Thursday, 9 October 2008

Translating class

Reading Márai on class one is tempted to feel sorry for the speaker in the way one feels sorry for anyone in pain. The rituals and strictures of the upper middle class in bourgeois Hungary, as Márai depicts it - its sense of duty and privilege, a privilege that is never secure, in which every member of the class depends on another to support his or her own claim but is, at the same time, afraid of the other because the other might make some disparaging remark that might, just possibly, prove to be the first of a series of very slippery steps down the ladder, the rung you yourself - you, the speaker - are standing on, which seems a long way up, high enough to give you a certain vertigo, made all the worse because you imagine those even higher up to be rather more steady in their positions than you are, for they have the advantage of birth whereas you, you are only the son or grandson or great-grandson of a man who was little more than a tradesman or even, think of it! an artisan... and you can sense the vortex, the nervousness, the boredom - these rituals and strictures are cruel and pitiful and demeaning, since what could be worse than a ten year old boy feeling he must behave like the president of a major bank?

One feels sorry for these people because, one imagines, the education they have received would be likely to amplify their fears, make them aware of the dimensions of disgrace, render them articulate about dimensions of disgrace through literature and art and music, so that their capacity for failure, rather than being given its due portion and proportion as sanity might dictate, deepens instead, and intensifies to terror. Their failures of etiquette and integrity (but where does one stop and the other start?) are played out to mood music by Romantic and Late Romantic composers, a music that describes realms that lie beyond them, but which they are invited to contemplate and understand, and do in fact understand, as if from the wings, and yet from slightly above, as if they were hovering somewhere at dress circle level, insecure as ever, uncomfortably wedged together, but not holding hands.

One feels sorry for them, and yet not in the way one might feel sorry for those jostling below: workers trudging to the factory, clerks to the indignities and scurries of the office - those thirty-bob-a-week clerks John Davidson wrote about - living in small damp flats, where they carry on coughing as they did when they ran through the smog, or waited in line at the baker or the butcher, counting their pennies.

So there is a limit to sympathy.

I could go on before reaching those limits, because the speaker in Márai's book has experienced his losses as something terrible and yet unconsolingly liberating, because, in other words, he is interesting and furious and comical, resigned without really being resigned. So I think on about him and fiddle with his Hungarian words, trying to give them the right dimensions by expanding here, trimming there, making him orotund in one place and colloquial or even abrupt in another so as to measure my English space against Márai's Hungarian space in a kind of zonal translation, striving to get the zone or space right rather than trying to reproduce every particular detail of the landscape, because it is the zone that matters.


Gwil W said...

In Austria the class system is currently taking a bit of a bashing from the young people; students, radio dj's, artists, poets and so on. Many students at Vienna University have said to me - to call someone 'Sie' (formal 'you') is very rude. Obviously the older end, especially the upper echelon of society will hold on to the 'Sie' and 'Du' (informal 'you' - highly selective in such circles). As you go down the social ladder (I hate that term but it explains what I'm getting at) the common 'Du' comes more into its own.
I mention this with the following true story in the back of my mind.
It was in the late 1930's in Vienna and a banker, such as you speak of in your piece, greeted his Jewish employee one morning: I'm afraid Herr So-and-So that we are no longer Du.
And this is a great problem in Europe. I say, more power to the young. The sooner we get rid of this pompous unearned disrespectful way of addressing people the better. Oh, but that would put us on an equal footing with the binmen, cry the bankers. Ah yes, I reply but also on an equal footing with God. Yes, a strange and quirky curiosity about the whole damnable business is that God, the Creator of the Universe, he who must be bowed down to and worshipped, is in Austrian society a 'Du'. God, it would appear, is a binman.

George S said...

Interesting, this question of personal address. In Hungary there are four ways of saying 'you' though, as everywhere else, the distinctions are no longer as clear as before, and sometimes not kept at all.

I'll write a bit about this as a post. See what you make of it.

A. N. Author said...

Is this Márai a work of fiction, George?

(Am about to make a small lift from it for inclusion in my own work in progress)

George S said...

Yes, Steve, it is. It's the two-part novel I am currently translating, provisionally titled 'The Intended'. The first part is the story told by the woman, the second by the man in a failed marriage.

Márai somehow manages to write essays within fiction by simply letting his characters talk. It's what he does best.