Translators Reflections – Peter Sherwood

Peter Sherwood

Noémi Szécsi’s The Finno-Ugrian Vampire is an exhilarating satirical romp that takes no prisoners: everything is under literary and linguistic attack, especially literary genres and language itself, with exquisitely deflating digs at historical and social stereotypes on the way, all presented with an assurance and flair quite remarkable in a first novel. I realized the extraordinarily daunting challenges this presented only in the course of attempting to render it into English (fellow-translators will be familiar with the feeling), and as I write this I’m still at the stage of wondering what the ‘Anglo-Saxon’ reader will make of it all…

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But it’s worth saying that what might seem to the outsider to be the most impossible problems – for example, multilingual puns – are in fact relatively easy to deal with, as multilinguality is in any case the name of this particular game.  More difficult are specific local references, such as the names of Hungarian writers or historical places and events that ‘every Hungarian schoolboy knows’ but which will mean little or nothing to the non-Magyar reader.  Here, a variety of techniques must be employed to which I apply the tailoring term ‘invisible mending’ and which I wouldn’t detail in a general note of the kind you are now reading: keeping to the image, those who have seen the original garment may notice the ‘repair’, others (hopefully) won’t. In this book this is particularly problematic, as such points are regularly the author’s specific targets, but there will be times when I simply have to let things pass. For instance, natives recognize in the description of the external appearance of the accommodation initially shared by vampirical Grandma and her granddaughter Jerne (YEAR-nay) an allusion to the 1956 Hungarian Revolution (i.e. the still desperately run-down look of some central Budapest buildings shot up at that time), but I will probably have to leave it to the words ‘bullet holes’ to suggest this.

However, the hardest, and of course also the best, thing about the book is (NB: back to tailoring!) its very texture. It’s a kind of Möbius strip, with its ironical language not simply being used to subvert a variety of literary genres but constantly becoming a/the subverted work itself. In principle such post-modernism should not be impossible to replicate, though the differences between the linguistic history and grammatical structures of English and Hungarian really do make this difficult. Still, I hope I can offer an unusual and enjoyable ride in English that will more than just hint at why a local critic welcomed The Finno-Ugrian Vampire as ‘fresh blood coursing through the veins of Hungarian literature!’