On Translating Örkény’s One Minute Stories February 14, 2009Posted by thymeworks in From The Translator's Desk, What's New.
If I were asked the most obvious – and therefore the most logical and perceptive – question on translating István Örkény’s One Minute Stories: What are the limitations or difficulties in rendering Örkény’s satiric Hungarian – maybe play with words, local references, linguistic tropes – into the somewhat limited “common sense” of Anglo-Saxon-influenced English, I’d be hard put for an answer. There must be word play, local references, idiomatic expressions and the like, but it’s not the language and not the cultural references that pose the real difficulty in translating the One Minute Stories (though I’m not saying that it didn’t take me years to have Örkény speak in English), it is the stories themselves – in short, not the words, but the text. The stories represent a unique blend of Central-European grotesque that grew out of the need to deal with mid-century Central-European political repression in a manner that would get past the censors, and which always and relentlessly focuses on the individual as a unique being – certainly the most potent answer to totalitarianism, of the communist or any other kind. Örkény’s One Minute Stories represent a unique genre that is based on using as few words as possible to say or suggest as much as possible, and the much that it suggested is the reality behind the seeming reality of the Hungarian experience of the sixties and seventies. Örkény’s strength comes from describing seemingly absurd situations in a pared-down „scientific language” (his expression), and the combination unexpectedly reveals to us the truth behind the seeming, hence the laughter, hence the tears. For lack of space, let’s say that this, in a nutshell, is the real text of every One Minute story, this suddenly discovered truth, this laughter of understanding, this sadness of recognition, this standing things on their head, which in the sixties and seventies became second nature to Hungarians. If – again for lack of space – we decide to call this the subtext, then this is what paused the real challenge to me as István Örkény’s privileged translator. As I never tire of saying when asked how I “managed” to translate a writer like Örkény, the trick is to translate the piece and not the words, the text and not the textual difficulties. After all, a piece is more than the sum of its parts. Get at the heart of the text, and take it from there.