Back to Work

I haven’t been completely idle in the year since my last post, but I’m not going to try to summarize my progress. I did read one novel from start to finish (Géza Gárdonyi’s Abel and Esther), which is an achievement I’m a little proud of. My plan for November is to try to do a little bit of translation each day and see how much I can get done in a month. I was going to work on another Gárdonyi novel, Prisoners of God, but switched on a whim to another novel on my short-list, Margit Kaffka’s 1913 feminist novel The Years of Maria. I also started a few days early, and I plan to post a bit every day or two about what I’ve worked on.

So far I’ve done just the first page. A quick sample:

A far-off and feeble light—distant stars and the light of distant streetlamps—revealed, in a pallid stripe on a yellow repp duvet, the gable of Klára’s drawn-up knees. An uncertain grassy scent was perceptible from the boarding school garden, and the park beyond; one or two drops from the wash basin’s copper tap fell with a small resounding noise. “How many times has it been like this, exactly like this—this minute, this mood!” wondered Józsa, and with wide-open eyes she stared wonderingly into the darkness. She was seized by a genuinely naïve sentimentality; she was compelled to speak a few sentences.

If you’re curious what machine translation comes up with, here’s Google Translate’s version:

It is very remote and poor light – far from the world of stars and far from streetlights – révlett pale yellow stripe duvet reps – the pinnacle Klara knees tucked up. Uncertain fűillatok clearly felt the boarding garden and beyond, from the grove; mosdólavór the sonorous sounds rézcsapjából-keeping fell down a drop of water. “How many times was so, even so – this minute, this is the atmosphere” – Józsa thought, eyes wide open and staring into the darkness. He honestly felt a naive sentimentality; maxims had to say.

I can’t see I’m wholly satisfied by my version. For instance, looking at it just now, I think I’d change “pallid stripe” to “pale stripe”, I’d figure out exactly what kind of fabric “repp” is and look for a more familiar substitute, and I’d see if I can rephrase “the gable of Klára’s drawn-up knees” and “An uncertain grassy scent was perceptible” less clumsily. I’m also not entirely sure I’ve translated “révlett” correctly as “revealed”. But my goal for the present is quantity over quality, in the spirit of NaNoWriMo, and rather than spending the time groping towards perfect grace, I’ll simply take notes on words and phrases that I’m unhappy with.

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.)

Vuk, Week 8

Progress Report, Week 8:

Pages Translated: 67
Pages Translated in Last Week: 12
Pages Revised: 0
Last Page Translated: 79
Pages Remaining: 27

Well, that was a pretty good week. There was one day when I flaked out and did no translating at all, but the overall total is impressive, so I’m not going to beat myself up. I had another slack day today, in which I put off beginning until late at night and finished only about half a page, but there was some tricky phrasing in that half-page, so again I’m inclined to cut myself some slack. (If I need to go to the big Hungarian dictionary, not once but twice, then it’s a tough page.)

I think I can finish the book by the end of the month, and I’m going to try to push and reach the end within the next two weeks.

Vuk, Week 7

Progress Report, Week 7:

Pages Translated: 55
Pages Translated in Last Three Weeks: 23
Pages Revised: 0
Last Page Translated: 65
Pages Remaining: 39

I’ve done a poor job keeping up with both my translating and with these progress reports. I was completely unable to keep up while at Ebertfest, and I had a tough time getting back into the swing of things even after getting home, so there were several days where I didn’t translate a single word. I’ve settled into a comfortable pace of a page or two each day, and I think I’ll probably finish translating Vuk by the end of the month, which is not too shabby.

I’ve also translated a few pages of Ferenc Molnár’s play The Guardsman, which I’m seeing a new translation of at the Kennedy Center on the 29th. I want to read as much of it as I can before then, and take notes on the passages which puzzle me or which I have a tough time putting gracefully into English, so I can see what the new translator does with them. (I have a copy of the 1924 translation, which I can already tell is rather loose. For instance, the first two lines of the English version of the play appear nowhere in the Hungarian text.)

Vuk, Week 4

Progress Report, Week 4:

Pages Translated: 32
Pages Translated Since Last Week: 10
Pages Revised: 0
Last Page Translated: 42
Pages Remaining: 62

Made quota every day last week,  and usually did a bit better. Not too bad. This week will be a bit tougher, since I’m seeing fourteen movies, but once I make it through two film festivals life will become considerably less hectic.

I noticed that the Kennedy Center is producing a new translation of a Ferenc Molnár play, The Guardsman, in June, so I downloaded a copy of the original Hungarian edition. I already had a copy of the old 1924 translation by Grace Colbron and Hans Bartsch, which was further adapted for the American stage by Philip Moeller (who, I suspect, made the alterations the new translator, Richard Nelson, objected to). My next project, I think, will be to make a quick and dirty translation, comparing it to the 1924 translation as I go, and then seeing how Nelson handles the same material.

Vuk, Week 3

Progress Report, Week 3:

Pages Translated: 22
Pages Translated Since Last Week: 7
Pages Revised: 0
Last Page Translated: 32

Missed quota a few days, for which I really have no excuse. Just felt sort of listless a couple of days. I did start my taxes, which are about 98% done. (I’m waiting until I sort through all the crap on my desk to finish them, just in case I turn up a charitable donation I forgot about or something, which will have the nice bonus effect of giving me a more useable workspace for translation.)

You may notice a discrepancy between the number of pages translated since last week, and the difference in “Last Page Translated”. There were four pages with no text on them (illustrations, or blank pages on the back of illustrations), which affect the page numbering but of course don’t count towards the total of pages translated.

The DC Film Festival starts soon, so I think I’ll be doing well for the next couple of weeks if I just achieve my daily quota. I’m enjoying this translation project quite a bit, but I’m getting quite nervous about turning my rough drafts into polished prose. It doesn’t seem quite so hard when it’s just a vague ambition, but when it turns into an immediate prospect it becomes terrifying.

Vuk, Week 2

Progress Report, Week 2:

Pages Translated: 15
Pages Translated Since Last Week: 10
Pages Revised: 0
Last Page Translated: 21

I’ve met quota every day, and exceeded it most days. I haven’t started revising, and I think I’ll put it off a while longer. I’m doing well with the rough draft, in terms of productivity, and want to focus on that a while longer. I’m also reconsidering whether I should even polish the entire novel: it would be good to do some of it, but once I finish my rough draft, I may try to produce a polished translation of a book there’s already a good English-language translation of, and compare as I go, one chapter at a time. Or I may do chapters from several different books, to see how different translators handle different situations. I’ll need to think about it.

Vuk, Week 1

It’s been nearly a year since I updated. My skills have grown since then, but I haven’t finished any more translations, or even studied anywhere near as much as I should have. I’ve started a couple of projects, but not gotten very far with any of them.

Last week I began reading and translating Vuk, a famous children’s book about a fox by István Fekete, and I’ve decided to post weekly progress reports until I finish. Yesterday I timed how long it took me to translate a page: 30 minutes, for about 170 words. Vuk is only ninety-four pages long, and I’m setting a quota of at least one page per day, so I’m setting a target date of the end of June to have a finished translation. I’m hoping to have a semi-polished translation done, but I’ll count it as a win even if I only have a handwritten rough draft. (I bought a blank book last week just to contain my rough draft. I may or may not revisit this procedure when I start the next book, depending on how well it goes.)

Progress report, week 1:

Pages read: 5
Pages read since last week: 5
Pages translated: 5
Pages translated since last week: 5
Pages revised: 0
Pages revised since last week: 0
Total pages in book: 94

The Violet, Day 24

Composer. Delightful little creature.

Director absent-mindedly paging through the red script. There is much natural charm in her. He pages through the script. I like cleverness. That’s the best-tasting cleverness, that which exists within foolish little women. He pages through the script. But a foolish women’s cleverness tastes sweet as a peach.

Composer. There’s something in that.

Director. Yes, yes. Life is strange indeed. Daydreaming he leans back in his chair and slowly shreds the red script into tiny pieces, scattering them in the wastepaper basket.

Short pause.

Composer. Well, then, we remain as we are.

Director. Just so. We remain as we are.

Short pause.

The servant enters, and without a word takes Szeniczey’s part from under the lamp and carries it out.

Long pause.

Director. The weather is fine.

Composer. Yes. The sun is shining. It’s warm.

Director. At least eighteen degrees Celsius.

Composer. You reckon in Celsius?

Director. Yes. I am a pessimist.

Composer. I like the Réaumur scale better.

Director. They say it’s not bad.

Pause.

Composer rising. Well then … au revoir, Director.

Director in confusion, among his papers. Au revoir.

The composer departs.

Director notices the parasol, which Ilonka forgot. He opens it. The parasol is full of holes. He looks at it smiling, and shakes his head. Softly, he says to himself: Darling … darling …

CURTAIN

I think I averaged around 400 words per day. At that rate, it would take about six months to make a rough translation of a novel, and perhaps half again or twice as long to make a polished version. I probably couldn’t sustain this level of effort for a whole year, but, on the other hand, practice might very well make the work easier and even increase my daily production. I’ll have to see how the next project, which will probably be another short Molnár play, goes. I probably won’t start before May, at the earliest.

The Violet, Day 23

Director. And yet, you will become humbler. I say, let us suppose that you appeal to me. Well, then, now what will you do with the director?

Ilonka. I will declare that I love you.

Director. And if he then fires me?

Ilonka. He will never fire you, because he’ll hope that I will someday deceive you.

Director. He will hope that? Why will he hope that?

Ilonka. Because that’s how I will appear, and how you will appear.

Director. Unprecedented corruption.

Ilonka. You are all corrupt. Straightaway you misunderstand a person. I may appear to be an alluring little wild violet, but if you examine my morals, you will discover that I am a true pearl.

A bit over two pages today. I’m getting a bit weary of words that appear in no dictionary. I have a meat soup with “bri”, which could be lamp (bárány, birka), wine (bor), maybe dumplings, who knows. I don’t like guessing and I don’t like not knowing. Oh well, I’m getting close to the end, and maybe things will become clearer when I read the existing translation.