An Interview with Péter Nádas: “Language Is the Flesh and Blood of the Book”
Writer Péter Nádas in 2011 at a reading at the Goethe-Institut Budapest (Photo: Dávid Fekete/Goethe-Institut Budapest)
5 June 2012
Where would a writer be without translators? Outside their own language borders, often nowhere. The Hungarian novelist Péter Nádas therefore does not mind having to share his Brücke Berlin award with his translator. On the contrary, in the interview Nádas lauds the fine art of translation.
Mr Nádas, you spent nearly 20 years working on the Parallel Stories; Christina Viragh spent four years on the translation of the novel. How often in this time did you communicate with one another about the text?
Christina invited me to her place in Rome. For the first two volumes, we spent a week each working together on the translation. Then, we only discussed the third volume via email.
What were the greatest difficulties in the translation?
Hungarian and German are such vastly different languages that there were manifold difficulties. For example, German sentences are longer, which changes the inner proportions of the text. That’s already an aesthetic difference. Then, for some Hungarian terms there are no German equivalents; then others have philosophical associations in German, but not in Hungarian.
You speak fluent German. Does that make working with German translators easier or sometimes even harder?
I have been working with very different translators for more than twenty years; that has given me incredible linguistic experience. It has been a great school of language and a great school of thinking. But, it is also very exhausting, because the constant oscillating between the two languages demonstrates the boundaries very clearly. Sometimes you wish to explain something to the translator, which she can simply not understand in her other language. The barriers lie where the native language and the learned language adjoin. I had to be bilingual in order to be able to move back and forth across these borders with relative ease.
The Brücke Berlin award is already the third prize that the German translation of Parallel Stories has received in the less than three months since its publication. And it is the first prize that the writer and translator are receiving jointly.
Yes, that’s the way it is with this award; that is very clever.
What does this recognition mean for you?
The Brücke award creates a clear link between the two achievements; it shows that the two works are connected from now on. One cannot appreciate the art of translation highly enough. I am very pleased about the award.
Is a translation a copy or more an interpretation of the original?
The translator Hildegard Grosche once got very angry with me because I said to her, “Hildegard, this is not my book. I never wrote a word in German, but this book is entirely in German; every word originated with you.” The personality of the translator plays a huge role. Language is the flesh and blood of the book. What else? When German readers pick up a book by me, they get to know it in the language of Hildegard Grosche or Christina Viragh. No matter how correctly and conscientiously the translator may work, she speaks in her own language. That is a very odd thing.
Two parallel plots run through the entire novel; one takes place in Hungary and one in Germany. Can we describe Parallel Stories as a Hungarian-German novel?
No, Parallel Stories is a European novel. Some scenes take place on Capri, others in Groningen or in Switzerland, and there are also strong references to France. The fact that the German reference is so strong is because the histories of the two countries are inseparable. I did not want to separate what cannot be separated. Interestingly, Hungarians are more aware of the connections between the two cultures than the Germans. Germans are aware of the historic disaster they left behind them, but they do not recognize as much the historical and linguistic values, the correlating systems that collapsed once and for all or are now newly emerging.
You lived for a long time in Berlin. Do you have good memories of this time?
I love Berlin. The city is very accommodating; it is a good place to live. I got to know the city anew three times. I was in East Berlin in the early 1970s. That was a very complicated situation and the city presented itself accordingly. Ten years later I got to know the western part of Berlin, and after the fall of the wall, the city showed itself from yet another entirely new side.
When did you learn German?
I also learned the language a number of times. It’s a very funny story: when my grandparents did not want my brother and me to understand what they were talking about, my grandfather spoke Viennese, and my grandmother answered him in Yiddish. That is the origin of my German knowledge. Then, as a teenager I spent an entire summer with children from Saxony in a bathing resort, in Wiesenbad near Annaberg, as part of a children’s holiday programme. The staff and the counsellors were from the Erz Mountains. In my family everyone could speak German. When I returned home, they were all of the unanimous opinion that what I spoke was not German. It was some sort of silly children’s language, it was not anywhere near to German, and I ought to forget it. Then I took an intensive German course for foreigners at Humboldt University.
Do you read German literature in the original language?
Yes, I have done that regularly ever since the late 1960s. Goethe, for example, his poems, Faust, the Elective Affinities. Goethe’s language, it fascinated me. And I thought it could be used as common speech. Among my German friends I met with lively applause when I used certain terms and phrases. For example, instead of saying “vielleicht” (perhaps), I said “wenn ich wohl vermuthe” (if I may suppose). Years later my friends still jibed me when I said “perhaps” or “maybe.” They laughed and said, you mean, “If I may suppose.”
Márta Nagy held the interview.
Péter Nádas was born in Budapest in 1942. Before turning to writing, Nádas worked as a photographer and photographic reporter. In 1981 he lived for one year in West Berlin. In 2005 his 1,728-page novel Parallel Stories was published, which according to the publisher is already celebrated in Hungary as the “War and Peace of the 21st century.” The German version of the work, translated by Christina Viragh, has been available since the beginning of 2012. Together, she and Nádas will receive the Brücke Berlin award, granted by the BHF BANK Foundation in cooperation with the Goethe-Institut, the Literarische Colloquium Berlin and the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, on 5 June 2012. The jury was comprised of Olaf Kühl, Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, Katharina Narbutovi, Wilhelm Burmester and Jörg Plath. The patron of the award is Péter Esterházy. The two awardees will present their book at the Goethe-Institut Budapest on 4 December.