Thursday, December 20, 2007


I wanted to write something about the experience of helping to translate Finito while the experience was freshin my mind. Again, I didn’t translate the thing from Hungarian into English—God forbid. Instead I transformed my partner’s precisely translated English prose into rhyming verse. I learned a lot about playwriting and about Hungary along the way.

Playwriting, Directing and Crossword Puzzles
The process was a cross between playwriting, directing and doing a crossword puzzle. Playwriting because you’re writing dialogue—trying to capture a character’s voice, paint vivid images, tell a coherent story, use the right word at the right time. Directing because you also must consider the actions behind each phrase, each exclamation, each word. Why are they saying the things they’re saying? What types of words are they using and why? What’s their strategy? What’s the relationship between the spoken words and the action onstage? As for puzzle—well, try turning this into four lines, ideally of 10 syllables each, where every two lines rhyme and agree rhythmically, and hopefully make sense:

There we go, this is the quality,
The grumpy/rough body covers an unsophisticated/hick/dumb heart!
If I want to say something normally/nicely
“Fuck you”’s are flying around.

Here was my attempted solution to the puzzle:

Well that’s just like you, Gáspár. You’re such a troll:
Thick head, dirty mouth and dumb country soul!
I want to talk nice, like they do on TV
But all you can do is throw “fuck you”’s at me!

Cultural Equivalents
It was an incredible feeling to be inside the architecture of another person’s work—feeling how it functions from the inside out. It felt a little like building a full-scale replica of a historic building. You’re replicating the structure, but using different materials to build in a different location. You trust the structure. It’s the materials that the rest of the world sees and touches that worry you.

Finito is full of puns, inside jokes, cultural references, and double entendres. It just wasn’t possible to find English equivalents (American equivalents, to be exact) for all of them. For instance:

Listen, (young country bride—old fashioned village word used for a young hot chick), should I roll this joint?
This will make you feel like (an old country bandit—like Robin Hood—antiquated village slang.)

There is no American equivalent. All you can do is try to stand next to it:

Howdy, lil’ lady, should I roll this shit?
This will make you Smokey like the Bandit!

I am convinced that one day fifteen years from now I will wake up in the middle of the night with a better solution for that particular couplet. I was actually rather surprised that my partner accepted the Smokey and the Bandit reference, since she rejected this verse, which I loved:

You lie around the house, long face, limp tool,
All you do is sleep, drink, eat, shit and drool.
You’re a wreck, a human Afghanistan,
Useless as a breadwinner and as a man.

My partner was convinced that the Afghanistan reference wouldn't fly.

Translating Hungary
Let’s start with the pig slaughtering feast. Traditionally, Hungarian families in the countryside have a pig killing feast every fall (it’s a little like Thanksgiving in America). Over the course of the day they slaughter their family hog, and friends and family help to preserve every part of the hog in sausages, aspic, cured meat, etc. They make a huge feast, with special traditional pork dishes.

Obviously this is a village tradition, one that can’t survive the move to the city. It’s also totally unfamiliar to Americans. But knowing about this type of party is essential if you want to fully understand Finito. Gáspár’s wife refers to him as a hog. Before Gáspár kills himself, his family throws a kind of pre-wake for him, inviting everyone to dinner. The table is set as for a pig-slaughtering feast. Gáspár is the family pig who will be killed to feed his friends and family. Later in the play, Gáspár takes a pre-suicide bath in his tin courtyard bathtub—the same tub that would be used to bathe a pig before slaughter. (There are more Gáspár-pig parallels in the play, but I’ll spare you the details.) How the hell do you convey that in translation?

The play takes place in a village Hungary that has one foot in medieval times and one foot in the modern post-socialist world. The language shifts easily between media-saavy “TV talk” and folksy, age-old idioms. When Gáspár takes his revenge on the world by humiliating the powerful people of his village world and even visiting media royalty, there’s something powerfully Breughel-esque, psychedelic, and ancient about the scene. The year king; carnival; topsy-turvydom.

But there’s a lot of modern Hungary in the play, too. By now, Rick and I have learned that government bureauocracy and red tape is deeply rooted in Hungarian culture. (Example: recently my mom sent me a birthday gift. At the post office, I had to visit no fewer than 6 separate windows to pick it up. Window one sent me to window 5, who sent me to window 3 with new forms. Window 3 took my forms, gave me new forms, and sent me to window 7. Window 7 took my new forms, gave me something else to fill out, and sent me back to window 1… It was like a Buster Keaton routine.) This uniquely Hungarian obsession with paperwork and regulation is mined for comic effect in Finito:

(Poet reading the suicide note he has written for Gáspár)
Can we accept, this, sons of the nation?
They have robbed our budget allocation
30 percent. Poets are slaves in Hungary,
Broken, oppressed with 20 percent VAT.
We are denied even a simple tax rebate,
Because of intellectual product tax rates.

What in the hell do I care what you deduct?
I don’t got no intellectual product.
At most I try to do the crossword sometimes,
Or fill out forms in the unemployment line.

One of my favorite aspects of the play is the (literal) centrality of Gáspár’s shitter to the plot. Gáspár tries to hang himself in the outhouse. He spends much of the play locked inside it. Now I thought this was just potty humor—but apparently Hungarian men are notorious for liking to spend lots of time on the can, especially in an outdoor toilet.

(Police Major giving an interview to visiting reporter)
Let’s look a bit deeper into the hole
The courtyard outhouse is a phallic symbol.
When you travel through the country look hard
Through the window: what’s in every back yard?
Outhouse! Behind every home, there they are!
Ancient apocryphal wood home altar,
Erect fertility symbol, you stand
Proud in the yards of our tiny homeland.
Adorned with totems, the pagan’s revenge,
A powerful, private, slate-roofed Stonehenge,
Where a man can retreat and meditate,
A shrine to the vigor that makes men great.

We are all dying, all losers, our resort
Is here, the last place we can find some comfort:
A compact male universe, land of dreams
Where we reign from out thrones as gods supreme.

Then there are the curses. Hungarians have EXCELLENT curses. I have two favorites: first “Go back to your mom’s stinky pussy,” which I am assured does not sound so bad in Hungarian. The second is an old village expression: “the strongest dog always fucks.”

Ironically, however, Hungarians don’t really believe in cursing onstage. My partner and I clashed constantly over the amount of swear words in the translation. She was always complaining that we were swearing too much; the words were correct but the tone was too harsh. Finally the source of the argument emerged. According to Pat, in Hungary, swearing onstage is still shocking. When a character swears onstage, they lose the audience’s sympathy, become less credible. I realized that in American theater, there’s an unspoken assumption that intense feelings must be expressed by cursing—especially if the characters are lower class, as in Finito. In some cases it may be hard to take a character seriously UNLESS they swear. (Think David Mamet.)

The Lost World
But probably the biggest difference was the most subtle. The night that I went to see Finito with my partner, a kind Hungarian couple informed us that this piece would be impossible to translate. Why? “Because it shows the truth—it shows what’s really going on here—such a shame.” I was a little confused. To be honest, I loved Finito but didn’t consider its story very groundbreaking. Desperately poor people selling their souls for fame, media circus spinning out of control, money and power corrupt all they touch…I felt like I’d heard it before. Pat had to explain bit by bit that in Hungary, these themes still are new—really new. Gáspár is unemployed: it wasn’t so long ago that there were no unemployed people in Hungary. Under socialism, everyone had a job. She went on. Gáspár’s bankrupt village, Nagyabrand (Grand Illusion, or Bigreverie) can’t afford to fix its roads, and no one cares. The media will cover Siamese twins and childmolesting priests, but not real the real crisis in this country town. People have forgotten how to talk to each other without referencing television, they’ve losing everything that made them who they are and they’re buying into a new media culture that has nothing to offer them. Sadly, these are all changes that happened a long time ago in the US. But here, the pain of that transition is still fresh, because the change is still happening.

A Shot In the Dark
But my strangest realization came on opening night. We had some loud cheers and some raspberries. I knew that I felt we had produced a good work in English. I know it is much better than anything that a sole Hungarian speaker (or a sole English speaker) could have produce on their own. But I actually have no idea whether it’s a good translation, because I can’t understand Hungarian.

It was the capper on a feeling I’d had throughout the whole process: my writing method had to be in many senses “guess and check.” I had to rely on my partner to tell me whether I had gotten the sense of the speech—just like I had to rely on her to tell me what people were saying at intermission, or what the contracts said, or how the playwright described his characters. I trust her, sure—but it’s a little practicing archery blindfolded. My partner tells me: “a little to the left…up…no, back to the right…OK, now.” I let the arrow fly, then ask “did I hit it?” Or perhaps it’s like a blindfolded treasure hunt in an unfamiliar house. Following verbal instructions, you reach something that feels like a treasure chest—but how can you be sure? You can’t see it. It’s a leap of faith. A shot in the dark.

1 comment:

Doug said...

Would love a chance to read your translation of 'Finito'. I run a theatre company in NYC called 'The Internationalists' and we are looking for new scripts. Please forward it along, if you could, to Thanks so much. Look forward to reading it. Headed to the Hungarian Cultural Center tonight in fact.