English Has Its Own Music: A Conversation with Ottilie Mulzet

By Chamini KulathungaAugust 4, 2020

English Has Its Own Music: A Conversation with Ottilie Mulzet
TRANSLATORS PLAY A crucial role as gatekeepers of world literature. We are currently witnessing an important era in literary translation where many platforms and institutions dedicated to the art and craft of literary translation recognize and celebrate this essential role played by translators.

Ottilie Mulzet’s recent recognition on the global stage is a case in point. She has made a name for herself as translator of both contemporary Hungarian and Mongolian literatures. Most recently, her rendition of László Krasznahorkai’s Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming received the 2019 National Book Award for Translated Literature. Her text clearly displays not only the brilliance of the author but also Mulzet’s own genius in recreating his characteristically unwieldy, bleak yet surprising, somber yet agile prose. Despite the long — and, at first glance, unnecessarily detailed — lines that run, more often than not, across half a dozen pages, the text is remarkably accessible. A palpable foreignness is in harmony with native fluency. The combination is nothing short of a translational feat.

I spoke with Mulzet via email about her early attempts at translation, her approach to choosing and translating different texts, and how she’s spending her time in self-isolation. Mulzet also shared some of her current projects, including Seagull Books’s Hungarian list, which aims to raise the profile of important Hungarian authors through the commission of new translations, and her ongoing translation of an anthology of Mongolian Buddhist legends.


CHAMINI KULATHUNGA: Most of the books you’ve translated have won or been nominated for major translation awards. And others have attracted a considerable amount of attention in the contemporary literary world. What are some of your early attempts at translation? How were they received by readers?

OTTILIE MULZET: My first attempts at translating occurred a few years after I began learning Hungarian. As I’ve mentioned before, I grew up in a closed adoption in Canada, and I never even knew the background of my birth parents until I was in my late 20s. At the time, I was still deep in my love affair with French literature (I had studied for 18 months in Paris), and as I began my search — a long, tedious, draining, and partially underground process due to the records being permanently sealed — I was unrealistically hoping that one of them might turn out to be French. When I received the letter from the agency telling me only the “non-identifying information” that my mother’s background was Hungarian, I only had the vaguest of ideas concerning Hungary. To be honest, I was somewhat influenced by the portrayal of Eastern Europe in US mainstream media, and I imagined it to be a rather gray, sad communist country. My first visit there occurred before 1989, and what I found instead was a really vibrant place where the importance of literature and music seemed palpable. I immediately became fascinated and intrigued by this very strange language and its meter-long words (visible on the country’s signage, etc.). When I came home, I was determined to start learning it. For quite a while, I did my translations only for myself. Hungarian was quite literally a “graspable foreignness” to me — a foreignness I had to grasp, linguistically, intellectually, emotionally, in the endeavor of trying to understand something about my own maternal background.

Somehow, the whole project of translation only really took off for me once I moved to Europe in the late ’90s. I began attending the Attila József Circle Literary Translation Camp, and I began working at the Hungarian Translators’ House in Balatonfüred. I did translations into English and wrote articles for Soumar, which was an early internet literary magazine run by the Hungarian Institute in Prague. Soumar is no longer around, but I also ended up doing many translations and essays for Hungarian Literature Online (hlo.hu), which is still very much active.

My first published book was an earlier version of Szilárd Borbély’s Berlin-Hamlet, put out by FRA in Prague, which is an excellent small press working mainly in Czech. Trying to get attention for Borbély’s work while based in Prague was challenging: I mailed out review copies myself, even sending copies to various libraries in the US and UK so that the book would be available in some library collections (the publisher, understandably, had little budget for distribution). I had a reading in the tiny but atmospheric FRA basement café in Prague, attended by a few appreciative friends. One of my first big breaks was when George Szirtes included some poems from Berlin-Hamlet in his anthology New Order back in 2010. I had mailed him a copy, too. Beginning in 2008, I also did a lot of translations, and wrote essays, for the website Hungarian Literature Online.

How do you select books to translate? How do you decide what books will become successful in translation?

I’ve tended to translate books that I feel very close to personally. In some cases, I’ve reached out to authors, such as László Krasznahorkai — I translated a sample chapter from Seiobo There Below for New Directions after I had already translated a pamphlet (Animalinside). For Szilárd Borbély, I encountered his work for the first time when I heard him reading back in 2003 at one of the special translation camps, where emerging translators from all around the world can work on their craft and gain a sense of what’s being written now: these were organized at the time by the Attila József Circle.

The scene is indelibly engraved in my heart and mind. The translation camp was taking place at a small guest house near Gödöllő, and every evening, different writers came to read from their work. We were sitting around these white plastic tables next to the pool and there were Chinese lanterns strung up in the trees. That was the first time I heard Szilárd reading his work. Szilárd was a soft-spoken, incredibly modest, even shy person; the outsized nature of his talent was more than apparent to anyone who heard him. A year or so later, his friend Gábor Schein, an equally gifted writer, came to Prague to read at the Hungarian Cultural Center, and he gave me a copy of his novella Lazarus, which I decided to work on that summer. I’ve been translating his work ever since.

Sometimes I am approached by a writer, an agent, or a publisher. Generally speaking though, in terms of deciding on a book, I tend to rely on instinct and I especially look for qualities that I won’t find easily in other books, for example, by other European authors.

What is the nature of your editing process? What do you pay special attention to when editing your translations?

I line-edit against the original at least two or three times, then I edit for clarity and, hopefully, ever greater nuance, at least two or three more times, and this, of course, is still before the beginning of publisher’s editing process. I don’t use any kind of software, but rather have a printed PDF in front of me with the translation on my laptop. I like to have the PDF to scribble notes about rhythms in the text, special vocabulary, and other observations. It feels important to me to still have this one tactile link to the text. In some instances, for example, as with some of Krasznahorkai’s longer sentences, I sometimes mark up different sections of the sentence in different colors. I have a special set of colored markers and pencils for that.

How do you work with translating sound? How important it is for you to re/create sonic structures in your translations?

Coming from Hungarian, translating the sound can at times be difficult. Sometimes I end up finding a felicitous assonance somewhere else close by, or I create a different kind of assonance. English, of course, has its own music: in so many ways, translation is like transposing a musical work from one instrument to another. For me, Hungarian is like a cello, and English is like a horn: it can be brash and blaring (like a trumpet), but it can also be softer and melodious (like a French horn).

One concrete example would be the sounds that Krasznahorkai uses with the chapter titles in Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming. In the original, they read:









Krasznahorkai told me that these syllables, which are all nonsense words in Hungarian — with the exception of ROM, which also means “ruin” — signify the beats of the tango, and that he wanted the same impression to be created in English. The TRRR… at the beginning is a drum roll. Luckily, most sounds in English for counting out the melodic rhythm also end on a nasal consonant. I felt, though, that it was important to convey the semantic unit “ruin,” so I used it as one beat and coupled it with the syllable “dom”:










The final chapter in the original is ROM, or “ruin”; in my translation, the final chapter is the third syllable of the neologism RUIN/DOM.

How has translating some of the major Hungarian writers like László Krasznahorkai and Szilárd Borbély shaped you as a translator?

Each writer I’ve ever translated has shaped me or changed me as a translator because I feel I have to sink, deeply and emphatically, into the world that shaped their books. Ultimately it changes me as a person as well — but it’s also true that any form of deep and close reading will change a person in that way. I’m in dialogue with every author I’ve ever translated, every text I’ve ever worked on.

In one of your interviews with The Paris Review, you used this interesting simile to describe the extreme elasticity of the Hungarian language: “[I]t’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.” What are some of the linguistic resources you make use of in English when you’re translating a text from Hungarian?

Probably the most salient example of this would be “The Rebuilding of the Ise Shrine” in Seiobo There Below, which is one sentence running to 46 pages in the Hungarian and 50 pages in my English translation. I kept reading it aloud to myself over and over to make sure that the English flowed. I don’t so much use specific techniques as try to ensure that the reader stays anchored without over-explaining. A lot more can be suppressed in a Hungarian sentence, and in narrative in general. For example, in Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming, every section begins in medias res, in the middle of a character’s dialogue or ruminations: the narrative has shifted either slightly forward or backward in time (like a tango step), and no indication is given as to who is speaking; this emerges usually after five to 10 lines, although the English reader has more clues than the Hungarian one because Hungarian doesn’t need gender. Interestingly, I was about to write “Hungarian lacks gender,” which demonstrates how easily one internalizes English-language norms!

In general, I think that monolingual English readers are far less tolerant of ambiguity. “Lack of clarity” is perceived as a defect of style in standard English, but for me a great deal of the aesthetic pleasure in a Krasznahorkai text lie in his deliberate disorientating strategies. Another example of a Krasznahorkai narrative strategy would be the final walk of the Baron in the City Forest, when suddenly he is accompanied by Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the former archbishop of Buenos Aires, and the current Roman Catholic pope. The entire incident is written as if it were really happening, but since it is a memory, it must be occurring in the Baron’s head — and yet for me, at least, these passages exist in a liminal space: what they describe is both real, and a dream. Perhaps there is something in the grammar of Hungarian, and the fact that it is a heavily contextual language, that allows for that kind of hovering quality. In a recent conversation, Krasznahorkai said that these figures are absolutely real for him: elsewhere, he has stated that also, for him, Josef K. and Prince Myshkin are not fictive characters. For me, Krasznahorkai’s figures are real: I have bumped into the characters from Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming while in Hungary. And so if Krasznahorkai is channeling something while he writes (he has referred to himself “taking dictation” from these figures), then I am also just channeling what he has already channeled.

In terms of linguistic resources, more than anything else, I feel that I have to suspend a lot of what I’ve absorbed as “good normative English,” while at the same time very much drawing upon everything I’ve ever read in English. I think reading as widely as you can in your target language is very important. Maybe it’s also about having a good technical repertoire as to how to construct a sentence, while at the same time forgetting about it while you’re translating. Perhaps it’s something like being a musician who has to try to thoroughly master technique, so as not to be confined by it.

When translating texts by living authors, how closely do you work with them? What are some of the challenges you’ve faced? How do you stand by your translation choices when they contradict the author’s requests?

I have been fortunate in being able to work with all the writers I’ve translated — I was in close contact with Borbély before his death. It’s essential for me to be able to be in dialogue with the writers I translate: questions and queries always come up, and it’s wonderful to be able to ask the author him- or herself. Almost always, in answering a translator’s queries, they will also pass on other information that turns out to be incredibly useful in terms of completing the translation. Even the way they choose to answer a question is so important. In terms of Borbély’s Final Matters, some newer queries came up as I was working on the final draft, and fortunately I was able to consult with other specialists in modern Hungarian literature. Krasznahorkai was incredibly gracious, even explicitly giving me permission to “bug” him with questions (which I did!). György Dragomán sent me photographs of the furniture that he describes in The Bone Fire, as well as one copy of a special fish-handled penknife, which, it turns out, is still manufactured in the Czech Republic. I have never come across any Hungarian author who has been anything less than forthcoming and generous in answering queries.

Some of the challenges I’ve faced included some references to Hungarian “realia” of the 1990s. In Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming, there is a reference to Dante diluting gasoline and selling it to people as one of his many scams; later on in the book, he describes it as “making gasoline available […] at affordable prices (although this wasn’t exactly a risk-free endeavor).” Krasznahorkai explained to me that this was an allusion to how at most gas stations in Hungary in the 1990s, the gas would have been diluted with water. I’d spent time in the ’90s in Hungary, but as I don’t drive, I’d never been aware of this.

A challenge of a different sort awaited me with the translation of Borbély’s Final Matters. This is a volume that is compiled from the last two books that Borbély published in his lifetime, Final Matters and To the Body. Final Matters specifically deals with the death of Borbély’s mother: she was murdered during a violent break-in on the night before Christmas Eve, 2000. Final Matters was composed as a monument to her memory, but rather than dealing with the “personal” circumstances of the murder, Borbély approaches death from an allegorical perspective in terms of the Christian, Greek, and Jewish traditions; the book forms a triptych. During my childhood and adolescence, I’d heard many stories about antisemitism and experienced it to a certain degree myself, and the discovery that my birthmother’s background was Roman Catholic was deeply shocking. So the prospect of translating poems about Jesus Christ felt pretty challenging, almost like a betrayal, although I well understood that these poems were functioning primarily as allegories for the profound trauma of the death of Borbély’s mother — and, needless to say, as his friend, I saw the ongoing impact of that terrible event. Borbély’s use of allegory, which was one of the many things that had drawn me to this work, eventually allowed me to find a way into that first section. As I worked on the book, I also delved into the poetry of Angelus Silesius, a 17th-century mystic and religious poet from Breslau (Wrocław) who had been a primary inspiration for Borbély in finding a voice for these poems.

I think it also helped that I’ve been living in Prague for so long. Although Czech society is relatively nonreligious, everywhere you are surrounded with the architectural spirit of the Baroque. Ages ago, there was an exhibit in Prague entitled Ten Centuries of Architecture, and one of the most astonishing things in it was an enormous Baroque gate that had been recreated in Prague Castle. These temporary Baroque gates (called Portae Gloria, the ones for funerals were called Castrum doloris) were the sand mandalas of their time: they were apparitions that were constructed, and then taken down. A statement about the fleetingness of life, even when celebratory.

Another time, when I was working on Book One of Final Matters, I happened to wander into a Catholic church in Prague, and among all the various pamphlets and Catholic weeklies laid out on a table in front of the pews, there were some tiny stapled booklets that clearly had been xeroxed and re-xeroxed many times, containing simple rhyming pious prayers in Czech. In their own way, these xeroxed prayer booklets were something like a modern version of the Baroque poems that Borbély based his own versions on. This “spirit of the Baroque,” as I ended up experiencing it in Prague, eventually became a kind of personal gate into this section of Final Matters.

Often, a literary prize (in your case, several prizes) comes not only with economic benefits, but also with a certain symbolic and cultural prestige. One could even say that it is an ecological system of its own. How do you view prize giving in the world of letters? How has winning major literary prizes affected you as a translator and your work?

For so long, translation was almost like the Cinderella of the literary community. All the recent prizes are helping to correct that, and I feel incredibly grateful. Translators are the unsung heroines and heroes of literature, in my perhaps not so humble view! But now it seems that not only is there more interest in translated literature, there is a lot more interest in work from women, the Global South, and LBGTQ-plus communities. This is really important.

In terms of my own work, and books I commission through Seagull Books’s Hungarian list, I feel I’ve been able to champion more authors.

Seagull Books’s Hungarian list project sounds like a treat for translation enthusiasts. What kind of a project is it? Are you working with other translators on this project?

Yes, one of the most exciting things about Hungarian list is that I can commission translations of works I feel very excited about. Last year, Seagull published Pixel by Krisztina Tóth in Owen Good’s translation, and it was a runner-up for the EBRD Translation Prize. Krisztina Tóth is a very important writer who, until now, has never really gotten her due, and Owen Good does a wonderful job of capturing her voice, which is caustic, ironic, and very “Pest” (i.e., the part of Budapest that lies west of the Danube: very generally speaking, it is the more working class, grittier part of the city). There are at least two more books coming up in Owen Good’s translations: The Birth of Emma K. by Zsolt Láng, an exciting Transylvanian writer, and Another Death by Ferenc Barnás. Other forthcoming titles include Hangman’s House by Andrea Tompa, translated by Bernard Adams, as well as The Parasite, also by Ferenc Barnás, translated by Paul Olchvary. And, as if that weren’t enough, there’s another volume of essays coming out by László Földényi, The Gaze of the Medusa, translated by Josefina Komparaly, which promises to be marvelous. In addition to that, there’s a book of short prose by Iván Mandy, translated by John Batki coming up, as well as my own translations of Szilárd Borbély’s Kafka’s Son, and István Vörös’s Thomas Mann’s Overcoat. And I’m also editing an anthology of contemporary women’s poetry in Hungarian for Seagull Books, with the tentative title of Beyond the Beyond — it cites a line from a poem by Krisztina Tóth, “Machine Voice,” which begins:

For beyond the beyond of your earthly time …

Krisztina Tóth started her career as a poet, and she will be a very important part of the anthology as well. Some of the other poets I want to include are Anna T. Szabó, Zsuzsa Takács, Zsuzsa Beney, Magda Szekély, Ágnes Gergely, and others.

Of course, as everywhere, schedules are up in the air because of COVID-19, but this is what’s in the works as of now.

In one of your previous interviews, you mention that you were translating an anthology of Mongolian Buddhist legends. When can we expect to read it?

That is still a work in progress, but slowly but surely I am getting there. Translating from Mongolian is a different process for me, generally involving much more research, and consultation as well, to make sure I’m getting things right. For example, if I’m translating a legend from classical Mongolian, the first step is to transcribe it from the script into Roman letters.

I’m really fascinated by the folklore around Mongolian Buddhism. There were several waves of Buddhist tradition and practice that swept across Mongolia over the millennia, but the most recent was the rise to prominence of the Ge lug pa school of Tibetan Buddhism in the 16th and 17th centuries. Mongolian monks were translating from both Tibetan and Sanskrit (although at certain junctures in inner Asian history, you find the writings of many religions in a wide variety of scripts), but at the same time they were “adapting” certain things to their own environment. The legends are clearly the product of centuries of oral transmission, which is a very different mode of authorship than what we are accustomed to in the West (unless you go back to the Middle Ages). For me, the Tara legends in particular seem to be filtered through a very Mongolian kind of sensibility: they use refrain quite a lot and to me, at least, they reflect many aspects of what I would term “nomadic narrative,” following the terminology of Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari.

Having translated works with apocalyptic themes, how does it feel like to experience a real-life apocalyptic situation like COVID-19? Does it feel surreal? And how are you spending your time in self-isolation?

Most of the time I work at home alone anyway, so in that regard my daily routine is not too much affected, apart from quarantine. In Prague, in the early days of COVID-19, we were allowed to go out for necessary tasks and sporting activities but had to wear facemasks for the former. Now facemasks are required inside shops and public transport. I think the requirement of facemasks was and is a really good idea, and Czech stitchers have been exemplary in sewing masks for health workers.

It does feel surreal, and scary, and I think I speak for many in saying that. We don’t know how the second wave is going to pan out. So many aspects of daily life have been disrupted, including our ecosystem of translators, writers, publishers, and independent bookshops. These are really tough times, but I have I faith that, as a community, we will pull together — we already are doing so, in fact — and emerge even stronger.


Chamini Kulathunga is a translator from Sri Lanka working with contemporary Sri Lankan Sinhalese literature. She is a graduate of Iowa Translation Workshop. Her translations, interviews, and writings have appeared and are forthcoming in World Literature Today, The Los Angeles Review, Exchanges, Project Plume, DoubleSpeak, Bengaluru Review, and elsewhere. Her website is chaminikulathunga.com.

LARB Contributor

Chamini Kulathunga is a translator from Sri Lanka working with contemporary Sri Lankan Sinhalese literature. She is a graduate of Iowa Translation Workshop. She was a visiting fellow at Cornell University’s South Asia Program in the summer of 2019 and was the former blog editor and a staff editor in Exchanges: Journal of Literary Translation. Her translations, interviews, and writings have appeared and are forthcoming in World Literature Today, The Los Angeles ReviewExchangesProject PlumeDoubleSpeakBengaluru Review, and elsewhere.


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