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.)

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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.


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 …


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.

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