Translators have an even harder time than illustrators trying to build up their name as the brand for their business. Whereas most people can look quickly at an illustration and get a sense of it, very few people speak a second language fluently enough to check that an original story and a translated version both read well. It's exciting getting foreign editions of my books with Philip Reeve through the post, but I'm not fluent enough (even in French or Russian which I've studied) to catch any subtle nuances, and the rest could be in Martian for all I know. So unless a native speaker reports back to me, or the book wins an award, I have no idea how well our texts are translated!
But the translator's work means everything to how well the book will go down with people who read it in languages other than English. I don't have much contact with translators, other than on Twitter with Sandra Hessels who works freelance for Veltman, our Dutch publisher, and Gili Bar-Hillel, who translates us into Hebrew for Utz Books. So it was lovely when the Hungarian translator of Oliver and the Seawigs, Örkény Ajkay, popped up with an e-mail to say hello. I thought I'd feature him here on my blog so you can see a little bit of what goes into translating our books.
Sarah: Örkény, you're so important to our book with Hungarian publisher Móra, but writer and illustrators usually don't learn very much about our translators! We want to 'name the translator', but often that's all we can do! I wish we could do more to big you up.
Örkény: It’s so nice to hear about support for translator-awareness! We're used to saying, a bit ironically, that there are 3 true rewards for a literary translator:
1. Copyright © symbol in the colophon next to their name,
2. To read their name in print,
3. Readers’ compliments about the author of the work they translated.
The latter is the best, of course, meaning that the translator managed to convey messages and meaning of the original, and acted like a thin, transparent layer, a delicate interface of some sort, between author’s thoughts and absorbing minds. Okay, interpreters do the same on a daily basis, they are even more the unsung heroes type.
S: You say your career as a translator was kickstarted by a video game! Can you tell me a bit about that?
O: Back in the early 90s I played an adventure video game called Neuromancer with my friends. A friend of mine mentioned he had the book with the same title. This sounded exciting, so I got hold of a copy too, and after reading some chapters, I decided to translate it – without any previous experience in literary translation! It was a sudden, crazy idea, but I liked that. Translating this classic and important SF novel was extremely hard for a beginner, but fortunately I received heaps of help from the author himself! And after years spent in the world of translation, I heavily revised my First Translation for reprints.
S: So you focus on Science Fiction?
O: Well, most of my translations are SF novels and short stories, yes. But many of them could be tagged as contemporary fiction. And I think fiction is the part to be emphasized.
S: How did you come across Oliver and the Seawigs? What did you think of it?
O: My then-prospective editor was seeking translators for various titles, and offered me this one. I devoured it, and thought it’s zany, it’s fun, and it’s adventure and fiction at its best. Made me recall some great funny adventure games, such as Day of the Tentacle and the Monkey Island series, so I fell in love with the book, even before I finished it.
S: Hurrah! And thank you so much for your hard work! What's it like to translate into Hungarian? Your language is so different to English!
O: Hungarian is unrelated to most European languages, and has its own quirks. For example, there is no gender in our grammar. Everybody in 3rd person singular is “ő” [o with double acute accent]. Where in English “he” or ”she” is used as needed, in Hungarian we use other words to express gender. Sometimes this requires extra creativity.
Hungarian also uses multiple suffixes extensively. Words can have various endings, depending on the given grammatical (accusative, genitive, locative, instrumental etc.) case. This can be challenging, especially when English words are used in different cases but remain the same, or when translated text should fit into an illustration.
S: What was the most challenging part to translate in Oliver and the Seawigs?
O: Besides jokes that cannot be translated directly, it was the names, I think. To find proper/common nouns for all those fantastic characters and places. The idea for proper nouns was that some names should look and feel like foreign names but should read easily in Hungarian, some should be funny in Hungarian, and all should suggest the original meaning, if any. Even the title of the book was hard to translate properly.
S: What does Olivér és a tengerkócok mean in Hungarian?
O: 'Olivér' is the Hungarian version of Oliver. The words 'és a' means 'and the'. We opted out of translating 'sea wigs' directly because it would be 'tengeri parókák' and is too long to fit in.
'Tengerkócok' is a fabricated compound in plural. It’s a pun with 'tenger' (sea) and 'kenderkóc' (hemp fiber). Latter may trigger some maritime associations like hemp ropes or traditional caulking, thus I think it suits sea adventures well. The word 'kóc' itself approximately means 'tangled fiber', but can also mean 'hair(do)', especially a tangled, fuzzy one. It is the stem of the adjective 'kócos' which is used for someone whose hair is tangled, uncombed.
S: Ah, that's perfect! The pictures have a lot of interplay between Iris's wild hair and messy seaweed.
O: The '-ok' suffix at the end contains a '–k' which is the plural indicator, while the '-o-' comes in to dissolve consonant pileup and to ease pronunciation, with respect to notorious Hungarian vowel harmony.
S: Whoa... this sounds seriously complicated. What about some of the other names in the book?
O: Some names, like Deepwater Bay, Forgotten Mesa etc. were translated literally. The mermaid 'Iris' remained, just written in Hungarian form, 'Írisz'. 'Cliff'; was transformed into 'Szirtesó', being a portmanteau of 'szirt' (primer meaning of cliff) and 'tesó' which is derived from and used for 'testvér' (sibling) but also means 'buddy'. 'Crisp' became 'VanMersze'; which comes from the expression 'van mersze' meaning 'he/she has courage'. In this written form it has also a foreign German-ish, Dutch-ish look for Hungarian readers.
The 'Thurlstone' became 'Nagycudar' meaning 'big(and)mean'. 'Mr Culpeper' became 'Paprimorc úr' (we put the 'Mr' behind the name). 'Paprimorc' is a portmanteau of 'paprika' (red pepper) and 'morcos' (morose).
S: Ha ha! Mr Morose Paprika! I love it.
O: 'St Porrocks' was a subject of long trying. The 'St' prefix in Hungarian is written in a full 'Szent-' form (too long), and looks way too Hungarian, suggesting a fictional local town. Which would have been confusing since Hungary is a landlocked country, and St Porrocks is by the sea. So I created the name 'Ottahollax' instead. This is a compressed and phonetically written form of 'ott, ahol laksz' which translates word for word as 'there, where you live'.
'The Hallowed Shallows' became 'a Mélységes Sekélyes'. The word 'mélységes' literally means 'it has depth' and means 'deep' as in 'deep secret', 'deep thoughts'. 'Sekélyes' means 'shallows'. Together it is an oxymoron which also suggests mystery, and both words have same structure, same adjective suffixes, same vowels, and 'LY' digraphs (it sounds as 'y' in 'maybe') so it looks pleasant as well.
S: Thank you so much for all your attention to detail! Will you be translating any other of the Reeve & McIntyre books?
O: Currently I'm working on Cakes in Space, which is a similarly lovely and challenging task for me. Most of it is done, but still needs to be finished and polished. And I hear Pugs barking in the distance.
Thank you, Örkény! You can read the first chapter of the Hungarian edition of Oliver and the Seawigs online here at the publisher's website.