Péter Pásztor: “Translating Frye into Hungarian”

Paper read at the conference ‘Canada in Eight Tongues’ organized by the Central European Association for Canadian Studies and Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, October 21-22, 2011

More often than not, discussing Frye is a reward and treat. That I have been invited to speak to you about Frye among learned women and men of letters is also a great honour, which I worry I shall not be able to live up to. After all, I am just a practical translator, not one who can deliver gems of theory. Moreover, I have been an unfaithful Frygian, who now finds it difficult to pick up the thread. But perhaps some of my insights might be worthy of your attention.

I first heard Frye’s name from a professor I perhaps unfairly hated. He mentioned Frye as an example of mythopoeic understanding of American history, and, as I had already come to the sophomoric conclusion that history was a nightmare from which I was trying to awake, I thought I had no time for any concept embracing history, let alone a reductionist model of history. Then I remember desultorily picking up a copy of the TLS or the New York Review in the English department library in Debrecen and reading of a Canadian professor capable of making sense of the Bible in literary terms. I instantly knew this was something I had been looking for. I asked the librarian to order the book, which was rather unusual for a student and for such a subject matter at the time. This was in 1982-83, when, though rotted at the core, communism was still showing no sign of collapsing. For all I know, the request may have been conveniently forgotten. The book eventually got to me through the U.S. Presbyterian Reader Service about two years later, and it lived up to my best expectations.

I am a PK, a priest kid; I had gone to a protestant school founded in 1538, and, as a 16-year-old snob, I had tried reading my Milton in the original from a time-worn octavo in the reading room of the old library. I had a keen sense of my cultural tradition, but a likewise keen sense of the stuffiness of the church I was brought up in, being marred by teaching a compromise with communism and a hopelessly outdated, shallow piety. However stifling this illuminating-tradition-turned-ghetto seemed to me in the late 1970s, the Marxian stance of the immediate world outside, particularly its fresher, seemingly truer Lukácsian brand, could hardly have had a lasting attraction for me, not to mention the fact that it soon went down like ninepins. But the lacklustre anti-metaphysical attitudes it was leaving behind seemed to me unimaginative and bleak. What was cast out of official and semi-official intellectual inquiry most lured me – irrationalism, esotericism, and archaic modes of thought, identifying the accidents of our existence with myths and archetypes, as brilliantly expounded by Mircea Eliade, whom I later happened to not-so-accidentally translate. This was walking on thin ice because archetypal repetition, for all its spiritual imaginativeness, implies a necessity that leads to authoritarianism on the social plane – recall Eliade’s own Romanian Nazism. This is particularly dangerous in Central-East Europe where archaic attitudes were not naturally outgrown, but trampled underfoot by communism. Though I believe I was always aware of this danger, I was much in need of saving.

This was the intellectual moment when Frye’s Bible book, The Great Code, arrived sometime in the summer of 1985, and answered some of my profoundest needs. It justified that keen sense of the protestant tradition that my school, perhaps in spite of itself, inculcated in me; it gave an eloquent modern apology of religion to reason; it provided an understanding of the mythological universe or archetypal world rooted in Christianity, which was inherently open to antique traditions, and which was, by definition, libertarian, having nothing to do with any archaic authoritarianism.

My youthful enthusiasm made me write my first book review, the first one on The Great Code in Hungarian, a very bad one at that, but this is not the point. Oddly enough, just as I immersed myself in reading Frye, the never-to-be-hoped-for political changes began to unfold. And the issues this raised redoubled my sense of anticipation. I thought the map of the imagination Frye had drawn would be beneficial to not only Hungarian literary criticism and education, but also public discourse, which, suddenly losing its fetters, was desperate to hew its new political and ideological identities. I reckoned that Frye’s concept of the European mythological universe with the Bible at its centre would help shape those identities and keep the potential cultural war over the meaning of freedom and identity at least at bay.

Looking back to the late 1980s and early 1990s, I have a sense of remorse: that, for all my fervour, I was not dogged enough to get the Code published in the early years of change. Of course, I can rationalize; I had to be cautious not to hurl myself at translation before getting the knack of my craft by rendering shorter works and editing. Perhaps belatedly, it was only in 1992 that I proposed translating the book to my publisher, Európa, the leading house publishing literature in Hungarian translation, and surprisingly the director accepted my suggestion immediately. The Canada Council and the Central-East European Publishing Project (under Timothy Garton Ash) offered to fund my work, so I would even be decently paid. I got down to work immediately, and completed the manuscript in early 1993, and cajoled the publisher to do Frye’s follow-up, Words with Power, as well. But my expectation that the Code would come out late in 1993 was thwarted. It would be put off for almost four years. No reason has ever been given. In hindsight, those four years seem insignificant, but, at the time, they were an eternity. My great translation of the book I so cherished, that I had thought would prompt a more conciliatory tone in our increasingly divided intellectual life, was put off. I could not help thinking there was a design involved, that Frye, by not making a case for either of the camps by then becoming only more entrenched, might have seemed useless – I reported on this impression of mine in a paper, “The Frustrations and Hopes of a Frye Translator,” published in a book out of Toronto in 1998. I am still not sure whether I was wrong; in any event, The Great Code came out in 1996 and Words with Power in 1997.

The translation work would by all expectations have been thrilling. After all, I was deeply concerned about current social conditions, Frye was a master of English discursive prose, and his allusions and citations meant immersion in the finest European poetry and prose. I do not remember having any particular difficulty with the terminology. I did once in a while bump into what I suspected to be mixed metaphor, the problem was that what passed in English would not be tolerated in Hungarian. At the end of the Code, Frye draws a parallel between the fate of the Bible and Samson: “The normal human reaction to a great cultural achievement like the Bible is to do what the Philistines did to Samson: reduce it to impotence, then lock it in a mill to grind our aggressions and prejudices, but perhaps its hair, like Samson’s, could grow even there.” The Bible cannot have hair in Hungarian. A different solution was needed. After some thought, this could be worked out. The really vexing problem was one that literally made me cry. Now and then, I could not work out how one paragraph led into the other. I felt unbearably ashamed of myself. Since then, I have learned that one of the greatest masters of our language, the poet Mihály Babits, yelled when he could not find the appropriate word. Frustration with language was therefore not solely my privilege. But I would never have dared divulge this secret of mine to you had Robert D. Denham, one of Frye’s most important stewards, not written: “If we cannot always with assurance follow the sequence of arguments in Frye’s published work or always understand clearly why one paragraph follows the next, we nevertheless have the impression that he knew where he was going.”[1] Frye’s aphoristic or pericopic style has its own deep resources, as Bob Denham rightly notes, in Frye’s particular thought processes, and it needed a degree of trickery to forge links where there were none I could discover. I cannot remember any single example, but no one ever, not even my editor, has ever caught me out.

It goes without saying that I had expected, if not resounding success, at least critical response and reflection, some form of public debate by major critics and pundits whereby the implications of Frye’s thought would be addressed by the Hungarian public. There was no such large-scale discussion that I am aware of. However, reviews did appear, and major scholarly journals published professional responses, some very enthusiastic, and many of those exceptionally well-written. I do not think I would be far off the mark in concluding that the two Bible books did manage to establish a presence for the Bible in the literary discourse. Frye has come to be standard reference in literary scholarship, some ingenious studies have applied him to Hungarian literature. Yet the kind of insemination of the public mind I had originally wished for, which I have experienced with one or two of my other translations, was lacking.

I have often wondered why this is. Perhaps Hungarian Frygians have not worked hard enough, my own tardiness being a case in point. Perhaps Frye’s outlook seems to call for all-out acceptance in order to engage in dialogue with, which might be alienating for many, even for those with similar concerns. Indeed, prominent belletrist liberal Christians, such as the novelist Marilynne Robinson or the archbishop-critic Rowan Williams, display no awareness of Frye. Not that they necessarily should; not that they need the affirmation of the other. But they all belong to the same robust tradition upholding both identity and freedom, a dialogue which Hungarians have failed to engage in, much to our detriment. It would be an overstatement to hold that the failure to draw the lessons from from Frye for Hungarian public thought is in any way to be blamed for the intellectual and political impasse we have recently managed to steer ourselves into, but it is certainly symptomatic of it. Nevertheless, Hungarian Frygians still have their say.

[1] Northrop Frye: Religious Visionary and Architect of the Spiritual World, Charlottesville and London: Virginia UP, 2004, p. 19.

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