Review: Rita Horanyion László Krasznahorkai

Strange Harmonies: On the Translations of László Krasznahorkai

Rita Horanyi is a recipient of a 2017 SRB-CA Emerging Critics Fellowship. This is the second of three essays by Horanyi that will appear on the Sydney Review of Books, alongside essays by other fellowship recipients, Robert Wood and Darius Sepehri. Read all the essays.

Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai has become a more familiar name to English speaking readers over the last few years thanks to his receipt of the Man Booker International Prize in 2015. Nevertheless, his is a name that remains shrouded in a certain mystique, due in part to his gnomic responses in interviews, and to the notorious difficulty of his work, with its breathtakingly long sentences and apocalyptic, melancholic themes. The World Goes On, which has been shortlisted for 2018 Man Booker International Prize, continues to explore these themes, albeit in a less menacing or apocalyptic tone than some of his earlier works.

The World Goes On is composed of twenty-one short prose pieces, divided into three sections entitled: ‘He Speaks’, ‘He Narrates’ and ‘He Departs.’ Some of these prose works have appeared elsewhere before. The Universal Theseus was published as a stand-alone work in Hungarian (Az Általános Theseus, 1993) before being republished in this collection, while the The Bill has been published separately in English (2013) by the Cahiers series. The stories – although calling them stories is somewhat misleading, as they deliberately frustrate the usual conventions of narrative – feature, like most of Krasznahorkai’s writing, narrators who are trapped by the limitations of language and thought in their attempts to apprehend the world. Although Krasznahorkai’s narrators often have some intimation of this problem, this usually leads them to become entangled in labyrinths of their own making. This tendency goes some way to explaining the long, obsessive, often repetitive, and cumulative sentences that are Krasznahorkai’s trademark.

In this collection, Krasznahorkai’s narrators confront a world where the sacred has all but disappeared and beauty remains a fragile and fleeting possibility. The tales offer an ironically despairing depiction of modern disenchantment; the gods have quit this world and the meaning and beauty of the old tales that came with them can only be glimpsed amidst the rubble. In ‘A Drop of Water’, the disillusioned protagonist aimlessly wanders the crowded streets of Varanasi, endlessly harassed by vendors who hawk tours of sacred sites and tales of the city’s history like so many other cheap wares. Although pilgrims bathe in the Ganges, the protagonist can only discern a filthy river that spreads pollution, death and disease. He is finally stopped on his way to the riverbank as he tries to escape the chaos by a pilgrim, who delivers an impromptu lecture in perfect English on the mysterious properties of water from a scientific perspective, mysteries that perhaps give substance to the local belief that ‘a single drop of water from the Ganges is a temple.’ At the end of this lecture the pilgrim asks him for money, but the protagonist manages to get away from his ‘absurd conversation’ without payment. The reader, however, has had a brief glimpse of the beauty and mystery of the river that has made it sacred to those living beside it, beneath the environmental degradation inflicted upon it by modernity.

In the best story in the collection, ‘That Gagarin’, the unnamed narrator becomes obsessed with the life and death of the famous Russian cosmonaut and first man in space — Yuri Gagarin. The tale opens with the narrator acknowledging that he has been seized by a desperate desire to ‘leave the Earth.’ This desire propels his pathological preoccupation with Gagarin, whose life proffers a far more melancholy tale than might be expected of the ‘Hero of the Soviet Union.’ As the story progresses, it is gradually revealed that the narrator lives in the ‘Institution’, also known as the ‘Unhappy Nursing Home, Where Everyone Awaits Only Death’, presided over by Dr Heym, who listens to the narrator’s ramblings about Gagarin without much comment, and ‘that idiot’, the nurse István, who likewise has no idea of the real desire fuelling the narrator’s all-consuming research. Throughout the story, the narrator loses himself in digressions and recounts his failed endeavours at finding out what happened when Gagarin died. Finally, he has a sudden insight that enables him to piece together the chaotic pile of documents, falsified accounts, rewritten autobiographies, fragments, and declassified information into his own narrative, one that also gives voice to his own melancholy predicament. In the narrator’s account, Gagarin was driven to despair by the beauty of what he saw in his first orbit in space; by the fact that he had descried something not normally visible to humans—that paradise exists and it is the earth itself. This beautiful vision turns into a tragic tale because, as the narrator imagines it, Gagarin remained unable to communicate this extraordinary insight to anyone, and so—in true Russian style—he turned to drink to drown his grief.

The story is typical of Krasznahorkai’s writing, in that it presents a profoundly melancholic view of the world with a perfectly balanced combination of absurd humour and pathos. The narrator of this story resembles other melancholic characters who inhabit Krasznahorkai’s fictions who are likewise unable to resign themselves to the corrupt and meaningless nature of the world around them, a melancholia that is nonetheless always depicted with some irony (Mr Eszter’s absurd desire to do away with the tempered system of tuning in The Melancholy of Resistance is a case in point). In ‘That Gagarin’, Krasznahorkai employs a technique he often uses in his work, where facts the reader initially took to be true are gradually undermined. The reader is at first inclined to take the narrator of ‘That Gagarin’ at face value, albeit to consider him depressed and a little obsessive. As it is gradually revealed that the narrator speaks to a doctor regularly about his fixation on Gagarin and then that the Institution he is affiliated with is where he lives, it becomes clear that he is not considered a functioning member of society (and the looks he claims he receives at the library when he mentions he is from the ‘Institute’ take on a different meaning). However, as the story continues and the affinities between the narrator and his interpretation of Gagarin emerge — Gagarin too is dismissed as deranged by the ideologically driven society of his time — it becomes unclear whether it is actually the narrator or the world that is more insane. Such irresolution pervades Krasznahorkai’s work.

The World Goes On was translated by all three of Krasznahorkai’s English translators: George Szirtes, Ottilie Mulzet and John Batki. While the differences in their work in The World Goes On are subtle, partly because Krasznahorkai’s style is highly distinctive, there are discernible differences between the translators’ approaches to his writing that are worth examining, as they raise interesting questions about how Krasznahorkai is presented to the English-speaking world and about the inherent difficulties in translation. Since Batki is a relative newcomer, I will focus on the work of Szirtes and Mulzet, both of whom shared Krasznahorkai’s 2015 Man Booker International Prize.

An award-winning English poet of Hungarian descent, Szirtes is a prominent and prolific translator of Hungarian literature. He has translated numerous classic twentieth-century Hungarian novels, as well as several poetry collections. His contribution to English letters has been recognised in an honorary doctorate from the University of East Anglia, and he has received the Gold Star of the Hungarian Republic (1991) amongst other awards. He writes eloquent introductions to English editions of well-known Hungarian works, and is a passionate and astute commentator on Hungarian politics and current affairs. In a sense, Szirtes is more than a literary translator; he is an advocate for Hungarian culture, particularly the left-wing, liberal strand of Hungarian culture that is at risk of being forgotten, at least outside of Hungary, thanks to Viktor Orbán’s populist-nationalist regime. Although Szirtes’s translations of Krasznahorkai are lauded, few reviewers are in a position to discuss their relative merits. Satantango, for instance, won the Best Translated Book Award in 2013, but the prize was awarded by a panel with no Hungarian speakers on it.

Mulzet, on the other hand, is a literary critic, rather than a poet, and a translator of both Hungarian and Mongolian who also speaks fluent Czech. While she has some Hungarian heritage, she did not grow up speaking the language, but felt compelled to learn it as an adult. Perhaps as result of her more scholarly training, Mulzet is known as the more accurate translator. Where Szirtes takes a more cavalier approach that renders the original into a form that reads naturally in English, Mulzet insists on the importance of retaining the shock or strangeness of the original. As she notes in an interview:

I really try to convey what I feel is unique about the original, why it wasn’t written in English and perhaps never could be written in English. I want my translation to be something impossible yet extant, something existing on the border of two utterly incompatible worlds, and yet to be a bridge between those worlds. . . . I don’t want to make it easy or acceptable, or to over-domesticate the text.

But are both approaches equally valid? Is it better to create something pleasing to the readers of the language the work is being translated into or to retain the strangeness of the original? Vladimir Nabokov declared that ‘the clumsiest literal translation was a thousand time more useful than the prettiest paraphrase’ and produced possibly one of the most bizarre exercises in translation—his ‘literal’ translation of Eugene Onegin, which was memorably panned by his close friend Edmund Wilson in a review that severed their acquaintance for good. The recent ongoing controversy over the translation of 2016 Man Booker International Prize winner, Han Kang’s The Vegetarian – seen by some Korean speakers as a betrayal of the original – demonstrates that questions of fidelity and interpretation in translation continue to provoke passionate debate.

Central to these debates is the question of what fidelity to the original text means. In ‘The Task of the Translator’, Walter Benjamin argues that fidelity and freedom are not opposed in translation, but instead work together. While it is self-evident that a translator must have the freedom to avoid overly literal translations (idioms are the obvious example) in order to remain faithful to the intention of the source text, Benjamin also discusses a frequently over-looked aspect of the translator’s freedom and fidelity—the freedom to render the language the work is being translated into strange. Benjamin approvingly quotes Rudolf Pannwitz: ‘The basic error of the translator is that he preserves the state in which his own language happens to be instead of allowing his language to be powerfully affected by the foreign tongue’. There is, however, a limit to this kind of freedom: Friedrich Hölderlin’s late translations of Sophocles, which attempted to make German resemble ancient Greek, are an example, according to Benjamin, of how such translations can fall into an abyss of meaninglessness.

Do Szirtes’s translations, then, represent a use of freedom that is actually a kind of fidelity? A close reading of Satantango reveals that his translation of that novel contains numerous inaccuracies or changes that are not necessary to remain true to either the style or the content of the original. The following passage from Satantango is but one example. Szirtes’s translation reads:

‘They’ll be sitting in exactly the same place… They’ll be eyeing each other suspiciously, only breaking the silence to belch. They are waiting. They’re waiting patiently, like the long-suffering lot they are, in the firm conviction that someone has conned them. They are waiting, belly to the ground, like cats at pig-killing time, hoping for scraps. They are like servants that work at a castle where the master has shot himself: they hang around at an utter loss as to what to do…

A translation that stays closer to the Hungarian sentence structure and content would read:

‘They’ll still be sitting there, in exactly the same place… They watch each other suspiciously, belching loudly into the silence, and they – wait. They wait, assiduously, tenaciously, and they think someone has simply deceived them. They wait, crouching, like cats at a pig-slaughtering, just in case a little scrap of prey might fall. These people are like castle attendants of old, whose master shot himself in the head one day, and now a few of them are just helplessly loitering around the corpse…’ (trans own).

I call this example the case of the missing body. The only conceivable reason for getting rid of the corpse at the end of the passage is that it is easier to translate that way. In other words, Szirtes has done a Constance Garnett (the first English translator of Tolstoy, Chekhov and Dostoevsky, amongst others), which is to say, he occasionally ‘moves on’, and skips or glosses over something in the original.

Published in Hungary in 1985, Satantango was Krasznahorkai’s debut novel. Its publication caused a sensation in Hungary and made the reputation of a writer who until then had been virtually unknown. Set in a dysfunctional collective farm in the dying days of a socialist regime, Satantango follows the hapless residents of the collective over the course of a few rain-soaked days as they await the petty crook Irimiás (a false prophet), who they believe will lead them to a better life. Perhaps more so than other works by Krasznahorkai, Satantango blends gritty realism with an allegorical vision. Hungarian critic Sándor Radnóti has pointed out that Satantango has a certain ‘sociological accuracy and richness’, and that Hungarian readers at the time were ‘familiar with the miserable material existence’ of the characters.

This combination of grim realism and an allegorical emphasis on material decadence lends scenes from the novel a dark atmosphere reminiscent of a Caravaggio painting. Krasznahorkai often conveys realistic detail through the apposite use of vernacular and gestus, paying close attention to the way characters’ movements are inflected by social relations and material realities. Perhaps the most apt use of gestus occurs when Mrs Horgos—an alcoholic and something of a pariah, even by the standards of the marginalised community of the collective farm—enters the pub:

She raised the bottle to her mouth and started drinking greedily. The beer trickled over her chin and the landlord watched in disgust as it ran down her neck. ‘You haven’t seen my daughter, have you?’ Mrs Horgos asked, and wiped her mouth with her fist. ‘The little one.’ ‘No,’ replied the landlord gruffly. ‘She hasn’t been here.’ The woman hawked up phlegm and spat it onto the floor. She took a single cigarette from her pocket, lit it, and blew the smoke in the landlord’s face (trans own).

In such carefully portrayed interactions, Krasznahorkai reveals the petty social intrigues and hierarchies that occur in the corrupt and unredeemed universe he has created, one that is at once allegorical and familiar.

These elements of Satantango pose additional challenges for the translator. The more frequent use of vernacular makes Satantango a more complex, even polyphonic, novel than its ‘lava-flow’ of text, as Szirtes has described Krasznahorkai’s prose, might suggest. Krasznahorkai’s frequent use of clichéd or idiomatic phrases in sudden quotation marks within otherwise lyrical sentences undermines the authority and singularity of the narrative voice, as do the sudden interjections of a character’s speech. This point is significant because, at the end of the novel, it is revealed that the narrator is also the character of the doctor. Throughout the novel, the doctor sits by his window pedantically recording the movements of the other residents in a vain attempt to stave off demonic disorder and deterioration. After a brief stint in hospital, he returns to the now abandoned collective and has the stunning realization that he need not be constrained by reality; he can invent it himself, and he begins writing the opening pages of Satantango. The novel therefore forms not just an allegory about the propensity to fantasy in conditions of torpor and despair or about universal entropy, but also about the creation of art in circumstances of material and spiritual deprivation. It implies that art fails to transcend such circumstances, but this failure itself can form the artwork. The multiple registers and citations throughout the novel are therefore crucial to the novel’s refusal of an omniscient narrative authority and position of transcendence, as well as of much of its humour.

Szirtes does not always handle these multiple registers well, particularly the vernacular. At the end of Chapter One, Szirtes has: ‘Don’t go regretting anything, old man! You’ll see. It’ll be cushy for us. Pure gold. A real golden age!’ The Hungarian is more like: ‘Cheer up, old chum! We’ll have a golden life, you’ll see! A golden life!’ In this instance, the Hungarian ‘Ne sajnáld’ does literally mean ‘don’t regret it’, but that is simply not idiomatic. Another example is when Szirtes has Mrs. Schmidt say, ‘The kid simply lied. It’s not so hard to imagine. In fact it’s very easy to imagine.’ ‘The kid simply lied. It’s possible. Very possible’ would be more keeping with the colloquial style. Elsewhere Szirtes has a character say ‘foul weather’, which is too formal (‘lousy weather’ might be better) and he smooths out a sentence (‘I want to go somewhere warm, I want to dry off, I want to eat’) into ‘I want to go somewhere warm where I can dry out and eat’, which loses some of the character’s sense of irritation. The effect of this over the course of the novel is to blur or render inconsistent the distinct voices and linguistic registers.

There are also a number of inaccuracies throughout his translation of Satantango, including the misattribution of actions to the wrong character on a few occasions. The last occasion is the most problematic, as it results in a series of dream images appearing to belong to a female character. However, if Szirtes had considered this passage in the context of the entire novel, it would be clear that this final dream should be associated with Futaki (a man). The tenor of this final dream and its images reflect hopes and anxieties that have been associated throughout the novel with Futaki, the only character with the existential insight befitting a dream about looking out at the gloaming and being unable to discern if it is dawn or dusk. This mistake significantly detracts from the emotional impact of the text.

What remains most instructive about the example of Satantango for translation studies, however, is the way it highlights the importance of capturing tone of voice and maintaining this consistently. By translating colloquial passages more formally or by reworking Krasznahorkai’s sentence structure, Szirtes dilutes the distinctive nature of Krasznahorkai’s style. This is particularly problematic for a writer like Krasznahorkai, whose formal innovations are linked to a melancholy worldview.

In Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia, Julia Kristeva points out that, due to the difficulty of directly representing the experience of depression, melancholy is found in the ‘tone of voice.’ Throughout Krasznahorkai’s oeuvre, characters or narrators give extraordinary descriptions of states that resemble clinical depression., Ironically enough, a profound sense of language’s inadequacy is core to these descriptions. In ‘The Universal Theseus’ in The World Goes On, the narrator describes both his profound disillusionment with the world and his bitterness at his inability to find a form of expression that is inherently related to the workings of the world.  He describes this disillusionment as causing a nauseating sense of simultaneous heaviness and lightness. In the film Damnation, which Krasznahorkai wrote the screenplay for, the main character, Karrer describes his experience of despair as a state where he is not attached to anything, ‘but everything attaches itself to me and wants me to stare at it, to stare at the desolation in things.’ In the experience of melancholia, a world devoid of meaning becomes heavily, oppressively material, as objects cease to refer to anything other than themselves. The cumulative tendency to endlessly pile up images – especially in Satantango, where the narrator frequently lists objects in various states of ruin, contributing to the general sense of inexorable decline – is therefore an essential part of Krasznahorkai’s melancholy worldview. By somewhat smoothing out these lists in Satantango, some of the melancholy affect created by the novel is lost.

Szirtes’s translations of later works by Krasznahorkai are, on the whole, more successful, mainly because the original works contain less patois and because the increasing length of Krasznahorkai’s sentences compels Szirtes to adhere closely to the original sentence structure. One of the challenges of translating from Hungarian into English is that Hungarian has significantly more flexibility in its word order, being an agglutinative language that has a high use of declension. In his translation of The Last Wolf, a short Krasznahorkai novella composed of a single sentence, Szirtes changes the word order within each clause (as he must), but he does not have the scope to change the overall sentence structure.

Mulzet’s approach to translation is very different. Her aim is to allow the foreignness of Hungarian to infuse and revitalise the English language, something she believes is essential given English’s dominance as a language of global commerce. That Mulzet succeeds in this aim is seen in Animalinside, which is the most successful English translation of Krasznahorkai’s work. In this collection of ekphrastic prose pieces written in response to German artist Max Neumann’s haunting images of a truncated black dog, Krasznahorkai takes his themes of entrapment in language and power structures to their furthest extreme. Mulzet retains the repetitions of the original and her use of the unusual but highly effective vocabulary, such as the verb ‘tauten’, perfectly captures the choked desperation of this narrative voice.

However, Mulzet’s decision to eschew a more natural word order in English can, at times, come off as strained, introducing a different type of distortion. At these points, the translation suggests that the original text uses language in a manner that is more deliberately strange than is actually the case. This is noticeable in the final short prose piece in The World Goes On, an ambiguous monologue where the narrator renounces the world, presumably before ‘he departs.’ Mulzet positions the word ‘here’ early on in each clause in a long catalogue of examples: ‘I would leave here the…’ While this kind of pushing against the usual word order of English can be effective, as Animalinside demonstrates, in this instance it is at odds with the Hungarian. The breathless, dark lyricism of this monologue heightens its irony and ambiguity, as the narrator uses great eloquence to relate all the things in this world he no longer needs and would leave behind. It is implied that this is because the narrator has experienced a kind of transcendence that renders all earthly things superfluous, but it is left unclear if this epiphany evokes a feeling of futility and disgust in the narrator or a tranquil acceptance.

In ‘The Art of Translation’, Nabokov pours scorn on those translators who attempt to improve the original, whether out of hubris or carelessness. For Nabokov, it is the established poet or writer who is most likely to fall into the trap of dressing up the author as themselves rather than ‘dressing up like the real author.’ In recent times, positions like Nabokov’s seem to have fallen out of currency somewhat, and the translator’s creativity and freedom tend to be celebrated instead, as if fidelity to the source text were an impossible burden (the outrage over The Vegetarian, however, suggests a backlash). Even Krasznahorkai himself takes such a position, stating that a translation is an entirely new work that should ‘in no way be identified with the original in a different language.’ But if we consider the task of the translator to be something separate from that of the writer – perhaps closer to the art of the actor or the musician performing a composer’s score – then we can see that sensitivity to what I would call, a little vaguely, the ‘spirit’ or ‘voice’ of the original is crucial. By translating the voice inconsistently, Szirtes creates some strange, at times discordant, harmonies that are not adequately in tune with the original.

A work that clearly demonstrates such sensitivity is film director Béla Tarr’s stunning adaptation of Satantango. I watched this film before I read the novel in Hungarian, and a particular scene has become firmly lodged in my mind. In this scene, Futaki leans against a wall covered in faded wallpaper; he smiles to himself as he smokes a cigarette but his expression soon becomes troubled. This expression on the furrowed face of actor Miklós B. Székely had an immense impact on me, though I could not have articulated what the feeling it provoked in me was or why this was so. After I read the novel in Hungarian, I realised the words that best evoke the feeling this image aroused are the ones Krasznahorkai uses to describe Futaki’s thoughts at around the same point in the novel:  ‘He sensed a sudden sourness on his tongue and he thought, death has come.’ This phrase and this image are now indissolubly linked in my mind. Although Tarr insists his film is an entirely different beast to the novel, mainly because film is a more concrete, time-bound medium, I can think of few films that are as faithful to the source text. Which is to say that, while faithfulness and freedom are not opposed in translation or even adaptation, respect for, indeed a profound connection with, the source text remains paramount.


Benjamin, Walter. ‘The Task of the Translator.’ Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. Trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books, 2007.
Kristeva, Julia. Black Sun: Depression and Melancholia. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1989.
Nabokov, Vladimir. ‘The Art of Translation.’ The New Republic. Aug 5, 1941.
– ‘Problems of Translation: Onegin in English.’ Translation Studies Reader. L. Venuti (ed.). London: Routledge, 1999.
Radnóti, Sándor. ‘Megalázottak és megszomorítottak: Krasznahorkai László Sátántangó címu regényérol és irodalmi környezetérol (The Humiliated and the Dejected: On László Krasznahorkai’s Satantango and its Literary Context).’ Krasznahorkai Olvasókönyv (Krasznahorkai Reader). Budapest: Széphalom Könyvmuhely, 2002.
Stivers, Valerie. ‘Recalcitrant Language: An Interview with Ottilie Mulzet.’ The Paris Review. July 21, 2014.
Szirtes, George. ‘Interview with László Krasznahorkai’ The White Review. September 2013.

Published May 18, 2018
Part of Emerging Critics 2018: Essays by the 2018 CA-SRB Emerging Critics cohort: Rita Horanyi, Darius Sepehri and Robert Wood. Our Emerging Critics Fellowship Program is generously funded by the Copyright Agency Cultural Fund. All Emerging Critics 2018 essays →
Rita Horanyi

Rita Horanyi is an emerging literary critic with an interest in literary modernism and...

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