Notes on a Sentence

I’ve spent five or six days translating a single sentence. That’s better than it sounds: the sentence, from Ferenc Molnár’s “The Secret of Aruvimi Forest”, covers a page and a half. But it’s still pretty bad. I planned to start the month, my first in my new office, translating about a page a day, and work my way up to two or three pages by the end of the month. Instead, mired in the bog of incomprehensible syntax, I’ve spent entire days gazing at a single clause in despair. And the worst thing is, there are sections that I still think make little sense, not in an “the author didn’t know what he was doing” way, but in a “I don’t understand what the author was doing” way.

For example, the prefix “előre-” in front of a verb means to go forward (előrelép, step forward) or do something ahead of time (előrefizet, pay in advance), “nyom” means to press something, and the combination “előrenyom” appears in none of my dictionaries. I can sort of guess at the meaning, but I feel like I’m sort of guessing, not certain—and there’s no room for anything but confident mastery of the material if I want to be a professional. (The context—a massive inundation pressing on a mountain—doesn’t help much.)

There are also oddities which I do understand, like the description of “a cork rifle, when it says Thursday”, which in context ought to be a not-very-impressive sound. Sure enough, when I looked “csütörtök” (Thursday) up in the dictionary, I found that “it says Thursday” is an idiom for a gun misfiring. That is the sort of confidence I’m looking for, but it’s a confidence contingent on my finding the exact idiom I need in the dictionary. If I couldn’t find a reference source telling me exactly what that sentence meant, I would have that same feeling of “I sort of know what must go here, but I don’t feel confident every word of my translation is correct”.

Probably, I need to cultivate native Hungarian speakers who can explain the most confusing passages to me, but my streak of unsociability makes me want to figure everything out myself. That desire for independence is not all bad, but I need to manage my pride so it drives me forward instead of holding me back.

Another challenge I’m going to have to learn to manage is how to research cultural equivalencies. What is the English equivalent of a Hungarian opera singer singing “Só, só, só!”? How to choose an appropriate English version of a Hungarian Bible passage? Those aren’t insuperable obstacles, but they could be tedious and time-consuming ones. I need to learn to solve problems like that efficiently, without rushing through them.

I have made tremendous progress in the last year and a half, since I last posted here. I fully expect to have a rough draft of a novel by March or April, which will be a great accomplishment. But that ambition is scaled back quite a bit from the beginning of this month, when I thought I could have a half-decently polished draft of a novel by then. The gulf between a fair level of confidence in my work and a high level of confidence is wider than I thought it would be when I began. (In a sense, this is a strength: being super-critical of your own work is probably a necessity for any really good translator.)

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