Translation Exercise: The Door

I’ve been super-erratic about working on my Hungarian this year. On Monday, I decided to do at least a little bit of translation each day, even if it was only 15-30 minutes, and over the course of three days I translated the first paragraph of Madga Szabó’s The Door. My first draft, which I’ll record so you can see it in all of its awfulness, went like this:

I seldom dream. If, in spite over everything, I do, then I wake with a start, bathed in sweat. At times like those, I lean back, and wait for my heart to calm, and contemplate the irresistible, magical power of night. As a child or in my youth I never had dreams either so good or so bad, only in the current of old age do kneaded terrors again and again from the silt of the past become solid, which therefore are so frightening, because these are composed more tautly, more tragically, like I could at one time have lived through them, although in truth such things from which I awake screaming never once befell me.

The third day I polished it, smoothed out some of the stylistic infelicities, and corrected a couple of errors:

I seldom dream. When it does happen I jerk awake, covered in sweat. On those occasions I lean back and wait until my heart is once more calm, and contemplate the irresistible, magical power of night. As a child or in my youth my dreams were never good or bad, only in my old age does the flowing current of time again and again mold horrors from the silt of the past and make them solid, which are so terrifying because the things they are made of are stretched more tightly, made more tragic, than I could have ever endured, since in reality there never once befell me those things from which I awake screaming.

On the fourth day, I was going to polish it further, but I felt impatient and instead compared it to Len Rix’s version (which won the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize, and which I remember as being quite good, although I haven’t read it in years, meaning my translation was influenced by it not at all):

I seldom dream. When I do, I wake with a start, bathed in sweat. Then I lie back, waiting for my frantic heart to slow, and reflect on the overwhelming power of night’s spell. As a child and young woman, I had no dreams, either good or bad, but in old age I am confronted repeatedly with horrors from my past, all the more dismaying because compressed and compacted, and more terrible than anything I have lived through. In fact nothing has ever happened to me of the kind that now drags me screaming from my sleep.

His version is much better than mine. I can see myself moving in the same direction in some places as I polish, for instance, “When it does happen” is close to “When I do”, but Rix has moved a bit further from the original sentence structure than I have, to the translation’s benefit. I might have ended up with his phrasing if I’d considered it a bit longer.

One place where I like my version better is “As a child or in my youth”, which is both closer to the original sentence than “As a child and young woman” and in my opinion sounds better. Unfortunately, in the very next phrase I’ve made an error of meaning, caused by polishing a sloppy English translation without paying close enough attention to the original. I might also make a case for “I jerk awake” instead of “I wake with a start”, but if one sounds better than the other it’s not by much, and I think I erred in changing “bathed in sweat” (which retains the connotation of the Hungarian “fürödve”) to “covered in sweat”.

I think “lie back” is better than “lean back”, and “compressed and compacted” better than “stretched more tightly”. The stuff with age’s current and the silt of the past in my version is a clumsy attempt to retain the original’s metaphor, which Rix discards completely in favor of a paraphrase that keeps the meaning. I do think “than anything I have lived through” is further from the original meaning than “than I could have ever endured”, and I’ll give myself a point there.

Judging from this, I need a lot more practice before I’ll be satisfied with my own efforts. I do think the method is both a good way of measuring my own ability and of learning how to address the problems that most vex me. To that end, I intend not only to continue translating The Door, but also to work on other plays and stories that have excellent English translations. (For instance, Ferenc Molnár’s play “Játék a kastélyban”, which has been adapted by both Tom Stoppard and P. G. Wodehouse; it will be interesting and possibly educational to see how close these non-Hungarian speakers manage to come to the original.)