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George Szirtes: Translate for the Shop!

12 July 2021

International Booker Prize winner George Szirtes delivered the keynote lecture at Bristol Translates 2021, the literary translation summer school. Szirtes reflected on his work as a poet, translator and, most recently, judge on the prize he had won himself earlier. He explained that while translation is an activity often carried out “in the lab,” it is important that it should be done “for the shop” so that its fruit can be enjoyed “in the street.”

The lecture did not shy away from controversy. In response to recent debates about “appropriation,” Szirtes put to his audience the suggestion that “a Hungarian writer longs to be appropriated!” Given that Hungarian is a small language with comparatively little international clout, literary translators play a large role in helping authors integrate into wider discourse communities. Again from the vantage point of authors, Szirtes said: “I don’t think most writers want to stay in a highly theorised lab. […] They’d like to be in a shop in your street.” In a tongue-in-cheek reference to debates around the origin of the Coronavirus, Szirtes presented himself as an advocate of the literary “lab leak” that allows a wide readership to access a diverse range of literature in translation.

Szirtes illustrated his argument through references to his own journey as a Hungarian author who started writing in English and in England, almost forgetting his mother tongue and then rediscovering it as an adult, to the point where he was able to become a powerful ally of Hungarian authors in the Anglophone world. He cited some of his own poems on language and translation as well as verse translations of his own and colleagues. The resulting picture of translation as urgent, feasible and impressive provided additional impetus to many in the two-hundred-strong online audience to pursue their work as literary translators.

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