Thoughts on the German Translation of They Were Counted

I should perhaps begin where the story itself began for me. It is worth a line or two, not so much for my sake as for the sake of Miklós Bánffy. Or to be more precise, for the sake of his novel and its reception, past and future, which is a modest testimony to the wisdom and truth of the late Roman saying according to which every book has its own destiny. We know the fate of the author. He met his tragic end in 1950 in Budapest, impoverished, far from his Transylvanian homeland, stripped of his properties, his treasures of art, and his reputation. For decades his literary work was suppressed by the system, for a count with a name well-known in the history of the region clearly had no place in the brave new world of “socialist culture” (as if descent were a decisive criterion in the arts).

Will Bánffy come to partake of the same bitter redress as Sándor Márai, who was forgotten following his emigration to the West, only then to win international renown after his death? It is perhaps a bit too soon to venture an answer to this question, but there are signs that he may. Opinion abroad took no notice of Bánffy in the 20th century. His principal work, however, Erdélyi történet (“Transylvanian History”, or as it has been translated into English by Patrick Thursfield and Katalin Bánffy-Jelen, Transylvanian Trilogy or The Writing on the Wall), has now been published in English, French, and Spanish, and all three translations have been met with an enthusiastic reception in the press. Reviewers have drawn comparisons with the work of Stendhal, Proust, Tolstoy and in particular Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa in their assessments of the significance of the trilogy and the intellectual and artistic affinities of its author. Bánffy himself could hardly have hoped for more distinguished company. And the book is being purchased and read as well. The fact that softcover editions keep coming out speaks for itself.

And one has the impression that the unusual (and from the Hungarian perspective of course very encouraging) tale of the book continues. To mention a personal example, one evening towards the end of October 2010, as I was reading student papers in my office at Andrássy University (where the language of instruction is German), Herbert Ohrlinger, an old friend and director of the Paul Zsolnay Publishing House in Vienna, called me on the phone. His voice was full of excitement. As it turned out, he had already tried to reach me at my home, and my wife had given him my number, for apparently he felt it was quite urgent that he speak with me. Was I familiar with Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy? Yes, I was.

I admit, for some time the name Miklós Bánffy meant nothing to me. However, when the first volume of the novel, the volume entitled They Were Counted in the English translation, was republished after a long hiatus in 1982 under the so-called soft-dictatorship of János Kádár, I bought a copy. I was not particularly interested in the compulsorily apologetic preface by Endre Illés, which showed appreciation for the value of the work, but dismissed the author as a dilettante aristocrat. As someone who had travelled several times to Transylvania, I had been prompted to purchase the book first and foremost by an interest in history, so I read with no small measure of wonder the powerful portrait Bánffy paints of Transylvanian society. The conditions and relations that prevail in Bánffy’s depiction of Transylvania in the first decade of the 20th century seemed almost unbelievable, yet entirely convincing.

At the time, the beginning of the 1980s, the transformation that this historically distinctive and important region had undergone over the course of a mere 60 unfortunate years seemed to offer a sad lesson. Now we are separated by a century from the era in which the novel is set. Should we regard this as a long time, or as a short time? Even today we are separated from the world of Bánffy’s novel by only three generations.

They Were Counted strengthened one of my personal convictions. I have always believed that historians and even laymen who take an interest in history should read works of belles-lettres as well. In other words, historians study and recount important events and the lives of important figures, causes and interconnections, but their toolbox (and this is an unavoidable concomitant of the study of history) is inadequate. We expect the historian to provide a credible account of the spirit of an age, yet more often than not even the conscientious historian is not able to offer a nuanced depiction of the mood of a time. Given the different tools with which he or she works, the author of a work of belles-lettres is better able to do this, and in the ideal case a novelist has the same artistic talent and knowledge of the social and political context as Bánffy, who knew the milieu he portrayed in intimate detail.

When I read the first volume of Transylvanian History, I had not yet read Antal Szerb’s very positive assessment of the work: “astonishingly unerring composition and a first-rate piece of reading”. I had a similar response, a bit mixed, perhaps, with the bad conscience of the so-called modern man of culture (who is, one must admit, something of a snob). To think that lo, a traditional narrative that avoided convoluted stylistic stunts and displays nonetheless could hold me captive! For the 300 page novel was a profound experience, an enthralling story, even beyond the historical testimonies. At no point was it dreadful or shocking. On the contrary, since the publishing industry at the time was not bringing out the second or third parts of the trilogy, I began to hunt for the other volumes in used book stores in Budapest until I finally found copies, much the worse for wear and shabbily thrown together (even considering the general shoddiness of book printing and binding in our modern age), editions printed in the late years of the calamitous war.


To cut a long story short, I replied to the director of the Zsolnay Publishing House in Vienna that yes, I was familiar with the trilogy. And what did I think of it, was his next question, I should be brief. I objected that it was not a simple task to give a brief account of a 1,500 page novel, but he told me to do so anyway. The work, I replied, is a grand fresco of the last ten years of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy before the outbreak of the First World War, with a focus on Transylvania, but also set in several other locales. Bánffy builds his chronicle around two love stories. These are the weaker aspects of the novel, in particular the story of the unhappy fate of the protagonist. The portrayal of social interrelations, however, is magnificent, including the lifestyle and mentality of the upper aristocracy, with which Bánffy himself was intimately familiar. The depictions of the political conflicts and mood in the years leading up to the outbreak of the war are also strikingly convincing. The head of the publishing house was particularly interested in my comment that Bánffy gives a detailed treatment of the plans of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and that the political workshop created in the Belvedere palace and its relationship to Hungary is one of the most important elements of the book.

“But to what do I owe the pleasure of the call, so late in the evening”, I asked, and finally he got around to saying what he had to say, which brings me back to the comment I made at the beginning of my tale, namely, the unusual fate of Transylvanian History, and of course of the reputation of its esteemed author. In the recent past an Italian and a Dutch publishing house had purchased the rights to the translations of the Bánffy novel. The success of the English, French, and Spanish translations no doubt influenced their decisions. The head of the Zsolnay Publishing House in Vienna, having ascertained, a bit to his surprise, that the trilogy had not yet been translated into German, wanted to purchase the rights himself. He then asked me to write a report as a literary advisor, which he would need in order to justify his decision to the owner of the publishing house. I should be brief, and I should write quickly, for he had to act quickly, lest another publishing house move first and snatch the opportunity from his fingertips.

One can hardly deny that there is a sad irony in the fact that 60 years after Bánffy’s death the West European publishing houses, which for so long were indifferent to or ignorant of his work, are vying with one another for the rights to works he wrote in the 1930s. And I would note, the example of Bánffy also demonstrates how unfounded the oft heard contention is according to which time is the judge of all things, who passes the final verdict on the place and worth of an artist. Times change, and we change with them, but circumstances change too, and with them, perceptions and assessments.


In the end the Paul Zsolnay Verlag managed to purchase the rights to the German translation of Transylvanian History, and I became one of the readers for the publishing house, and later, after a bit of persuasion on their part, the translator. Essentially the Viennese publishing house intends to bring out the first volume in the spring of 2012, the second, És hijjával találtattál (translated into English as They Were Found Wanting) a year later, and the third, Darabokra szaggattatol (They Were Divided) in 2014. The publication of the last volume in 2014 is intended to peak the interests of the potential readership in part because the narrative deals with events that took place precisely a century ago, as the trilogy comes to an end with the outbreak of the First World War.

When I wrote these lines, I had just finished the translation of They Were Counted. I still have to write an afterword, and I confess, the task is causing me a bit of a headache. The publisher would like a different afterword for each volume of the trilogy, and so I have to consider what I should mention in each. I remain a bit uncertain, but I think in the first I will focus on Bánffy’s life and his astonishingly varied career, in the second on the spirit of the time, and in the third – the very title of which alludes to the dismemberment of the country in 1920 – on the conditions and consequences of the post-war peace treaty, which to this day represents a trauma for Hungarian society. I agree with the publisher that each afterword should be accompanied by a brief explanation of the historical context, as one could hardly expect even an Austrian reader (and certainly not a German or Swiss reader) to know who István Tisza was (for instance) or what he represented, or what the debates upon the military that took place in the parliament in Budapest in the early years of the 20th century and in the end created a political crisis were really about.

Of course these summaries of history should be kept brief, as Bánffy’s first volume alone comes to some 700 pages. It would hardly be prudent to add more pages to the already thick tome. Indeed I already stand a bit amazed by the boldness of the Zsolnay Publishing House. “Do you think that the German speaking public will read such a long novel about Transylvania?” my Hungarian acquaintances often ask when they hear that I have translated the trilogy. My sincere reply is simply that I do not know. And that I have my doubts, at least on the one hand. On the other, I think of the success of the English, French, and Spanish translations. And if a Dutch publishing house was bold enough to publish the novel in a country numbering only some sixteen-million, then why would the Zsolnay Publishing House be timid about bringing it out for the German reading public, which numbers over ninety million?

It is possible that in spite of the stream of innumerable vapid products of the internet, television, and entertainment industry people nonetheless continue to read and that the book, the imminent demise of which has so often been foretold, lives on. Whatever the case, the head of the Austrian publishing house, having read the German translation of the first volume of Bánffy’s trilogy, spoke in superlatives of a “rediscovered masterpiece”. And he is planning a major advertising campaign for the spring. As the translator I of course have nothing to do with this, just as I have little say in the question of the German title, for the title is, after all, part of the marketing strategy. Though I was not pleased to learn of the publisher’s decision. He found the admonition from the Old Testament too sombre and not sufficiently stirring. But since the words from the Book of Daniel give the novel itself its meaning, they could not simply be left out or altered. So the German title of the first volume, it seems, will be Die Schrift in Flammen, or “the writing in flames”. The inclusion of the well-worn phrase Writing on the Wall as the subtitle of the English translation reflects similar timidity on the part of the English publisher.


When I was a university student, my professors of literature never tired of cautioning us to read slowly, attentively, and mindfully. But now, as I translate, again it has become clear to me how superficially I read (perhaps how superficially one reads, or how superficially we read) under normal circumstances. Of course I am thinking of two fundamentally different undertakings, devouring a novel as an engaged or even impassioned reader on the one hand or grasping the meaning of each and every word, the structure and rhythm of each sentence as a translator on the other. In the course of taking apart and then reassembling the puzzle of the novel, a day-to-day endeavour that stretches over months, the structure of the novel, the broad arches of the individual chapters, and the exact placing and significance of the recurring motifs all appeared to me in a different light than they had when I had first turned the pages of the book as a reader in search of diversion or possibly a bit of erudition.

I have no intention of offering here a detailed analysis or interpretation of the novel. I wish only to illustrate the contentions I have made with one or two examples. The first chapter of They Were Counted is a masterfully composed introduction, as indeed the writer and literary historian István Nemeskürty noted, not as a translator but simply as an attentive reader. It is an introduction to a milieu that is unusual and unfamiliar to most of us, the upper layers of Transylvanian society. It is also an introduction to the protagonist, to his manner of thinking and world of thought. We come to know the Transylvanian characters of the novel, all introduced by the author in the first thirty pages, from the perspective of Bálint Abády during a car ride. His fate is the red thread of the novel. But the introduction concerns more than the present. The old acquaintances with whom he meets in the course of the drive lead Bálint’s thoughts back into the past, to his childhood.

The figure of his grandfather appears, who at the beginning of the novel is no longer among the living, but who remains nonetheless an important point of reference, the elderly man who took an interest in the human sciences and the arts and was knowledgeable in the natural sciences as well, a man who in his tolerant wisdom became a kind of honorary arbiter and conciliator of the area. Both Hungarians and Romanians seek him out to ask his opinion, and he understands their plights, whatever their native tongues, and offers his counsel. The figure of the gentle old man beloved by all plays an important role in the last part of They Were Counted, when the Romanian peasants of the Snow-Capped Mountains seek the assistance of Bálint Abády in their conflicts with usurers, and one of them, himself an old man, persuades the hesitant young man by mentioning his recollections of Bálint’s grandfather, who in all certainty would have come to their aid.

The manner in which in the first chapters of the novel Bánffy offers subtle portrayals of his characters and sketches of their destinies, which later, in the dramatically dense sixth chapter are fulfilled, testifies to his deliberate and deft approach to composition. The memory of Bálint’s forbears, his father and his grandfather, which is a continuous thread of the novel, is expressive of Bálint’s (and Bánffy’s) creed and conviction regarding the social role of the nobility, which can only justify its privileged place in the social hierarchy through service and defence of the country, the common good, and the peasantry. They must perform this role until a communal consciousness develops among the masses: “You must lead, help, and support those who in their material wealth and their cultivation are so far beneath you.”

But do the characters in Bánffy’s novel do this, characters who are based on real people (some of them perhaps composites of several people) and whom Bánffy himself unquestionably must have known? They do not. Most of them show little sign of possessing any such sense of commitment. It is difficult to imagine a literary critic or historian who would not take note of the bitter verdict Bánffy passes on his contemporaries and his own aristocratic social class, which exerted a dominant influence in political life. Yet if one reads the text carefully, from one word to the next, like a translator is compelled to do, he will find with some surprise that Bánffy himself does not condemn anyone. As a writer he simply depicts. He portrays the occupations of the upper layer of society: they dance without end at balls, drink and listen to the music of Gypsy performers, sing and carouse, play cards, gamble on horse races, challenge one another to duels, hunt, occasionally manage their estates, and of course participate in politics, blustering colourful nationalist rallying cries, haughtily disregarding the rest of Europe, and blindly courting their own ruin, whether in the assemblies in the provinces or in the Parliament in Budapest.

But Bánffy does not comment on any of this. His bitterness at the sight of such irresponsibility does not burst forth until a few sentences at the end of the third volume. Otherwise he does not pass judgment or moralize. He portrays his contemporaries with unmistakable irony, but he does not condescend to his reader, whom he leaves to form his own opinion. Only the titles of the three volumes, the allusions to the Book of Daniel, offer any sign of his assessment. The fragments of his memoirs reveal that he was spurred to write Transylvanian History in the 1930s by his conviction that even in the interwar period the greater part of the Hungarian upper class had still not realized that the clock had struck. Yet his criticisms notwithstanding, it is unmistakably clear that Bánffy is at home in the social milieu he has depicted. His view of his fellow aristocrats resembles the remarks of Kálmán Mikszáth on the gentry: so much talent, so many merits, all of which will vanish without having been of any benefit, neither to the individual blessed with ability nor to the country.


I am often asked whether it is difficult to translate Bánffy. It is not easy to give a single answer. The rare dialogues in the novel in general are among the easiest sections to translate. It is considerably more difficult to recreate in German the detailed descriptions of people and buildings, Transylvanian manors and the Budapest residences of members of the aristocracy, as well as their furnishings and décor. To cite one example, Bánffy is capable of offering a lengthy description of a museum worthy dinner-table service with the thoroughness of a connoisseur. Yet the hardest task for the translator remains the descriptions of the Transylvanian landscapes. One clearly senses that alongside the figure of the narrator sits the figure of a painter, for Bánffy was, after all, a pupil of the great Hungarian painter Bertalan Székely, and his rapturous love of the Transylvanian mountains, villages, rivers, and forests flows from his words. His knowledge of botany was also astounding. In a description of the flood plains in the first chapter of the fifth part he names the numerous trees, shrubs, and wild plants with unfailing precision. This presents any translator with a tough task. The same is true of the sections in which he writes of the Snow-Capped Mountains and devotes an entire page to a description of a half-frozen waterfall or a campfire on a winter’s eve.

I find it hard to imagine a reader who would not be captivated by Bánffy’s descriptions of landscapes. Why might this be the case? For these sections are rarely the readership’s favourite part of a book, especially when they are lengthy. The answer lies in the palpable ardour that guides Bánffy’s pen. And I would add, equally palpable is his unspoken pain at the thought that the landscapes and his beloved Transylvanian homeland are lost to Hungary. If I were to limit myself to his use of language, however, and questions of style, I would mention his impressionistic vision and manner of depiction. He saw the slants of light, the play of shadows, the pale shifts of colours, the way in which a shade of blue always mingles with the darker tones of nature’s palette, with the discerning eye of a painter familiar with the French impressionism, while as a writer he was able to give expression to his vision through language. At such moments his vocabulary, already opulent, becomes lavish, and difficult to mimic in German, for instance when instead of using the adjectives “grey” or “white” he writes of the “greyness” and “whiteness”. There are corresponding words in English and German, but in the case of both languages their weight and worth are different.

In his witty and insightful review of They Were Counted, which was published in the journal Nyugat, Antal Szerb characterized Bánffy’s style as surprising, the word order of his sentences unusual and suggestive, and his diction impressively unfamiliar. A reader today might well notice simply the elegance and grace of his language. The structure of the sentences hardly seems unusual now, for the Hungarian language is remarkably lenient and flexible from this perspective, and the literature of the past few decades has accustomed us to a great deal that might once have seemed arresting. We pause when we encounter Transylvanian expressions in Bánffy’s text. Who were the “kurtán”, what is a “tanarok”, what are the “ürver” mountains, and what does a “sátés” hill look like? Alas the translator cannot allow himself the luxury of simply ignoring such questions.

Bánffy’s contemporaries, Antal Szerb among them, detected an unusual, aristocratic flavour to his writing. Of course in the count’s prose one hears the self-conscious voice of refinement and erudition. As a translator, however, I could not help but notice something I always experience when translating Hungarian literature into German, namely that even in the work of such a cultured author in its expressions and its raw but visual power the Hungarian language is far closer to the land, to the world of the ploughman, than German, which was standardized, burnished, and adjusted to urban life. In Bánffy’s novel András Jópál, the unfortunate inventor, dismisses Bálint Abády’s words of encouragement. “No need”, he says, after he “gave a swish of his arm”. Jópál is a mathematician who has completed university studies, but in his gesture, expressed in Hungarian with the verb “suhint”, one hears the crack of the whip and feels the motion of his muscular arm, both of which are expressive of the defiant bitterness of a lonely man who has abandoned hope. There is no verb, neither in German nor in English, that quite captures this meaning so tersely.

And one should concede that Bánffy was not a literary artisan who laboured over his texts with obsessive care. Even when writing he was something of a grand seigneur. He was at times indifferent to details. His frequent use of the same word is a considerable source of work for the translator. The repetitions are perhaps less striking to the Hungarian reader, as the various suffixes often give the word a different form. But in German nouns do not take suffixes, and the verb endings are often identical, which means that the repeated words have something of a dry thud and break the rhythm of the sentence. The translator is compelled to find synonyms. I also thought it judicious to translate the chapters in which the author narrates the protagonist’s romances in a significantly more staid German idiom, at least to the extent that fidelity permitted. In later decades German Romanticism of the early 19th century reappeared in maudlin, sentimental trends. The story of the relationship between Bálint Abády and Adrienne Milóth is not the strongest part of Bánffy’s novel, but it would have been an unfair blunder to have suggested to the German-speaking reader that the Transylvanian writer bore any affinities whatsoever with the crop of mawkish featherweights familiar from the less distinguished episodes of German literature.

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