Len Rix is a prize-winning translator of Hungarian literature. Previously winner of The PEN USA Translation Prize (2018) and the Oxford-Weidenfeld (2005), his translation of Katalin Street by Magda Szabó was nominated for the 2019 Warwick Prize for Women in Translation. I spoke to him recently about his experiences.
How did you begin your journey into translation, and what triggered it?
L: My journey began at the age of five, in the colony of Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), when I was given an ancient children’s encyclopaedia with a series of Little Picture Stories in French. The fascination has never left me. I studied French and Latin for my first degree, delighting always in the weekly translation exercises, not least for the intense nostalgia they evoked for a Europe I had seen only briefly in childhood. I followed it with another degree in English, which I afterwards taught at school and university level. That experience has proved invaluable. How can you hope to do justice to a great work from another literature if you haven’t lived with and absorbed the greatest in your own?
The itch returned when I reached 40. I began with Italian, Spanish and then Turkish, before one day, quite by chance, I overheard Hungarian spoken. I fell instantly in love with its wonderful sounds and its syntactical and lexical strangeness (it is neither Germanic, Romance or Slavic, and it works “back to front” to the English ear).
I have never made a career of literary translation. If you work with serious artistic intent and with the patient loving care that it needs, it will never pay the bills, however successful you might become. I did my first three books while still teaching, working late into the night: the rest have all been done in the leisure of retirement. I revise obsessively, constantly refining the English, checking the accuracy (with the help of a meticulous and scholarly Hungarian friend) and finding new depths and resonances all the time. Of course things get lost along the way – mimetic and onomatopoeic effects, for example, and those distinctive national idioms of thought and speech for which there never can be an exact equivalent – but our humanity is a shared one, after all.
The ‘trigger’ for starting came from the same couple whose conversation I overheard in 1989. Having purchased a Teach Yourself book, I surprised them on my next visit with a short conversation. The husband promptly put a 500-page grammar in my hand, and with it a battered novel, which he ordered me to read, since “every educated Hungarian knows and loves this book”. I think he intended to call my bluff, but within three pages (pored over word by word with a dictionary) I knew I was in the hands of a master, one of those rare writers whose voice inspires instant trust. It had never been translated, so I set about it at once, initially to teach myself the language, with the husband subjecting the first dozen chapters to intense, often ferocious interrogation. Word of my strange behaviour went round the wider Hungarian community, came to the attention of the owner of Pushkin Press, and I was given a contract to publish it (as Journey by Moonlight, by Antal Szerb). I was very, very lucky.
Why is literary translation important?
L: For all the reasons that literature is important, plus the access it gives to other ways of thinking, feeling and being. It has always been a powerful agent of cross-fertilisation between cultures, and nations and it still is.
What will be the effect of the ‘gendered’ aspect of the prize on the authors?
L: It should certainly encourage more women to translate and indeed all of us to translate more books written by women – an invaluable service. (But I would also hope that the billing will not deter the sort of men who might have the most to gain from reading them.)
Why did you choose to do Katalin Street?
Everything I learn about Hungary touches me deeply, irrationally. This brave, often harrowing book follows the lives of three young women who are damaged by the terrible things that happened there during and after the Second World War, and it is beautifully written.
How do you find translating writers of the opposite sex living in widely different circumstances from your own?
It is always a delight and a challenge, an exercise in sensibility. As it should be for every reader too.