Now We Know Why He Writes the Long Sentences

Fantastic interview here with Ottilie Mulzet, translator of Seiobo There Below and AnimalInside.

One of the great things we learn here is that there are three new Krasznahorkai translations on the way:

Two translations haunt me as we speak. One is Destruction and Sorrow Beneath the Heavens, which I’m translating now. It’s literary reportage based on Krasznahorkai’s extensive travels in China, and, if anything, it’s even more relevant today than when it was first published in 2002. The other is The World Goes On, an amazing collection of short stories. George Szirtes, who won the Best Translated Book Award in 2013, also for a Krasznahorkai title, is translating From the North by Hill, From the South by Lake, From the West by Roads, From the East by River, so readers should have at least three more titles to look forward to in the next few years.

We also learn why Krasznahorkai writes such long sentences, or, at least, how the Hungarian language enables him to do it:

What are the strengths and particularities of Hungarian as a language, and what challenges does it present to translate it into English?

I feel extremely close to Hungarian as a language. I love the sound of it, I love how it works grammatically, I love the vocabulary, the astonishing mishmash of words from so many different languages, I love what writers can do with it. Hungarian is an agglutinative language with vowel harmony—it has seemingly endless suffixes and amazing possibilities for compound words, and it has absolutely flexible word order, depending on what you want to emphasize in the sentence. And I would certainly mention the unbelievable elasticity of Hungarian—it’s like a rubber band. It can expand and expand, until you think, Well, this rubber band is going to break at any moment now, or it can shrink into just a few sparse words, where all the most important parts are left out and you just have to know.

English, despite how global it is, is a lot less flexible. Maybe the kind of English that’s spoken in the Indian subcontinent—where it’s partially subjugated to the tendencies of Hindi—would be a more suitable English for translation from Hungarian, but I have to work with the language I know the best. You have to struggle to make sure the sentences don’t seem too jam-packed with information, and yet, when there’s some pretty serious elision going on, you have to test the boundaries of English, with its rigid subject-verb-object structure and having to have all your indicators in place. Hungarian can look like just a splash of ink on the page. There are sentences—or, in Krasznahorkai’s case, subclauses—of just two or three words. I’m intrigued by all of this elision, and fascinated by the problem of conveying it in a recalcitrant language like English—just trying to get English to do something it’s not really meant to do. English today is the global language of commerce and trade, so while it’s dominant, it’s also in some respects deeply impoverished. It desperately needs these transfusions from other languages.

Great job. My hat off to both Ottilie and interviewer Valerie Stivers.

More from Conversational Reading:

  1. On the Purpose of Long Sentences A great answer to the question of “why do you write long sentences?” The respondent is László Krasznahorkai, the author of Satantango. If I go...
  2. Long Sentences AC at Slightly Bluestocking asks a good question. Long sentences. Correction opens with a sentence that’s about two pages long. Most of the sentences (not...
  3. My Interview with Ottilie Mulzet at Hungarian Literature Online The people at Hungarian Literature Online asked to reprint the interview I conducted with Ottilie Mulzet for this site on her translation of Animalinside by...
  4. Long Sentences That ability—to graft theme into syntax—is what makes great writing a pleasure to listen to. The German expat novelist, W.G. Sebald, became a literary hero...
  5. It is by knowing a language that you come to know poems Borges’ last recorded words in English? As for books, I sometimes browse in them nowadays but seldom read them to the end. I know many...

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“English today is the global language of commerce and trade, so while it’s dominant, it’s also in some respects deeply impoverished. It desperately needs these transfusions from other languages.”

I should print this with attribution on cards so I can hand them to people when they ask why I read so much translation and so little contemporary American/English writing. More positively, I think there’s some proof of her point in that at least two American writers I am looking forward to reading both do read lots translations, getting that transfusion from other languages.

What a crock of shit!

You’d think after reading this that English-language writers are incapable of longuers. Have you people never heard of William Faulkner? Anyone who still marvels at a specific language’s ability to “create” long sentences clearly needs to read a bit of Steven Pinker on recursion.

And from what I’ve read of Krazsnahorkai (Satantango), one of his simple tricks is using parenthesis a lot, something António Lobo Antunes had been doing before him (to cite just one example), not to mention there’s nothing easier than writing long sentences if you simply abandon grammatical rules and punctuation, the way José Saramago does.

I love a good long sentence (like everyone else), but let’s stop fetishizing languages and giving them inherent, quasi-mystical powers, personalities, and features (English is the language of business? Oh really, so the owner of a Polish drugstore speaks in English to his Polish customers? Italian is the language of love? Ah fuck me, so I guess all that romantic Spanish poetry is a hallucination; what, German is the language philosophy? Then what was Derrida writing in?): that’s so 19th century, that’s so Sapir-Whorff.

    I think the “English today” part is pretty essential to what Mulzet is saying, so Faulkner is out. For me, it’s not just the long sentence by any means, but instead contemporary English-language literature as a whole feels stylistically dull, all of it all too similar. Between big publishers looking to publish the slickest, most marketable books possible, and MFAs teaching people how to write books that big publishers want to sell, yeah, I’d say that’s the language of “commerce and trade.”

    I’m not sure that someone who is fluent in a language is guilty of fetishizing it when talking about its specific qualities. Languages may not have “quasi-mystical powers,” but they absolutely have specific characteristics.

    Finally, you haven’t read Kraznahorkai’s long sentences, have you? You’ve read Mulzet’s translations of them, so those parentheses and semicolons are hers, right? I haven’t seen a Hungarian text of his, maybe they’re filled with semicolons and parentheses, or maybe in Hungarian, he is using other tactics and the parentheses are just the best way for Mulzet to express those Hungarian tactics in English.

      Your language of “commerce and trade” has nothing to do with English, it’s just a popular international style: short, direct sentences, limited vocabulary, free indirect style – it’s the creative writing prescription, with Hemingway and Carver as its idols, being taught everywhere to gullible would-be writers from America to China; even our “best” contemporary Portuguese writers use that awful style. I just shrug it off and go read what’s good to me, sadly that mostly means Lobo Antunes and (rereads of) Saramago. I can’t help noticing that the style I favour – rich on similes and metaphors, poetic prose, longueurs, weird shit galore, is mostly found in the old-timers all across the world: Gass, Pynchon, McCarthy, Vollmann, DeLillo, McElroy, Paul West, John Banville, César Aira, Milan Kundera, Julián Rios, Nadas – as they die, they’ll be replaced by creative writing graduates, with a few brave young ones carrying the torch as curiosities, which is what the above-mentioned writers always were anyway…

      “Languages may not have “quasi-mystical powers,” but they absolutely have specific characteristics.”

      Yes, but the ability to create long sentences is certainly not intrinsic to Hungarian; just about any language can and does that – the Austrians do it, the Irish do it, the Portuguese do it, the Spanish do it, it’s just a matter of adding more commas, conjunctions and subordinate clauses.

      “You’ve read Mulzet’s translations of them”

      No, I read George Szirtes’s translation of Satantango, but I’m sure the parentheses belong to the author; they’re too neatly used to be the choice of a translator.

The “dullness” of the language depends on the user. You still can do gob-smacking pyrotechnics with English. There is one such contemporary English master of style, unsurpassed at what he’s doing, so original and insane that I have problems comparing him to anyone. It is Iain Sinclair. I would recommend reading his Downriver, which is a jaw-dropping masterpiece on a par with Gravity’s Rainbow and The Recognitions. It’s a pity he’s not as widely read as Pynchon or Gaddis.

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