George Szirtes is a poet and translator. He was born in Budapest in 1948 and came to England as a refugee in 1956, following the Hungarian Uprising. His thirteen books of poetry, which include New and Collected Poems (2008), have won the Faber Prize, the Cholmondeley Award, and a number of other awards. His 2004 book Reel was awarded the T S Eliot Prize. He has also won various prizes as a translator of poetry and fiction from the Hungarian. His earlier translations from László Krasznahorkai include The Melancholy of Resistance (1999) and War and War (2005).
Words without Borders: It must be gratifying to see the writer you translate honored as a finalist for the Man Booker. What is it that drew you, as a translator, to the writer's work?
George Szirtes: It is indeed very gratifying. I have translated three books by László Krasznahorkai so far and am currently translating a fourth. The first of them, The Melancholy of Resistance (Az ellenállás melankóliája), was proposed to me by a UK publisher. I had read about Krasznahorkai’s work before but not the work itself. It was very slow progress because the text was demanding and contained very long sentences, but I, like many readers, was drawn in by the power not only of the vision but the hypnotic quality of the writing. Then came War and War (Háború és háború) and, most recently Satantango (Sátántangó), which was, chronologically, the first of his books in Hungarian. Then there were the film collaborations with the director Béla Tarr. The spell of the books lies in their originality and comprehensive vision, their remorselessness, and their blend of apocalyptic darkness and graveyard humor that extends the realm of the novel into areas of sensibility closer to poetry. It helps that his other translator, Ottilie Mulzet, is excellent.
WWB: Can you tell us about a particular challenge/problem you've come across translating your writer's work and how you resolved it? Alternately, what's something you learned from translating this writer [that has stuck with you to this day]?
GS: There are two major problems with translating László Krasznahorkai. First is the sheer mechanics of the prose, those long sentences constantly modifying themselves, opening the ground beneath your feet; the second is tone or register, that balance between the slow lava-like, apparently grave pace of the narrative and the humor—now grotesque, now understated—that interpenetrates that same gravity.
WWB: What trends or recurring themes do you see in the literature you translate?
GS: Most of my novelists were dead long before I started. Hungarian writing can be marvellously inventive but little of it has been translated into English, so there is always catching up to do. The three major figures of the late twentieth century Hungarian novel—Péter Eszterházy, Péter Nádas and László Krasznahorkai—all write beyond the confines of realism and conventional novelistic structure. All three of them write books that are in some ways monumental. It makes sense to talk of comparisons with Sebald and Bolaño, as well as with Thomas Bernhard. In all these, the voice is pitched against a kind of crisis-point metaphysical climate. We are, I suspect, talking about the giants of our time.