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Seven Questions for Ottilie Mulzet on Animalinside

For more interviews, follow this link.

Perhaps no other author has grown in my estimation over the past 12 months as much as László Krasznahorkai. An author known for his challenging grammar and long, complex sentences, he has previously published two novels in English translation, both by New Directions–War and War and The Melancholy of Resistance.


Animalinside
, his third book in English, has taken a circuitous route, first being published in Paris as part of Sylph Editions’ Cahiers series, in conjunction with New Directions. It has just been released by New Directions in the U.S. as a gorgeous 48-page pamphlet.

Though the book is short, it is intense and beautiful, as Krasznahorkai created it in conjunction with the German artist Max Neumann. The language throughout is excellent, and very literary. As I recently wrote in a review of the book:

The result of this international, multimedia collaboration is Animalinside, a book in which a galaxy of implication springs from Neumann’s striking, muscular animal form. It is an iconic image, somewhere between a demented howl and a vicious leap, instantly recognisable, adaptable, enigmatic. The figure features prominently in each of Neumann’s paintings, which are reproduced magnificently in the book. The reproductions’ range of texture is superb, capturing the subtle, diffuse shifts in shade that characterise Neumann’s backgrounds and the crisp blotches of colour that seep atop them.

I recently corresponded with the book’s translator, Ottilie Mulzet, for some very interesting thoughts on Hungarian irony, the art of translation, and the use of graphics in literary texts.


To start, you’re obviously someone who has spent a lot of time inside of Krasznahorkai’s prose. I’m curious to know what kind of a tradition you see it coming out of, or continuing. Would you classify him as a “Hungarian” author?

Definitely, on one level Krasznahorkai’s prose, and particularly a piece like Animalinside, has its “roots”—if one can put it that way—in post WWII European existentialism. Having said that, however, I do see much in his work that has its own uniquely Hungarian qualities, or perhaps has been shaped by a very specific mentality, which for me is intrinsically tied up with the Hungarian language itself.

As Hungarian literature entered the modern era (i.e. from the early 20th century on), Hungarian writers were always generally considered as either “népi” (i.e., folk, more concerned with themes having to do with the countryside) or “urbanus” (i.e., belonging to a more urban, cosmopolite sphere). There are of course quite a few writers, including, of course, Krasznahorkai himself, whose work transcend both these categories. I probably don’t need to add that that these terms can be used as labels, and that in a way they also define what can be perceived as fairly harsh societal divides.

I do think there is a drive in Krasznahorkai’s prose to push any given hypothetical event to its extreme and ultimate conclusion, as well as a willingness to hold it up to intense and unrelenting psychic scrutiny. For me, this is the most “Hungarian” aspect of his work. There is no Bakhtinian element of carnival here, rather the long sentences force the reader to suspend his or her own consciousness. Krasznahorkai forces the reader into an extremity of otherness, in this case, if you will, the performative “devenir animal” (to quote Gilles Deleuze) of the narrating beast in AnimalInside.

There is one pre-war Hungarian writer I would like to mention, however: Frigyes Karinthy (1887-1938). He was primarily known as a satirist and humorist and in fact, his satiric writings were absolutely brilliant. In a series of longer short stories, though, he explored the themes of extreme psychic disintegration. Clearly he was trying to see how far he could push the Hungarian language in these stories, what happens to it when subjected to a maximum level of psychic breakdown. I see some of these experimental writings as something of a precursor to Krasznahorkai’s work within Hungarian literature, although I have to add here I don’t know if Krasznahorkai himself would consider this to be the case.

You’ve previously remarked on an odd instruction that Krasznahorkai gave you on the translation–you’ve said that he instructed you “there are many repetitions in the text, and this is very important; repeat everything exactly as it is in the original regardless of what the English language WANTS.” As a translator, how did you react to such an admonition, and what did you feel that the English wanted vis a vis the Hungarian?

I think he was right to point that out, and I would have done so anyway. The repetitions are so integral to the text, to its absurdity and irony: they are almost something like apocalyptic mantras.

Of course, there are a number of real challenges moving from Hungarian into English, but I will just mention the more important ones in this case: you’re translating from a left-branching agglutinative language to a right-branching isolative one. A “left-branching” language basically means that prepositional phrases are used in situations where English uses a subordinate clause (i.e. “I saw the man coming towards me,” as opposed to “I saw the coming-towards-me man”), and that sentences are constructed—roughly speaking—in reverse order from English. The agglutinative nature of Hungarian means that an incredible amount of information can be expressed very tersely, in many fewer words than in English, and in addition, information can be encoded in other words (for example, objects included in verbs). This adds up to a considerable challenge for the English translator, particularly in this era of “globish,” when English is in many respects the victim of its own success. There is, however, a bright side: I am more than convinced that many “minor languages” (to use a Deleuzian term again) exist within English: there is African English, Indian English, Afro-American Vernacular, etc. And so my goal in translating a text like Animalinside is—I would hope—to create a space for one of these “minor Englishes,” perhaps an entirely new “animal English,” while translating this work. A text translated in such a way could possibly fulfil the “task of the translator,” as set out by Walter Benjamin, which is to maintain the underlying “foreignness” of the text even despite its rendering into the language of its presumed readers.

Perhaps what you’re creating a space for is a Krasznahorkai-English. Regarding the Hungarian, could you compare the prose in Animalinside to the prose in some of Krasznahorkai’s other books? Does he speak in the same “voice” as it were, or does he suit it more to the task of each individual book?

I certainly think there should be a space for a Krasznahorkai-English. As I said, I think contemporary English is infinitely enriched by all the “minor Englishes” out there, and yet English itself, as one of the dominant linguistic paradigms of our age (perhaps not forever though . . .) still needs this injection of “difference.” English is the great normalizer of our time, while many smaller languages of the world are literally fighting for survival (and threatened not just by English) and as such, any crack or fissure where “otherness”—however unfashionable that term may have become—can creep in is, in my view, to be welcomed.

In terms of the question of “voice,” for me, at least, what is very particular about Animalinside was not only the irony in the text. Any language like Hungarian, with a highly developed sense of registers of politeness, has a natural tendency to irony. Plus, there is the Eastern European “experience” (which has not necessarily ceased with the end of Communism). Actually, it is really the kind of irony being expressed that is so unique. Grave, terrifying, unrelenting, yet at the same time comic in its absurdity—this was actually the most difficult thing to convey in the translation. This was something well beyond your usual garden varieties of Hungarian or “Eastern European” irony, and I think it partially stems from the absolute intensity with which Krasznahorkai is able to “channel” the voice of the dog. It is irony saturated with a heavy dose of the uncanny.

Yes, I agree completely, the irony in Animalinside has a very particular feel to it; “uncanny” is a good word to use. I found it impossible to take anything in this book at face value, yet, oddly enough, this didn’t undercut the sense of meaningfulness or “aboutness” so much as add to it. You’ve touched on this a little already, but I’d like to ask you directly about where you see this irony coming from. Did you feel that either the Hungarian or the English better lent itself to the construction of this irony?

As I mentioned, Hungarian has always struck me as a language full of irony, from the most casual exchanges on the street to high literary art. A friend of mine, who was visiting Budapest and speaks some Hungarian, was heading to the train station to return home, when a homeless man tried to sell her a copy of the Hungarian streetpaper Fedél nélkül (literally “without shelter”). She bought a copy, and then worked out that he was asking her where she was from: “mobilizing her Hungarian into action,” she answered that she was from the Czech Republic. “Gratulálok” (congratulations) replied the man, in an utterly deadpan manner. My friend said it was absolutely impossible for her to figure out if he meant it seriously or not. And she mentioned that part of mastering the Hungarian language necessarily has to include a mastery of this ‘technique’ of irony.

At the same time, there’s the irony of a writer like Imre Kertész—the one line that somehow is engraved in my mind is the statement made by the narrator of Fatelessness (quoting from memory): something to the effect that “I really would like to remain alive just a little bit longer in this lovely concentration camp.” The irony in the original is so searing, so cutting. It’s impossible to pin down what Kertész is really saying. If the classic definition of irony is that you appear to be making one statement but are actually making one completely different, I think what distinguishes Hungarian irony is the semantic fluidity of the “hidden statement.” Hungarian, due to the linguistic features I listed before, can be highly ambiguous. In AnimalInside, Krasznahorkai really carries this ambiguity to the ultimate macro-level, as the reader can never really discern what the approaching “disaster” is, and yet the text is imbued with a sense of menace. I think this is one of the most brilliant features of the text, the highly amorphous quality of this apocalypse. In translating, it’s very important to retain the ambiguity as much as possible. English can be ambiguous—think, for example, of Henry James, and those dialogues, particularly from his later works, where language is utterly emptied out, he turns it into a hollow vessel. And yet the amorphousness, in a text such as Animalinside, is different—you’re dealing with a referent that simply cannot be pinned down, whereas Henry James makes it disappear altogether.

Given your remarks on the length of Krasznahorkai’s sentences—the way in which they work with a reader’s consciousness and force a reader into an “extremity of otherness”—I’m curious to know how you read the prose. And how does your approach change when you read it in order to translate it?

Péter Nádas noted somewhere that Hungarian is a “slow” language. There is a way, as I remarked, in which Krasznahorkai’s prose forces one to slow down, something like when you watch a Noh drama (or one of the infinitely long cinematic takes of Béla Tarr, which express the dynamics of a Krasznahorkai sentence so perfectly). Krasznahorkai’s sentences, particularly in Animalinside, are for me something like ever-expanding circles of repetition: on the one hand, he’s something like a master tight-rope walker of verbal art (how long can he stay up there, keep this sentence going?); on the other, you are drawn into, surrounded, or for that matter engulfed, by the subordinate clauses piling up endlessly upon each other. The repetitions then shift direction. Like ripples expanding outward on the surface of a pond, the subsequent clause is always implicit in the previous one.

Of course, when you read something as a translator, your reading of the text has to be as absolutely close as possible, it is possibly somewhat different than the esthetic “jouissance” of the reader. You truly have to dissect it—actually, a perfect metaphor comes to mind from a chapter of Seiobo (Krasznahorkai’s latest novel), which I am now translating, in which an ancient statue in a restorer’s workshop has to be fully disassembled into its tiniest component parts in order for the restoration work to take place. The translator, of course, has a different task—but the process of mentally breaking something down into its tiniest component parts is the same. Instead of the parts of the statue laid out before you on the table, you have, as it were, on the table in your head, all the different phonemes of a particular textual segment, and you have to understand the function, the role, the purpose of each one exactly in order to transpose it to another language. The essence, though, the intangibility that needs to be conveyed—to continue with the metaphor of the statue-restoration—lies within all of these components, between them, and yet also beyond them.

I would imagine that getting that intangibility to come across would be the most difficult part. What sorts of things do you do to help determine when the various components of a translation are working together to achieve the desired effect?

Part of the answer, for me, is that I only translate texts that I feel very close to. As in the case of other writers whose work I’ve translated (Szilárd Borbély, Gábor Schein, to name just two), I felt that their work somehow demanded translation, this rendering into another tongue. I don’t feel that I could necessarily do an outstanding job with any given piece of writing, although at times it is enormously useful to translate something that you wouldn’t have attempted otherwise. Generally, however, I need to feel that I know what is behind the words, not only that I understand everything semantically, but that I can sense why the writer felt that it had to be written down. Somehow I need to go behind the sentences, to some pre-verbal space . . . It’s almost as if the text has to “die” in one language and be “reborn” in another, a process which has to be extremely technical, but also highly intuitive.

And since we’re talking about reading into the text, this would be the appropriate place to ask you about Neumann’s paintings, which are of course part of the book and its interpretation. What was your approach to these? Have you ever worked with a text with such a strong graphic element to it?

I have actually never translated a text with such a strong graphic component, so that was fascinating for me. I looked at the images as I was translating. The image of the two-dimensional beast in the three-dimensional space—I think there must be something archetypal about it . . . A while ago I happened to be watching an old Mongolian historical film about the famous prince Cogtu Taiji and the internecine political-religious wars between different Buddhist sects in Mongolia in the early 17th century: one of the opening scenes of the second part opens up with an image of a two-dimensional beast in a three-dimensional space. It is so uncannily similar to the first image in Animalinside (and we are talking about a film here that would have had little or no distribution outside of Mongolia during early Soviet times), I think this must be a very deeply archetypal visual trope. Anyway, I wasn’t sure, so I asked an older Mongolian friend about this image. It turned out that it is the skin of a dead horse, hung outside of the yurt—to warn other nomads, who could see it from a great distance—of the plague. The visual symbolism of the animal skin placed at an oblique angle (i.e. not pointing to the upper realm, to the deities) immediately conveys “don’t come here, something is wrong.”


(shot from the film Cogtu Taiji (Prince Chogt, 1945), directed by M. Luvsanjamts, M. Bold, and Yu. K. Tarich)

For more interviews, follow this link.

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3 comments to Seven Questions for Ottilie Mulzet on Animalinside

  • Amy

    You forgot to mention how fabulous Animalinside smells. Book pheromones….The print process made something that even smells special.

  • Interesting that she compares Krasznahorkai to Frigyes Karinthy. I have only read Journey Round My Skull, but that book seemed to be considerably more sober and less obsessive than Krasznahorkai’s work…less “metaphysical,” maybe. Bizarrely, a work by his son, Ferenc Karinthy–<a href=http://www.waggish.org/2009/ferenc-karinthy-metropole-thomas-glavinic-night-work/–seemed considerably closer to Krasznahorkai’s work in its defamiliarization and sense of chaotic breakdown. Yet it too possesses a calm, almost scientific precision that is foreign to Krasznahorkai (even though Krasznahorkai deals with mathematics and science at times, just not with such a positivistic air).

  • [...] Conversational Reading has a fantastic interview with Ottilie Mulzet on translating László Kraszna…. Translating is always tricky, more art than science. I’ve read translations that were accurate but absolutely dead. Translation isn’t just about words and grammar but also about culture and voice. Reading about how one translator goes about translating language and voice is really fascinating. Now I really want to read Animalinside! Like Unlike [...]

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