It’s difficult to pin down why the novels of László Krasznahorkai have become so particularly successful in recent years, with the author winning the Man Booker International Prize in 2015 for ‘his achievement in fiction on the world stage’. One simple reason is that translation has made his work available to English-speaking readers both here and across the Atlantic. But of course that reason belies not only the difficulties that works such as Satantango and The Melancholy of Resistance pose to any reader in any language but also the fiendish difficulties of translating them.
Enter George Szirtes, the Hungarian-born, prize-winning, poet who arrived in Britain in 1956 at the age of eight with a vocabulary of only three English words drawn from A.A Milne, and who now says that he speaks Hungarian ‘fluently but not very well’. As a poet, he was advised by friends not to undertake translation. Looking back, he’s spent a large part of the last two decades doing just that. ‘It’s “the other thing” that I find myself doing,’ he says.
That ‘other thing’ involved eight to ten years work on Satantango and six on The Melancholy of Resistance. When Krasznahorkai rang him during the translation of the latter, Szirtes apologised for taking so long. Krasznahorkai responded by laughing and telling him that the book took four years to write. The length of the process meant that sympathetic editors and publishers were essential in bringing such works to an international audience. Krasznahorkai’s by now famously long sentences and slabs of text, which Szirtes has memorably described as ‘a slow lava flow of narrative, a vast black river of type’, were capable of producing headaches. ‘You lose sight of where you are,’ says Szirtes.
Despite being ‘tempted to give up most days’, the labours of love and fascination paid off. Krasznahorkai’s 2015 prize was shared with Szirtes and another translator of his work, Ottilie Mulzet. While Mulzet, according to Szirtes, is ‘far more scholarly and faster’, he brings his poet’s ‘intuitive and instinctive’ feel for ‘untangling very long sentences’. ‘What kind of noise does it make?’ he asks, before ‘blundering about’ in the first draft of a translation.
There’s no doubt that Krasznahorkai’s language and vision demand both precision and intuition, as well as an understanding of the distinction Szirtes makes between the causal characteristics of fiction, its narrative impetus, its patent outcomes, and the indeterminate possibilities of poetry. ‘Poetry,’ says Szirtes, ‘floats.’ Having recently witnessed unseemly arguments between rival translators of Camus’ The Outsider and of Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’ – nobody could agree on even, perhaps especially, the first lines of these fictions – it must be both liberating and constraining to be one of very few people capable of translating Hungarian. Szirtes, however, points out that, with fewer than ten working translators of Hungarian, all of them part of ‘an aging breed’, he would love a new generation to emerge.
Until then, it falls particularly to him to reveal to readers something exceptional, if not altogether other-worldly. Krasznahorkai’s work, with its ‘hallucinatory sense of space’, as Szirtes puts it, transcends its geographical and narrative borders. It becomes, to take a phrase from The Melancholy of Resistance, part of an ‘endless momentum of chaos’ in which , ultimately, even chaos dissolves into ‘one damned thing after another’. At the centre of what Szirtes says is ‘highly systematic mind at work’, referring to the structure of Satantango or the cosmogony and natural tuning of The Melancholy of Resistance, there is always an innocent and sacrificial figure, at once dark, comedic and tragic. It takes a certain kind of translator to haul all of this across linguistic boundaries. Or a certain kind of poet.
László Krasznahorkai’s Satantango and The Melancholy of Resistance, both translated by George Szirtes, are available from Amazon, at prices from £4.79 upwards.
‘László Krasznahorkai in English – George Szirtes in conversation with Rosie Goldsmith’ was part of the ongoing programme of events at the Hungarian Cultural Centre, London.