giveaway, weighing sixteen pounds (with regrettable illustrations), I took it everywhere, in case I had half an hour alone. I was warned that things go downhill after you-know-who appears in the night and tears Jane’s you-know-what. Not for me. The weirder the subplot, the more Jane tightened her grip. What had changed? Maybe certain writers—Norman Rush, Defoe, Dickens, Melville, Hawthorne—or maybe just reading in general had taught me that dialogue can come in weird shapes, not just tit-for-tat, and that soliloquies can happen on the page. Maybe I’ve just gotten to know more women, like Jane, who live at war with themselves, and maybe the freakiness of wanting and hating to be bossed around makes more sense to me now. The whole time, I kept thinking, So many girls read this when they’re kids—and get it. How could it take so long to catch up? —Lorin Stein

Reading a László Krasznahorkai novel is a major commitment, and the kind I’m willing to make, but I haven’t had the time lately to devote myself to it. I’ve made do with the London Review of Books’ recent story “There Goes Valzer.” A man named Róbert Valzer who likes walking (“not that I have anything do to with the famous Robert Walser”) takes an aimless stroll on the Day of the Dead in his La Sportiva boots, through cemeteries and out to the edge of town. Because of its brevity and relatively short sentences, the story offers an opportunity to better appreciate Krasznahorkai’s sly humor, often camouflaged by his melancholic themes. Not that there isn’t disillusionment here, but it’s tempered by a ready absurdity: “I hate Michaelmas daisies and, I must confess, I am not too keen on people either, in fact you might say I hate people too, or, better still, that I hate people as much as I hate Michaelmas daisies and that is simply because every time I see Michaelmas daisies they remind me of people rather than of Michaelmas daisies, and every time I see people I always think of Michaelmas daisies not of people.” (Yes, that is a short sentence—for Krasznahorkai.) —Nicole Rudick

This unending winter—and the moods that have come with it—has reminded many Americans, brutally, of the effect the environment has on our psyches. It’s a theme I haven't encountered in a work of American fiction in recent memory, though I wonder, with our rapidly changing earth, if we’ll begin to see it reflected more in our country's creative output. The seasons and their regularities, their whims have figured prominently in Japanese art for many centuries, though, and Takashi Hiraide's The Guest Cat, recently translated by Eric Selland, is a new cornerstone in this tradition. A short novel about little more than the comings and goings of a neighborhood cat around the grounds and home of a childless couple, the swells and lags in the emotional narrative of the book are propelled by a rising temperature, a blooming flower, a drooping tree. It’s reassuring to feel that perhaps a close tie between one's mental state and the weather may be, in fact, quite natural. —Clare Fentress

Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson is a bit like Nigel Slater’s Kitchen Diaries: there’s an entry for almost every season, holiday, or time of the year. Reading Boswell’s Life, it’s hard not to think of it at times as a practical joke; Boswell’s silliness is the great enigma of this book. Just to see what he would say, Boswell would ask Johnson questions like “What would you do if you were locked in a tower with a newborn baby?” The entry for Good Friday, 1778, contains so much: a discussion of literary aestheticism and didacticism, of the usefulness that literature can have to society, of the etiquette of making small talk. And it’s full of the usual yuks from the Boswell-Johnson buddy act:

Johnson: “Sir, it would have been better that I had been of a profession. I ought to have been a lawyer.”

Boswell: “I do not think, Sir, it would have been better, for we should not have had the English dictionary.”

Johnson: “But you would have had reports.” —Anna Heyward Read More »

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What We’re Loving: Lawyers and Criminals

April 26, 2013 | by

Albertine Sarrazin

Albertine Sarrazin

In spring of 1971 the New York Times got hold of a top-secret, seven-thousand-page history of the Vietnam War. When the Times ran a series based on the Pentagon Papers, it sparked one of the biggest First Amendment battles of the last century. Leading the Times’s defense was the young lawyer James Goodale. In his new memoir, Fighting for the Press, Goodale gives a fascinating blow-by-blow account of the legal arguments, personal rivalries, and inspired teamwork behind that famous defense, which started from the principle that there is nothing inherently illegal about publishing classified information. “My philosophy as a publishing lawyer,” Goodale writes, “was that anything could be published. I had always found that if you took a word out here and there, shifted a paragraph here and there, anything was possible.” In later years, Goodale worked his way up to become house counsel for The Paris Review: we look forward to volume two. —Lorin Stein

When Albertine Sarrazin’s L’astragale was published in 1965, the autobiographical novel, about a young woman who escapes reform school and embarks on a life of prostitution and petty crime, became an overnight sensation. The fact that the glamorous, enigmatic author died at the height of her fame, at only twenty-nine, has only added to the book’s mystique. In her introduction to a fresh edition from New Directions, Patti Smith describes the book as her youthful talisman and Sarrazin as “my guide through the nights of one hundred sleeps.” I think it is a book to read when you are young; in some ways I am too old to have just discovered it. But even knowing this, I reveled in its entertaining, gritty weirdness. It bears mentioning, too, that the translator is Patsy Southgate, writer and fellow traveler of the Paris Review. —Sadie Stein

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What We’re Loving: Tropical Paradise, Anxiety, Translation

January 18, 2013 | by

When the novelist Adam Thirlwell told me his idea, I was skeptical: to publish a work of fiction in many translations, each version being a translation of the one before. But Adam Thirlwell is Adam Thirlwell, “schemey like a nine-year-old,” as one collaborator describes him, with “weird vibes, as if he does unorthodox things to the books he carries to the bathroom.” Multiples, the new issue of McSweeney’s, edited by Thirlwell, is an unorthodox thing of beauty, a stunt that only a kid would attempt, and an absolute pleasure to read—though almost nobody on earth will be able to read every page. What Thirlwell has done is to assemble new or obscure works by Kierkegaard, Vila-Matas, Krasznahorkai, et al., translated (and retranslated, and retranslated) by a dream team of polyglot writers. So, for example, Dave Eggers translates a Spanish translation by Alejandro Zambra of an English translation by Nathan Englander of a Hebrew translation by Etgar Keret of an English translation by John Wray of a previously untranslated short story by Franz Kafka. It’s a game of pro-level Chinese whispers, and—thanks to Thirlwell's list of contributors—a wide-angle snapshot of our literary firmament, circa now. Plus, the afterwords by Thirlwell and Francesco Pacifico have persuaded me not only that it would be fun to read Emilio Gadda in Italian, but that a translator can have more fun with an untranslatable writer than I ever dared to dream. —Lorin Stein

The editors of the New York Times blog Anxiety recently asked Laszlo Krasznahorkai to contribute an essay on the theme. This is the writer who eschews paragraph breaks and short sentences because he feels they are artificial and whose subjects are often very bleak—which is to say, he’s their ideal contributor. The author himself describes it as “a lyrical essay about the terrible meeting between boorishness and aggressiveness,” but with Krasznahorkai, it’s so much more than that. There are paragraph breaks and the occasional brief sentence (one wonders if the former appeared in the original version), but this is a hard little gem, a Möbius strip of what feels simultaneously like madness and utter logic. —Nicole Rudick

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