Divine Experience or Divine Faith? Veronika Haacker-Lukacs Interviews Translator Jozefina Komporaly

Jozefina Komporaly lectures at the University of the Arts London and translates from Hungarian and Romanian into English. She is editor and co-translator of the drama collections How to Explain the History of Communism to Mental Patients and Other Plays (Seagull Books, 2015) and András Visky’s Barrack Dramaturgy: Memories of the Body (Intellect, 2017), and author of numerous publications on theater, translation and adaptation, including the monograph Radical Revival as Adaptation: Theatre, Politics, Society (Palgrave, 2017). Her recent translations include Mr K Released by Matéi Visniec (Seagull Books, 2020), which was shortlisted for the 2021 EBRD Literature Prize) and The Glance of the Medusa by László F. Földényi (Seagull Books, 2020). She is currently working on the anthology Plays from Romania: Dramaturgies of Subversion (Bloomsbury, 2021), and an audio adaptation of Matéi Visniec’s Decomposed Theatre for Trafika Europe Radio.

Having been aware of Jozefina’s work as a literary translator, I was excited to meet her in person at a translation event in London a couple of years ago. She is, like me, a translator working from her native language(s) into English, and at that party I was eager to quiz Jozefina about her translation practices, the challenges she might have encountered as a second-language translator, and any tips she had for me just taking my first hesitant steps along my own journey of translating from my native Hungarian into English. Since then, I have attended a Hungarian-English literary translation seminar co-organised by Jozefina, and have on occasion reached out to her for advice and insight or, indeed, to compare notes on travelling to the Continent from the UK to see family in times of Covid. Last December, Jozefina approached me to ask if I would undertake writing a review of The Glance of the Medusa. I had been aware of Földényi’s reputation in Hungary and felt somewhat daunted at the prospect, yet I was honoured to be asked and said yes. While reading the book, however, I noticed I was more interested in the translation itself and the choices Jozefina had made in her version that interviewing her seemed a more attractive idea to me than writing a review. The interview gave me an opportunity to meet the translator at work and find answers to the questions I had accumulated while reading.

Földényi’s The Glance of the Medusa is an astounding encyclopaedia of ancient and early Christian thought. It invites the reader on a historical, mystical and mythical journey encompassing ancient Greek and Egyptian religions as well as the early Christian Mystics and Gnostics to examine experiences bringing human beings and (the) God(s) into such extreme proximity with each other that one might well merge into the other. What kind of experiences is Földényi talking about? He, himself a non-believer, does not necessarily refer to religious encounters in a canonical sense. Rather, these are instances when “a kind of dam bursts, whereby something thereto alien and unimaginable penetrates into the world of order” (28). Fear, passion, pain, loss of consciousness, or the agony of death are all moments which lead to such a “state of freedom, a fountain of possibilities” (19). I was curious to investigate how the translator had approached the staggering richness of religious and mythical references, and how she had bridged the gap between scholarly text and literature. In this interview with Jozefina Komporaly we discuss the translation and publication of the book, as well as her translation and research strategies.

                                                                                    Veronika Haacker-Lukacs

VHL: You’re essentially a literary translator. How did you come across this book? Was it your idea to translate it, or did a publisher approach you?

Jozefina Komporaly

JK: As it happens, I was approached by Seagull Books to translate this title. I was of course aware of László F. Földényi’s reputation but hadn’t read A Medúza pillantása prior to being asked to work on an English version. I suspect that I was asked because of my academic affiliation, which was extremely helpful, at least as far as stamina and research skills were concerned. 

VHL: From a literary translator’s perspective, what was it like to translate this collection of essays? Did you have to go about it in a different way to how you usually approach translating fiction?

JK: Yes, this was certainly a different translation experience than, say, working on fiction. I accepted the challenge knowing that it would be difficult, and was encouraged to an extent by previous successful essay translations of mine and my experience of writing essays, albeit in a different field. I should add perhaps that the author kept reminding me that this was intended as a volume of literary rather than academic essays.   

Veronika Haacker-Lukacs

VHL: You commented on the Facebook page of the Hungarian Translators’ House that publishing this book had taken three years (the Hungarian original was published in 2013). Did you mean the manuscript was ready but publication was delayed? Or that it had taken you three years to complete the translation itself? In either case, can you please give some background?

JK: Publication took about three years from the date of submitting the manuscript. There were various delays, and the editing process was halted by external circumstances. This staggered approach caused some difficulties, especially in the case of such a highly specialised text that requires a specific mindset and mode of concentration. The translation itself was completed over a period of about a year and a half, during which I worked on this project over a number of intense periods of focus, such as a residency at the Hungarian Translators’ House in Balatonfüred, for which I am extremely grateful to Péter Rácz.    

VHL: Földényi’s enyclopedic knoweldge of the Bible, Greek and other ancient mythologies as well as early Christianity and Gnosticism is formidable. Are these areas you yourself are well-versed in? If not, how did you go about amassing the knowledge and understanding of religious sects, topics and devotional concepts that has resulted in this insightful and erudite translation?

JK: My knowledge of these areas is certainly far from the erudition of Földényi, so I tried to read up on topics and references as much as I possibly could. I was fortunate to work on this project before the pandemic, so could take advantage of being based in London and became a regular at the British Library. My aim was to consult as many of the sources the author had drawn upon as possible, in addition to the helpful advice received from Földényi himself. I also checked out the German translation of the book by Akos Doma. 

VHL: Were there any other challenges? Also, what did you enjoy most about the translation?

JK: Without a doubt, the main challenge was to navigate the richness of the author’s cultural references, and to track down the English equivalents of texts that he had often read via German, French or Hungarian originals. This was the most time-consuming yet most enjoyable part of the process that will have a lasting influence on me. Missing out on potential intertextual clues was an ongoing concern of mine, and so was the dilemma which translation to go for in case there were multiple options (e.g. Aristotle’s Physics or Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra), or whether I should always use existing English translations or rather translate certain quotes myself. The publisher initially recommended consistency in terms of using the same translation of a particular source throughout the book, however, this often posed problems as at times another translation of this source into English was potentially closer to the spirit of Földényi’s Hungarian text. So, in the end we agreed to use a combination of different English versions, depending on the specific context and situation. 

VHL: My favourite parts, or rather the parts that have touched me most, are Földényi’s discussions about divine experience, for instance the “silver flash,” which refers to the moment lovers catch a glimpse of God in each other’s gaze. I’m not religious and neither is the author, yet he calls these instances divine. In the Introduction, he explains that he uses the terms “divine” and “religious” in the sense attributed to them by the 20th century Hungarian thinker Béla Hamvas. In this sense, those experiences are considered religious, which help people overcome their inner, hitherto-insurmountable barriers” (6). They have nothing to do with insitutionalised religion, and are therefore very different from divine faith, which is belief in God in a canonised sense. Rather, moments of divine experience can be described as cathartic, moving or uplifting” (ibid), allowing one to feel “boundless or limitless” (ibid). As a result, such experiences make one aware that they “exist” (ibid).  Did you have a favourite part, where you perhaps experienced an aha moment, or one that you found particularly interesting?

JK: If asked, I also tend to single out the section about “the silver flash,” and discussed this in an interview with Owen Good in HLO.

VHL: Although the blurb states that Földényi’s seven essays “ask whether it is possible to overcome our fear of passing away,” I have become none the wiser. I haven’t found an answer on the book’s pages which would put my mind at ease over my own or my loved ones’ mortality. To attempt to offer up a magic formula of some sort is, of course, not the author’s aim. Who do you think might be interested in this book??

JK: Well, as I mentioned above, Földényi wanted to position this book as a volume of literary essays that should circulate well beyond academia. I think this goal has been achieved with the Hungarian edition, not in the least due to the author’s long-standing reputation and regular presence in literary journals and weeklies. In English, there is less of a context in this sense so to speak, though this is already the third Földényi title to be translated after Melancholy (trans. Tim Wilkinson) and Dostoyevsky Reads Hegel in Siberia and Bursts into Tears (trans. Ottilie Mulzet). I think the sheer fact that the book was not brought out by an academic press (the previous titles were published by Yale University Press) but Seagull Books in its Hungarian series helps to situate the volume among literary offerings, even if it is not exactly light reading.

VHL: Let us turn to the translation itself now. You often used simple, everyday words mixed in with more elaborate ones. For instance, you wrote get dizzy” and “gobble him up” where the Hungarian equivalents belong to a slightly higher register. Yet in the very next sentence after “gobble him up” you went for “partook,” which is more formal than the Hungarian original. Your previous answer has just shed some light on the rationale of mixing registers, but would you like to further elaborate on this?

JK: The rationale for these choices derives from the above-mentioned aim to produce a book that has the potential to reach readers outside academia, and to suggest that complex topics do not necessarily require top register or Latinate terms at all times.   

VHL: Your translated fáraómacska (pharao’s cat) as pharao’s rat’. In fact Herpestes ichneumon, the scientific name given in the Hungarian original, means neither of the two, but the Egyptian Mongoose. Which animal is Földényi talking about here?

JK: These terms actually refer to the same animal, and I opted for “pharao’s rat” because I felt that it was the closest to the Hungarian. In retrospect, I should have probably also offered synonyms for the sake of clarity.

VHL: I find translators’ notes fascinating and elucidating, at times almost as enjoyable as the translated work itself. They provide windows into the translators’ mind and their work processes. You didn’t include one here. Why not?

JK: I agree that translators’ notes are fascinating, but they are not a staple of the series in which the book was published.

VHL: Is there anything else you would like to mention in connection with this book?

JK: This was a most interesting immersive experience from which I learned an awful lot about an amazing variety of fields, as a reader, as an academic, and as a translator. I am grateful to various friends and colleagues for their insight, advice and comments, and to László F. Földényi for his generous help with locating references and elucidating notions. In hindsight, I wish I had asked him a few more questions, especially in the light of the motto “not to bite off more than one can chew.” I am also thankful for the excellent work of my editor, Bishan Samaddar at Seagull, who tirelessly tracked down bibliographical details that I struggled to obtain.

VHL: What are you working on right now?

JK: I have just finished work on the proofs of a volume of plays for Bloomsbury, entitled Plays from Romania: Dramaturgies of Subversion. This is a project that braids my dual interest as a theater critic and drama translator, and is rooted in my close collaboration with playwrights and theater artists who have been involved with workshopping the translations. I am also working on a couple of essays on contemporary theater history, which is one of my areas of research. I also have a few projects regarding contemporary Hungarian fiction and am spending a fair amount of time pitching ideas to publishers, as is often the case with supply-driven translation.

Veronika Haacker-Lukacs is a Budapest-born literary translator interested in contemporary Hungarian prose and children’s literature. Her English translations of Iván Bächer’s feuilletons and János Háy’s short stories have appeared in Hungarian Literature Online and Lunch Ticket, and a chapter from Judit Berg’s witty Two Tiny Dinos and the Magic Volcano has also been recently published in HLO. Her latest translation is The Deadman (2021), a play by acclaimed playwright, author and poet János Háy. Veronika completed an MA in Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK, in 2019, and was a recipient of the Hungarian Petőfi Literary Fund’s Emerging Translators’ Grant in November 2020. She is a member of the UK Translators’ Association as well as the Emerging Translators’ Network. She lives in Oxford, UK.

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