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Et. In. Arcadia. Ego. – Szilárd Borbély and Intertextual References

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

Speaking of his poetry in an interview in 2005, Borbély claims that he doesn’t intend to discuss deep philosophical questions in his works. Instead, he works on solving the task of creating a system of rules that builds on his previous works, but breaks away from them or obliterates them. Admitting that he doesn’t think there are a lot of topics he could try to talk about, he chooses to reiterate the same topics over and over. He claims that, instead of planning out carefully what he is going to say or or if he is going to insert something intentionally into a text, he is looking for a specific modality in language use. Figuring out its rules, he would let the text organize itself, as it starts working by its own rules, under its own power. (Borbély, 2005, p. 854) Following the strategy “The novel as it’s writing itself,” as Péter Esterházy’s famous quote from Termelési regény (English: The Novel of Production, Esterházy, 1979) suggests, seems to have worked for Borbély in prose and poetry, drawing upon his intimate relationship with the vast resources of the Hungarian language spanning centuries, styles, religions, disciplines, and vernaculars.  

Borbély also borrows another favorite method from Esterházy (and others, of course): transposing texts (phrases, sentences, paragraphs, excerpts, or motives) from other literary works, inserting them “as is” or with minimal alteration and integrating them into his works––a nifty trick to confuse and evade the censors of Communist Hungary. Whether these borrowings are identifiable or not in the final work is a question for critics and translators. Preserving the original feel, these so-called guest texts, in their fragmented existence, certainly expand the horizon of the text, while adding to the workload of translators: they must become both detectives and literary critics, tracking down the source text and capturing the subtle tone of the author’s reference to it. A new layer of meaning provided via the wealth of intertextual references render the translator’s work even more complicated, even though they might be rather obvious for the well-read native speaker who has grown up on texts written by Dezső Kosztolányi, Ernő Szép, and Attila József. References to world literature might come with sources cited, but it’s quite a challenge to decipher some, especially considering that Borbély was likely reading them in Hungarian––such as works by Franz Kafka and Walter Benjamin, appearing in both Berlin–Hamlet and Kafka’s Son. Deep or hidden connections in Borbély’s oeuvre and their relationship with his predecessors in Hungarian and world literature will challenge critics for a while, for all the brilliant, pensive literary criticism covering his works, mostly in Hungarian. (Note: Several Hungarian literary journals dedicated special issues to Borbély after his death. A few examples of comprehensive studies on Borbély’s work in Hungarian, including criticism before his death, are Angyalosi, 2016; Kulcsár-Szabó, 2019; Márton, 2005; Schein, 2021; Valastyán, 2018; Visy, 2016.)

Intertextual references to Hungarian and world literature can be challenging for a translator not only because the reference must be recognized, identified, and tracked down, but more because recontextualization of fragments alone might elicit a different meaning in various cultures, including elements omitted intentionally. For example, the quote Et. In. Arcadia. Ego ties Borbély to the area of his scholarly research, 18th-century Hungarian literature, especially to a poet called Mihály Csokonai Vitéz (Borbély, 2006). It refers to the planned inscription on his tombstone in Debrecen, Hungary, which was considered as an insult in some literary circles after Csokonai’s death, leading to the infamous “Arcadia debate” in the town. The message is actually the highest appreciation of a literary figure who “also lived in Arcadia,” that is, Debrecen. 

Reformed Church of Debrecen

True to himself, Borbély doesn’t hide anything; instead, he routinely revisits previous texts of his own, including several related to Franz Kafka, admittedly a great influence on him since his very early years. Reading Kafka’s The Trial was a life-changing experience for the adolescent Borbély, leading him to contemplate the meaning of faith and religion. Not only does he recall in interviews having read it at one sitting, enchanted by the helplessnes and vulnerability so familiar to him as a young boy (Borbély, 2009), but he repeats the story in the chapter Kafka in the Bathroom (where Kafka” refers to the book itself) in Kafka’s Son too, changing the person of the narrator from the third to the first (Kulcsár-Szabó, 2019). 


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