Journey by Moonlight, by Antal Szerb and translated by Len Rix
Some books are too subtle to be easily reviewed. You lose them as you try to describe them. They slip away, leaving just a vague sense that you haven’t done them justice.
Antal Szerb is one of the 20th Century’s great writers. His The Pendragon Legend is one of the funniest shaggy dog tales ever committed to print and his Oliver VII is easily one of my favourite novels, featuring as its main character a king who ends up as incognito head of the resistance to his own reign. Szerb writes with intelligence, empathy, a gentle but very funny wit and an acute sense of the absurd.
The blue cover is the one I have on Kindle. The creamy-brown cover is an earlier one from Pushkin which I love, and the one with the photo of Venice is again I think very good and is the cover I have on my physical copy.
The trouble began in Venice, with the back-alleys.
Mihály is on honeymoon in Venice with his new bride Erzsi. He’s a dreamer whose family are pressing him hard to settle down and to take a responsible role in the family business. He married Erzsi in part as she seemed a solid bourgeois who would help him adapt to what’s expected of him. It didn’t occur to him that she might have married him for what he is, not what his family want him to be.
She had long known that she did not understand him, because Mihály had secrets even from himself, and he did not understand her since it never occurred to him that people other than himself had an inner life in which he might take an interest. And yet they had married because he had decided that they understood each other perfectly, and that, for both, the marriage rested on purely rational foundations and not fleeting passion. For just how long could that fiction be sustained?
Erzsi is on her second marriage. She’s more experienced than Mihály, more worldly. When he wanders off one evening into the back-streets of Venice, not returning until the next day, she gets her first hint that there may be serious issues in store for them and that their mutual fiction might not be a lasting one. Things get worse when they run into Janos – a roguishly attractive childhood friend of Mihaly’s who stirs up old memories of adolescence.
Mihály tries to explain his past to Erzsi, but the more he does so the clearer it becomes that it still has a hold over his life that he barely understands and doesn’t particularly want to escape. When the time comes for the newlyweds to travel on Mihály gets briefly off their train to buy some supplies. He then “involuntarily, but not unintentionally” gets back on the wrong train. Now Erzsi’s en route to Paris on her own while Mihály bumbles across Italy in a meandering quest for he’s not quite sure what.
You start off as Mr X, who happens to be an engineer, and sooner or later you’re just an engineer who happens to be called Mr X.
At first it seemed to me there was a danger that Szerb would fall into that old trap of portraying a thoughtful and artistically sensitive man held back by a sensible yet dull wife. What follows though is vastly more interesting and intricate than that.
Before his departure Mihály told Erzsi of how his adolescent circle revolved around morbidly erotic role-plays led by the Ulpius siblings Eva and Tamas. The boys were all sexually obsessed with Eva and their little group broke up on the eventual suicide of Tamas. It’s clear to Erzsi that Mihály’s still fixated both on Eva and on the mystery of Tamas’ suicide. The result is that when he wanders off she’s not losing him to Italy – she’s losing him to nostalgia.
Mihály meanwhile comes to discover that as the old joke goes the past isn’t what it used to be. While he’s not a first person narrator he does still manage to be terribly unreliable, comically so. It’s perhaps natural given his insular nature that he doesn’t understand other people very well and mistakes much of what’s going on around him, but it’s more surprising to discover that he doesn’t understand himself terribly well either.
“I know what’s wrong with me,” he told the doctor. “Acute nostalgia. I want to be young again. Is there a cure for that?”
Mihály’s quest takes him across Italy to an encounter with one of his old friends who’s since become a particularly holy monk; to a series of missed and partial encounters with Eva; to further run-ins with Janos; and to an affair with an American tourist named Millicent (“‘Millicent,’ he said. ‘There’s someone in the world actually called Millicent!'”). As his money runs out he comes increasingly to realise that “There’s no cure for nostalgia” and the prospects of him ever returning to Erzsi become ever slighter.
The focus of the novel then shifts to Erzsi’s viewpoint. She too is adrift: nobody expects to be cut loose on their honeymoon. The difference is that while Mihály may be content to drift downwards into a morass of memory, Erzsi is made of firmer stuff.
All her life she had been the model of a good girl, adored by her nannies and fräuleins, her father’s pride and joy, the best pupil in the form, sent abroad to academic competitions. Her whole life had been sheltered and ordered, the good bourgeois life consecrated to a sternly supervised moral order. In due course she married a wealthy man, dressed elegantly, took on a grand house and presided over it as a model housewife. She always wore the identical hat sported by every other woman of the same rank in society. She took her summer holidays where fashion dictated, held the same opinions about theatrical productions, uttered the turns of phrase currently de rigueur. In everything she was a conformist, as Mihály would say. Then she began to get bored.
Erzsi married Mihály so he could save her from the very conventionality he wanted her to lend him. They never understood each other, but she at least is capable of understanding that and she soon realises too that she doesn’t actually need him as she’s perfectly capable of saving herself. Mihály is a weak man. His obsession with his past allows him to evade his present and is part of a wider lack of interest in the outside world. As an adolescent he was never quite as decadent as his friends, and now as an adult he yearns after something he thinks he lost but that was never really his.
Journey then is a novel of reversals. Nobody here is quite as we first expect them, something that’s true not only of Mihály and Erzsi but of many of the supporting characters too. Mihály can be irritatingly wet at times, but he’s not a villain. He is, literally, lost and if he’s perhaps less than he seems then Erzsi in turn is more. It’s the reader as much as anyone else who journeys by moonlight, and what seems one thing when seen through shadows from a distance can reveal itself to be something quite different close up.
Journey is a slower starter than either Pendragon or Oliver. Mihály isn’t always the most engaging protagonist and Szerb is right to ensure that he’s not therefore the only viewpoint character. Adolescent games however sophisticated are still fundamentally immature, and Mihály’s quest is deeply self-indulgent and ultimately rather selfish.
Despite those initial concerns, as it develops Journey shows such sympathy for its characters and by extension for all of us that it’s a hard novel not to love. Mihály and Erzsi are flawed and so are we. Their troubles and adventures are absurd and so are ours. Szerb was a kind man. He wrote a kind book.
“In London November isn’t a month,” he said, “it’s a state of mind.”
Journey has been widely reviewed. I’d draw your attention to Tom’s review at A Common Reader, here; Guy’s review at His Futile Preoccupations here; and Kaggsy’s review at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings here. Nick Lezard’s review at the Guardian is also worth reading and can be found here.
26 responses to “Life was not an art-form, or rather, it was an extremely mixed genre.”
Very thoughtful review, Max, and I know exactly what you mean in your first sentence. I think you’ve done this book justice – and Szerb is indeed a very subtle writer. Thinking back, I really liked the fact he took this book where I didn’t expect. I loved “Pendragon” too – in fact I really must read more of him! 🙂
I struggled a bit with this one to be honest. I left too long between reading the book and writing the review which made it harder to capture. Szerb is a surprising writer I think. Oliver VII is my favourite so if you’ve not read that yet you’ve definitely at least one treat left.
One of my all-time favorite books! Nice review.
It’s great isn’t it? Did you write a review? If so please do link to it.
It’s full of the most amazing one-liners, something I tried to bring out with the italicised paragraph breaks as I just couldn’t resist including a few of them. So warm and so funny.
I find that the more I like a book, the harder it is to review.
Great review of a wonderful novel, Max. I love your commentary on it being a novel of reversals. As you say, the reader also goes on their own journey by moonlight, navigating the various shifts in perspective along the way.
I really must thank you for putting me on to Szerb in the first place as it was your enthusiasm for Oliver VII that prompted me to pick him up. I started with Pendragon, then Journey (both of which I loved, especially Journey), and I have a collection of his stories (Love in a Bottle) just waiting to be read. You’ve also reminded me that I need to get hold of a copy of Oliver, too – it seems to have slipped through the net!
Interesting to think back on this one. I’d like to reread it, but looking at Guy’s review I see I commented that I was a little underwhelmed overall. I have Oliver VII on the shelf, so am looking forward to that.
That makes a certain sense Cathy. You want after all for others to see quite why it’s so good, but somehow you end up just holding them by the lapel saying “read it, read it!” in a slightly overemphatic voice.
Jacqui, I have Love in a Bottle too. Not sure when I’ll get to it yet, but I certainly shall. I think Oliver VII is probably my favourite, but he doesn’t seem to have written a bad book.
Ian, perhaps because Mihaly is an underwhelming character and his obsession with his own past does become slightly self-indulgent?
I tried unsuccessfully to read this novel half a dozen times in an English translation under the anodyne title The Traveler, then in an idle moment picked up the Len Rix translation last week and hardly put it down until I’d finished. What a novel! Szerb has a marvelously subtle style, shot through with tenderness and humor and something rather dark woven into its romantic qualities. I found it a constantly surprising book, with a frankness about desire that I’ve come to associate with other Hungarian literature I’ve read. Also fascinating: the adolescent death games Mihály recounts, and which end up having such a hold on him. And on top of it all, Journey by Moonlight provides a terrific tour of Italy! Now I’m eager to try your recommendations for Szerb’s other works.
The good news is they’re all Len Rix translations. Obviously I can’t speak to the accuracy, but from what I’ve read of why Szerb is prized I’ve every reason to believe he captures the originals well. Subtle, tender, humour and a dark thread running through romance. Spot on.
Oh, and I meant to mention that the NYRB edition has quite a nice cover image. As for The Traveler, the cover is as banal as the title.
This is a book with which I was a bit underwhelmed, but I suspected at the time the problem was really with me. (Sometimes you read a book at a time when you are too stressed or preoccupied by other issues.) That still describes my life at the moment, so I will probably hold off for quite a while, but I will give it another go. The other two books by Szerb sound quite promising, so I’ll try to check them out.
Eric, I think one could get underwhelmed with some of the more self-indulgent aspects of Mihály. Obviously I did like this one, but even so I think I prefer both Pendragon Legend and Oliver VII.
What I liked about your review is how you show how attention must be paid to both members of the wedding party, though I suspect I mostly focused on Mihaly when I read it the first time through. He reminds me a fair bit of the main character of Alain-Fourier’s Le Grand Meaulnes, though arguably Meaulnes never gets over his longing for the past. Mihaly comes a bit closer to overcoming this fatal nostalgia. To extend the theme a bit, my favorite story from Dinesen’s Winter’s Tales is “The Young Man with the Carnation” who seems to learn as much in one night as Mihaly does in a whole journey across Europe.
Great review, Max. This novel is hard to pin down and I struggled with my billet. There are many aspects to this novel that I can’t cover them all in one post.
PS: I have a French translation and an English one by Peter Hargitai. I thought he was the only translator of this novel. Apparently not.
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I struggled too Emma. It’s a tricky one. I’ll leave a comment at yours.
I’m afraid there’s a serious problem with this title. “Journey by Moonlight” is being investigated for literary piracy. Below is part of a communique with the publisher — Pushkin Press:. Thanks for calling it to my attention:
Dear Gesche Ipsen:
Sorry, I forgot the link of two pages from the 1990 “Hungarian Heritage Review.”Dhttp://www.approaching-my-literature.com/HHR1990.html
I have been preparing a new translation (retranslation) of “Utas es holdvilag for the 7oth Anniversary American edition when I started a comprehensive comparative look at Mr. Rix’s version. I came up with a list of some 70 problem areas. Here are two examples that cannot be explained away as accidental, since Mr. Rix ignored the original and followed my “mistranslation.”
1. Original Hungarian(Magveto Kiado) page 192 “filmszeru jelensegek” — literally “cinematic scenes” or “scenes with cinematic potential.”
My 1994 book: “the film-types” (page 153)
Mr. Rix ebook: “the actress-types” (page 139 ebook)
2. Original Hungarian:page 197 “megokolatlan es erthetetlen” (literally– “causeless and unintelligible”
My 1994 book: page 158 “without reason or rhyme”
Mr. Rix: page 142 “without rhyme or reason”
I’m not so much worried about Mr. Rix translating the original meaning of “His courage abandoned him” as “He lost heart.” page 151 which I had also translated in the English idiom. But the problem is, there are just too many phrases that I recognize as my own. I know Mr. does not speak Hungarian,otherwise he would not have translated “sajto barok(literally “media barons”) as “cheese barons,”and I realize he had help of a midwife or a committee. An investigation into the process of the translation would surely come to light through deposing ARTISJUS and the parties involved, and to what extent did the translator(s) rely on my version. (I happen to know one). Should it come to court, I would seek both compensatory and punitive damages. My son, Peter P. Hargitai, is Hiring Partner at Holland and Knight and I do hope I will not have to make use of his free services. I’m elderly myself, and I feel I have been cheated.
Tell me this: Why does Pushkin Press refer to my version “The Traveler” as “Journey by Moonlight?” in Julie Orringer’s intro? Because the literal translation is “Traveler and the Moonlight,” and Julie knows this because she’s perfectly bilingual in English and Hungarian. Pushkin Press’s greed will be their undoing. It’s karma.
Thanks for the comment. I can’t of course speak to any possibilities of plagiarism as I don’t have the background facts and don’t speak Hungarian, but I hope you and Pushkin are able to settle your differences.
Wherever any fault may lie, I doubt Pushkin are greedy. They specialise in publishing 20th Century central European fiction in translation. In the UK market they could probably make more money I suspect if they all got jobs at McDonalds. There’s just not that much money to be made from publishing that sort of fiction – it’s a labour of love. If they’ve got it wrong in this instance I don’t see it being because of the big money to be made from Szerb translations (which is a shame, as Szerb deserves bestseller status and I’d love to see him more widely read).
I followed your link by the way. The first three paras of your translation and the Rix one I have do seem to vary a fair bit. I appreciate though I’m simply not qualified to meaningfully comment in this area and I accept there could be later parallels of phrasing which you would want to better understand.
For those following at home, Hungarian literature online describes the differences between the two translations as follows:
“[Hargitai’s] translation of Szerb’s novel (the original Hungarian title of the book is Traveler and Moonlight) dates from 1988. Since then, another – British – translation was made by Len Rix in 2002. The two translations differ in style: while Rix’s is more contemporary, Hargitai’s version tries to convey a sense of Szerb’s sophisticated language, reminiscent of the language of Thomas Mann.”
The Hargitai translation is incredibly cheap on kindle. 99p in the UK (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Traveler-Moonlight-Antal-Szerb-ebook/dp/B01BWCLA5S?ie=UTF8&keywords=Traveler%20and%20the%20Moonlight&qid=1459332524&ref_=sr_1_1_twi_kin_1&sr=8-1) and $1.42 in the US (http://www.amazon.com/Traveler-Moonlight-Antal-Szerb-ebook/dp/B01BWCLA5S/ref=sr_1_8?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1456195731&sr=1-8&keywords=Peter+Hargitai).
I’d suggest reading the Rix and the Hargitai personally, and perhaps somewhere between the two Szerb will peek out to those of us who don’t read Hungarian.
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Max: thanks for the tip in your comment on my post about Journey about this review here. I think you’ve pointed out some aspects of the novel which I tended not to highlight, like the symmetries in plot and characterisation. I’m sure I didn’t do it full justice, but I’d like to think it wasn’t just a shallow reaction against Mihaly’s immaturity – though that did irritate a little; it was more to do with the overall effect of the novel – it seemed more style (which is amazing) than substance, whereas Mann’s DIV or the Grand Meaulnes, mentioned in an earlier comment, have what seems to me a more authentic elegiac quality. But I will read one of the others you mention a try at some point. Wouldn’t do if we all agreed, would it?!
I think if one lacks sympathy with a novel that’s the thing to focus on. It would be odd to explore the wallpaper while not liking the furniture as it were.
Style over substance may not be that unfair, particularly compared to Mann or (from what I know of it) the Grand Meaulnes. Szerb is a gentle and affectionate writer so I don’t think he’s aiming for that level of heft.
Much as I did like this it’s still my least favourite of his three. And yes, it wouldn’t do at all!
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Please see below a partial list of Len Rix’s mistranslations:
(Note also his reference to female characters, time and again, as “stupid,” when the original “butaság” really suggests “foolishness” or “naiveté.”) Another problem is style: Mr. Rix’s style is too literal and seldom lyrical. Too many instances of awkward diction like “uglification” and “spirit-duck.” A timeless classic deserves a timely classic translation. In spite of being highly touted in The Times and The New York Magazine Book Review, the Len Rix translation is not a classic. Certainly not the level of Virginia Wolf or D. H. Lawrence. Why is it that so many customer reviews are in patchy English? Pushkin Press does have an office in India where there was a huge push to solicit reviews. At any rate, here are some “comparative” versions side by side, and you, the reader, can decide. It is certainly worth a look if one expects high quality in classic literature.
ANTAL SZERB’S Utas és holdvilág (Traveler and the Moonlight versus Journey by Moonlight: Comparative excerpts from the original Hungarian, and English by Mr. Peter Hargitai and Mr. Len Rix, followed by brief commentary.
(ORIGINAL) “Erzsi mégis érezte, amint az egész ember áttüzesedik, olyan vulkanikusan, hogy szinte várta, mikor csapnak ki lángok belőle.”
(HARGITAI) “But Erzsi felt his whole body heating up to volcanic temperatures, and half-expected flames to shoot out of his skin.”
(RIX) “Yet Erzsi felt that everyone was posing, so outrageously that she almost expected them to stick out their tongues at her.*”
*This mistranslation defies explanation: there are simply no semantic equivalents with the original, no ‘everyone’, no ‘posing’, no ‘tongues’ wagging.
(ORIGINAL) “Például nagyon érdekes volna, ha írnál valamit Pénelopéról mint lélekkacsáról.
(HARGITAI) “It would be rather interesting, for instance, if you could write something about Penelope as a psychic decoy.”
(RIX) “It would be really interesting if you wrote something about Penelope as a spirit-duck*.”
*Spirit-duck: an example of how a strictly literal translation can have an unintended comical outcome. A context is offered in the previous passage where professor Waldheim says: “It may well be that Penelope, whose name means ‘duck,’ was originally a psychic bird, although this is something I have yet to substantiate.”
ORIGINAL) “Sajtófejedelmek,* petróleumkirályok, igazi trónörökösök, nem is beszélve a nagy írókról és festőkről, akikre inkább propagandacélokból volt szükség.”
(HARGITAI) “Newspaper tycoons, petroleum kings, genuine heirs to thrones, to say nothing of the famous writers and artists she needed mostly for publicity purposes.”
(RIX) “Cheese barons*, petroleum kings, actual heirs to thrones, not to mention the great writers and painters she takes on for the publicity.”
*Another example of an embarassing mistranslation: the morpheme ‘sajt’ (cheese) in “Sajtófejedelmek” may be close to ‘sajtó’ (newspaper, press, etc) as they are but a letter(ó) apart, but even the slightest misperception can result in a gross mistranslation.
(ORIGINAL) “Nagyon kell vigyázni, fiacskám. Tőlem egyszer ötszáz frankot elloptak* egy ilyen alkalommal.”
(HARGITAI) “You have to be very careful, kiddo. Once someone stole five hundred francs from me in a situation like this.”
(RIX) “‘Take very great care, my child.’ He* once stole five hundred francs from me on a similar occasion.”
*Pronominal confusion: since Hungarian pronouns are gender free, non-native speakers of Hungarian are easily confused. It is not ‘he’ [which in this context would point to the pickpocket Szepetneki] but someone else who stole the five hundred franks, at a time when the speaker could not have known Szepetneki.
ORIGINAL) – Feljövök magához – jelentette ki Szepetneki a kapu előtt.
– Meg van őrülve.* Különben is együtt lakom Sárival.
(HARGITAI) “I’m coming up,” Szepetneki announced by her door.
“Have you lost your mind? Sári happens to live here, too.”
(RIX) “I’m coming up with you,” Szepetneki announced when they reached the door.
“How charming*. Especially as I share with Sari.”
*The literal is “Have you gone mad?” There’s nothing ‘charming’ about Szepetneki’s suggestion.
(ORIGINAL) “Vajon mit gondol róla? Hogy megszökött, megszökött önmaga* elől?”
(HARGITAI) “What would she think of him now? That he’d escaped? Escaped from himself?
(RIX) “What would she think of him? That he had run away: had run from her?
*The original is clear: He was not escaping from her but from himself.
(ORIGINAL) “Annál is inkább, mert Péter bátyádnak* sikerült egy kitűnő új ügyfelet* szerezni.”
(HARGITAI) “Fortunately, your brother Péter had succeeded in obtaining an excellent new client.*”
(RIX) “All the more so, because your uncle* Péter managed to find a wonderful new lawyer*.”
*Original literal: “brother” and “client.” Uncle and brother are not the same; neither are client and lawyer.
(ORIGINAL) “Az ügyet elintézettnek tekintjük, és nagyon örülök, hogy így lett.”
(HARGITAI) “We can regard the case as closed, and I’m very happy with the way things turned out.”
(RIX) “Let’s consider the matter settled. I’m very glad you’re here.*”
*Literal: “I’m very glad it turned out this way.”
“Az idő betört az arcra és az alakra. Valami, nem sok, de tagadhatatlanul jelenvaló aggastyánosság* volt apjában: szája elvesztette régi feszességét,* szeme fáradt és beesett (igaz, hogy egész éjjel utazott, ki tudja, talán harmadikon, amilyen takarékos ember), haja még fehérebb, beszéde mintha kevésbé szabatos lenne, valami furcsa és első percben ijesztő selypesség van benne – nem lehet megmondani, mi az, de itt van egész szörnyű valóságában a tény: apja öreg már.”
“Time had wreaked havoc on the face and body. There was something frail and elderly about his father, not much, but it was undeniable: his firm mouth was slack, the eyes haggard, sunken (of course he’d been travelling all night, perhaps third class, the miser that he was), his hair much whiter, his speech a bit less precise, and that odd lisp, so upsetting to hear that first minute. It was difficult if not impossible to express in words what he saw now in its awful starkness as fact: his father had grown old. ”
“Time had punished his face, and his figure. There were just a few, but quite undeniable signs of anxiety*: his mouth had lost its old severity*, his eyes were tired and sunken (true, he had been travelling all night, who knows, perhaps third class, he was such a parsimonious man), his hair was even whiter, his speech seemed rather less precise, with a strange and at first quite alarming hint of a lisp. It was impossible to say exactly what it was, but there was the fact, in all its dreadful reality. His father had grown old.”
*The context clearly suggests “aggastyánosság” as ‘frail and elderly’ instead of ‘anxiety.’ It’s not ‘severity’ his father’s mouth had lost but its ‘elasticity’.
– Nagy üzletek összehozásával. Csak egészen nagy üzletekkel – mondta Szepetneki, és Erzsi combját kezdte simogatni az asztal alatt.* – A Harmadik Birodalommal kitűnő összeköttetéseim vannak. Azt lehetne mondani, hogy bizonyos vonatkozásokban én vagyok a Harmadik Birodalom kereskedelmi képviselője itten. És mellesleg össze akarom hozni ezt az üzletet Lutphali és a Martini-Alvaert filmgyár között, mert készpénzre van szükségem.* De mondja, minek beszélünk annyit? Jöjjön táncolni.
“I set up business deals. Big business deals,” said Szepetneki all the while stroking Erzsi’s thigh under the table. “I have excellent connections with the Third Reich. In certain respects you could say that I am the Third Reich’s marketing representative in Paris. Besides, I’m trying to close a deal between Lutphali and Martini-Alvaert film studios, because I could use the cash. But why are we talking so much? Come, let’s dance.”
“I make links between large companies. Only very large companies,” he said, and began to stroke her thigh. My finest connections are with the Third Empire. You might say that in some respects I am their local commercial representative. And besides I’m trying to bring together this Lupthali business and the Martini-Alvaert film studio, because I need pocket money. But tell me, why are we talking so much? Come and dance.”
*To ‘make links’ is awkward and not in the spirit of the literal; but the overly literal ‘Third Empire’ (with contemporary nuances of something out of Star Wars) lacks the historic effect of the ‘Third Reich’. Another mistranslation, though minor: In the case of Szepetneki, ‘pocket money’ and ‘cash’ are not synonymous.
(ORIGINAL) “De nem sok ideje volt ezen elmélkedni, mert figyelemmel hallgatta Szepetnekit. Azt remélte, hogy megtud tőle valami nagyon fontosat Mihályra vonatkozólag.* ”
(HARGITAI) “She didn’t waste any more time ruminating, because she was listening intently now to what Szepetneki was saying. She hoped he’d disclose something important about Mihály.”
(RIX) “But she had little time for these reflections because she was listening intently to Szepetneki. He clearly hoped to learn something important about Mihály from her.”
*Pronoun gender issue. The literal is the exact reverse of Mr. Rix’s version: She hoped to learn something from him.
(ORIGINAL) “Erzsinek eszébe jutott, hogy még Zoltán is mennyire félt a párizsi előkelő helyek pincéreitől, és félelmében milyen otromba volt velük szemben.*”
(HARGITAI) “Erzsi recalled how easily Zoltán’s fear of waiters in posh Parisian restaurants turned into rudeness.”
(RIX) “She remembered Zoltán’s timidity before the waiters of these elite Parisian restaurants and how stupid* this fear made them in their eyes.”
*The literal content is clear about the way Zoltán behaved toward the waiters, not how he was perceived by them.
(ORIGINAL) “Édesapád nem tudja rászánni magát, hogy írjon neked*. ”
(HARGITAI) “Your father can’t bring himself to write to you.”
(RIX) “Your father was not entirely persuaded that I should write to you at all.”
*There’s nothing in the original about the son persuading the father.
(ORIGINAL) “Ez a szép temető, árnyas fáival.*”
(HARGITAI) “This lovely cemetery with its shady trees.*”
(RIX) “This fine cemetery with its shady wall*.”
*Original literal: ‘trees’, not ‘wall’
“Zoltán „nagyvonalú ember volt”, a művészetet és művésznőket is pártfogolta, és feltétlenül ragaszkodott ahhoz, hogy feleségét* mindennel elhalmozza, részben lelkiismerete megnyugtatására is; és ezenközben Erzsi legfőbb szenvedélye, a takarékosság, kielégítetlen maradt.”
“Zoltán was a “big spender,” a patron of the arts and of female artists, and he’d insisted on showering his wife with everything, in part to soothe his guilty conscience; meanwhile, Erzsi’s chief obsession, economising, remained unfulfilled.”
“Zoltán was a “generous man.” He patronized art and artists (female), and made an absolute point of showering largesse on their husbands*, partly to ease his sense of guilt. And in all this Erzsi’s ruling passion, the saving of money, remained unexpressed.”
* Zoltán showers gifts on his wife, not the husbands of female artists.
“Agyonüthetetlen vitalitása, állandó nő-éhsége, amellyel a nem is mindig nagyon vonzó* kolléganők körül tevékenykedett; és főképp az a tulajdonsága, amit ő Goethe után, de kissé kelletlenül „megragadottságnak”* nevezett: hogy a tudomány, egyes részletei és az elvont egész, a Szellem* fogalma, állandó fehér izzásban tartotta, sohasem volt közömbös, mindig lázasan foglalkozott valamivel, éppen imádta a Szellem valami nagy és lehetőleg ókori megnyilvánulását, vagy gyűlölt valami „lapos” vagy „olcsó”, vagy „színvonaltalan” hülyeséget, és mindig transzba ejtette ez a szó: Szellem, ami úgy látszik, az ő számára jelentett valamit.
“His dogged vitality, his insatiable hunger for women, even for those female colleagues who weren’t the most attractive, found its chief expression, after Goethe, in what he glibly termed ‘obsession:’ all knowledge, in its particulars and its abstract whole as a function of the ‘intellect’, kept his mind in a constant, incandescent glow, never wavering into indifference, obsessed always with some great and preferably ancient manifestation of that same’ intellect’—or its inverse, despising any foolishness that smacked of the ‘shallow’, the ‘tawdry’, or the ‘mediocre’; the very word ‘intellect’ was enough to put him into a trance, laden with some meaning only he was privy to.”
“His indomitable vitality; his perpetual appetite for women (which keeps this type of man always busily active around his more attractive* female colleagues); above all his distinctive quality, which, following Goethe, though with modest reluctance, he himself termed ‘charisma*’; and the fact that the study of the concept of Spirit*, in all its detailed workings as well as the abstract whole, held in a white heat of passion. He was never indifferent, always feverishly busy with something, in raptures over some great and possibly ancient manifestation of the Spirit, or detesting some ‘dull’, or ‘cheap’ or ‘second-rate’ piece of stupidity, and invariable sent him into a trance by the very word ‘Spirit’, which for him actually seemed to mean something.”
*Literal: “less than attractive,” and not ‘more attractive.’ ‘Charisma’ and ‘Spirit’ are poor approximations for “obsession” and “intellect.” Professor Waldheim is an intellectual, not a spiritualist.
“Meg kellene tanulnod, gyorsan és okvetlenül, írül és kymriül, úgy sincs más dolgod.*”
“You’ll have to quickly learn Gaelic and Cymry without giving it a second thought. You have nothing else to do. ”
“You would have to learn quickly and without fail, Irish and Welsh, there’s no other way.*”
*Literal: “You have nothing else to do,” not ‘there’s no other way.’
Aesthetics of Style ( lyrical vs. literal translation)
“Csak akkor rezzent fel, amikor megjelent a fiatal anya, karján a bambinóval. Mihály megijedt az anya sovány és beteg csúnyaságától és a bambinó citromszerű jellegétől. A gyermekeket sosem szerette, sem újszülött, sem későbbi állapotukban, idegenkedett és félt tőlük; és az anyákkal szemben is mindig kényelmetlen érzése volt. De ez az anya és ez az újszülött egész különösen iszonyatos volt – a csúf anya gyengédségében és a csúf csecsemő esendőségében valami sátáni Madonna-paródiát érzett, az európai ember legnagyobb szimbólumának valami kaján megcsúfolását*. Olyan „késői” dolog volt ez… mintha az utolsó anya megszülte volna az utolsó gyermeket, és ezek itt körül nem is tudják, hogy ők az utolsó emberek, a történelem salakos üledéke, a haldokló Idő-isten utolsó és öngúnnyal teljes gesztusa.”
“The only time he stirred was when the young mother appeared with the bambino on her arm. The sickly, emaciated mother and the bambino’s jaundiced complexion frightened him. He never liked children. Infants and toddlers only heightened his apprehension, and he always felt estranged from them. And mothers always made him uncomfortable. But this mother and her infant were especially repulsive. The ugly, rattle-boned mother and this frail and ugly child suggested a satanic parody of the Madonna and Child, European man’s most cherished icon. The scene struck an ‘apocalyptic’ note, as if the last mother on earth had given birth to the last child, and the people surrounding them had no idea that they were the last people, history’s final dregs, the last, self-effacing gesture of time’s dying God.”
Only when the young mother appeared with the bambino in her arms did he feel the full horror. The skinny, sickly ugliness of the mother and the yellowness of the baby terrified him. He had never liked children, whether new-born or in their later stages. He detested and feared them, and always felt uncomfortable with their mothers. But this mother and this new-born babe were loathsome in a quite special way. In the ugly mother’s gentleness and the ugly babe defenselessness he sensed some kind of satanic parody of the Madonna, some malicious uglification* of European man’s greatest symbol. It was such an apocalyptic kind of thing … as if the last mother had given birth to the last child, and none of those present had any idea that they were the last people alive, tube excremental deposit of history, the dying Time-god’s final and absolute gesture of self mockery.”
*Diction: Mr. Rix’s overly literal choices in ‘apocalyptic kind of thing’ and ‘uglification’ are particularly obtuse.
“A vonaton még nem volt semmi baj. Velencében kezdődött, a sikátorokkal.
Már mikor a motoscafon az állomásról befelé hajóztak, és elhagyták a Canale Grandét a rövidebb út kedvéért, Mihálynak feltűntek jobbra és balra a sikátorok. De ekkor még nem sokat törődött velük, mert eleinte teljesen lefoglalta Velence velencesége: a víz a házak között, a gondolák, a lagúna és a város téglavörös-rózsaszín derűje. Mert Mihály most volt először Olaszországban, harminchat éves korában, a nászútján.
Hosszúra nyúlt vándorévei alatt mindenfelé megfordult, Angliában és Franciaországban éveket töltött, de Olaszországot mindig elkerülte, úgy érezte, még nincs itt az ideje, még nem készült fel rá. Olaszországot is a felnőtt dolgok közé tette el, mint az ivadékok nemzését, titokban félt is tőle, félt, mint az erős napsütéstől, a virágok szagától és a nagyon szép nőktől.
Ha nem házasodik meg, és nem az a szándéka, hogy szabályszerű, olaszországi nászúttal kezdődő házaséletet éljen, talán mindhalálig halogatta volna az olaszországi utat. Most is úgy jött el, hogy nem is Olaszországba jött, hanem nászútra, ami egészen más. Különben is, most már jöhetett, mert már férj volt. Most már, úgy gondolta, nem fenyegeti az a veszedelem, ami Olaszország.”
“On the train nothing was amiss. It started in Venice. With the alleys.
It was when the vaporetto ferried back from the main station and abandoned the Canale Grande for a shorter route that Mihály first noticed the alleys on his right and on his left. At the time he was barely aware of them, being then enchanted with all that was Venetian in Venice: the water shimmering between houses, gondolas, the lagoon, the city’s brick-red and pink gaiety. This was Mihály’s first time in Italy, at the age of thirty-six, on his honeymoon.
His far-reaching travels had taken him everywhere. He’d spent years in France and England, but always avoided Italy, feeling the timing was never quite right, that he wasn’t prepared for it just yet. His Italy was for adults only, the province of fathers eager to breed bambini, and he secretly feared it just as he feared strong sunlight, the scent of flowers, and breathtakingly beautiful women.
If he hadn’t married with the intent of embarking on a conventional life with a proper Italian honeymoon, he might have kept postponing his Italian trip until his dying day. Now he’d come not so much to Italy itself as on his honeymoon, which was another matter entirely. Besides, he was entitled to visit now, since he wore the shoes of a husband. This way, he assured himself, he’d sidestep the gaping abyss that was his Italy.”
“On the train everything seemed fine. The trouble began in Venice, with the back-alleys.
Mihály first noticed the back-alleys when the motor-ferry turned off the Grand Canal for a short cut and they began appearing to the right and left. But at the time he paid no attention, but caught up from the ousted with the essential Venecinesness of Venice: the water between the houses, the gondolas, the lagoon, and the pink-brick serenity of the city, for it was Mihály’s first visit to Italy, at the age of thirty-six, on his honeymoon.”
During his protracted years of wandering he traveled into many lands, and spent long periods in France and England. But Italy he had always avoided, feeling the time had not yet come, that he was not yet ready for it. Italy he associated grown-up matters, such as the fathering of children, and he secretly feared it, with the same instinctive fear he had of strong sunlight, the scent of flowers, and extremely beautiful women.
The trip to Italy might have been postponed forever, but for the fact that he was now married, and they decided on a conventional Italian holiday for their start to married life. Mihály had now come, not to Italy as such, but on his honeymoon, a different matter entirely. Indeed, it was his marriage that made the trip possible. Now, he reasoned, there was nothing to fear from the danger that Italy represented.”
*The first page of a novel is especially important. Mr. Rix’s version, by being too literal (‘Venecinesness of Venice’), betrays the mordant wit and sophistication of the original. Yet he leaves out such important words as “untill his dying day” and “husband” (that Mihály was going to Italy as a “husband.”) On the heels of the word ‘marriage’ appearing twice in the same sentence, his pronouncement that, ‘Indeed, it was his marriage that made the trip possible,’ is all the more flat. Sometimes, a translator is more faithful to the original’s aesthetic effect by being less faithful, but this is not the case here, or in other passages throughout the novel that require heightened language. To mirror the original’s lyrical architecture, Mr. Hargitai’s free, and perhaps bold version, enriched by imagery, adroitly introduces the ‘abyss’ as a leitmotif for the death-wish that haunts Mihály’s Italian journey.
Disingenuous Characterisation of the Female
(ORIGINAL) “Az éppolyan, mint mikor egy nő egész nap takarít, és döglött porszemekre vadászik, vagy mint mikor egy nő egész nap kezet mos, és külön zsebkendőt visz magával, ha vendégségbe megy, hogy abba törülhesse a kezét. A női bolondságnak* ezer formája van.”
(HARGITAI) “It’s the same as when a woman cleans all day, hunting down every lifeless speck of dust. Or when a woman spends the entire day washing her hands, and then carries around a handkerchief so she can wipe her hands incessantly in company. There are a thousand varieties of such silliness.”
(RIX) “It’s like when a woman spends the whole day cleaning and then goes hunting for leftover dust, or spends the whole day washing her hands and carries a special cloth* around with her so that when guests arrive they can wipe their hands on that.* Women can be stupid in so many ways*.”
* The literal meaning of “bolondság” is more akin to ‘foolishess’ or ‘silliness.” Stupid is too strong, too perjorative. Mr. Rix is rather free-handed in applying the word ‘stupid’ in characterising the female. There are too many examples of such offensive stereotyping. Another mistranslation: it is Erzsi, not the guests, who wipes her hands in the handkerchief (special cloth?).
(ORIGINAL) “Millicent Ingram nem volt az az észbontó, zokognivaló amerikai szép lány, akit az ember Párizsban láthatott a háború utáni években, amikor rajtuk kívül minden olyan csúnya volt ezen a világon.”
(HARGITAI) “Millicent Ingram was not the stunning, tear-provoking American beauty* one saw in Paris in the years following the war, when everyone else in the world seemed ugly by comparison.”
(RIX) “Millicent Ingram was not the mind-boggling, soppily-named* American girl to be seen in Paris in the years after the war, when everything else in the world was so drab.”
*Literal: tear-provoking beautiful American girl versus ‘soppily-named American girl.’ Soppily-named is not in the original, but the word beautiful is. What happened to “beautiful?”
(ORIGINAL) “Millicent ránézett nagy, bárgyúan-komoly* szemével, és azt felelte: – Igaza van.
(HARGITAI) “Millicent looked at him with bovine eyes and, in all seriousness, said, “You’re right.”
(RIX) “Millicent looked at him with stupidly serious eyes,* and said*, “You’re right.”
*Stupidly serious? Although stylistically awkward and not in the original, the word ‘stupidly’ reinforces the stereotype.
(ORIGINAL) “Vonzotta Millicent butasága* is. A mélységes butaságban van valami szédítő és örvényszerűen vonzó, mint az enyészetben. A vákuum vonzóereje.”
(HARGITAI) “Millicent’s naïveté also attracted him. There was something dizzying and alluring about the power of such abysmal naïveté to pull him into its vacuous undertow, like into death itself: the attraction of the abyss.”
(RIX) “Even Millicent’s stupidity attracted him. In the deepest stupidity* there is a kind of dizzying, whirlpool attraction, like death: the pull of the vacuum.”
*’Stupidity … deepest stupidity.” The Hungarian word “butaság”(foolishness, naïveté) is much less offensive than the English word “stupid.” Overuse of the word when characterising the female has a cumulative effect that verges on misogyny.
Awkward Descrptive narrative
“A toszkán tájon könnyű lilaszínű ködök* úsztak, és az aranyszín lassan és bátortalanul készült elő a nappalra. És semmi sem volt, csak ez a lila-arany derengés, a távoli hegyek alatt.”
“Wisps of lilac-colored fog hovered over the Tuscan landscape, its golden highlights hedging coyly toward the morning. Nothing had any existence but lilac, and gilt-edged dawn under distant hills.”
“Slight, lilac-colored clouds were sailing over the Tuscan landscape, and a tinge of gold slowly and timidly prepared for dawn. And nothing existed but lilac and the gold of first light over distant hills.”
*The phrase ‘A tinge of gold slowly and timidly prepared for dawn’ is a rather odd way of putting it. Perhaps it’s the word ‘prepared,’ as if it were a chore. Much too prosaic for this Rilke moment. Mistranslation of “fog” as “clouds,” and ‘under distant hills” as ‘over distant hills.’
“Élvezte azt a paradox ötletet, hogy az olasz lapokat* olaszul írják, ezen a hatalmas, bőséges áradású nyelven, ami napihírekbe törve olyan, mintha egy folyam* varrógépet* hajtana.”
“He relished the paradox of the Italian press, written in the Italian of the day, how that robust and bountiful sea of a language, once typeset into the daily paper, was nothing more than a sewing-machine driven by a single current.”
“He enjoyed the paradox that they were written in Italian, that potent and voluminous language,* but (in their case) with the effect of a mighty river driving a sewing machine.”
*By leaving out the word “press,” the abrupt comparison to a ‘sewing machine’ has the effect of a non-sequitur. The parenthetical ‘(in their case)’ and the convoluted sentence add to the confusion.
(ORIGINAL) “Nemsokára az Acqua Paolához ért, és gyönyörködött a klasszikus vízesésben, amely időtlen nyugalommal, gőggel és méltósággal végezte* mesterségét a holdfényben.”
“Soon he reached the Acqua Paola and found himself marvelling at the classic waterfall in the moonlight, how it mastered the art of falling with grace, pride, and timeless serenity.”
“Soon he reached the Acqua Paola and stood delighted at the classical waterfall, as with timeless calm and proud dignity, it exercised* its mystery in the moonlight.”
*The original does not contain the word ‘mystery’. Mr. Rix’s prosaic ‘exercised’ undercuts the waterfall’s effortless and ‘timeless serenity’; and his splicing the sentence (‘as with timeless calm…’) for the sake of the original’s word order, interrupts the waterfall’s artful yet effortless flow or what is known in Italian as ‘sprezzatura’. The key to the context is the realization that the author is setting up a comparison between man’s fall, Tamás’s suicide, and the foreshadowing of Mihály’s own death spiral – to be redeemed by art and its promise of timeless immortality. Mr. Hargitai’s version in ‘mastered the art of falling with grace,’ (a play on ‘falling from grace’) appreciates the author’s metaphorical intent. An excerpt from a passage that follows the Acqua Paola scene bears this out: Antal Szerb extends the metaphor of “art and the fall’ in his description of an obscure Hungarian sculptor: “The sculptor’s path was taking him upward, even if the climb killed him. Mihály’s path was leading him downward, and even if he survived the fall, even if he endured everything, what would he reach other than the calm ennui of old age? He was certain everyone carried their destinies inside themselves where they either blaze like meteors or flicker like auguring stars.”