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Language is Cruelest of All: Szilárd Borbély in English


Szilárd Borbély (Photo: Lenke Szilágyi, courtesy Kalligram Press, Budapest)

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

  1. Language is Cruelest of All: Szilárd Borbély in English
  2. Language is a Graveyard: Szilárd Borbély and Literary Translation 
  3. We Say “Aluminom” – Books by Szilárd Borbély in English 
  4. Et. In. Arcadia. Ego. – Szilárd Borbély and Intertextual References 
  5. 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 



Translated from the Hungarian by Ottilie Mulzet, unless otherwise noted.