I have just finished Gyorgy Faludy’s My Happy Days in Hell, recently republished as part of the excellent Penguin Central European Classics series.
The translation was made by Kathleen Szasz in 1962, which is presumably why Penguin didn’t think it was necessary to credit her on its website.Curiously, the text is littered with typos, including a misspelling of the word ‘translation’, and bigger, more frustrating errors like this one:
“But you’ve hated clerics all your life…if reaction [sic] came to power again they would tear you to pieces…” (pg. 294).
An important detail is lost here; my guess is that a political party called Reaction is meant, but it is mentioned nowhere else in the text. This is one example of several that nag at you throughout the book.
It is odd that Penguin didn’t apply their usually high editorial standards in this case, considering that the translation still rings true and is relatively free of period mannerisms. The only thing which is out of step with current trends in literary translation is the rendering of the author’s name throughout as George, despite the fact that it is Gyorgy on the cover and all the other Hungarian names are left in the original, or at most lightly anglicised. At one point an old friend addresses him as Gyurka, using the diminutive (i.e. Georgie), and the translator didn’t touch it. This is surely an inconsistency that Penguin could have silently ironed out, and highlights a problem which runs across several other titles in the series: the apparent lack of an editor. Another example is Proud To Be A Mammal, a collection of Czesław Miłosz’s essays, about which there is no information regarding the circumstances or dates of their composition. Now, considering the period in which the essays were written, this is likely to be information that even a casual reader would have appreciated, and that any conscientious editor would have supplied.
In any case, My Happy Days in Hell is superb. In my opinion it stands alongside Cancer Ward and The Tin Drum as an essential text for anyone wanting to get an insight into this period of the history of modern Europe.
“I felt that it was the things I had learned in the Latin, Greek and history classes of my school that formed the stumbling block on which communism foundered. Whenever I read the works or listened to the speeches of the ideologists or politicians of the régime, the precise rules of Latin grammar and style warned me that the subjects did not correspond to the predicates, that the tenses were incorrectly used and that the text was impure. Not only formally impure, but also in its essence, because the writer or speaker was lying – lying consciously – and in addition was bored with his own lies. The little I had learned in logic, correct and incorrect deduction, immunized me against the arguments, slogans, promises, predictions and statistics of the communists.”