When in 2013 Borbély’s first novel The Dispossesed was published in Hungarian, the buzz quickly picked up and demand grew for an English translation. A literary sensation somewhere between memoir and fiction, the book posed an incredible challenge for the reader to digest, let alone the translator to interpret and present the text in a way that might be relatable in another culture. The masterful English translation by Ottilie Mulzet (Borbély, 2016), however, proves that the author himself can come to the translator’s aid both as inspiration and solution, both with autobiographical details he was willing to disclose.
The late Borbély was an accomplished author publishing in a remarkable variety of genres: novels, short stories, essays, scholarly, popular, and newspaper articles, drama, sequences, free and formal verse, and more. He drew on a wide variety of references and resources in his work, befitting Hungary’s own historical position as a cultural crossroads––ancient mythology, Hasidic Judaism, Christianity, Baroque and Rennaisance literature, philology, philosophy, and the history of literature. That extraordinary breadth offers an intellectual feast for the reader but also poses extraordinary demands on a translator.
I described and grappled with some of those demands in a recent essay for the outlet Europe Now, available on their website, reflecting on Borbély’s work as his novel Kafka’s Son became newly available in Hungarian (with an English version soon to come). That essay was part book review, part career appraisal, part reflection on the challenges of translating––and in the process of writing it, I realized there was much more to say!
This series of blog posts will cover some additional reflections on Borbély, translation, Hungarian literature, and so forth that didn’t make it into that shorter essay. I have consulted both Hungarian and English editions of Borbély’s works, which I will cite as I quote from them (in APA style, for those who are interested in citation––check out our other post here). Nick Allred, who edited the Europe Now essay as an Editorial Fellow for the 2021-22 academic year (part of the Mellon-Center for European Studies Dissertation Fellowship), has collaborated on the text in this series throughout the process. While we will post installments in this series under one or the other of our names since a blog post can’t accommodate co-authorship, all of them are effectively a joint production.
Borbély-Series by Books We Read
- Language is Cruelest of All: Szilárd Borbély in English
- Language is a Graveyard: Szilárd Borbély and Literary Translation
- We Say “Aluminom” – Books by Szilárd Borbély in English
- Et. In. Arcadia. Ego. – Szilárd Borbély and Intertextual References
- Szilárd Borbély in English: Kafka’s Son
These brief descriptions of Borbély’s titles above are far from giving justice to the complexities of Borbély’s texts; instead, they serve merely to illustrate the author’s erudition, the depth and breadth of his creative skills, and the difficulties involved in unwrapping his layered imagery. Borbély’s was not only an incredibly well-read author and bright scholar, but his friends and peers can also attest to his diverse personality traits spanning from a wicked sense of humor, mostly dark and grotesque matching his predisposition to depression, to being a rather shy person, speaking infrequently and quietly, in a calm manner, to select people only.
He was also surprisingly pragmatic, riding his bike around his hometown, Debrecen, and advocating for more bike routes in his column Drótszamár (English: Wire donkey) in the local newspaper (another example of his personal preoccupations bleeding into his work, if one remembers the almost-Kafkaesque bicycle scene in Kafka’s Son). Complementing a survival strategy he prescribed to himself, his work ethic was also exemplary, as he held onto the demanding academic career of a university professor in an environment in Hungary, striking a rare balance of prolific publication and dedicated teaching. Szilárd Borbély, PhD, worked tirelessly, giving all that it takes, until he couldn’t take it any longer.
The authors wish to express their gratitude to Szilárd Borbély’s first publisher, Kalligram Press (Budapest, Hungary) for providing illustrations to the series: photos by Lenke Szilágyi (see more photos of Hungarian authors) and Tibor Hrapka (see more designs of Kalligram book covers).
Selected Works by Szilárd Borbély in English
- Borbély, S. (2008). Berlin-Hamlet ([English ed.]). Agite/Fra.
- Borbély, S. (2016). The Dispossessed: A Novel. Harper Perennial.
- Borbély, S. (2017). Kafkas Sohn. Suhrkamp.
- Borbély, S. (2019). Final Matters: Selected Poems, 2004-2010. (The Lockert Library of Poetry in Translation. Vol. 130). Princeton University Press.
- Borbély, S. (2022). In a Bucolic Land. New York Review Books. Kindle ed.
Translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet, unless otherwise noted.
- Borbély, S. (2008 September). Sequences of Holy Week (poems). Hungarian Literature Online.
- Borbély, S. (2013 July). from The Hasidic Sequences. Asymptote Journal.
- Borbély, S. (2013 November). The Matyó Embroidery. Poetry.
- Borbély, S. (2014 January). Excerpt from “The Dispossessed.” The White Review.
- Borbély, S. (2014). To Anatomy. World Literature Today, 88(6), 51–51.
- Borbély, S. (2015 January). Four Poems: The Immaterial Embryo; To Patience; To Trust; To Material. Asymptote Journal.
- Borbély, S. (2016). Berlin-Hamlet. Excerpt from Berlin-Hamlet. EuropeNow. Posted on December 1, 2016.
- Borbély, S. (2018 March). Hassidic Sequences (excerpts). Hungarian Literature Online.
- Borbély. S. (2018). The Former Realms of Consciousness. Literary Imagination, 20(3), 255–255.
- Borbély, S. (2018). To Trust. Literary Imagination, 20(3), 256–256.
- Borbély, S. (2018). Poems from Final Matters, Selected Poems 2004–2010. Literary Imagination, 20(3), 254–254.
- Borbély, S. (2018). Four Poems: Aeternitas; Distribution; The Stone Tablet; Death of the Emperor. The Paris Review. 225, Summer.
- Borbély, S. (2018). One Seder Evening. Literary Imagination, 20(3), 253.
- Borbély, S. (2019). Excerpt from his Play “From Olaszliszka.” Michigan Quarterly Review, Fall 2019, 695-699.
- Borbély, S. (2021). Poems: Excerpt from “The Calf-Eyed”; Circe, Pig’s Heart. The Baffler. Posted on November 1, 2021.
- Bedecs, L. (2015 January). An interview with Szilárd Borbély. Asymptote Journal.
- Brown, D. (2017 February). “The Dispossessed” by Szilard Borbely. ÆQAI
- Gomori, G. (2009). Szilard Borbely. Berlin-Hamlet. World Literature Today, 83(4), 71.
- Kertész, A. (2013 September). Devastating silence. An interview with Szilárd Borbély. Hungarian Literature Online.
- Kraft, D. (2019 June). Murder Ballads. Jewish Current.
- Krupp, J. (2013 July). “Our memories shall not be our memories.” Szilárd Borbély: The Dispossessed. Hungarian Literature Online.
- Kulathunga, C. (2020). English Has Its Own Music: A Conversation with Ottilie Mulzet. Los Angeles Review of Books. August 4, 2020.
- Langendorfer, T. (2017 January). Szilárd Borbély’s The Dispossessed & Berlin-Hamlet. Music & Literature.
- Littlewood, C. (2020). “Spirits and Wastrels: Voices from the Margins of Hungary. (Final Matters: Selected Poems, 2004-2010).” TLS, the Times Literary Supplement. 6102, 14.
- Mulzet, O. (2013 June). ‘This gnaws away at my heart’: Szilárd Borbély’s The Dispossessed. The Missing Slate.
- Mulzet, O. (2014). Szilárd Borbély 1964-2014. Poetry, 204(2), 0.
- Mulzet, O. (2016 November). It Takes a Village to Be Brutal. Literary Hub.
- Schein, G., & Mulzet, O. (2014). Long Day Away. Remembering Szilárd Borbély. Asymptote Journal. Posted on February 24.
- Straumanis, K. (2017 June). The Dispossessed. Three Percent.
- Szirtes, G. (2016. November 27). Love and Violence: A well-known Hungarian writer created fiction about the village past and poetry about the urban present. The New York Times, A23.
- Szirtes, G. (2016. November 25). Deprivation: A Childhood in 1960s Hungary. The New York Times.
- Vonnák, D. (2018 January). Tracing Szilárd Borbély’s Poetry in The Dispossessed. Asymptote Journal.
- Ward, J. H. (2016). “Talent is selfish and cruel” – a book review of The Dispossessed by Szilárd Borbély. SALIS News, 36(4), 11-13. Republished with permission.
- Ward, J. H. (2022). The unbearable lightness of translating: Szilárd Borbély’s works in English. EuropeNow. Posted on March 4.