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Ottilie Mulzet: A veneer of erudition

Ottilie Mulzet on translating László Krasznahorkai’s Seiobo there Below, winner of this year’s Best Translated Book Award

I have a folder, partially virtual, partially real, entitled ‘Seiobo Reference Material.’ It contains files with such diverse designations as ‘Penrose tiling’, ‘Знаменщик’, ‘louvre-plan-information-français’ and ‘Svět krystalů’. I’ve often imagined a unique composite image of the elements of this folder, which has become a gateway to all of the different realms of the European and Asian epistemes that I (or any other translator of Seiobo there Below) would have to pass through, quite literally, in order to translate this book. In one version of this image, currently restricted to my head, there is the floor plan of the Louvre, a shiro-Hannya Noh mask, vague memories of Renaissance galleries in Italy – and even vaguer memories of applying gesso primer to pieces of stiff cardboard and then sanding down the surface until it’s perfectly smooth – fragments of a conversation with a European practitioner of the shakuhachi (the Japanese flute) in a Prague garden on a summer evening, encounters with enthused autodidacts lecturing to stupefied audiences in provincial eastern European cultural centres, low-resolution digital images of the regulation of the Kamo River in Kyoto…

As you may have gathered, the amount of ground that Seiobo covers and the level of erudition displayed by the author are both formidable. This collage in my head of all the fragments of material acquired while translating it is, by necessity, enticingly eclectic and incomplete. Some of my discoveries were like poignant codas, scattered hints embedded in the real world, perhaps only to be found by a more assiduous reader. But, of course, it’s the translator who should always be the most assiduous reader of all.

The question of the writer’s voice when translating is crucial, and when translating a writer such as Krasznahorkai, it is even more so. The narrative voice in Seiobo first overwhelms the reader, then proceeds to harangue, mystify, and baffle. This voice carries the weight of so much fateful knowledge that the reader is not so informed by it as infected by the weight of all the human episteme. For all its encyclopaedic awareness, however, the voice is elusive, endlessly shifting between an anonymous narrator, anonymous protagonists, and objects themselves. I wondered at times if this torrent of words, seemingly drawing us nearer to these objects, was actually functioning as a kind of protective screen for the Divine – the principle of the Sacred – which is represented by the goddess Seiobo and by visitations of Andrei Rublev’s angels in the book, to cite just two examples. A torrent of words as a shield from the irrevocable crassness and damage of our secular world.

While translating Seiobo, I often thought about what Krasznahorkai must have had to experience to write these chapters. It seemed quite clear to me that no one could have created such descriptions through library research alone. Having read Krasznahorkai’s interviews over the years and his previous Asian-themed books (one of which – Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens – I am now translating for Seagull Books), I was aware of his intense involvement with the cultures of China and Japan. But it struck me that the author must have himself engaged in the process of ‘close observation’ described at so many points in the book – and he has in fact elaborated on this in more than one interview. 

Both in interviews and in the book, the author uses a Hungarian verb that is hard to translate, elles, which consists of the main verb les with the addition of the verbal prefix el-. Les means to lie in wait for something (usually not with the best of intentions) but with the prefix el-, the verb is glossed as ‘to observe secretly and closely.’ The Magyar Értelmező Kis Szótár dictionary gives these definitions: ‘1. to learn something from somebody by observing, whilst remaining unobserved. 2. to happen upon something: He ~ my secret.’

This is not the time or place to embark upon a rapturous appreciation of Hungarian dictionaries, but the very existence of such a verb in Hungarian, expressing such a complex notion in a mere two syllables, is striking. Perhaps an even greater sphere of complexity resides in this one word than in the phenomena of the medieval workshop or the Asian master-apprenticeship, both of which are brought to light in the book. No, this is not just any sort of observation, but a ‘secret’ observation: the kind that does not encumber its object with the knowledge of being observed. Observation and perception are perhaps the most crucial elements in Seiobo. The wealth of material absorbed to make writing this book possible, and Krasznahorkai’s observations on the process of observation itself, suggest that it is the most fundamental aspect of acquiring skill. That, coupled with the grinding reality of the immense distances the author must have had to travel to witness all the experiences and facts that are communicated in this book, is perhaps a powerful rebuttal of the global ‘cyber-brain’ that is the Internet, which has otherwise become a universal mental prosthesis.

I felt the weight of all that Krasznahorkai had observed as I was translating. And I felt the weight – just as intense – of all he was holding back. The weight of his writerly obsession to inform, to divulge, and yet at times to be almost perfectly opaque. Despite the incessant torrent of words, one senses the presence of enough material perhaps for two or three more volumes of Seiobo (although I never asked about this). My task here was to keep pace with the author: never to divulge more than the author was divulging, and never less. I had to assume the narrator’s familiarity with all of the topics covered in the book, and yet step back, and ensure that all of the minor narrative tremors – actually, more like river currents that subtly change direction before you’ve even noticed – were registering simultaneously in English.

Many strands of personal experience came up while I was translating this work. My own experiences with Asian cultures (though very different than those of Japan and China) had afforded me the invaluable experience of intense contact with a culture where the assumptions that underlie the very idea of ‘Europe’ and the Western mode of knowledge must be questioned and questioned again.

In the end though, the fact remains that a masterfully written book transmits its own sense of flow in the process of translation. I stuck to my own secret observations: perhaps some of them cannot ever really even be voiced or articulated, or must somehow – paradoxically in the case of a verbal art – remain far beyond the realm of words.


About the author

Ottilie Mulzet's latest translation, Seiobo there Below, was awarded the Best Translated Book Award for 2013. She is currently working on László Krasznahorkai's Destruction and Sorrow beneath the Heavens for Seagull Books and The World Goes On for New Directions. Other upcoming translations include The Dispossessed for HarperCollins by Szilárd Borbély.


Additional Information

Buy 'Seiobo there Below' from Foyles

Other works by Laszlo Krasznahorkai

About the author Laszlo Krasznahorkai

An interview with Ottilie Mulzet in the Paris Review

Laszlo Krasznahorkai and Ottilie Mulzet win the New Directions Best Translated Book Award 2014


Posted by Emma Cleave, Wednesday 6th August, 2014


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