I might be starting work on my third novel, and excitedly/ anxiously waiting for my second to be published, but my first has never been far from my mind this summer. Every so often a delivery van will pull up outside my house and I’ll sign for a box of books. Nyarak Könyve. Somrenes Bok. Sommarboken. I’ll tear open the packaging, delight in the different looks and feels, flick through the pages and see my words in a foreign language, and then pop a copy on the shelf, for ‘when I’m old and grey and full of sleep’. In the last couple of months, The Book of Summers was published for the first time in Hungary, Sweden, Norway, and Holland. In 2012 it came out in Spain, Italy, and Portugal. In 2014, it’ll be out in Germany.
I find these translations hugely exciting, not least because they’re destined to always remain something of a mystery to me. Each version, whether it’s Het boek van de zomers or El Libro de los veranos, is a new version in its own right, and holds its own secrets. It is a collaborative work, and is the result of much labour - labour that isn’t lost on me. While perhaps I’ll never be able to appreciate at first-hand their subtleties, the delicate details within their pages, I figured that the next best thing I could do was to talk to the author of one such translation. Mónika Mesterházi, who turned my novel into Nyarak Könyve, kindly agreed to give me a peek inside her writing world.
Before interviewing Mónika, I caught up with my Hungarian editor, Vera Tönkő from Park. Vera explained how important it is for her to keep up to date with the work of different translators, so she knows who best to call upon when the time comes. Revealing her sensitivity as an editor, she talked about how vital it was that a translator responds positively to a book, that they ‘love its world’. If any aversions are voiced, Vera will place the job elsewhere. She likes to work collaboratively with translators, sharing thoughts and notes and getting to know each other’s viewpoints, but ‘the last word always belongs to the translator’. With The Book of Summers, Vera thought straightaway of Mónika Mésterhazi, ‘one of the best English translators working in Hungary today’, and known for her ‘fastidious search for the right word, and the graceful sentence’. Mónika has translated the work of Alice Munro, Rose Tremain and Seamus Heaney, and has ‘a good feeling for lyrical texts’, no doubt stemming from her parallel life as a significant Hungarian poet. When Vera told me this I was delighted - Nyarak Könyve couldn't be in better hands.
An interview with Mónika Mesterházi (via email)...
How did you come to be a literary translator?
At university I attended a seminar for literary translation, where we learnt all sorts of skills through translating short pieces of fiction or poems. Most of all it became clear that those working on the same text are colleagues (possibly friends), even if one criticizes and edits the version of the other. One of the best seminars I ever had was led by the late István Géher, a legendary professor, a poet and translator. While Mr. Géher was reading out a group member’s translation, the others were to listen and judge it first by ear, then on paper, as short extracts were handed out and we edited them together. It was always more than just translation, and was such fun that many of us attended the seminar for years on.
What is your working process when you embark upon a new translation?
I always begin with reading the novels I translate so that the narrative voice can start working in my mind or ear by the time I sit down in front of my laptop. After reading a novel through, I always read the pages I plan to do that day and, in some way, even the sentences begin to work themselves into their Hungarian counterparts by the time I actually start translating them. So the idea is to understand everything (and possibly every intention) in the original, and move towards the other language. Once I have a few pages in Hungarian, it is this text I’ll re-read and revise, first after one night’s sleep, then in the end, after having finished the whole book. Which means a lot of distancing, after a lot of fumbling with the details.
Literary translation, perhaps unlike business translation, requires that you capture the author's 'voice', how do you work to achieve that? Is it that particular challenge one of the beguiling aspects of literary translation?
The voice is indeed the key to the text. The voice of the narration is just as important as the dialogues of the individual characters. There is no recipe for how to capture that. This is the actor’s part of translation, I think, the way an actor assumes a role in a play. I mean, you add something from yourself, from the way you hear the text in your head.
When translating, which 'audience' is chief in your mind, that of the author (regardless of their ability to understand your language), or that of the translation readership?
If one does it properly, then the translation can stay true to its author and at the same time be re-worded for its new audience.
What are the most important attributes for a good translator, beyond linguistic knowledge?
One has to have linguistic skills (in both languages), empathy (to be able to see into and beyond the text), and have to be creative in finding the actual solutions. There are always the so called untranslatable puns that must still be translated or substituted with something from the same material. And they are not always “puns”, but expressions, collocations, linguistic references in the original text which are obviously different in the translation’s language. And there are the so called cultural gaps… And there is, of course, the other skill of dealing with time, in the short and the long run.
Did The Book of Summers present any particular translation challenges?
Maybe more than it is apparent, and more than there would be for translators working in other languages. As the major part of the novel takes place in Hungary, there are Hungarian words and sentences in the original, which are foreign in English, and this foreignness had to be achieved in the Hungarian. Hungarian words are sometimes explained in the novel in English, but I had to explain them in Hungarian. The sound of certain Hungarian words is commented on, whereas they sound natural for the Hungarian ear. Certain Hungarian experiences (or customs) are described through the tourist-guest’s eye, and had to be rendered in a way that they should sound weird for the Hungarian reader as well. The narrator speaks in her mother tongue, which is English, but in the translation it is Hungarian. However, at some point she utters Hungarian words, with difficulty. So I had to indicate this as well (I transcribed Hungarian words with English pronunciation), and disrupted (so to say) the Hungarian reader’s suspension of disbelief (that this English author is after all speaking in Hungarian). But this kind of challenge is worth taking up for such a good book.
What do you think about 'invisible' and 'visible' translators?
When I read world literature, I always look up the translator’s name first, and when I quote a foreign literary text in Hungarian, however short, I mention the translator (I would do that in a blog as well). But that may be out of professional pride. On the other hand, in reviews or criticism one often finds the author’s style praised, without any reference to the person who has worded it for the reader in their mother tongue. So I find it really important that translators should be remembered, and I must thank you here for this interview. There is a visibility campaign organised by CEATL (European Council of Literary Translators’ Associations), which states: “Paradoxically, this authorship of the translator mostly remains invisible. The better the translation, the more the reader will have the impression that s/he is reading the original text. However, if the general reader does not pay attention to the quality of the translation, translation quality will not be regarded as a relevant cultural and economic factor. This is why literary translators desperately need to be culturally visible as authors of their texts. Only then can they lay claim to a bargaining position that will permit their work not to be dashed off.”
Finally, what would be your dream translation job? Are there any novels or poems out there that you're itching to translate?
In Hungary, the proportion of books in translation is quite high, especially with books translated from English. Classics and 20th century authors are mostly available in Hungarian. Contemporary writers I often get to know through translating them… In translating poetry I am freer to choose (although it is more difficult to publish verse translations, except in periodicals – publishers in Hungary don’t believe in slim books of poems…). I’d like to translate more poems by the Irish poet Matthew Sweeney.
BIG thanks to Mónika and Vera for sparing the time to let me in on your world, and to all my other international editors, and translators... Isabel Alves, Amaya Basáñez Fernández, Teresa Albanese, Miebeth van Horn, Marianne Mattsson, and Per Kristian Gudmundsen. Your work makes this UK author very, very happy.