Translating Soros: The Challenges of a Life Remembered

18.6 2015
{{Translating Soros: The Challenges of a Life Remembered

Humphrey Tonkin}}
University of Hartford



Tivadar Soros. Maškaráda kolem smrti. Trans. Jindřiška Drahotová


Translation is like riding a horse: the better you know the animal, the easier it is. With any memoir, the translator must know the historical and personal context and must understand the generic nature of the work (in this case a memoir of the Holocaust). But the translator of Tivadar Soros’s Masquerade faces some additional problems. Soros wrote in a second language which he knew less well than his native Hungarian, so that the translator is sometimes caught between what the author actually said and what the author intended to say. Initially, there were also significant textual problems to be addressed. Thus the integrity of both text and translator were challenged in interesting ways. Many of these challenges continue as the work is translated into more and more languages.


FIRST I want to say what a great pleasure it is to be here on the occasion of the launch of the Czech translation of Tivadar Soros’s Maskerado ĉirkaŭ la morto, a story of the survival of a Jewish family in Budapest during World War II. Under any circumstances, this memoir would be remarkable, but it is made all the more so because of two facts. First, the sons of Tivadar went on to become major figures in the business world, Paul Soros as an engineer specializing in the design of bulk handling and port facilities, and George Soros as a financier. Both became philanthropists, George founding the Central European University, now located in Budapest, and the Open Society Institute, which, particularly in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union, was active (sometimes controversially) in assisting the creation of democratic institutions in countries formerly part of the Soviet bloc. George Soros has on many occasions emphasized the influence of his father on his own development. The principal key to understanding this influence is the book Maskerado.

The background to Maskerado

Tivadar wrote the book at a time when relatively little attention was being devoted to the fate of the Jews of central Europe. While there were certainly books that preceded his (The Diary of Anne Frank, most notably; and If This Is a Man by Primo Levi), the great outpouring of memoirs and studies of the Holocaust came some years later, when time had put a greater distance between the harrowing events and their retelling. Indeed, it was only with the second edition of If This Is a Man, in 1958, that Primo Levi’s experiences got much attention. The narratives that came later were situated in what was increasingly a generic context: the genre of Holocaust narrative and of Jewish survival narrative began to take shape. Those of us who study literature know that no work can be written without attention to genre: every work has its predecessors and takes shape in the shadow of those that preceded it. There were few precedents for the tone and direction of Tivadar’s book, which finally saw the light of day in 1965, issued by the publishing house of Stafeto, in La Laguna, in the Canary Islands. The book was written in Esperanto.

The question of why Tivadar chose to write in Esperanto has a complicated answer. Tivadar was born in a town in northeastern Hungary at the end of the nineteenth century into a family of prosperous Jewish entrepreneurs. They had aspirations for their son and he had aspirations for himself – a mixture of thirst for adventure and determination to better himself. He studied law to raise his social standing and stimulate his intellect, and, when World War I broke out, he immediately enlisted in the army to seek adventure. At a time when very few Jews were admitted into the officer corps of the Austro-Hungarian army, he received his commission and was shipped off to the eastern front, where, during a period of military inaction, he whiled away his time learning the international language Esperanto from one of his fellow-officers. It is not recorded whether he ever so much as raised a rifle in defense before his position was surrounded by the Russians and he and his men surrendered. From there he was shipped by a roundabout route to eastern Siberia, ultimately finding himself imprisoned in a camp across the Amur River from the city of Khabarovsk. And there he remained for the rest of the war.

When the war was over, the old Austro-Hungary was no more, much of eastern Russia was in a state of turmoil, and no one was particularly interested in what happened to the numerous prisoners of war held in the camps in the area. As a Jewish officer in territory where such camps were at the mercy of marauding White forces, themselves violently anti-Semitic, he decided to break out of the camp, along with a number of his comrades, and ended up traveling on foot through the mountains of Siberia in what proved a grueling march to freedom lasting for several months. Making his way back to Hungary on a journey that involved passing himself off as an Austrian officer (in Moscow) and getting named the secretary of a newly founded national Soviet Esperanto association (in Leningrad), he returned to Budapest, where he met up with the Hungarian writers Kálmán Kalocsay and Gyula Baghy and with them founded an Esperanto literary journal, Literatura Mondo. For this journal he wrote a serial account of his Siberian adventures, called Modern Robinsons, in which he adopted the style and persona of a latter-day Robinson Crusoe. The account soon appeared as a book, in Esperanto of course.

In a period of galloping inflation, Tivadar was highly successful in currency trading. He also invested in real estate and managed properties for others. In due course he married and he and his wife had two sons, Paul and George. Tivadar was not entirely like other businessmen of his day. He seemed seldom overworked, always ready to lavish time and attention on his sons. Something of a flâneur, he enjoyed the life of the city, attending the theater and the opera. He was also an athlete and a swimmer – and he was always willing to try new things and to teach his sons to take measured risks and to enjoy the excitement of doing so. “Life is beautiful,” he later wrote at the beginning of Maskerado, “and full of variety and adventure; but luck must be on your side.”

I will not recount the adventures (and I use the word advisedly) that Tivadar describes in Maskerado, since you can discover them for yourselves. Suffice it to say that the whole family survived the war, often under hair-raising circumstances, and set about creating a new life for itself. Tivadar made contact with what was left of the Esperanto movement in Hungary and was soon organizing a trip to the World Congress of Esperanto, to be held in Switzerland in 1947. George, now seventeen years old, traveled with his father to the Esperanto Congress in Berne, but stayed on when his father returned to Budapest, initially to attend an Esperanto youth conference in Britain; but, with the help of British Esperantists, he secured a student visa, entered the London School of Economics, and ultimately launched his career in finance at first in the UK and later in the States. Paul was selected as a member of the Hungarian ski team for the Winter Olympics in Saint-Moritz and journeyed west with the team, despite a wounded leg, which he managed to conceal from his team-mates. He defected from the group in Vienna and eventually ended up in the United States.

When Hungary erupted in uprising against the Soviets in 1956, Tivadar and his wife Elizabeth managed to cross the border to Vienna and then to New York, where they remained for the rest of their lives.

The writing of Maskerado

Tivadar wrote Maskerado in Esperanto probably in part because of his positive experience with the language at the time of Literatura Mondo and Modern Robinsons. But, more to the point: while he had time on his hands in New York, he had no language at his disposal. The family said of him that he spoke many languages, all of them badly. While there is plenty of evidence that this was not so (his German was good enough for him to pass as an Austrian, and his Russian was evidently good enough for him to be an appropriate candidate for the secretaryship of the Soviet Esperantists), it does seem likely that his English was not perfect. Furthermore, he probably had no contacts in the American publishing world. Nor was there any point in writing the book in Hungarian: there was no possibility that a book by a Hungarian Jew who had absconded to America would find a place in a publisher’s list in Budapest.

On the other hand, Juan Régulo Pérez, who ran a tiny publishing house in the Canary Islands which published primarily literary books in Esperanto, and whose experiences in the Spanish Civil War were not dissimilar from those of Tivadar in World War II, proved a sympathetic supporter of his efforts and agreed to publish Maskerado. Just when Tivadar started writing we do not know – nor is it entirely clear that he settled on Esperanto at first; but the Esperanto project was far enough along for Kálmán Kalocsay to know about it when, as an enthusiastic graduate student equipped with a tape-recorder, I visited him in Budapest in 1963. The book was launched at the World Esperanto Congress in Tokyo in 1965. In 1966 Tivadar visited Hungary for the first time since his departure ten years earlier, again for the World Esperanto Congress. I met him briefly in New York a few weeks later on the occasion of an Esperanto meeting in the city. Sadly, I had not read his book at the time, and so did not know what questions to ask. He died two years later.

The translation

My involvement with the translation was almost a matter of accident. Asked by the family to provide a translation of Tivadar’s two books for their private use, I did so during a sabbatical year at Yale University, where the library’s abundant holdings allowed me to immerse myself in the history of World War I’s eastern front and the fate of the Budapest Jews in World War II. Modern Robinsons was a fairly straightforward undertaking, though I spent a good deal of time trying to trace the exact route that Tivadar and his comrades followed through the Siberian mountains on their way to freedom. Maskerado, however, was more complicated. The family had in their possession a typewritten version of the book that was apparently a translation of the original, evidently the work of a family friend who was not a native speaker of English. However, it contained some material that was not included in the 1965 published version, and left some material out. Unable to put my hands on the full correspondence between Tivadar and Régulo Pérez, I had no way of telling what these discrepancies meant. I finally decided to include all the material – the full text of the 1965 book plus the additions, rendered into passable English. So the book is something of a palimpsest, though for the most part it follows the 1965 text.

I also decided to try to make the book accessible to those who were interested not just in Tivadar’s story but also in its background. One obvious question that arises with a text of this kind is the extent to which it is an accurate retelling of the events it describes. Given its straightforward style, and given the emphasis that it puts on the events themselves, it seemed only right (and indeed in this case the translator’s responsibility) to do everything that I could to substantiate the narrative.

And thus I became immersed in the cruel and melancholy history of the years, late in the war, of the perpetration of the Hungarian Holocaust. Things had not gone smoothly for Adolf Eichmann, architect of the mass extermination of the Jews earlier in the war in Poland. He was determined to get it right this time in Hungary. Now that the Nazis had entered Hungary (though they were still not fully in control), the rounding up of Hungarian Jews was fast, efficient, and ruthless – despite the efforts of Horthy’s government at least to slow the process down. Arrayed against this barbarity was a network of foreign diplomats, safe houses, and deal-makers – a network that included, most notably, the Swedish diplomat Raul Wallenberg, and such other figures as Charles Lutz of Switzerland, and the Esperanto-speaker Valdemar Langlet (1872-1960) of the Swedish Red Cross.

And in the middle of it all were the Jews themselves, seeking the protection of certificates of immunity issued by the Swedish, Swiss, Portuguese, Spanish, and El Salvador authorities, or looking for means of escape, such as the famous Kastner trains that helped many Jews to gain passage to concentration camps rather than the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Others, like Tivadar and his family, assumed false identities – masks that allowed them to survive even as they danced around the death sure to confront them if they were discovered.

The nature of Maskerado

As a narrative of the avoidance of death rather than the inevitability of its occurrence, Maskerado is a story of ingenuity and happy accidents. Tivadar tells us that he always enjoyed adventure stories – and he seeks to tell this story of unspeakable horror not as a tiny lacuna in an otherwise horrific history, but simply for what he felt it to be – the ability of a resourceful man to survive and to help his family to survive. I am not at all sure that it would have been possible to write such a story twenty years later, when the pattern of such narratives was already fixed, the genre already established, and when the sheer weight of our knowledge of the tragedy made it harder to treat it as the stuff of adventure. Tivadar had the advantage of working in what was essentially new territory – territory in which the values of ingenuity and simple kindness were allowed to carry the moral truth of the story. In working on the translation, I did my best to render this unencumbered narrative in those terms, using extended notes to tell the larger story of the Jews of Budapest as a way of setting Tivadar’s memories in context.

Everything that I could discover bore out the veracity of Tivadar’s narrative. There were occasional statements of facts that have since proved incorrect, or opinions that might have different interpretations, but there is every evidence that Tivadar attempted to tell the story as it really happened.

He is an accomplished story-teller, providing us with just enough information to understand, but not loading it down with detail that might detract from the narrative effect. The style is that of someone who lets the events speak for themselves and who for the most part is not inclined to extended introspection, even if the simple sentences are artfully arranged to convey his message. He learned this skill, no doubt, from his youthful immersion in the novels of Rider Haggard, Jules Verne, and Arthur Conan Doyle – and from his writing of Modern Robinsons almost forty years earlier. Modern Robinsons was written in a naïve style that was well suited to Tivadar’s limitations as well as his strengths. While he followed Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe, only at a distance and not entirely consistently, this style allowed him to write with a relatively limited vocabulary and in simple and unvarnished sentences. His friends at Literatura Mondo, Baghy and Kalocsay, were both talented writers, but Tivadar’s knowledge of Esperanto appears to have been adequate but not particularly sophisticated. As one reads, one senses the Hungarian influence behind his syntax and vocabulary.

It is here that the problems of the translator emerge. What do we do with a text that is expressed in a language with whose subtleties the author may not always be acquainted?
Let me put this question to one side for a moment while I explore the larger question of Esperanto as a literary language and a language of translation. I hope I will be forgiven this diversion.

Esperanto as a language of translation

Though the same is less true of Maskerado than it is of Modern Robinsons, it is evident (if I may put it this way) that Esperanto is not Tivadar’s first language. Given the nature of Esperanto as an additional language, this is self-evident in most Esperanto texts. But it is a mark of the accomplished user of Esperanto that his or her command of the language appears to be effortless, as though its characteristics are fully assimilated.

When the command is complete, the translator into Esperanto has a particular strength. The poet William Auld has pointed out that translators into Esperanto enjoy an unusual advantage in that they translate out of their native languages and into Esperanto, having what amounts to an equal command of both languages. This is perhaps one reason why translations form such an important part of Esperanto literature as a whole. I myself have experienced such advantages in translating texts as apparently diverse as Shakespeare and Winnie-the-Pooh.

When Zamenhof published his language, almost the first thing he did was to begin translation. His 1887 publication contained a translation of Heine, along with some original poetry. After a brief excursion into Dickens, he set to work on a translation of that Everest of literary works, Hamlet, which he published, in a remarkably readable and actable translation, a mere seven years after he published Esperanto itself. If Esperanto could sustain a text of such complexity and international currency as Hamlet, its publication implied, then no literary work was beyond its capability.

It seems that when he created Esperanto Zamenhof had two very different linguistic models in mind. One was Yiddish, a language that he had used on the street and with his friends as he was growing up in Bialystok, in what was then Russia. Yiddish was both an intimate language, in the sense that it was a language of the home, of the private life of ordinary people; and it was also a lingua franca, linking Jews of different national languages with one another across vast tracts of territory. Zamenhof was fond enough of Yiddish to compile a grammar of the language while he was studying medicine at Moscow University.

The other model was Latin, the language of international intellectual exchange throughout medieval and early modern Europe – traditionally not a language of the home but of the study and the lecture hall. This was the language that Zamenhof chose as his linguistic model: much of the vocabulary of the language is drawn from Latin and the Romance languages; and it also displays some of the features of Latin grammar, though filtered through a number of linguistic principles that we do not associate particularly with Latin, nor indeed with other Indo-European languages. His goal was, among other things, prestige. If Yiddish was popularly regarded as “the jargon” – not really a language at all, but a kind of interstitial improvisation allowing the Jews to survive in the cities and villages of Europe – Latin had high prestige, surviving, even during the massive technological revolution underway in the late nineteenth century, as a topic of elite learning in the schools and universities of the day.

Zamenhof continued translating, producing a whole series of renderings into Esperanto – many of them plays, since drama afforded an opportunity to describe human interaction and helped advance the range of the language into new experience, including colloquial experience, thus expanding the vocabulary and strengthening the structure of the language. Finally, he translated the whole of the Old Testament. Zamenhof’s example as translator was soon followed by some of his talented followers, who set about rendering major literary works – novels, short stories, poetry, drama – in the new language. The goal was threefold: to allow an international audience to read these works, to expand the language, and, above all, to demonstrate that literary production was possible in the new language, in short that it could hold its own among the languages of the elite. From the beginning, Esperanto was more than a mere means to an end: it rapidly became a linguistic community with its own values and cultural products.

Esperanto as a literary language

Original work also played its part. Zamenhof himself wrote several much-quoted poems, and others soon followed suit. The first novels were written in Esperanto; one-act plays appeared. Some of this work was more representative than inspired: it showed that it could be done, but not necessarily that it was worth doing. However, the unique qualities of Esperanto began to attract writers with authentic talent, and literature of genuine worth began to emerge.

Writing in Esperanto is inevitably different from writing in a first language, or an ethnic language. Most literatures are embedded in a single literary tradition, or at least appear to be. I say that they appear to be so, because we are inclined to underestimate the extent to which all literatures borrow from one another, and that, thanks to the work of translators formal and informal, ideas cross linguistic boundaries rapidly and definitively. In this sense, all literatures are to some extent translated literatures: they absorb elements from one another and ultimately make them their own.

This is nowhere truer than in the case of Esperanto. Zamenhof created for his new language a very specific set of grammatical and morphological rules, the former set in stone and the latter partially so. But he did not confront directly the question of semantics. Early dictionaries of the language – Zamenhof’s and those of his followers – took roots from other languages, provided rough definitions, but largely allowed the resulting words to settle their precise meaning over time. There were obvious negatives to such an approach, but there were also some huge positives. Users of the language were obliged to engage in a certain creativity: they had license to draw on the common semantic stock of the European languages, while at the same time fixing precise meaning and nuance as they went along. Furthermore, one important consequence of this open approach to semantics meant that Esperanto had a kind of instant etymological history: not only did Zamenhof create a new language, but he created an instant history for it, and he created a community that in an important sense owned it.

As for the those who tried writing in the language, they were offered two opportunities – to participate in what was gradually growing into an international literary culture, and to share with that culture values and motifs that they drew from their native cultures. In doing so, they were themselves moving out of their immediate intellectual environment into a new environment gradually being constructed by its participants. Such an environment was uniquely liberating. As writing in Esperanto grew and published works multiplied, certain figures, notably Tivadar Soros’s friend Kálmán Kalocsay, became exemplars and arbiters of Esperanto style. We can perhaps compare the situation to that of anglophone or francophone writers in the developing world, whose close and prolonged awareness of the literature of metropolitan English and French allowed them, and continues to allow them, to absorb the ideas and motifs offered by the metropolis while maintaining the distance of second-language speakers mediating between their native cultures and their adoptive cultures. However, whereas these writers are constrained by the weight of the metropolitan cultures in whose languages they are writing, Esperanto writers are free to build a cultural tradition of their own, outside their native cultures.

I emphasize this particular aspect of writing in Esperanto because it poses a special problem for the translator. Translators from, say, Czech into English or vice versa, are moving from one fully developed national culture into another, in which the search for equivalents may present problems because of cultural or other differences, but where in principle all problems are open to solution, the translator from Esperanto into English is dealing with a text that is quite deliberately “othered” from a conventional ethnic-language text. It is for this reason that Esperanto poetry – whose authors tend to exploit those aspects of the language that they do not find in their native languages – is so notoriously difficult to translate.

The Soros translation

What if, as is the case with Tivadar Soros, you are dealing with a writer who, despite his narrative skills, is not entirely comfortable in the adopted idiom of Esperanto? While Tivadar was active in the Esperanto movement in the 1920s, there are few indications of active involvement in the 1930s, when he was raising a family, even though he did teach his sons at least the basics of the language, with George the more attentive pupil. To what extent are the occasional awkwardnesses of style intrinsic to the voice of the narrator, or to what extent are they merely the products of an incomplete knowledge of the language? Or, to put it another way, to what extent should Tivadar’s use of Esperanto be reproduced in a translation into English? In reading the Esperanto text one does occasionally have the sense that it resulted from the thought processes of a speaker of Hungarian rendering an imaginary Hungarian original into written Esperanto. Rather than thinking in Esperanto, as a fluent reader and speaker might do, Tivadar thought primarily in one language and wrote in a second.

In preparing my English translation, I decided quite early on that since Masquerade was a book of memoirs rather than a work of high literature, or indeed of formal literature at all, what mattered was what Tivadar intended to say. Esperanto, with its relative freedom of expression and its lack of historical constraints, is more forgiving than English, with its sometimes dead weight of idiom and its complexity of allusion. Sometimes I was aided by the limited nature of the language of Sophie Bogyo’s manuscript translation into English, since it helped me discern meanings carried over from Hungarian and incompletely rendered by Tivadar into Esperanto. As a result, I was able to produce a text which, while it certainly does not overgo the original, has its own coherence and fluency. The French theorist Jacques Derrida famously suggested that the translator must destroy the original in order to construct a new text. While my goal was certainly not destruction, either metaphorical or literal, I did attempt to mediate between the mind and intention of the author and the English text itself. I think the final text is reasonably successful in this regard, or so I hope.

The publication of my English translation in Britain in the year 2000, was followed by an identical American edition in 2001 (only the title was changed for an American audience), and then by a second edition of the original 1965 Esperanto publication, with the passages that I had discovered in Sophie Bogyo’s translation added in Esperanto translation. German and Turkish translations, based on the English translation, followed soon after – as did a Hungarian translation based on the Esperanto edition. Since that time, translations in Russian and Chinese based on the English text, and Italian based on the Esperanto text, have appeared. Now comes the Czech translation, also from the Esperanto original. I suspect that the Czech translator Jindřiška Drahotová once again faced some of the same problems that I faced fourteen years ago as she wrestled with rendering the Esperanto narrative into the constricted, if expressive and long-honored, confines of her native ethnic language.

I suggested earlier that translation is like riding a horse; it is also like sitting on an overfilled suitcase: if you can at least get the suitcase closed, you can live with the few wrinkles that your clothes display when you reach your destination. At least you got there and the journey was complete. And a hot iron and a little ingenuity will fix everything. I wonder whether Derrida would agree.


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