Esterházy Per Se: A Translator’s Ball Game with a Postmodern Author

Just as there are user-friendly computers (they don't delete your latest text when you didn't mean to press the delete button, a dream!), user-friendly ovens (they ring when the roast is ready), and user-friendly scissors (left-handed!), so there are translator-friendly authors. And then, again, not. Some authors thumb their noses at the difficulties they are creating for the translator, and they are right to do so; their job is to write, the translator's is to translate. And then there are authors who are in the privileged position of knowing perfectly well when engaged in the act of writing that they will probably be translated into a foreign language. Most of them write in line with a traditional sense of literature – in Hungary Imre Kertész and Péter Nádas come easily to mind. Others, of whom there are few on this as well as the other side of the Atlantic, are the so-called postmodern authors. They are the ones who tend to be translator-unfriendly. They may even set up roadblocks in the way of the translator, producing puns and other type of word play, all in the spirit of good clean fun. One such notoriously translator-unfriendly Hungarian writer is the novelist Péter Esterházy, and may the Good Lord bless him for it.

In his monumental work Celestial Harmonies (Magvető Kiadó, 2000; Ecco Books, HarperCollins, 2004), Esterházy, in his impish good humor, has created ample situations to challenge his translator: Can she keep pace with him? Can she turn a cartwheel half as well as he? Can she translate the untranslatable, whether because the two languages are so different by their very nature, or because he has made up a word that suits his text, or has corrupted his text grammatically and lexically on purpose? And then I haven't mentioned the so-called culture-specific items, often obscure, sometimes made up, and not culture-specific at all!

Be that as it may, Péter Esterházy certainly seems to take special delight in coming up with untranslatable puns, even gleefully talking out of the text to his translator, as in Book Two, Sentence # 162 of Celestial Harmonies, where he reminisces about hearing the news of the 1953 death of the feared and hated Soviet dictator Stalin when he (Esterházy, not Stalin!) was a young boy:

"Lehunyta szemét a szemét," [Uncle] Roberto said with a grin, then he too proceeded to close his eyes. But first he winked at me, "An untranslatable pun." "He was a great rascal, may he rest in peace," my mother nodded.

That wink and that pun were made possible by the lexical fact that in Hungarian the word szemét means both "his eye(s)" and "trash." (Lehunyta is the simple past for "closed," so that was no problem.)

What's a poor translator to do? Whatever she can, under the circumstances. In this case, because of the Hungarian "eye/trash" convergence, I decided to make a virtue out of necessity, be magnanimous, and have Péter win the first round. And so, I left the pun untranslated. One-zero, Péter's advantage. I could have just as easily panicked, and rendered the source text into something like, "The bastard has finally kicked the bucket," but then I would have had to leave out the second sentence about the pun being untranslatableóclearly not an option, since it is part of the metatext insofar as it constitutes a brief reflection on language and the limits of translation. But, had I left out that remark after all, I would have been employing a legitimate translator's strategy called translation by omission.

In other cases, and in other books, to keep Péter's author-to-translator joke intact, I left in the parenthetical remark "untranslatable," then made up a suitable pun in English. But if the pun seems translatable after all, how can we justify the parenthetical remark? The trick is to invent a pun that will make the reader think that he is reading an untranslatable Hungarian pun in his own language. This took a bit of intellectual trompe l'oeil. One-one. Even. (I wish I could provide an example here, it would only be fair, but I simply can't think of any offhand, either in Celestial Harmonies or elsewhere.)

Péter is also fond of constructing entire stories based on puns. There is one buried deep inside Celestial Harmonies, but I can't find that either. And also elsewhere. A Little Hungarian Pornography? The Book of Hrabal? She Loves Me? These puns, however, were clearly there for the sake of the story and not to throw down the gauntlet to the translator who, by the way, took it up and found English puns that would suit the story, thus leaving it intact. A challenge is a challenge, and where would I be as a literary translator without a sense of adventure or a love of risk-taking? Besides, translation is inseparable from the translator's worldview. Mine is that (a) if something must be done, it will be done because it has to be done, and (b) all it takes is a bit of Zitsfleisch. Just sit there, and don't move. Sooner or later something is bound to happen. For one thing, you might discover that you've misread the text, and there's no pun or other word play at all. (I should have it so good.)

So what's going on? Or as Péter Esterházy would say, "What gives"?

Although he protests, Péter Esterházy is a postmodern author par excellence, and as a postmodern author, he has been indulging in metanarrative inasmuch as the text is a reflection on itself, on the story being told, on the author reflecting on the authorial voice reflecting on what it is narrating, and so on. He's been engaging in "citationism," too, incorporating bits and pieces from outside sources, from the Bible through the postmodern American writer Donald Barthelme, thereby creating a metatext. As he once said (Once? Probably dozens of times!), all literature is a dialogue between literary texts. But when he began his impish games with his translators, publicly challenging them in his books (and speeches and articles) to translate "the untranslatable," when he began indulging himself in intertextual author-to-translator games, he willy-nilly created a brand of intertextual irony. He induced reflection on the author-translator relationship, and thereby he began calling attention to the nature of translation. Which is quite a feat. Two-one, Péter! Your advantage!

And my advantage is that the more marked the authorial presence becomes, the more marked the translator's presence becomes, because "untranslatable" texts that take full advantage of the author's native language and ingenuity call not so much for translation, but for the creation of parallel texts. For example, in Book I, Sentence #79 of Celestial Harmonies, an Esterházy ancestor comes up with the congenial idea that after Napoleon's defeat, they could disarm his son's ambitions by bestowing on him some piddling little title. In the Hungarian text this is Herzog von Mödlig which, as the author tells us, "mutatis mutandis would be the equivalent of the Count of Rákospalota"óneither of which small, insignificant towns the English reader would be able to identify, and thus the joke would be lost. So I made Napoleon Jr. Prince of Lower Bronx, which seems to have worked. This is what I mean by a difficult text enhancing the visibility of the translator, and in a world where the greatest praise a translator can get is to be ignored because the translated text is read as if it had popped out of Zeus's forehead in that state to begin with, it feels good to be able to "come out" and show yourself. This is why I said at the beginning of this piece that Péter Esterházy is a notoriously translator-unfriendly Hungarian writer, and may the Good Lord bless him for it.

Copyright 2008 by Judith Sollosy. All rights reserved.