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Translating Hungarian tango requires specialist expertise
13.1.2020
Kääntäjä Minnamari Pitkänen
Minnamari Pitkänen translated from Hungarian into Finnish László Krasznahorkai’s debut novel Sátántangó, which is known for its opacity and laboriousness. Photo: Heikki Tuuli
Minnamari Pitkänen’s debut translation, the Finnish version of László Krasznahorkai’s difficult and dense novel Sátántangó (“Satan’s Tango”, translated into Finnish as Saatanatango), was lauded by critics. Pitkänen received a grant amounting 12 000 € for her work from the Uusimaa regional Fund in 2017.

“I have always enjoyed so-called difficult literature, which bestows an active role upon the reader,” explains Finnish translator Minnamari Pitkänen.

Pitkänen’s translation into Finnish of the Hungarian author László Krasznahorkai’s debut novel Sátántangó (Saatanatango, Teos, 2019), has been praised by critics. Demokraatti magazine called it the “translation highlight of the year”. Helsingin Sanomat newspaper applauded Pitkänen’s “naturalness in overcoming coarse slang, geological grammar avalanches and everything in between.”

Suomen Kuvalehti magazine described the Finnish translation as a work of art in itself: “The Finnish language does not lend itself with ease to the forms of exhausting modernism. Pitkänen brings it off brilliantly.”

"The novel is complex on both a linguistic and a thought level. The end result is beautiful."

Sátántangó depicts the bewildered and confused inhabitants of a Hungarian backwater during the period of real socialism, whose hopes for change are quashed. Each chapter is a single, seemingly endless paragraph. In part one of the book, the chapters are numbered from one to six, and in part two from six to one, with everything returning to its point of origin. One of the novel’s translators into English, George Szirtes, has described Krasznahorkai’s style as “a slow lava flow of narrative, a vast black river of type”.

Kääntäjä Minnamari Pitkänen
It took Pitkänen two and a half years of working half-time.

“The novel is complex on both a linguistic and a thought level. The end result is beautiful. The characters ponder some of the most fundamental existential questions,” Pitkänen explains. 

“Unlike some of Krasznahorkai’s later works, the river of text in Sátántangó offers some stepping stones upon which to rest. Occasionally he shifts to a more traditional form of narration and something concrete happens in the story. It allows the reader’s brain to take a breather before being wrenched once again into the corkscrew of the subconscious.”

For Pitkänen, the translation process was tough but enjoyable. Often she would translate just one sentence at a time, after which a break was required. Even that was not always possible, with the novel’s sentences sometimes running for as long as a whole page. Krasznahorkai uses a lot of unusual words and expressions, as well as complicated grammatical structures.

“The text’s structure is insane,” Pitkänen says.

“Discomfort is an important part of the work. The reader is not supposed to be at ease in its trap. The prized content can be unlocked through active work, and the translator must not deprive the reader of that effort.”

Pitkänen started studying in the Department of Finnish, Finno-Ugrian and Scandinavian Studies of the University of Helsinki in 2005, specialising in Hungarian. Since then she has spent several long periods living in Hungary.

Pitkänen was attracted by Krasznahorkai’s style and wanted to take on the translation of Sátántangó. She translated samples of the novel in 2017 and sent them off to several publishers.

"To receive a message from an influential institution that they believe in you and support you, is enormously encouraging."

Her first choice was the Baabel series of world literature that has not previously been translated into Finnish, and Pitkänen succeeded in making a deal with its publishers, Teos, in 2019. She started applying for grants in 2017, and succeeded in obtaining a six-month grant from the Finnish Cultural Foundation.

“It was hugely significant, and not just financially. Translators, particularly those working on their first extensive works, can feel very much alone in the world. I almost lost faith on many occasions. To then receive a message from an influential institution that they believe in you and support you, is enormously encouraging.”

In total, Pitkänen spent around two and a half years working half-time on the translation. She has agreed to translate more Krasznahorkai for Teos, and negotiations are currently ongoing on the next title to tackle.

Last year, the English translation of Krasznahorkai’s novel Baron Wenckheim’s Homecoming won the esteemed American National Book Award for Translated Literature. The choice was closely followed in Finland because the shortlist included the novel Crossing by Pajtim Statovci from Finland.