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We Say “Aluminom” – Books by Szilárd Borbély in English

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

In addition to Borbély’s poems sporadically published in English in online journals, full volumes written by him have also been masterfully translated, starting with Berlin-Hamlet (Borbély, 2008): a book of poetry, which is, to some extent, considered as a predecessor to Kafka’s Son. Commemorating his own visits to Berlin, Borbély follows in the footsteps of literary father figures such as Franz Kafka and Water Benjamin in a book with a similar format to Kafka’s Son (Borbély, 2017; Borbély 2021), a collection of fragments, and building on letters written by Kafka to Felice Bauer. Turning to Hamlet to express his vulnerability and helplessness also places his work in a broader international literary context (for more on the context of Borbély’s work in world literature, see Kulcsár-Szabó, 2019). 

His next book, translated into English under the title The Dispossessed (Borbély, 2016), was not only a literary success in Hungary but was also translated into several other languages, receiving outstanding reception worldwide. In this fictitious memoir narrated by an unnamed little boy in the first person, Borbély capitalizes on the power of language to express powerlessness, to which he later returns in In a Bucolic Land (Borbély, 2022). Growing up in a rural village, the author is intimately familiar with the miserable conditions in an environment deprived of any future potential. Poverty, ignorance, indifference, listlessness, and cruelty mean new challenges every day. Making the most of the “couleur locale,” he has a way with the language, depicting a gray desert with an abundance of linguistic and poetic tools. Every adjective is in place, every verb is used in its most natural habitat to express trauma, suffering, and grieving. A true challenge for the reader and translator, the novel also put numerous words to use from the dialect spoken in Szabolcs-Szatmár county in the Northeast of Hungary, untranslatable into English and barely comprehensible for the native Hungarian speaker unless born there. Resolving them with a Mi úgy mondjuk (English: We call it… or We say…), the author, again, rushes to aid the reader without breaking the narrative. 

books covers in various languages

In a recently published volume entitled Final Matters: Selected Poems, 2004-2010, Borbély’s primary translator, the award-winning Ottilie Mulzet, selected works from two volumes of Borbély’s poetry (Borbély, 2019). The first, Halotti Pompa (English: The Splendors of Death), included two books of sequences first published in 2004 in response to his mother’s death, extended with a third book in the second and third editions in 2006 and 2014. The titles of the three books, Sequences of the Holy Week, Sequences of Amor and Psyche, and Hasidic Sequences, suggest their background as well as the challenges for the translator. Poems from the second volume, A testhez: Ódák & legendák (English: To the Body: Odes & Legends) voice the sufferings of Holocaust survivors and women who endured intimate partner violence or the loss of a child from the perspective of the physical human body (Borbély, 2010). The incredible challenges to interpret and translate can be traced in the bilingual edition. 

The latest title, also translated by Mulzet, In a Bucolic Land (Borbély, 2022a) was published in English before the Hungarian version (Borbély, 2022b). Reusing components from several of his other books, it features a more detailed, poetic account of the miseries in the forlorn village of The Dispossessed, infused with elements from mythology, history, ethnography, and local dialect. The sequences with autobiographical inspiration are accompanied by two poems mourning the death of Lajos Szuromi, a former professor and then colleague at the Department of Hungarian literature in Debrecen, who instilled a respect of structure and form in all of his students.  

But every life is so weightless
in the eyes of another. Only silence
has weight […]  

[…] Time,
though is interrupted silence. It is merely form.
A structure. There is no time in the body, therefore it is mortal.
Only speech is immortal, and the I.
The I. Short-long. . . That’s an iamb. Speech
holds form. Therefore it is immortal. Like every thought
that once was granted sound. (Borbély, 2022a, p. 5) 

The volume “combines autobiography, ethnography, classical mythology, and pastoral idyll in a remarkable central poetic sequence about the starkly precarious and yet strangely numinous liminal zone of his youth” according to the publisher’s description. It should be noted a close friend and publisher of many of Borbély’s works in Hungarian, Sándor Mészáros, recalls in Borbély’s obituary that Borbély considered the publication of In a Bucolic Land a higher priority than Kafka’s Son. 


  • Borbély, S. (2008). Berlin-Hamlet ([English ed.]). Agite/Fra. 
  • Borbély, S. (2010). A testhez. Kalligram. Bratislava. 
  • Borbély, S. (2016). The Dispossessed: A Novel. Harper Perennial. 
  • Borbély, S. (2019). Final Matters: Selected Poems, 2004-2010. (The Lockert Library of Poetry in Translation. Vol. 130). Princeton University Press. 
  • Borbély, S. (2021). Kafka fia. Jelenkor. Pécs. ePub.  
  • Borbély, S. (2022a). In a Bucolic Land, New York Review Books. Kindle ed. 
  • Borbély, S. (2022b). Bukolikatájban. Idÿllek. Jelenkor. Pécs. 
  • Kulcsár-Szabó, Z. (2019). Kafka fia. Borbély Szilárd a világirodalomban. Irodalomtörténet, 100(3), 274–295. [In Hungarian.]

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