Translation as Nourishment: Translator Zsuzsa Koltay in Conversation with Béla Szegedi-Szabó

This is an excerpt from an interview with Zsuzsa Koltay whose translation from Hungarian of Nándor Gion’s Soldier with Flower came out in 2020. The interview was originally published in Hungarian and subsequently translated in English by Owen Good for Hungarian Literature Online. Many thanks to Owen for allowing us to run this excerpt. Reading in Translation is publishing Jozefina Komporaly’s review of Soldier with Flower together with this interview.

Stiliana Milkova, Editor

Béla Szegedi-Szabó: Everyone can list literary works that have followed them their whole lives, or rather haunted them. I’m thinking of works which are able to illuminate the events of our lives over and over again. We continue a dialogue with a character across a lifetime, we welcome them as a close acquaintance. Shaggy István Gallai is such a protagonist among Gion’s life-work. When did you first read Nándor Gion’s Soldier with Flower? What did it mean to you then and what does it mean to you now?

Zsuzsa Kolta

Zsuzsa Koltay: I studied Hungarian and English at Debrecen University, that’s where I took one of Professor András Görömbei’s courses which included a few representatives of Hungarian minority literatures, Gion being among them. Not long ago a classmate of mine reminded me that Professor Görömbei demanded six thousand pages of compulsory reading for that one exam. I have to admit, thirty-five years later, I can only recall these roughly two hundred pages. It’s difficult to say what gripped me in this book, as it has many layers. First of all there’s the easy, natural storytelling, Gion’s trademark. The story contains many anecdotal elements, but enriched with plenty of symbolism which gives depth to the book without losing its direct approachability and enjoyability. The book’s atmosphere is captivating too as it shows the old village life, that simple, but harsh way of life, where everything is governed by nature’s rhythm, a lifestyle a good deal of humanity abandoned a long time ago. I think nowadays many of our nervous systems suffer due to the lack of this rhythm. Of course Gion’s world isn’t idyllic, not by far. We can see that life, getting by, is complex and very hard. I value the nuance of the characters, the natural rhythm of the dialogues. It appeals to me how the characters personify different patterns of behaviour. Besides this, the novel deals with subject matters of which at least three have followed me throughout my own life. The first being the pursuit of happiness. What is it, and how can you find it? Where does it come from? From without or from within? Does it bring us together or separate us? Is its existence indicated by a loud belly laugh; or a serious, relaxed, barely noticeable smile? The second subject matter is the duality of action and dreamy observation. The third is the coexistence of multiple ethnicities, or if you like, cultural pluralism. As an American immigrant in a town surrounding a large cosmopolitan university, I live this every day, different cultures living together, mixing and taking shape in an accepting, intellectual environment. It’s easy to see that no one culture is better than the next, it’s just different, and this variety is indeed the spice of life. Of course nothing is perfect, and these differences are easy to manipulate. But most often humanity overwrites everything. With Gion too, despite the conflicts in Szenttámas, often friendly bonds and family ties are woven between different communities.

BSz: What sort of difficulties did you come up against during translation?

ZsK: Gion’s prose is so clear, so natural, his storytelling and the poetic expression that flows from it are so simple and perfect that I really didn’t have to struggle with it at all, almost everything came organically. I believe that a good translation is always as faithful to the original as possible. Of course I did have dilemmas. A prominent trademark of Gion’s style is that he connects multiple co-coordinate sentences, into compound sentences, most often without any conjunction. Through this he evokes personal, oral storytelling, an important element in the novel’s atmosphere. Sadly in English this kind of construction is considered non-standard, and therefore it is distracting. Every student listens year after year to their teachers rant on about such “run-on” sentences. I tried to balance it out, so that some of the original flavour and rhythm are kept, but not so much as to alienate the American reader either.

BSz: Gion once said: “Essentially it was because of these people that I first started writing about my home, later I wrote still mainly for them; in this sense we might call it the inspirational power of one’s home.” What sort of feelings did you have while working on the translation?

ZsK: It was a great experience, this work; it took over my whole being; I felt totally absorbed in the text, in the story, in the world of Szenttamás. It was a meditative experience, and as such, instead of stirring up my emotions, it purified them and settled them. As someone who has lived away from her birthplace for a long time, I felt this “meeting” nourished me linguistically, culturally and spiritually too.

BSz: Besides this work being a local historical and family chronical, it depicts the coexistence of the Serbian, Hungarian and German peoples, but the Jews and the Roma too are just as integral to this world.

ZsK: Literature captivates me because it is about the meeting of and connection between two worlds: the writer’s and the reader’s. The reader always reacts to the work according to their own experiences and individuality. What I bring as a reader, and what I pass on as a translator, is a resonance with universal themes. But the universal is produced by a geographically and historically specific world, so yes, of course, Soldier with Flower is at the same time a historical novel about the last two decades of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in Vajdaság [1]. I already mentioned the different cultures being together and living side by side, the significance that this has for me. I myself didn’t have the opportunity to experience this during my childhood and youth in Debrecen, but the thought always intrigued me as I knew that my grandmother who grew up in Felvidék [2] spoke three languages. And another important comment on overcoming the personal, the specific: one of the translations’ readers, who grew up in China, spoke at length to me about how she recognised several characters in Soldier with Flower from her own childhood spent in China.

BSz: What do you need today for a significant Hungarian work to become popular across the water? How does the American book market work? What are your expectations for Soldier with Flower?

ZsK: What do you need? A ton of luck! Only 3% of all American publications are translations, which includes all the languages of the world, and non-fiction too, so there’s plenty of competition. The bigger publishers are the ones that can achieve broader successes and provide real visibility and popularity for the works they publish. But they accept ideas mostly from literary agents, and agents only work with writers, not with translators. So works by writers who aren’t alive anymore need major luck to be considered. In recent years Magda Szabó is a good example from Hungarian literature. Her discovery began with a conversation between an influential editor of a large publisher and one of his friends, who knew the writer’s work. This model isn’t so easy to replicate.

Soldier with Flower is available in print and in Kindle format on Amazon. I don’t expect any particular financial success, merely that a few readers get their hands on a copy, and like it. I decided beforehand that I wouldn’t try to examine with a marketing eye how the American audience might react. I can permit myself this luxury because I don’t earn my living through publishing. So I was able to focus on what was important for me. When I thought of the readers, I concentrated on my son. As a “half-Hungarian”, he’s been drawn to the Eastern European world since he was little, but he doesn’t know Hungarian well enough to be able to read a novel for enjoyment. The fact that he loves the book, that’s enough for me. The rest is just icing on the cake.

The full interview, of which this is an excerpt, was translated from Hungarian by Owen Good and published on Hungarian Literature Online.

[1] Vojvodina, a region in present-day Serbia.

[2] Upper Hungary, a region in present-day Slovakia.

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