Short and Long

I started reading Tell Sally… by Magda Szabo today, a translation of Mondják meg Zsófikának. The title, for once, is accurately translated, something that’s rarer than most people probably imagine. And the English, you notice, is far shorter than the Hungarian.

The reverse can also happen, of course. “Yes, we have no bananas, we have no bananas today” becomes “Igen, nincs banánunk, nincs banánunk ma”, which is a trifle more compact, and “I’m waiting for you” in Hungarian is “várlak”.

It’s partly that words which are short in one language are long in the other. Sally is a diminutive of Sophie, and shorter than the original; Zsófika is a diminutive of Zsófi, and longer than the original. In general, Hungarian forms diminutives by adding -ka or -ke to the root, but even in English diminutive forms can be longer than the original, as with Anne and Annie.

But most of the difference comes from grammatical features of the language, and from what is implied and what must be explicit. In English, “Tell Sally” and “You, tell it to Sally” are essentially the same, and the extra words can be left out. But Hungarian grammatically demands specificity: Mondják is the third person plural imperative form of the verb mond. From the verb’s conjugation, we know that the speaker is addressing more than one person, who aren’t close friends or relatives, and that he’s requesting they tell Sally something particular, something specific and definite. This level of precision may be unnecessary, but in Hungarian, unlike English, it simply isn’t possible to omit it.

And there’s one part of the verb I left out. The verb is actually megmond, and the prefix meg indicates that an action is completed. The speaker not only is commanding his listeners to tell Sally something particular, he’s telling them not to leave anything out.

So the Hungarian mondják meg is much more specific than the English tell. I tell, you tell, we tell, they tell: it’s all the same. With this title, though, Tell Sally tells us enough. We don’t happen to care about the extra information in the Hungarian verb.

On the other hand, “Várlak” is impressively concise. The -lak and -lek endings are a Hungarian peculiarity, a verb conjugation that’s only used when the speaker is the subject of the sentence, and the person (or people) he’s speaking to is the object of the verb. A Hungarian could grammatically say “Én várlak téged”, “I am waiting for you”, but he seldom would: “én” and “téged” are implicit in “Várlak”. In this case, the extra information in the Hungarian verb “várlak” is actually useful, and Hungarians are accustomed to making use of what is useful. Unlike English: even though only “I” can be the subject of the conjugated verb “am waiting”, we can’t leave it out.