Saturday, 11 October 2008
You, you, you and you (2)
Scene from film of Anna Édes
The problem I was referring to was in translating an intense scene in the poet Dezsö Kosztolányi's marvellous 1926 novel Édes Anna (Anna Édes). There is already a complication there in that the word édes, in Hungarian, means 'sweet', but I had to let that go, because Édes is a not uncommon surname and need not be read as some kind of Bunyanesque character description (though, dammit! in the novel it sort of is...)
In the scene I'm talking about the nephew of an upper middle class civil servant and his cruel wife is left alone with Anna, a simple minded maid. He wants to seduce her so, after much nervousness, he ventures into the kitchen where she is sleeping in her truckle bed along with a live chicken, and gets into bed with her. She continues to address him in the servantly, transferred third-person tetszik form, while he persists with maga, until, at the key point of passion he switches to te, and tells her he loves her.
Very well, you can't say such a thing, even if you don't mean it, using any form but te. But how do you convey this brilliantly shifting drama of class and sex in English with its poor, single, all-purpose you? Enough to say I didn't convey it. My solution was an utter last-gasp failure that referred to the uses of you and thou in Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover.
Nemes Nagy in 1989
On the one hand you could regret the passing of a delicate, highly specialised instrument of social relations, in the same way as you might regret the passing of certain formalities in English letter writing. Do you really want an advertiser to address you as 'Dear Geoff' or 'Dear Sue'? Do you distinctly not want to know where you stand in relation to others, if not in terms of class or authority at least in terms of intimacy? Is it not the case when terms of address vanish we replace them with other codes signifying intimacy?
The great Hungarian poet, Ágnes Nemes Nagy, who died in 1993 at the age of 71, told me quite clearly on our first meeting in 1985, that she wanted me to to address her as maga and that she would address me in the same way. So it continued over the years. One day when I was visiting her (I always brought flowers), her ex-husband, the literary critic Balázs Lengyel called, and we were all in the room together. I addressed him as maga and he immediately told me to use te, because we were colleagues in the same field of work. Immediately, there were two relationships going on at the same time, and despite the fact that I had seen Nemes Nagy regularly and had never before met Lengyel, the relationship with her remained formal, with him they immediately relaxed.
Nemes Nagy in c.1948
Does it help to have formal stages in a relationship? Is it stabilising? I won't even start on the various class honorifics that are a horror to translate from the Hungarian, honorifics that persisted through communism, even though the relationships they signified no longer officially existed and everyone was supposed to be one or other form of comrade.These old class distinctions are now genuinely rare, not so much because of any official dictat but because the people who used them and grew up with them, so they felt uneasy addressing a doctor without some appropriate social honorific, have mostly died. And the distinctions between the four you forms are also eroding. But not entirely, because while class and authority deference is less likely to be articulated - and a good thing too, in my opinion - degrees of intimacy remain and people feel they have to signal them somehow. Age and gender or simply personal preference are hard to indicate through intuition alone. So you just watch how you talk to me, young sir! And kindly take your foot off mine, madam!