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Language is a Graveyard: Szilárd Borbély and Literary Translation

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

Connecting a book with its audiences in another language often means bridging two separate, culturally different worlds. The intricacies of the source and target languages always make the translator’s work even more difficult. 

One of the most famous authors preoccupied (to put it mildly) with translation was Milan Kundera, a writer who kept rewriting his texts over and over (on translating Kundera, see Woods, 2006). Although under very different circumstances from Borbély, not only in his languages (mosty Czech to French, his second writing language), but also geopolitical reasons in the 1970s and 1980s, Kundera went sofar as to revise and rewrite previously published Czech and French editions of his work, blurring the boundaries between original and translation––creatively or arrogantly, depending on one’s taste. The verdict on this extreme exercise of authorial control is ultimately up to the reader.

Cover art

Kafka’s Sohn (In German)

There is no foolproof manual for literary translation. There are best practices, but it is decidely an art rather than a science: either one has a feel for it or not. For beginners, handbooks such as A Companion to Translation Studies: Companion to Translation Studies by Berman and Porter (2014) are mightily helpful (just as a review article or introductory text on any new topic can be, says the librarian in me). It’s a great start, especially if readers use the well-curated footnotes to begin exploring the field of translation theory for themselves. The index runs 26 pages (Berman and Porter, 2014, 612-638). The cited authors’ list is impressive: Walter Benjamin, Borges, Derrida, Eco, Foucault, Gadamer, Heidegger, Jakobson, Paul De Man, Wittgenstein, and so on––names that a young Borbély might have just learned in the mid-1980s, reading and discussing their works in Hungarian in one of the famous living-room seminars.” 

These were ad-hoc, grassroot literary groups of like-minded, aspiring poets, writers, and critics, who gathered regularly in a someone’s apartment to deconstruct the world as it presented itself to them in Communist Hungary––with the help of Derrida et al. Borbély’s published texts indicate that some eventually managed to reconstruct that world as well, capturing the essence of those times and breathing new literary life into them in the present day. Borbély recalls that, as a young author, he was “interested in how to use literature in a way that we understand things that are not only literature,” and trying to figure out “how to write in a way that I shouldn’t do things that I couldn’t stomach.” (Borbély, 2006, p. 853). Not a translator himself, Borbély benefited tremendously from studying literary theories and criticism to translate past into present. His understanding of what a text is capable to achieve will empower his translators to dissect and reconstruct his writing in any language.  


Borbély-Series by Books We Read

This series of blog posts covers some additional reflections on Borbély, translation, Hungarian literature, and so forth that didn’t make it into the essay The unbearable lightness of translating: Szilárd Borbély’s works in English by Judit H. WardNick 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 all texts 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. 

  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