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!


The Contentious Centrist said...

"I won't even start on the various class honorifics ..."

I'm reminded of the very old Israeli skit with Yossi Banai and Rivka Michaeli, in which the couple is getting ready to attend a wedding. He is thoroughly preoccupied with the worry about which quarter of the chicken will be served to him during dinner, while she is agonized over the possibility that the other wedding guests may not realize she is an engineer's wife...

It was funny in itself but somewhat alien to the contemporary Israeli ethos where "every bastard is a king...".

Years later my "yekke" friend Yudit had recounted to me, with some rueful nostalgia, how her mother, who had been a Berliner, was still addressed by people of a similar age and cultural background, as "Mrs. Engineer" even though a long time widow.

Gwil W said...

Here in Austria there's a mode of address to do with the 2,000 mtr contour line. Above this level we are all 'Du'. It seems to matter not a jot that you walked up the mountain or were carried up there by Seilbahn. Also at this great height we are allowed to use the 'Berg Heil' greeting. Mountaineers using this form of greeting do so nervously for obvious reasons.
The announcements on the loudspeakers at the tram stations in Vienna are another curiosity. They invariably begin 'Sehr geheerte Fahrgäste...' or 'Dear honoured travel guests...' meaning that the Tram Company is honoured to have us as customers and not as I first suspected that we, the passengers should feel honoured to be so transported.
I try and use 'Sie' and 'Du' as per the rules George has kindly supplied for us but sometimes I do fall foul. The other day a trcuk driver asked me for directions. I 'Du'd himwhen strictly speaking I should have 'Sie'd him. But since I was in my gardening clothes and carrying rubbish to the bio-bin I got away with it.
I think the nearest one can come to 'Sie' in the UK is to follow the example set by one's monarch. At the commoner end we have Blair's call: Hi Gwilym, Call me Tony.
So: Hi George, call me Gwilym. George and Gwilym are both 60 this year so it's natural they should 'Du' each other. Gwilym is the oddball and George is the genius.
Werbung (Advert): A satirical poem 'Vienna Melange in Stirbucks' just posted on my 'Anyone for Coffee?' article. It's to do with washing spoons.

George S said...

Class honorifics still puzzle me, Noga, in that I am not entirely sure how many there are. In translation I have gone for stuff like 'your excellency' or 'your ladyship' or, at lowest level, 'Miss' or 'Sir' as in English schools. Could one try 'your worship'? Too specialised. The great English class trick is to do away with these forms of address so as to confuse everyone, and rely on other codes, such as Nancy Mitford's U and non-U, which, however, change over time, in order to cause still more confusion. Betjeman has a very funny well-known poem based on Mitford that I might put up. It begins: "Phone for the fish-knives, Norman / For cook is a little unnerved.."

I'll get over to your place, Gwilym and read the poem.

With a truck driver in Hungary I would hope to wait till he picked the pronoun. Until then, (uneasy) politesse. I'd have to screw up courage to use te, in case he thought I was patronising him. Sounds like the same case with you. As to Blair, maybe it should be just, 'Yo, Gwilym!' 'Yo, George!'

I read of the death of Jörg Haider. How's that going down among the bergs?

Gwil W said...

Yo George,
I'm not yet up to speed on this as I've been very busy. Today we went to a flea market and bought piles of books and then we went to a concert.
There's a lot grief for Haider's mum. There was to be a party at the weekend to celebrate her 90th birthday.
I've just got in from the concert. It was at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna. The intermission talk was about medicine, Mozart, the Wall Street crash and the warm weather.
It'll be interesting to see how Haider's copy H-C Strache plays this one, once the dust has settled down.