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David Hill on Translating

Posted by Sarah, 30th August 2012

David Hill was one of the translators involved in New Order, and has talked with Sarah as part of our informal series of conversations with translators:

SH: As one of the co-founders of the initial cross-border project Converging Lines that led to the the Hungarian anthology New Order, can you explain what gave rise to this project?

Converging Lines was a poetry festival marking Hungary's entry to the European Union in 2004, and was an offshoot of the Budapest literary cabaret I co-ran, The Bardroom. Our idea was to celebrate Hungary's "convergence" by teaming up local poets with a visiting group of UK poets who had earlier worked together under the name 'First Lines'.

Thanks to invaluable help from corporate sponsors and the British Council, we not only staged some awesome gigs, but nurtured relationships that led to poets translating each other and continuing to collaborate in ensuing years. In due course there was a Converging Lines booklet, and a second Converging Lines festival in the UK.

And then, of course, there was New Order, Arc's anthology of nineties and noughties Hungarian poetry in English translation. When I look at that book, I feel proud not only because eight of its translations are by me, but because a lot of the others came out of this project that I helped to launch. For example, the poems by Anna T Szabó, Mónika Mesterházi or András Imreh that were put into English by the likes of Clare Pollard, Antony Dunn and Matthew Hollis.

SH: You translated three of the poets in the anthology. How did you go about keeping the original voices distinct in your translations?

The original commissions for the András Imreh, Krisztina Tóth and András Gerevich poems came at quite different times, so that might be part of the answer. I was only working on one of those poets at a time. But they also have very different styles. The Imreh poems I did are very tight in form and there is a certain spikiness to the narrative persona that I found enjoyable to "put on." Tóth's poetry has a kind of muted musicality to it, and a tone that's both melancholy and playful - I hope that came across in my versions. And Gerevich is interesting to translate because his poems appear so simple. He just kind of lays out what he wants to say, with very little metaphor, assonance, meter and so on. The pressure is really on to make the plain words as telling as possible.

SH: How does your translation feed into your own work?

I've been translating as long as I have been writing. Those two skills are basically what I have been using my whole career. And I have been lucky enough to have opportunities to use them in a variety of genres that interest me - in print and online journalism, poetry, lyrics, theater and so on.

Translating is an interesting way, a very close way, of engaging with someone else's writing. You get to try on someone else's perspective, in terms of the things they want to communicate, their style and tone, their cultural standpoint. I definitely think the experience of translating has enriched me as a writer, opening up different ways of expressing myself.

SH: Besides New Order, what other examples of your work are available for purchase?

My book Consumed is on sale on Amazon, with some customer reviews. While you're on Amazon, look up Budapest Tales and Bucharest Tales, two anthologies from New Europe Writers in which I have several original pieces. Or the award-winning European Romanticism, from Continuum, which contains a couple of my translations.