Interview – 9th October, 2017

"Mom says you were dumb to publish books, because you don’t make any money"

Interview–9th October, 2017


"Mom says you were dumb to publish books, because you don’t make any money"

"From the start I lock my eyes on each word and sentence as I go along, figuring I’d like to get the first draft as right as possible and not wanting to miss anything." – Owen Good's interview with Paul Olchvary.

We're excited to know that you're currently working on Sándor Jászberényi's second collection of short stories, The Most Beautiful Night of the Soul, which won the 2017 Libri prize. Certainly it must be a change from past projects, as unlike the work of many Hungarian writers, Jászberényi's stories aren't so much set in Central Europe as the Middle East and North Africa. What's it like translating his raucous adventures?

Translating Jászberényi is, like translating many other Hungarian writers, a profoundly gratifying experience – and that’s because underlying his raucous adventures is the sensitivity and sensibility of a mature literary artist who cares deeply about both his craft and the world. And his pithy, journalism-inspired, relatively reader-friendly (if often unsettling and enigmatic) prose – in stark contrast with the breathtaking convolutions that thrive in much of contemporary Hungarian literature – gives me the impression that it might find an audience beyond the ivory towers of the world, while nonetheless posing challenges to the translator.

Sure, Jászberényi may be known as much for his writing as he is for speaking his mind. True, he has also been a foreign correspondent far from goings on in Hungary (except when writing acerbic commentaries on goings-on in Hungary). But with all due respect to those Hungarian writers who focus on the particulars of life in Hungary, I am heartened that he and some others among his compatriots venture into the wider world with their pens. Of course, some Hungarian writers manage to illuminate the human condition even while exploring the Hungarian condition. Kudos to them.

Not only am I myself interested in the wider world, but also, the wider world is apt to take note when Eastern and Central European writers apply their singular perspective – in the case of Jászberényi, hard-boiled realism or cynicism – to regions of the world that happen to be of broad public interest abroad, such as the Middle East and Africa; Ryszard Kapuściński, for example, whose reputation in the United States could not be better. Why should American and British journalists have the last word on the Middle East in the English-language book publishing world? In his “fiction,” Jászberényi unveils hard truths – about not only pressing international conflicts but also the personal lives of war correspondents – that so many of them, in their “nonfiction,” seem oblivious to or hesitant to put their names to.

Recently I translated “Son of a Dog” (Egy kutya kölyke), the longest piece in Jászberényi’s new collection, in which the protagonist – the Cairo-based correspondent from Hungary, Daniel Marosh – desperately goes off in search of opium to relieve his insomnia and inner demons. His search leads him into Cairo’s massive, necropolis/slum, the City of the Dead, where he forms a bond with a street kid who has been given lodging by an opium dealer in exchange for engaging in brutal fights with other kids that adult men, including policemen, bet on. All this unfolds over sixty gripping pages, in spare prose that could be called Hemingwayesque if it weren’t so Jászberényiesque. On the basis of this story alone and his previous volume – deftly translated by Budapest-based American novelist M. Henderson Ellis (aka Matt Ellis), Jászberényi deserves international recognition. In 2014 my press, New Europe Books, published the previous volume in the United States – which a leading publication, Kirkus Reviews, called “a master class in how to tell a war story,” and I am now translating the new volume, with Matt’s gracious OK.

Besides Jászberényi, you’ve worked with other great authors, for example Ferenc Barnás, Ádám Bodor and György Dragomán, all of whom employ unique narrators. How long does it take for you to find the voice for such a work?

I begin finding the voice the moment I start translating and I finish months later, or maybe a year or two later, once I’m done editing. Reading a book beforehand does not help me all that much; only translating – the most intimate act of reading, after all – does, since it is a creative act as much as it is a receptive phenomenon. Some pages or chapters into a translation, I begin noticing that I am internalizing the book, the story, the voice; that it is becoming “part of me” to a degree somewhere on the spectrum between the way it becomes part of the reader’s life and is or was part of the author’s. Just how this is reflected on paper is another matter, one that has been explored in essays and books on translation.

It helps motivate me if I can identify personally with what I’m translating. For example, in the case of Barnás’s hugely ambitious novel Az élősködő (The Parasite) – which in 1997 marked his debut and which concerns one man’s strange history of sexual and related obsessions and how writing helps him heal – I tuned in, in part, by way of my own sundry (if not necessarily as shocking) obsessions and my own experience of writing.

In the case of Barnás’s A kilencedik (The Ninth) and, indeed, Dragomán’s A fehér király (The White King), and a translation of mine that preceded those – Károly Pap’s Azarel – I have met with the long-standing literary tradition in Hungary that sees no few adult novelists opt for child narrators. I myself was, after all, once a boy and sometimes still am, and so when translating such books I am doubly motivated, since I get to vicariously live out the protagonists’ adventures.

Bodor’s Sinistra körzet (The Sinistra Zone)? There, my appreciation for the volumes that silences can speak, my preference for the sound of wind and birdsong for the cacophony of cities, allowed me to connect deeply with a book as much about Nature as about totalitarianism. Practically speaking, what was the benefit to my translation? Perhaps I spent more time looking up the names of various wild plants and animals. And perhaps the translation is a bit more in keeping with the sensibility of the original than otherwise would have been the case, since the translator felt the Nature theme through and through even if, of course, he could not draw on personal experience of dictatorship.

And to grasp the voice, do you have to redraft like hell?

From the start I lock my eyes on each word and sentence as I go along, figuring I’d like to get the first draft as right as possible and not wanting to miss anything. That said, Hungarian sentences often just sort of come alive in my mind in English the moment I read them, and I can’t wait to type them out, which by contrast quickens my pace and carries its risks. Hence there is a pacing tension at the heart of translation. First drafts are invariably imperfect, of course, as I discover the moment a few days or weeks have passed and I start reading through them – and the moment an author sends me his or her comments or consults with me live, online. Most living authors I’ve translated are able to comb through every sentence of my English or have a significant other who can. That keeps me on my toes. Add to this my and the author’s awareness that translators of Hungarian into other languages may well use the English translation as a reference, so getting things “right” in English is doubly important. Ironically, in some cases this awareness can limit a translator’s freedom when working into English, whether because a translator might feel a bit too obliged to “be faithful” to the original text or because he/she feels a bit too much like the servant of the author and not of the work. But the give and take generally results in a final text I am happy with.

Ferenc Barnás in particular is no easy task for a translator, he's a translator's nightmare. In an interview with us, Barnás explained how you translated The Ninth together sentence by sentence, with hours of conversation over the phone. Still, there must have been a lot in the process which he didn't witness, can you tell us more about that process from your perspective?

Ferenc was indeed meticulous, and like other Hungarian writers I know (e.g. György Dragomán) he has “rhythm” at the front and center of his mind, which in his case is also informed by his experience as a musician. It helped a lot that we had already been friends for years by the time I got round to translating The Ninth, hence not only did I have unique insight into where he was coming from with this book, but I also knew full well that the editing process was not at all personal but a matter of mutual dedication to the craft. No hard feelings, that is. Just lots of wine at the Tokaji Borozó (Tokaj Wine Bar) once done.

In the case of both Barnás and Dragomán, I often found myself seeking to explain why a period to shorten a sentence or a paragraph break can indeed (as I see it) be in keeping with the rhythm of the original, why doing so might cause less stumbling for the reader of the translation, who – his/her receptive sensibilities shaped by years of reader-friendly prose provided by native writers of English, and by being taught that run-on sentences are elitist, nay, all but evil – will mentally insert that pause regardless of whether it is there on paper, and be annoyed to find it absent on paper.

It’s complicated. Often long sentences and paragraphs work wonderfully. But, always, it is this process of constant negotiation – with the author, with my own sense of what the author wants versus what the work deserves (and what edits the publisher would make, anyway) – that makes translation such an exhilarating challenge.

Looking now at this list of authors, I can’t help but wonder how this came about; were they personal endeavours or has the publisher always reached out to you first?

In the case of Barnás, I happened upon The Parasite in a bookstore in Szentendre in 1997 and telephoned the author saying I’d love to translate the book. It took years, a beautiful friendship, and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts in the US to finish. (I am still seeking a publisher for that book, by the way:

As for Dragomán, one day in 2007 or so I got an email from a Hungarian friend in Edinburgh asking if I’d translate a story by this writer called György Dragomán titled “Africa” for a special, Hungarian issue of the Edinburgh Review. Sure, I said, send it along. I wasn’t too excited; I figured the story would be, well, just a story. It wasn’t. I fell head over heels in love with it, as I did with the next story on the same theme, and Gyuri soon sent me his book. I then took the risk of sending not one story, but two, to the prominent New York literary magazine, the Paris Review. Let them see that this writer can write more than one great story! They accepted both, an agent soon got in touch with us, and before long he sold the book rights in the US, the UK, and some twenty other countries.

At other times, a book publisher will contact me, and then I either have the time or not; or else they will ask me for a sample translation, and I will either get the job or not. (No hard feelings!) A couple of years ago a US-based Hungarian doctor, Tamás Otrok, who’d fallen in love with Pál Királyhegyi’s remarkable comic memoir Első kétszáz évem (My First Two Hundred Years) back in high school, in Hungary, sent me an email asking me to translate it. Translating that book, which will soon be released, was immensely satisfying.

How did you begin translating Hungarian literature?

I was raised speaking Hungarian by parents born in Budapest who arrived in the United States as refugees after World War II. For a dozen years my parents sent me to Hungarian scouts in my hometown, Buffalo, New York. Like a few other scouts who to this day are my friends, I somehow failed to become a hardened Hungarian nationalist, but I did at least learn Hungarian. In graduate school, at Indiana University, Bloomington, though I studied creative writing and English literature, I made friends with a group of Hungarian visiting scholars. (This was in the late 1980s, and kudos to George Soros, by the way, for bringing them there.) They persuaded me to move to Hungary in 1990 for a job teaching essay writing to students of English at Janus Pannonius University in Pécs. By that time I’d already translated a bit of Dezső Kosztolányi’s scintillating, early-twentieth century Esti Kornél collection during a Hungarian literature course at Indiana University taught by the late, great scholar Mihály Szegedy-Maszák. Once in Hungary I sought out Judith Sollosy, at Corvina Press, who gave me some translation projects. I am so grateful to Judy for that. She has done a great deal for Hungarian literature as a translator and publisher and was a fantastic mentor.

Confession: Early on I saw translation as a back door to getting my own writing published. In other words, I reasoned, if I were to make good contacts in the publishing world, before long my own stories and novels would be out. Nice to think so. While my stories and essays have appeared on occasion – during my years in Hungary in the 1990s, for example, in Hungarian translation (by Dóra Puszta and András Barabás), in the monthly magazine 2000 – translation and other matters have so distracted me over the years that I’ve yet to refocus on fine-tuning my longer works. That said, two books of my own, both about translation, keep swirling in my mind, one a novel and the other nonfiction. God willing, as they say, I’ll write one or both before long.

And do you translate any other languages?

While I translate from no other languages, perhaps Hungarian alone is as good (or better) for my brain than, say, Spanish and Italian combined, even if the latter combination would allow me to converse with some 450 million people the world over, not just 13 million. Another bright side is that since the world’s foreign language departments are not being assailed by throngs of people seeking to learn Hungarian, this limits the number of other qualified translators out there – hence, less competition. Also, as small as Hungary is, just when I think I won’t encounter another masterful work of Hungarian literature, I encounter plenty of them published in the past year alone, enough to go around for all of my fine colleagues pursuing the same art/craft.

In 2010 you founded New Europe Books, your publishing house which distributes through Penguin Random House and publishes mainly central and eastern European literature. Can you tell us a little more about why you established New Europe Books and what its mission is?

New Europe Books was a natural consequence of my work as a translator and my sense that not enough – not nearly enough! – good literature from Hungary and elsewhere in Central and Eastern Europe, not to mention accessible information about the region, was making its way to the wider world. I began by publishing my translation of a cultural reference guide to Hungary and selling it directly, online. But I still faced the huge challenge of finding a distributor capable of getting books I publish out there into the world’s physical bookstores; if you publish books in a big country and don’t have one, you are not taken seriously as a publisher. I finally found one in Penguin Random House Publisher Services, which New Europe Books accesses via Steerforth Press. I was then able to expand with both literary fiction and nonfiction, as well as a book on being Polish and the first comprehensive popular history of Eastern Europe in English.

In the past couple of decades, the prospects of smaller presses in the US getting great books reviewed by major publications such as the New York Times have dwindled to nearly nothing. Book review editors no longer have the budgets to commission reviews of so many deserving books. And – it’s true – fewer people are reading books. Since my press is for-profit, and since I have a major distributor, whose sales reps want books they can ideally sell a couple thousand copies of by the publication date, I must consider whether a book is likely to capture relatively wide attention before agreeing to publish it. Is it timely? Is it perhaps even a bit of a page-turner? Is it also great? The input of my colleagues and a couple of friends is vital, moreover, as it is bad business to consistently make important decisions in a vacuum.

Speaking as a publisher and translator, do you see a rise in the popularity of translated fiction in the USA?

Every now and again a major international disaster (e.g. Pearl Harbor, 9/11) reminds American readers that they should be paying more attention to what is happening in the rest of the world. Hence, 9/11, for example, seemed to spur an interest in translated literature, though more for that of the Muslim world, I suppose, than Eastern Europe (where at that point the Cold War seemed to be over). Add to this the relative affordability and ease of international travel in recent decades, which has familiarized more and more people with foreign lands and stoked their curiosity for other literatures.

And yet it is a fact that there is so much original English-language literature out there that publishers needn’t go broke publishing. (Read: no translation fee, no hard job persuading hesitant readers to give a translation a try.) Hence, translated literature is up against incredibly stiff competition. Sure, there are certainly many smaller (and some larger) presses that publish works in translation, usually with assurance of outside funding; and there are readers who deliberately seek it out – take the current popularity of László Krasznahorkai among many intellectuals in the US, for example.

While the challenges continue to be great, the early news is promising for two books I’ve published lately: New Europe Books is behind the US debut this autumn of Albanian Greek writer Gazmend Kapllani’s brilliant A Short Border Handbook – a creative nonfiction account of his journey over the mountains from his Albania to Greece many years ago, and the hard lessons he learned about being an immigrant. The book was lauded on its original, UK publication by Granta/Portobello in 2009, bookstores are taking interest, and public radio stations would do well to interview this fascinating author. And out this past summer – a book written in English, but much of it set in Bosnia-Herzegovina – was Robert Madrygin’s riveting debut novel Solace of Trees, about a young Muslim war orphan’s escape to America in the early 1990s and the tragedy that befalls him after 9/11. Booklist called it “deeply informative and moving,” adding that “it will spark debates regarding American foreign policy.” That sort of praise makes me feel it’s all worth it.

I keep slogging on, whether translating or publishing, because, well, I believe in it – and I myself learn so much about writing and about the world from the books deal with. I got into trouble some years ago, at a time of acute personal crisis, by taking on some translation projects I failed to follow through on. But in the past couple of years I’ve begun to make up for that. My nine-year-old son (who lives with me half the week) told me not long ago – remembering, I trust, something said to him years ago – “Mom says you were dumb to publish books, because you don’t make any money.” Well, aside from the fact that I’m now doing better publishing good books than I was four years ago (live and learn), this was an excellent opportunity to teach my son about the importance not only of parents saying nice things about each other but also about the rewards and challenges of living a creative life.



Paul Olchváry has translated many books of Hungarian prose literature to English, including the following novels: György Dragomán’s The White King (Transworld/UK, Houghton Mifflin/US), Vilmos Kondor’s Budapest Noir (Harper Collins), Ádám Bodor's The Sinistra Zone (New Directions), Ferenc Barnás’s The Ninth (Northwestern University Press), and Károly Pap’s Azarel (Steerforth Press). He has received translation grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and PEN American Center in the United States, and the Milán Füst Prize by the Milán Füst Foundation of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. He is the founder of New Europe Books, which is distributed by Penguin Random House. A native of Amherst, New York, Olchváry was born to Hungarian parents and he lived in Hungary for many years as an adult. There he taught English-language composition skills at Janus Pannonius University, in Pécs, held a year-long internship with the US embassy, and was the founding editor of the daily, English-language news digest Hungary Around the Clock. Olchváry’s own short stories and essays appeared, in Hungarian translation, in the Budapest cultural monthly 2000. Since 2010 he has lived with his son in Williamstown, Massachusetts.


(Photo: Ákos Olchvary)

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