Recalcitrant Language: An Interview with Ottilie Mulzet


At Work

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, 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.

What’s being lost reading Krasznahorkai in English translation, in terms of the texture of the language?

Hungarian readers—I mean the kind of Hungarian readers who read serious literature—have a much higher tolerance for the extreme grammatical complexity of some of these sentences, not to mention the length. I tried to preserve as much of the complexity as I could—there are parts of the book, even in the original, where the reader can feel like he or she is lost in a maze, and I wanted to keep that.

There are a few scattered short passages that read like poems in the original, and in some cases, I couldn’t preserve the sound. One example that comes to mind is the phrase “rízs és víz, rízs és víz”—“rice and water, rice and water”—which Master Inoue Kazuyuki describes as the only food in the house when his family was going through a period of great impoverishment. The repeated long i in that phrase, combined with the final sibilants, creates an indelible sonic impression that I don’t think can come through in the English, although the repetition re-creates, I hope, the strangely desperate humor so typical of Krasznahorkai.

9780811219679_custom-82874549f4ffcefb6d228ae0ff9fb26611bfc4d9-s6-c30Are the long sentences more difficult to translate than the short sentences?

It actually depends on what kind of long sentence it is. In some of the long sentences, there’s a pattern of one piece of new information following another. Here, the danger is that the sentence in English can easily sound like a run-on. I would never insert a full stop where there isn’t one in the original, because for me these sentences are like rivers, and if you place a full stop where there isn’t one in the original text, it’s like you’re damming up the river.

But those kinds of sentences are actually relatively easy, especially compared to those where Krasznahorkai is deliberately exploiting the extraordinary elasticity of Hungarian grammar, so that, for example, a diagram of what subordinate clauses are related to would look something like a spider’s web imposed on top of the typeset page. Then there are other long sentences with a kind of running parallel structure—English can tolerate that fairly well.

Some translators claim to be more literal, whereas others take more liberties for the sake of readability. Where would you say you fall on that spectrum?

Sometimes I feel the “literalness—readability” opposition is a little artificial, because there are many ways to transmit the utter strangeness of what you are translating. I really try to convey what I feel is unique about the original, why it wasn’t written in English and perhaps never could be written in English. I want my translation to be something impossible yet extant, something existing on the border of two utterly incompatible worlds, and yet to be a bridge between those worlds. I want the reader of the English version to feel the same shock I felt when reading the original. I don’t want to make it easy or acceptable, or to over-domesticate the text. There is an incredible poetry in the Hungarian language. Sometimes it’s infinitely gentle, sometimes it’s savage poetry.

Once, a long time ago, I was attending an intensive Hungarian-language seminar. Some of the more unusual features of Hungarian grammar were met with comments such as, “Who let these people in?” Whereas other participants confined themselves to more rhetorical questions—“What does this language want?” And the answer came from the instructor, without missing a beat. “Blood, sweat, and tears.” I don’t want blood, sweat, and tears from Krasznahorkai’s English readers, but the absolute otherness of a language like Hungarian immediately puts us in a position of discomfort. Can the translation preserve this discomfort—troubling, weird, yet in the end perhaps edifying and salutary? And in the case of a writer like Krasznahorkai, we’re talking about a writer whose express intention is to discomfit and disorientate his readers. “The dizzying nature of the text”—there is certainly a kind of explicit, readerly jouissance in that.

Do you ever close your laptop for the evening and think, Well, I did a sentence today? 

Yes! Sometimes it’s only “I began a sentence,” or “I ended a sentence,” or even just, “I read through a sentence”…

Somewhere into that first six-page sentence, most English-speaking readers of Krasznahorkai probably pause to think, as I did, Wow, who on earth translated this? And then you have this beautiful, mysterious name, Ottilie Mulzet.

The name Mulzet is actually connected to my central European roots—I had a Hungarian grandmother named Mulzet, Luiza Mulzet. I took the name Ottilie because I liked it. It just happens to be the name of one of Kafka’s sisters. Ott in Hungarian means there, so perhaps it also signifies I am the one who is always there, not here …

I began learning Hungarian because I grew up adopted. I didn’t even know there were any Hungarians in my background until I was an adult. I thought, Well, this is one way to know something about the people who were my ancestors on this earth. I began to learn the language out of a kind of intellectual curiosity, but then it really became a kind of addiction.


Ottilie Mulzet. Photo via New Directions

Krasznahorkai fans lament that only four of his novels are translated into English. Do you have your life’s work cut out for you? Do the untranslated titles haunt you?

Two translations haunt me as we speak. One is Destruction and Sorrow Beneath the Heavens, which I’m translating now. It’s literary reportage based on Krasznahorkai’s extensive travels in China, and, if anything, it’s even more relevant today than when it was first published in 2002. The other is The World Goes On, an amazing collection of short stories. George Szirtes, who won the Best Translated Book Award in 2013, also for a Krasznahorkai title, is translating From the North by Hill, From the South by Lake, From the West by Roads, From the East by River, so readers should have at least three more titles to look forward to in the next few years.

Do you have any news or projects coming up?

I’ll be working on Szilárd Borbély’s The Dispossessed, his memoir of growing up in an impoverished village in northeastern Hungary in the late sixties. Perhaps the most talented poet of his generation, Borbély tragically committed suicide in February of this year. He was a very close friend and an incredible person. His death is just an inconceivable loss, leaving behind a huge vacuum in Hungarian and European letters. If I can bring a new English readership to Borbély’s work, I will feel happy—as happy as anyone can feel under such circumstances.

Valerie Stivers is a journalist, writer, and editor; she’s blogging about every book she reads in 2014 at She is also a reader for The Paris Review.