Arpad Kiss lives in Budapest, Hungary where he works as a pharmacist and translator of African books into Hungarian. He lived and worked for a period of his life in Kenya until 1991.
Interview by Jack Little (Published in Issue 7)
1. How did you get started in translating?
I started translating after I returned to Hungary from Kenya. I had made some earlier efforts such as Orwell's Animal Farm, but in 1984 there was no hope that it would be published. Even that manuscript disappeared during a police raid in the printers flat. My new plan was different. I was desperate to work with African, especially East African writers first and so I made a list of books that I wanted my fellow countrymen to read.
At first I felt a bit awkward that I might appear to be someone bragging about Africa. She has become fashionable here but not much was saved. Now after several years of silence I am thinking of publishing some more books. In fact I have some ready in the drawer to go to print. There were some disappointments from my partners in the booktrade after which I just said to myself I needed a break. Then I translated two Sillitoe books.
At the moment, my main project is researching the history of quinine and malaria. - Well my bio does say that I am a pharmacist! –I also have a half-translated masterpiece from Nigeria to complete and publish.
2. How is it that you are translating work from Swahili into Hungarian? What is your background in Africa?
I speak and understand a few Swahili words but I translate from English. Very few writers use Kiswahili in their writings because the English language offers a wider circle of readers, I think.
3. I know that translating and publishing isn't you main line of work. Do you find it hard to strike a balance between your work as a pharmacist and your literary work?
No, there is nothing hard between balancing if you like to do different things. The only problem is my eyes which sometimes fail due to the long ours that I misuse them. Maybe paper and pencil would have been a softer job for them.
4. Where do you work from? What can you see from your desk?
I work mainly at home, if that's what you are asking. I am at my old ugly desk -the first furniture that my wife and I bought in 1982 - I see some hundred photos on my wall, a two meter vertical stripe of pass and passport photos of my daughters showing them as they grew from babies to women.
I see from the window the linden trees and a patch of rail tracks with trains running. For me they are the symbol of distance. Maybe I miss some sailing boats but you can’t have it all.
5. What tools do you use to help you to translate and do research?
I use quite a few dictionaries, the library and of course the internet more and more. I find letters to the writers the most useful. In some cases it helps the most and you'll always learn a little more than from just the answers than an internet can give.
6. Which translation job are you most proud of and why?
My first translation was Flame trees of Thika - a great text. The author Elspeth Huxley gave me a great amount of spiritual help indeed to start with that book. She had a great love for Africa.
Then Meja Mwangi's The Last Plague or Striving for the wind; I don’t
know which. Both probably. There is a list of his books I translated or published on www.mejamwangi.com. He can be very funny and serious at the same time. I like his texts very much. I was also very happy to translate Alan Sillitoe's
The Broken Chariot which is a very good book.
7. What is the best thing about being a translator?
Well I don’t know, but when you find a good sentence in your language that just fits, that is quite a relaxing moment.
8. And your worst thing?
Sitting and my burning eyes.
9. As a translator you have to understand at least two cultures well. Do you have any interesting experience of where those cultures clash and can you give us any examples?
Well, we live our lives in phases from our childhood to teenage years and onto
adulthood. Take the family. My grandmother was born north of Prague and spoke three languages, told me tales from Bohemia or Germany, my parents came from different backgrounds. I think the things that kept them together were understanding, mutual respect and love. We shift and change ourselves, become different and have to cope with these things.
I was brought up in a colony of the USSR and we learnt to read between the lines if there was a chance for that at all. Clashes are generated or manipulated to happen. Or perhaps I am too naive? These clashes shouldn't happen and maybe they wouldn't if people were more respectful in their day-to-day lives. Then perhaps we could live a decent life.
My name , Kiss means Little in the Hungarian language. In Kenya or other places it was sometimes an intro when I met someone and we started chatting about these little linguistic phenomena.