Odd bodkins! Interview with translator and illustrator of Hungarian classic ‘Arnica the Duck Princess’

Today, translator Anna Bentley and illustrator Jacqueline Molnár tell us about their work on Ervin Lázár’s children’s classic Arnica, the Duck Princess published in the UK to great acclaim earlier this year by Pushkin Press. Get yourself a coffee, a comfy place to sit and settle down for a fascinating insight into translating for children, illustrating a classic text of 20th century children’s literature, and taste of Hungarian – the odd one out of central European languages…

Interview by Veronika Haacker-Lukács

arnicaArnica the Duck Princess by the beloved Hungarian children’s author Ervin Lázár was published in English by Pushkin Children February this year to great acclaim. The book, superbly translated and stunningly illustrated, is both an enchanting read and a delight to hold (or give as a gift, which I have done on several occasions). Arnica the Duck Princess is also the first major Hungarian children’s book ever translated into English. I have caught up with the two women behind this ground-breaking publication: translator Anna Bentley and illustrator Jacqueline Molnár.

VHL: Anna, you are married to a Hungarian, have lived in Budapest for over a decade and have two bilingual children. You yourself speak perfect Hungarian. Tell me about your journey towards literary translation. 

AB: I’m not sure my Hungarian will ever be perfect, but I hope it is improving even after all these years! It’s now almost twenty years since we moved to Budapest, so I have had a huge amount of practice in speaking Hungarian and listening to it. As for reading it, I have always been a big reader so the motivation was there to be able to take a book off the shelf in Hungary and enjoy it. My degree is in English Language and Literature and it was a great delight to me when my Hungarian became good enough to allow me to tackle full length books.

tuskevarThe first one I read was a real struggle at first, but ultimately very rewarding: István Fekete’s Tüskevár (Thorn Castle in English). This story, which my husband suggested to me, is still set as a class reader in Hungarian schools. It is about a school boy from Budapest who spends the summer down at the marshy end of Lake Balaton and about what he learns about the natural world and himself from old Matula, who works as a warden of sorts for that rather special area. This led me to more books by Fekete, who had an intimate understanding of the natural world. Among others, I read Vuk, which is about a young orphaned fox. Though it has been turned into a cutesy animated film, the book itself is ’red in tooth and claw’ and takes the reader into the fox’s world. Though the characters converse, their lives are those of real foxes, and their interactions with other animals and each other are of the kind really experienced by foxes. The only book I could think that was anything like it in English was Henry Williamson’s Tarka the Otter. tarkaI looked for an English translation of Vuk, so that I could share it with my mother, also a reader and a keen bird-watcher, but discovered that the translation was out of print. This prompted me to have a go myself, so I tackled a chapter or two of Vuk and also of Hú, Fekete’s novel about an eagle owl. In doing so, I discovered a new passion! The process was gripping: so many small decisions to be made between synonyms; so much detailed investigation into precisely what the Hungarian meant (no more skipping words I didn’t know!); so much juggling required to render the Hungarian sentences, typically much longer, and more flexibly ordered, into elegant, comprehensible English sentences and the sentences into paragraphs. I realised that translating would not only expand my Hungarian, it would exercise areas of my English that were getting rusty, would mean I was working with literature and also with words in a profound way. As someone who loves literature and has always been a word geek, this was the job for me! 

After this first dabble in literary translation, I looked for competitions I could enter. These gave me concrete targets and deadlines. I submitted a complete short story by Fekete to the John Dryden Translation Competition and later a folk tale, and have entered it every year since then. I was lucky enough to meet Bernard Adams, a very experienced and kind translator from Hungarian. He was encouraging and introduced me to László Kúnos, the head of Corvina Press here in Budapest. László entrusted me with two novellas by the author Zsuzsa Vathy, who had recently passed away: Here, We Look at the Beauty… and The Roof of the Old Family House for which there was funding. They have yet to be published, sadly, but I learned a great deal about the research needed for some translations, and the editorial process from that job. 

Other work came through me finding something I liked and trying to promote it. For example, I read Péter Nyulász’s Helka, an adventure novel for children taking an old folk legend from the Balaton area as its starting point, and I had the idea of entering a sample translation of it to the European Literature Night Translation Pitch. While it was not successful there, the publisher decided to commission English translations from me of the first chapter of each of the three novels in the series, with the aim of taking them to the Children’s Book Fair in Bologna. 

Meanwhile, I began to attend the Hungarian Literary Translators’ Association weekend retreats as a non-member, where I heard about a course offered at the Balassi Institute in Budapest for non-Hungarians interesting in translating Hungarian literature. I didn’t apply immediately, feeling my written Hungarian was not up to it, but eventually screwed up my courage and applied in 2017. Being well above the age-limit, but with Bernard’s recommendation and a proven track-record, I was accepted as a self-funding student. 

The Balassi course was wonderful in terms of introducing me to contemporary Hungarian poetry, prose and drama, something I had shied away from, and encouraging me to tackle poetry translation. The teachers were very knowledgeable and have put a lot of work my way since the course, including an academic book on five neglected Hungarian women authors by Anna Menyhért, which Brill will be publishing later this year. I am now self-employed as a literary translator. I continue to submit translations to competitions (I got onto the John Dryden competition’s longlist this year!) and journals, and have enjoyed success with, for example, Gabi Csutak’s story Funeral which featured in Asymptote’s blog, Translation Tuesday, in April of this year. Alongside the literary work, I have translated subtitles for plays, an essay on art for the Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, poems by Zsófia Balla and András Visky among others, and even copy edited a sociology book, so the work has been very varied! 

VHL: How did you become interested in children’s literature? 

AB: I read a lot as a child and loved reading my favourites aloud to my little sister. I cherished very fond memories of classics such as C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, so when my children were born, it was the most natural thing in the world to start looking at picture books as soon as we could, and to read to them every day. I don’t remember how I found the first Hungarian children’s books for them, but things like Veronika Marék’s lovely Boribon books soon found their way onto our shelves. As I was the one most at home with the children when they were small, I read these to them too. I wanted my children to have a good balance of Hungarian and English. They attended Hungarian kindergarten and before that music groups for young children, where we learned classic rhymes and songs together, which gave me a good grounding in a culture I had not experienced myself as a child. We went to shows at the Kolibri theatre, the children’s theatre here and enjoyed recordings and performances by the much-loved musician and songwriter, Vilmos Gryllus. So, I was immersed not only in children’s literature, but children’s culture in a wider sense. This, along with wonderful animations of Hungarian folk tales, all helped me later with translating Arnica the Duck Princess.

VHL: Jacqueline, you illustrated several contemporary Hungarian children’s books before working on Arnica. You were also voted Children’s Book Illustrator of the Year in 2013. How did you become an illustrator? What are your roots and who are the main influencers for you as an illustrator?

JM: Just like Anna, I’m also married to a man whose mother tongue is different to mine. In my case, he is Catalan and we live in Barcelona. We have two trilingual kids. So I also live in a multicultural family which is always an inexhaustible source of inspiration. I’ve been illustrating children books for more than a decade. I became an illustrator because I love drawing and stories. As a child I grew up surrounded by painters, sculptors, writers and sociologists. My father is a graphic artist so it was a natural thing for me to take a piece of paper and start drawing when there were no children around to play with. I always felt happy and balanced with my colour pencils in my hand. 

Because my parents had an interest in literature we had quite an expansive library at home. Many of the books were wonderful children’s books. I loved turning the pages of those beautiful albums and richly illustrated storybooks. My mother read to me every night. Listening to her was magic. One of the books she read hundreds of times was Lázár’s Arnica. I also had audio tapes of stories which I listened to over and over again. These were moments of amazing journeys over lands of fairies and witches and into the world of little people, plants and animals. I believe that these were my roots, my main reasons why I decided to become an illustrator, although first I studied animation at the University of Applied Arts in Budapest.

VHL: Anna, why did you pick Arnica the Duck Princess over all the other Hungarian children’s books? 

AB: I came across Arnica when my daughter’s Hungarian literature teacher set it as summer reading at the end of Year 4. (Year 5 in the UK) I read it after she had out of curiosity, as I had heard of Ervin Lázár, but not read anything by him at that stage, and also so we could talk about it. I liked how Lázár had used folk-tale elements, but written a modern story with humour in it.

VHL: How would you summarise the story for someone who hasn’t read it?

AB: It is a story about a poor boy and a princess who fall in love but are put under a spell by a wicked witch, meaning one of them must be a duck at all times. They can swap places at will but cannot both be human. They embark on a journey to the Seven-Headed Fairy, hoping she will be able to lift the spell and encounter a variety of strange characters along the way. Johnny and Arnica end up helping these characters, like the notorious Tig-tag and his robber band, to overcome their problems or turn over a new leaf. The whole story is framed by a conversation between the writer and his daughter, who are creating the story as it goes along and often pause to reflect on the actions and motivations of the characters.

VHL: What are the major challenges of translating from Hungarian into English? What specific challenges did you come up against while translating Arnica

AB: Hungarian is radically different to English. It is agglutinative, which allows it to create new words more easily than English can; it has a richer store of onomatopoeic verbs for example, and a writer can freely make up new words by adding suffixes to a base. These words may not feature in a dictionary, but the Hungarian reader will have no trouble understanding them. Hungarian word order is also much more flexible than English, so a lot of the revision involves letting the word order of the original go and fitting the sentence into a more ‘English’ pattern. As the verb carries so much information in it (person, number and an indication of the object too) Hungarian sentences often begin with the verb, and one danger is that a series of sentences end up beginning with, ‘He did X. He did Y’ creating repetition where there is none in the original. There are cultural differences such as the way Hungarians address people by naming their job or position, or, in folk-tales as ‘my son’, ‘my old mother’ even if they are strangers. Translating Lázár brought additional challenges: he uses many phrases that his young readers would recognise as traditional in Hungarian folk-tales; he also did not shy away from using archaic or otherwise ’difficult’ words. (In the edition my daughter used, the publisher had even provided a glossary!) He also loved to play with language, putting wonderfully alliterative expressions into the mouths of his characters. 

220px-Lazar_ErvinVHL: Ervin Lázár is a towering figure of Hungarian children’s literature. His books have been providing entertainment, inspiration and instruction for several generations of children. What did it feel like to work on such an author? Especially Jacqueline: Arnica was originally published in Hungary in 1981 with illustrations by László Réber, the exclusive illustrator of Lázár’s books, the man whose pictures had burned into the imagination of a whole nation. The UK equivalent would be Roald Dahl and Quentin Blake. Did this legacy influence your work of re-drawing Arnica for the second edition in 2014 in any way and if so, how? Tell me also how you were chosen to be the new illustrator.

JM: As a child, Arnica was one of my favourite stories. I listened to it a lots of times. I closed my eyes and imagined the forest, Arnica and Johnny but didn’t look much at the drawings, so I had no memory of the illustrations. When I was chosen to make the new illustrations in 2014, I only had to close my eyes and remember the images I had had in my head when I was a little girl. I find Réber’s illustrations extremely wise and intelligent and I wouldn’t want to compete with them. I tried to do it my way. Not better, just differently.

The publisher commissioned a number of illustrators to draw some layouts, then some of us were chosen to reinterpret Lázár’s stories. I had the great honour to illustrate three of his books: The Seven-Headed Fairy, Arnica and Amarilla, the Little Witch. 

AB: I became aware of how beloved and respected Lázár was when I talked to friends of all ages here, all of whom had read Arnica at school and remembered it with fondness, and many of whom eagerly recommended other books by him too.  I felt very much on my mettle to do his work justice and do really hope I have! Of course, the status he enjoys in Hungary, his recognition by literary circles and the Hungarian state and the fact that this book of his had been so widely translated all probably helped to persuade Pushkin Press that he was worth serious consideration.

VHL: I think you have definitely done this book justice! As a Hungarian, I feel that your English translation renders Lázár’s playful, slightly old-fashioned language beautifully. I admire your creations such as ‘the most footloose and fancy-free person’ or ‘some fly-by-night, some traveller-type, some empty-pockets, some sleep-in-the straw’. Tell me how you went about crafting, chiselling your sentences. 

AB: Thank you! That’s great to hear from a Hungarian! The examples you cite here show how I tried to use a mixture of English idioms and my own made-up phrases to reflect Lázár’s language. I was led to ‘footloose and fancy-free’ because I couldn’t make a superlative I was happy with out of ‘free.’ Lázár’s legszabadabb simply means ’the free-est’ but that is problematic to spell and not commonly used in English. I felt the idiom expresses the fact that Johnny is physically free to wander where he will and mentally free, unchained as he is by any emotional ties or desires for comfort or money. And it’s a little old-fashioned, like some of Lázár’s expressions. I also consciously used alliteration where I could and attempted to mimic his use of reduplicatives like brummogott-kummogott, with English ones like ‘moaned and groaned’ and ‘crouched and grouched.’

VHL: I also think that the adult talking to the child in your translation treats the child as their equal. This is an important characteristic of Lázár’s stories: playing with and engaging the child’s imagination while taking the child’s opinion seriously. Did you have an English book or writer in mind as a model? Or perhaps a person of whom Lázár’s style reminded you? 

AB: I had no model in mind in so far as the framing dialogue goes, but I remembered that A.A. Milne told the Winnie-the-Pooh stories to his son, and Roald Dahl started by telling stories to his children. The practice of building a story around elements contributed by the child is also something I know from my family life.

VHL: Overall, your translation carefully reflects many characteristics of the original: the piling of adjectives in sentences, the repetition (though this latter is typical of children’s literature in general). I laughed out loud when I read the witch calling Poor Johnny “you halfwit, you dunderhead, you melon”, which is a very clever way of sneaking in a funny Hungarian pejorative (Te dinnye! – ‘You melon!’). Yet on other occasions you veered away from the original quite considerably: you swapped Hungarian idioms and proverbs for English ones.  

AB: Yes, because often a literal translation wouldn’t have made any sense, and the alliteration and repetition would be lost (which is a great part of the sense in Lázár, I feel). There were some outlandish expressions, like the witch’s azt a kacska macska farkát! which literally means ‘That cat’s twisted tail!’ which she bursts out with when her schemes are frustrated. I replaced it with something altogether different: ‘Odds bodkins!’, which sounds archaic and is also alliterative.

VHL: Following on from this, I am particularly interested in translation practices that retain elements of the original language in translation, the so-called foreignising method. Where do you stand on this? For instance, you used the Hungarian pejorative ‘melon’ but you rendered ritka, mint a fehér holló as ‘rare as hen’s teeth’. Did you consider translating it literally as ‘rare as white raven’ at any point? 

AB: That’s an interesting point. I think I kept ‘melon’ because it sounded so absurd as a climax after ‘halfwit’ and ‘dunderhead’ and melons play a role later in the story. Most British children have met a melon, but ravens play a smaller role in our culture than in the Hungarian, where they are associated with the wise, good King Matthias, and feature in fairy tales. We do have the ravens at the Tower, though, so I might consider it if I had the translation to do again!

VHL: The book teems with evocative names which you translated (Tig-Tag, Victor Coppermine, etc.) but you also translated Östör Király as ’King Tirunt’. Tirunt to me sounds like ‘tyrant’ – although this king couldn’t be further from being one, and as far as I know it isn’t implied in the Hungarian. Where did this name come from? Jacqueline, in what ways did the names inform your characters?

AB: I’m glad Tirunt sounded like ‘tyrant’ to you, as that was what I had in mind. There is no word östör in Hungarian, as far as I could ascertain, but it looks very like ostor, meaning ‘whip’. I surmised that Lázár had given the king a name that suggested he was a tyrant, only to overturn this idea the moment the character enters the story. King Tirunt is a surprisingly sensible, just ruler who abhors violence. He is also very aware of his own tendency to become tyrannical when in a rage. For this reason, he has told his servants to ignore any orders he may give when he is furious. I read Lázár’s name as being tongue-in-cheek and tried to do something similar in my version.

JM: Names are definitely important. They reveal the character right at the very beginning and anticipate its destiny. There’s a flower called Arnica, which is considered to cure all wounds. And indeed the princess is “so sweet and gentle that when she smiles even wolves and bears forget their fierceness”. In the first sketches I drew some arnica-like yellow flowers on her blue dress, but in the end I simplified it by leaving it blue, and tried to make her countenance sweet, kind, gentle and calming instead.

VHL: Speaking of names, I must confess I had always disliked the original title (Szegény Dzsoni és Árnika – “Poor Johnny and Arnica”), which struck me as a rather uninspiring one. The English title feels much more interesting to me, but I wonder if the word ‘princess’ in it shoves the book into the dubious category of ‘books for girls’, although the story appeals to all children irrespective of gender. What is your opinion on this?

AB: I can’t really claim much credit for the title, I’m afraid. My editor at Pushkin was of the opinion that we should give a different title, and I noticed that the German translation was entitled, Arnika, die Enteprinzessin (Arnica, the Duck Princess). We agreed that this would be a more inviting title for potential buyers, giving much more of a clue to aspects of the story than just the names of the main characters. I agree, it betrays nothing of the aspects that might appeal more to a boy, such as the many male characters, the football training, the very-much brothers and Johnny’s run-in with the witch. It would be a shame, though, if the title put boys off reading it, as I think it could appeal equally to both sexes, even if Arnica is really the brains of the couple!

VHL: Jacqueline, your depiction of Arnica is refreshingly non-stereotypical. This beautiful princess is not blonde but dark-haired, not blue-eyed but brown. László Réber’s original Arnica was blonde. How was your Arnica-image born?

JM: I used to prefer animal tales to fairy tales when I was a child because all princesses were blonde and blue-eyed, thin and perfect. I didn’t feel that their stereotypical images, their looks or behaviour, represented me at all. I preferred mischievous animals and black-haired witches. So when I was offered the challenge to draw Arnica, who is kindness and beauty itself, I thought I would include another type of woman in this image. Heroes and positive characters should represent all types of people in society, and Hungary needs heroes of a wider scale. I’m convinced that the more diverse and rich culture is around a child, the more open and accepting adult he/she will become.

VHL: At what point during the translation process did your collaboration begin? Tell me about how you worked together. Was it helpful or even necessary to collaborate? If so, what sorts of things did you discuss? 

AB: When the translation was complete and Pushkin had accepted it, I suggested that they consider using Jacqueline’s illustrations, as I thought they were very appealing. They are also witty, like Lázár’s story! I’m delighted that Pushkin decided to use them. We had to collaborate on only one picture, which I realised didn’t fit the new text. In the Hungarian edition, when Johnny has just knocked Tig-tag out, Jacqueline had drawn a double-bass in the sky over the prostrate figure of the notorious robber. This was because in the Hungarian text, Lázár has Tig-tag exclaim, ‘”Double bass!” Then the narrator comments, ‘After all, he was seeing the sky as a double-bass.’ This expression, it turns out, may have been coined by Lázár, but I thought it would just be baffling to a child, and the word ‘double bass’ is sadly much more prosaic than the Hungarian ‘nagybőgő’ (literally, big bawler), so the line had become, ‘”My stars!” he exclaimed. Well I did say he saw stars.’ I raised the issue of the extraneous double-bass with Jacqueline who removed it and added some more lovely stars to the few that were already there.

JM: Ervin Lázár had already passed away when I started illustrating the book. Unfortunately I didn’t have the chance to know him although I would have loved to. And the illustrations were ready when Anna started translating the book. So, apart from what Anna has just mentioned with the double bass, we didn’t really have the possibility to collaborate. To a certain extent I like to discuss the story and the characters, but I find freedom of interpretation also very important. 

VHL: Anna, did you specifically approach Pushkin Children? What happened after you sent off your translation sample? 

AB: Yes, I did. I had heard Adam Freudenheim, the head of Pushkin being interviewed on BBC Radio Four about their publication of Tonke Dragt’s, The Letter for the King, (which my children and I read and enjoyed) so they were at the top of my mind when I was thinking about looking for a publisher for Arnica. I did include a picture of Jacqueline’s cover and two inside illustrations in my pitch to Pushkin as they helped to give a real flavour of the book. Six months went by, and I had begun to think nothing would come of it, when I got an email from Adam Freudenheim himself! He wrote that they were interested and would like to see more. At that stage I had a complete translation ready, so I sent them a couple more chapters. Soon after that, Daniel Hahn was kind enough to introduce me to Julia Nicholson, then assistant editor at Pushkin, who was visiting the British Centre for Literary Translation’s Summer School, which I was taking part in. It turned out they really were interested, and she had already read it in Russian! Things moved pretty quickly after that.

VHL: What advice would you give to others translating Hungarian literature – children’s literature or otherwise?

AB: I’m not sure I have the winning formula for getting a translation into print. I had a lot of luck I think and an excellent text to work with of course. I think the quality of the text you choose is key, and it helps if the writer has already been feted at home and translated into other languages if you are working from a language as small as Hungarian. You must believe that it is special and be able to explain why. Getting to know people in the translation world, through forums like the Emerging Translators’ Network, or attending events like the BCLT Summer School can also give you an entrée that would otherwise be difficult to achieve.

VHL: What are you working on at the moment? 

AB: I have almost finished the first draft of a chapter from Zoltán Halasi’s book about the Holocaust, Út az üres éghez (Road to the Empty Sky). This is the fourth one I have done for him, each one being very different in structure and style. This one, ‘Saving the Children’, is written as an oral report made by Irena Sendlerova to the Polish government in exile in London on how she and her colleague Irena Shultz had been smuggling children out of the Warsaw ghetto and placing them with families and in convents on the ‘Aryan side.’ It is chilling stuff and challenging in very different ways from Lázár’s book, but links into a sample translation I recently sent to Pushkin of a novel for children about the experience of bystanders in the Holocaust in Hungary.

JM: I’m making a book about Budapest for a tiny toy museum in Óbuda, an ancient district of the city. I enjoy it greatly.

Interview by Veronika Haacker-Lukács, August 2019


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