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When Cards Run Bad February 5, 2010

Posted by New Europe Writers in From The Translator's Desk, What's New.

An interview with Veronika Lukacs, translator of Iván Bächer’s short stories for Budapest Tales: Confirmation and Class Struggle.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about Iván Bächer and what attracted you to his writing?

A: He’s a journalist and prose-writer who carries on the century-old tradition of feuilleton writing. He describes with wit the ordinary quotidian Hungarian life, reviews books, or comments on political events – always with a bite in the tail. I became familiar with his writing six years ago when I was studying in Tokyo. My mother sent me one of his books, The Abandoned Village (Az elhagyott falu), a collection of short stories about life in a godforsaken Hungarian village. I was completely taken with how Bächer picks the most ordinary, banal event – such as the appearance of mice in a cottage, slaughtering a pig, or vaccinating dogs against rabies –  and imbues it with humanity, wit, and charm. At the same time, the greatest human sufferings – death of a loved one, illness, war, and genocide – are described in a strikingly matter-of-fact way, or sometimes with cynicism. And yet you feel the sadness oozing through every single line.

Q:  Why Bächer and not some other columnist?

A: Because his pieces provide me with the kind of catharsis I don’t get with other contemporary Hungarian writers. This is only partly due to his style. As a politically articulate writer, Bächer strongly divides the country – one half adoring him and the other seeing him as an arch enemy. For myself, I subscribe to the values – democracy, tolerance, transparency of political institutions, culturally sensitive, and active citizenship – that underpin his writing.

Q: But foreigners….?

A: Many foreigners are interested in Central Europe and its recent history. I wanted to introduce them to Bächer’s  books so they might see this region the way he informs  them (and us, Hungarians, too), with its staggering cultural assets, eccentric but loveable inhabitants, the dreadful historical mistakes that led to catastrophes, and current racist tendencies that we must watch and curb. None of his books (apart from a slim volume of Hungarian recipes) had been translated into English, so I thought: I’ll have a crack at doing that myself.

Q:  The two feuilletons you chose are set in 1938 and 1948, long before Bächer’s and certainly your time.

A: I randomly plucked them from a collection of short stories that take place at various times in the 20th century.

Q:  Yet there is a certain vivacity to them as if he had lived then. Do his readers still have memories of those years?

A: Well, yes, the legacy of the socialist years is still discernible in our way of thinking. My parents’ generation – and Bächer’s  – spent their childhood, youth, and mature adulthood under the socialist regime. I was 12 when the system changed. The memories, habits acquired during those decades, have been ineradicably ingrained in us.

Q: And this even so with the younger generation, who were very small children during socialism or were born after the change?

A: True, but in Bächer’s writing, past and present are always melded into one — partly because he tends to look back to bygone years for values he can’t find today, partly because of his personal experience of  suddenly losing the people he loved most.

Q: As you say, he has a strong if controversial readership in Hungary. What about his universal appeal to, say, English readers not privy to the especially Hungarian situation?

A: So many international readers are interested in Central Europe, or in Hungary in particular. It is this audience to whom Bächer’s books will appeal, especially his approach to modern history, so different to other Hungarian writers available in English.

Q:  And what is that difference?

A: Perhaps his focus, which isn’t on politics per se, but on individuals, and the family, who go about their lives under whatever regime happens to exist. Political events are described through the experiences of those who lived through them. This is to demonstrate that it wasn’t all doom and gloom behind the Iron Curtain, as the political West still appears to believe, and that people have similar desires and tragedies, regardless of where they live. Because Bächer has a dry, sarcastic sense of humour, not dissimilar to English humour, his books would certainly be enjoyed here in the UK.

Q:  For instance?

A: Well, in a lightweight autobiographical story he recounts the protagonist’s encounter with a winter fly in his cottage: how he gets used to its presence over several days; notices a missing leg and the assumed distortions on its face; talks to it as others would to a pet; names it; claims it as his own fly… only to end the story with a “Sorry!” as he smashes the fly with a newspaper.

Q: Did you encounter any difficulties translating Bächer’s Hungarian vernacular and local references into English?

A: Plenty. I compare doing it to the labours of a jigsaw puzzle. Bächer has a vast historical knowledge, and his books are peppered with such references. These details are new even to most Hungarian readers. His writings are so densely Hungarian anyway – with references to streets, names, political institutions – that sometimes I took pity on the English reader and omitted the intricate details of a church interior or the fascinating history of Hungarian spelling.

Q: Tell us a bit about your forthcoming literary translation projects.

A: I’m looking for a publisher for the book from which these short stories are taken: When Cards Run Bad: Family Histories. A lot of people all over the globe are finding that the world is being dumbed down: educational levels are falling; watching telly and shopping have become popular pastimes; people hardly read any more. I’m convinced that these people would buy Bächer’s books for comfort, entertainment, and proof that literature is still about a good story told well. I’ve created a website: www.trigono.co.uk where excerpts from these translations are available.

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