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The Unseen Drama Behind Translating 'Prime Location'

Image: Dmitri Popov

Image: Dmitri Popov

A translator faces some serious challenges when translating Hungarian Contemporary drama, especially if the translator refuses to aid the digestion of the foreign by domesticating it and instead creates a non-apologetically foreignised translation. This kind of translation asks more of British audiences – it asks them to do the work as such, by making them ‘go to the foreignness of the play as opposed to patronizingly ‘bringing’ the domesticated version of the play to them. The curry analogy seems fit for this quasi binary strategy.  Do we want the original very spicy curry that we can have in India with bits of unidentifiable meat or do we want the British version, a mild curry served in pubs that is easily digestible for the British palate?

Translating Hungarian Contemporary drama can offer some particularly awkward problems as often characters reminisce nostalgically about their goulash socialist past.  A character pining for knee high length Czechoslovak boots is just one of many examples. They are many expressions and words that are simply non-translatable as they are intrinsically linked to that specific socio-political context that only existed in Hungary.  As a drama translator –this challenge excites me.  How do I situate – decide what class the character belongs to – how do I translate its idiolect if the character is seen as “archetypal love child “of goulash socialism and who may not have a UK equivalent? 

I found that seeing György Spiro’s (the Hungarian Poet Maudit – hated by Orbàn’s regime)play Prime Location in Hungarian in Budapest was an invaluable tool to my translation. The lead actor’s characterisation guided my translation choices especially when struggling to translate humour and expressions related to Hungary‘s goulash socialist past. Prior to seeing the actor’s interpretation I had spent my efforts on looking for semantic equivalence. I had managed to translate the character’s speech accurately but was unable to capture what seemed so intangible: the rendering of this specific character’s class into its UK equivalent, as this character seems to add up to a microcosm of Hungary. Hence it’s a challenge to recreate this without alienating the UK audience with too much subtext to decode.The actor’s characterisation aided my translation as the production clearly chose him to represent him as a recognisable type. This concierge type, the know-it-all, in bed with the system, a womaniser reminiscing about past conquests and glorifyingthe socialist years, is a type that can only exist in Eastern Europe. His gait and movement together with his benign-looking clothes and a large set of keys proved to be significant signifiers in aiding me to find its UK equivalent.

Szilvia Naray-Davey