The Village Notary
A Hungarian Classic Resurrected in Translation

If the literary translator’s fundamental motive is the desire to share with others his delight in the strangeness of alien things, the re-translator’s purpose is more complex. He (allowing the masculine to do duty for both genders!) shares the first translator’s enthusiasm, but more is clearly needed. He may be aware of technical errors—mistranslations, omissions, or factual mistakes—in a previous translation that he is able to correct; he may even be unaware of a previous translation; or, as in this case, feel that the literary language of 170 years ago may strike the modern reader as quaint but not always easy to understand, and that something should be done to remedy this situation. There are, then, two possibilities: either a revision of the previous translation, retaining as much of it as possible while correcting errors and removing archaisms, or a complete fresh start ab initio. The latter is what I chose, in the hope of avoiding sins of o and com alike.

The re-translator also has to be convinced that the original work has qualities that make his efforts worthwhile. That a book is translated in the first place indicates that it has a certain intrinsic worth, a durable value that will mean something beyond the comparatively narrow initial foreign readership that it may gain. The Village Notary is the second of Eötvös’s four novels; the third, Hungary in 1514, is generally felt to be his best, but it was The Village Notary which made his name, by which he is best remembered in Hungary, and which, in the words of the literary historian Géza Hegedűs, was the first work of Hungarian literature to attract international acclaim. Hungarian literary prose may be dated from Kelemen Mikes’s Letters from Turkey, first published in 1791, scarcely fifty years before The Village Notary in 1845. Just as the modern English reader will struggle with Shakespeare, the modern Hungarian may find Eötvös hard going, and may find an English translation easier to read than the original—I have occasionally had the flattering experience of seeing that being done!

A slight mystery surrounds the previous English translation, prepared by Otto von Wenckstern in 1850. A member of an ancient Prussian family, his mother tongue was German. He was working as a journalist in London at the time, and his English is the literary language of the period. From his biography it appears that he had learned English and Italian, and in fact was at one time a teacher of both—but we are not told that he ever studied Hungarian. To do so would have been unusual, and so the biographical omission is a serious one if in fact he did; nor is it recorded that he ever visited Hungary. It is clear that he had friends among the Hungarian exiles in London, one of whom was Kossuth’s emissary Ferenc Pulszky, who contributed notes to the translation. A reference to von Wenckstern in Dickens Notes Online says that he translated from German and Hungarian, and contemporary English reviewers of The Village Notary say that he translated ‘from the Hungarian’. I cannot deny that this is possible, but it appears rather unlikely, and it would certainly have been easy for him to use the German version by Johann Mailath which appeared in 1846 and, like von Wenckstern’s, is slightly abridged.


Despite the critical acclaim with which its translation met in the English press—one reviewer wrote ‘I envy anyone that has not read this book, as they have that pleasure in store’—The Village Notary was less well received in Hungary. After the Revolution of 1848–1849 many in England had a certain sympathy with the Hungarians’ attempt to cast off the Austrian yoke, and all the more so as Russian intervention had a lot to do with their eventual failure. In pre-revolutionary Hungary the book was criticized as a Tendenzroman—a novel with a specific, hortative message—and much can be found in it that derives both from Eötvös’s position as a leading figure in the centralist party in parliament, and more precisely from his earlier novel A karthausi (The Carthusian, 1839–1841) and his only play to achieve success on stage Éljen az egyenlőség! (Up with Equality!) of 1844, some of the characters of which reappear in The Village Notary. His essay Reform (1846) also echoes the sentiments on which the novel is based.

Eastern European literature has a long tradition of seeking to inform the reader as well as to entertain him. Writing in particular of the Russian novel, the vicomte de Vogüé likens the Western reader to one strolling in a shopping street, glancing at the shop windows on the off chance of spotting something of interest, while the East European reader has a more serious purpose in mind. Eötvös is quite explicit about what he is doing: the writer of history compiles facts, from which he deduces principles, while the novelist begins with a principle and devises a narrative to illustrate it. Eötvös refrains overtly from descriptions that his reader will not require, and at the same time introduces passages—some of them quite lengthy—which do nothing to advance the narrative but which set out his ideas on relevant topics. And he repeatedly states that he is not writing history.

Antal Szerb describes Eötvös’s political conviction as ‘compensatory’: as the scion of an aristocratic, German-speaking family, he benefited from having as tutor József Pruzsinszky, who had been imprisoned for involvement in the anti-Habsburg Martinovics plot of 1795. Pruzsinszky, however, was clearly unreformed, and along with Hungarian and Latin planted liberal ideas in his pupil, resulting in the weakening in him of the family’s traditional pro-Austrian stance. Eötvös therefore came to the view that although, as a country defeated by the Turks and then annexed by the Austrians, Hungary had been well served by the independence of the county administrations—almost mini-kingdoms, so independent that in 1848 Ung County felt able to refuse to acknowledge the coronation of Franz Joseph—nevertheless the country would be better off with a strong central government. The county system allowed too much room for inbred incompetence and self-seeking to the five per cent of the population that exercised day-to-day political power. Those with vested interests and less liberal attitudes could hardly be expected to support this view.

Political enlightenment is, however, to be found in The Village Notary in the person of the főispán [an administrative office comparable to that of lord lieutenant in contemporary Britain] as he comes to the fictive Taksony County to preside over the triennial elections. His status makes it hard for him to mingle with hoi polloi, but his secretary goes out and about and reports back, while he himself insists on talking to the eponymous notary. Their private conversation presents a summing-up of Eötvös’s own views—‘[t]he nobility have used the county system to build defences around themselves, behind which they’ve been able to shelter for centuries even against the law’—and a realistic assessment of why it is so hard to take effective action.


The Village Notary was first published in nine monthly instalments in 1845, and the complex plot turns mainly on the lives of the eponymous notary, Jónás Tengelyi, and the outlaw Viola, and on the meshing of the two. Both men are to some extent the authors of their own misfortunes through their uncompromising natures. Tengelyi starts life as the son of a Calvinist pastor, studies law at Heidelberg and begins to practise, but his career is blighted by an adherence to strict principles which leaves him short of the right kind of friends, and he sinks from post to post until he reaches the bottom of the legal profession—a man respected but, outside his immediate family, unloved, and with powerful enemies. Viola is introduced as a fearsome bandit, the terror of the district; previously a capable peasant farmer, he has been outlawed as the result of a hasty act in which, under severe provocation, he accidentally killed a man; love for his wife and children, however, keeps him near the village, even though he can do nothing for them. When Mrs Viola is sick and reduced to utter penury the family is taken in by the Tengelyis. Soon afterwards comes the county election, at which Tengelyi’s enemies cast doubt on his lesser noble rank and thus eligibility to vote; they have arranged for his ‘dog-skin’ certificate of nobility to be stolen. Viola discovers where it is, but, in retrieving it, once again kills a man and is forced to flee. Tengelyi is falsely accused of this murder and is imprisoned. Viola, now at a safe distance, learns of this and comes back to return the document but is killed in a pursuit by a gendarme—in fact, one of those who had robbed Tengelyi—almost before he can do so. On this framework hangs more—the weak alispán [another position of authority in local administration], his wicked wife, his lawyer, the love of his son for Tengelyi’s beautiful daughter, the long purple passage of Viola’s trial, the mystery surrounding Reverend Vándory, numerous discourses on Eötvös’s views on the medical profession, prison conditions, public education, the office of szolgabíró [a judicial and administrative position open only to those of noble birth], etc., etc.

In addition to his outspokenness, Eötvös’s prose style also raised some hackles. Narrative passages move along very smoothly, and in places there is even a sharp snap that verges on the journalistic. From time to time, however, there are quite lengthy and carefully composed sections of a descriptive or discursive nature, and then Eötvös will break into long, polished, periodic sentences, the style of which might have pleased Tacitus. Such is the Hungarian or, as some will have it, Prussian academic style. The Hungarian reader is likely to require a deep breath, two attempts, or both to find his way through such a sentence, while the translator is faced with a jigsaw puzzle—but all the pieces will be there! Whether it is advisable—or even possible—to transplant such sentences whole into English depends entirely on the context, but my feeling is that the attempt is always worth making. Such a marked stylistic feature is an important element of the text. Professor Cushing (Hungarian Prose and Verse, Athlone Press, 1956) finds this ‘ponderous and didactic’, while D. Mervyn Jones in Five Hungarian Writers (Clarendon Press, 1966, 185) considers his prose ‘often brilliantly written’, but the (frequently ironic) humour that distinguishes much of the work is not missing from these passages.

Any two translations of the same text must inevitably have a certain amount in common, and I have refrained from consulting von Wenckstern for fear of consciously making my translation differ to no other purpose. I have, however, seen him quoted, and on one point I have resolutely taken a different approach—that concerning personal and place names. In Eötvös, many of these are meaningful words alluding to the nature of person or place—e.g. Nyúzó (from nyúz ‘to skin’) for the grasping magistrate, Porvár (‘dust-castle’) for the county town. Von Wenckstern is not entirely consistent, however, and the imaginary county where the action takes place is still called Taksony, after the legendary Magyar chieftain, and distant places in Hungary and beyond, such as Tokaj and Heidelberg, are not disguised with pseudonyms. I have preferred not to follow this style, fashionable enough in mid-nineteenth-century English, but rather to call characters and places by the names given in the text, and if a name is meaningful to add a note explaining it. Official titles such as táblabíró, alispán, and főispán too are left untranslated but are explained in notes, as they have no precise English equivalents, as are a number of other points likely to be unclear to the English reader unversed in Hungarian affairs.


Eötvös’s primary purpose was to expose the unsatisfactory nature of the traditional county administration. Hungary could hardly be considered a nation when so few of the people derived benefit or protection from the way that affairs were handled. In The Village Notary he presented a cross-section of society in which the ruling elite were all too often lazy and self-seeking while the lesser lights were at their mercy, whatever their sterling qualities, and open to abuse. There was a commendable solidarity among the lower orders—‘[w]e poor people don’t desert one another’, says an inhabitant of Tiszarét—but if the basic function of the law is the regulation of relationships between citizens, Hungarian law of the time was heavily weighted in favour of the nobility—in fact, only they were effectively citizens. The vast majority of the population paid taxes, served in the army, and had no rights at all—a point on which the unenfranchised English reader of 1850 could sympathize.

Small wonder, then, that the influential ears on which Eötvös’s socially advanced call for greater equality fell were all too often deaf and unenlightened, and the propaganda element of the book achieved little or nothing. His secondary purpose, however, that of entertaining the reader, was much more successful, and in 1865 led to a second, revised edition, in which the amount of discursive material was reduced, placing the work more in line with what became the great Hungarian tradition of racy tales. To this day, the book is remembered in Hungary, and though relatively few will have read it (a classic book is one that people know they should read but somehow fail to), in school many will have met with excerpts or at least the option to study it, or will have seen the film version. In the West, von Wenckstern’s translation is now a rarity, though not unknown in the better sort of library, and is even offered for sale by the internet bookseller Forgotten Books—though when I asked them for a copy last year they were unable to supply one.

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