In Conversation: Len Rix on Translating Hungarian

"Translation is itself an artistic enterprise, an act of co-creation, relying on empathy, intuition and imaginative insight."

Len Rix is best known for translating Antal Szerb’s works into English: Journey by Moonlight has been a long-time favourite, reissued many times. In recent years, Len translated Magda Szabó’s The Door and Katalin Street, both poignant novels about memory, integrity and the way history intrudes into the private realm. In February this year, he was awarded the PEN America Translation Award for Katalin Street. Asymptote’s Editor-at-Large Diána Vonnák asked him about his remarkable journey to the Hungarian language, his thoughts on Szerb and Szabó, and the translator’s craft.

Diána Vonnák (DV): Not that many people take it upon themselves to translate from Hungarian without family roots or some other connection. One of them is Ottilie Mulzet, who says Hungarian is “like a rubber band. It can expand and expand, until you think, well, this rubber band is going to break at any moment now, or it can shrink into just a few sparse words, where all the most important parts are left out and you just have to know.” What was it about the language that made you choose it? Do you agree with Mulzet and her emphasis on elasticity?

Len Rix (LR): It was initially the sheer sound that drew me to it, so strange and beautiful, with its soft and alluring vowels and diphthongs that simply do not exist in English, and its musical spoken rhythms. Then it became the elaborate and rigorously logical grammar, with its agglutinative case endings and “reversed” word order that drew me on. And all those wonderful new words!

This “elasticity” is partly to do with the age and historic isolation of the language, which have both acted to keep the case-endings and other suffixes intact. Old English and Anglo-Saxon were similarly agglutinative until the Nordic invaders arrived. They shared the same (Germanic) root words but had evolved different endings, which were soon set aside. Cut off from its Finno-Ugric cousins, Hungarian missed out on that. The one language to which it was exposed down the centuries, Latin, would have done nothing to diminish its tendency to ramify endlessly. Cicero’s “periodic” sentences can equal the best of Krasznahorkai. There is one in his Pro Milone, as I recall, that runs to fifty-seven lines of close print without a full stop.


DV: You taught yourself Hungarian partly by reading Antal Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight, a novel that remains one of your most widely acclaimed and successful translations. You worked on that translation for several years. Did this learning process and the special connection to Szerb shape your own Hungarian? Did it affect how you thought about the language?

LR: Finding Szerb turned “love at first sight” into a lifelong passion, even though, as I later found, he is unusual in being somewhat un-Hungarian in his style. At an early age he immersed himself in French and English models and relished their tendency to structural simplicity, terse understatement and love of epigram: he even translated the humorist P. G. Wodehouse, that most laid-back and monosyllabic of writers. So I was lucky. If the first novel put in my hand had been by one of your baggy existentialist post-moderns, I might not have persevered.

DV: Besides Antal Szerb, it was Magda Szabó’s work that brought you praise, most recently the PEN Translation Award for Katalin Street. What brought you to Szabó’s work and to that particular novel? How did it compare to Szerb?

LR: In 1995 I was approached out of the blue by a publisher and asked to do The Door. I’m afraid I had never heard of it or its author. NYRB turned to me for Katalin Street because their Classics Editor Edwin Frank had admired my translation of Journey by Moonlight.

Magda Szabó’s approach to syntax could not be more different from Szerb’s. She herself seems to get lost in her own forever-compounding structures and will give you contradictory bits of information within the same paragraph or even sentence because by the time she reaches the end she has forgotten how she began. The attentive translator, like a good valet, has to do a lot of discreet tidying up. I also spend a lot of time breaking her “over-long” sentences into units more manageable to the Anglophone ear—which incidentally makes it easier to highlight what really matters and give stress and weight to the really important or dramatic bits. She does tend to pack repeated or insignificant information, and unrelated ideas, into one sentence and to be overly casual about the sequence in which they appear. Antal Szerb never does this, so I think it must be a stylistic blemish in Hungarian, too. She can write with great dramatic and moral power, have you roaring with laughter or fighting back tears, but she is broad and copious rather than elegant.

DV: In Hungary, Szabó’s work was overshadowed by the so-called prose turn and a strongly postmodern approach to language and narrative that Hajnóczy, Mészöly—or more recently Esterházy and Nádas—brought with them. Like Szerb, she was often declared passé as a modernist author. Was this modernism important for you in either case? Do you agree with this label in the first place?

LR: I understand why these writers turned to more and more abstract forms of writing as the only way they felt they could mediate the complexity of their mental and political worlds. But in general, I deplore the fashionable appropriation of literary works by one-track ideological writers and critics. To dismiss a writer like Szabó on literary-theoretical grounds strikes me as mistaken (in the case of Lukács criminally so), but I am very happy that her countrymen have rediscovered her, for whatever reason.

What matters to me, and I think to most of her Anglophone readers, is that she tells us about life in Hungary, both generally and in that one rather special period, that she moves us deeply with her moral and psychological insights and thus shows us more of what it means be fully human. That is what critics should be focusing on.

DV: Szabó’s rehabilitation only started recently in Hungary, as part of a broader feminist turn in literary criticism. For better or worse, Magda Szabó is primarily understood through her gender, as it happens with so many female authors. Did gender play an important role in the translation process?

LR: To “understand a writer through her gender” is deliberately to choose to interpret her in a reductive way and not to understand her in her fullness. You have to ignore too much that matters just as much. And what does a feminist critic make of her consistently critical presentation of the central characters Iza in Pilatus and Irén in Katalin Street, and of the cold cruelty of Gina’s classmates in Abigail, a novel in which the true hero is not the saintly Susanna but the male Latin teacher Kőnig. Even in The Door the wisest characters are not the “lady-writer” or even Emerenc, but her long-suffering husband and the manly lieutenant colonel, and perhaps even the handyman.

Szabó has a large and warm heart, she is interested in everybody and everything, and she describes things as she finds them. If that is old-fashioned, then so much the worse for fashion.

As for the translation process: it is always fascinating and instructive for a man to try and capture distinctive feminine modes of thinking, feeling and writing, and one constantly learns as one goes along. Translation at this level is itself an artistic enterprise, an act of co-creation, relying on empathy, intuition and imaginative insight, and I try to work in that spirit.

DV: You grew up in Zimbabwe, a country with sixteen official languages—linguistic diversity might have been a more immediate experience for you than for many other English-natives. Did your childhood shape your decision to become a translator? What do you think about the role of literary translation, especially when it comes to small languages such as Hungarian?

LR: That is a very interesting thought that had not occurred to me. I had always assumed that my mania for translation must be a defect of brain wiring: I was trying to translate French from cartoon strips in an old children’s encyclopedia at the age of five. But in that weirdly distorted white-supremacist colonial culture I seldom heard, was not taught, and had no real access to any of the indigenous languages. Only at university did it strike me that I ought to correct that, and began teaching myself Shona, the beautiful (and again very musical) major language of the country.

The role of translations? The obvious things can never be repeated enough. On the one hand they play a useful role in keeping minority cultures alive, for example among the Anglophone descendants of those millions of Hungarians in North America and Australia. But perhaps even more importantly, they enrich their foreign readers with insights, values and perspectives that would otherwise be lost. Hungarian experience in the twentieth century was perhaps uniquely horrifying. It produced situations and states of mind that extend our understanding of what it is to be human, and only the very best writers and artists, especially those who lived under the totalitarian system, can make that available to the wider world. You are blessed to have had so many of the calibre to do just that.

Len Rix was born in what is now Zimbabwe but has lived most of his adult life in England. He originally graduated in Latin, French and English, and has taught English in schools and universities, and also some Hungarian (at Manchester Grammar School). He is now retired and lives in Cambridge. In October 1989, he overheard Hungarian spoken and decided immediately that it sounded so musical and interesting he wanted to learn it. He painstakingly taught himself from textbooks, tapes and by reading (and translating) Antal Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight. Since then he has translated ten other novels and literary works, mostly by Szerb and by Magda Szabó. At the moment he is working on Abigél, which he says is very much better than you might suppose from the usual reasons for its popularity. In 2006 he won the Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize and in 2018 the PEN America Translation Prize, both for his renderings of Magda Szabó.

Diána Vonnák is an Editor-at-Large (Hungary) at Asymptote. She has written reviews for Hungarian Literature Online and Visegrad Insight and a number of Budapest-based publications and is currently working on a collection of short stories in Hungarian. Diána is a social anthropologist researching how the war reshapes cultural politics in Ukraine.

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  • Kandalaksha

    I’ve bought Rix’s translations for friends before, but some of this is really shocking stuff that makes me wonder about his methods.

    For starters he says he likes Hungarian “diphthongs”: there aren’t any true diphthongs in standard Hungarian, as we know – granny from the Sárrét would use some lovely diphthongs (“szilvás gombouc”!), but I doubt that’s what Rix means. He talks about “Old English and Anglo-Saxon” as if they were separate languages, and says that Hungarian managed to keep its case endings because it was “cut off from its Finno-Ugric cousins”, as if the cousins which stayed close to one another had lost their own endings, which of course they haven’t. Then he says the one language to which Hungarian was exposed down the centuries was Latin – what, more than Turkic, Slavic or German? You could find someone down the nearest borozó with better-informed views than these.

    Equally shocking are Rix’s comments on Magda Szabó’s style. He claims she “will give you contradictory bits of information within the same paragraph or even sentence because by the time she reaches the end she has forgotten how she began”, as if she was some dementing care-home patient. He says he breaks up her sentences to make them easier for English-speakers: where tolerance of long sentences in one language carries an unintended stylistic weight in another, there may be valid arguments for this – but “highlight[ing] what really matters and giv[ing] stress and weight to the really important or dramatic bits” is not one of them. The idea of Rix “tidying up” Szabó’s ideas like this would be horrifying even if his ability to appreciate her style were not so suspect. Then again, if one mark of a good translator is sending people back to the original, at least he’s achieved that with this reader.