A few weeks back I’ve been chatting with a friend. He is Polish and I’m Hungarian (hey, we are the living embodiment of that Hungarian saying about Polish and Hungarian being good friends, hah!), so English is a second language for both of us. We were talking about beta reading and grammar and stuff (yeah, we are nerds, got a problem with that?) and the fact that when someone compliments us with “I would never guess English is your second language” or “Your English is better than some people’s I know” we don’t really take it as a compliment. Don’t get me wrong, I know people do mean it as a compliment and I appreciate it, but my brain instantly goes to “Well, that’s nice but holy shit my English is nowhere near the level I want it to be” and “Uh… thanks, I guess, but that’s actually a shame on them rather than my compliment”. My English might be good, but it’s not good enough for me. Yes, I’m a perfectionist, how did you know? I’m incredibly conscious of my English – in writing as well as in speaking. Speaking is actually much worse, because I can’t pronounce things right so I try to avoid those words which limits my vocabulary, which is already very limited, and ugh…
But I’m not here to talk about that. I’m here to talk about how I got into reading in English and why I don’t read in Hungarian anymore. But let’s clear up one thing: Hungarian is a complex, beautiful, pain in the ass language and I love it to pieces. It saddens me that don’t get to use it more often as it’s my mother tongue and there are many things I can express much better in it than English. Sarcasm and humor is one of those things.
My journey toward reading in English…
The good thing about English is that I was never forced to learn it, I did it on my own accord and with very little help from teachers. I basically self-taught myself and even I have no freaking idea how I pulled that off. I guess it helped that I absolutely didn’t feel pressured – unless with German – and it was something I genuinly enjoyed.
For a couple of years I only read mangas, and I suspect they are responsible for a big chunk of my vocabulary. They were fun and very easy to read so I think they were a good entry into reading in English for me. I occasionaly had to read texts in English for University, but it was rare. It was around 2010, when I prepared for my intermediate language exam when I decided to give a go to reading a book in English. I picked Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, for various reasons:
- I already knew the story by heart, so even if I didn’t know some words I still understood what was going on.
- It’s short and since it was aimed at children it was a good book for starters.
- Seriously, who would say no to a Harry Potter reread?
I only had one rule: no translating in my head while I read.
But even though this was a positive experience, I still didn’t start reading in English until a year or two later. One of the main reasons for this is that it’s a pain in the ass to find English books in Hungarian. Some of the bestsellers are sold in English and if you really try hard you can find more books, but options were limited. Note: I didn’t have a Kindle yet. And then, I fell in love with a series. It was the Cal Leandros series by Rob Thurman. Only the first 2 books are available in Hungarian and I stumbled on both of them accidentally. But this was also the series which cemented my love for Fantasy and really got me hooked to the genre. As I wanted more, I learned the 5th book were about to be released. There was no telling whether any more of the books will be published in Hungarian, and knowing me I didn’t have a patient for waiting for it anyway, so I took the jump. Madhouse was the first book I read in English without having any prior knowledge about it. And I didn’t quite look back ever since.
During my university years I didn’t read much due to my studies and the fact that I focused more on writing. That’s when I wrote the first draft of my would-be novel which never got finished. In 2015 I took on a reading challenge, reading 1 book/week. By that time I read almost exlusively in English. In 2016 I joined a GoodReads group where my horizont widened even more and there was no turning back. Fast forward 2 years and I started the blog in 2018. By that time I started to dip my toes into the indie book world, but I still had no idea what was waiting for me deep down. But that’s a whole another story.
…and leaving Hungarian behind
There are several reasons why I basically stopped reading in Hungarian. Some of them obvious, some less so. I’m actually feeling a bit guilty about it and once I catch up with my huge backlog I’ll try to actually squeeze in some Hungarian literature. So, let’s take a look at the reasons, shall we?
This is one of the most obvious reasons. This past 2 years I’ve read mostly books from indie authors. Which means, if I would stick to Hungarian I would miss out on a huge portion of the book world as only some of the traditionally published books get bought by Hungarian publishers. And then the Fantasy section is not the biggest one in the book shops anyway. So there is already a very, very limited availability in books published in Hungarian. From what I see – though I don’t follow the publishers, since I don’t buy those books anyway – there are at least one publisher who specializes on SFF, and they brought Mark Lawrence‘s books to us or Nicholas Eames‘ Kings of the Wyld and Bloody Rose, just to name a few. But it’s a slow process, as these books need to be negotiated to be bought, translated which takes time and also production, so usually it takes at least half a year for them to arrive. And that’s those books which are highly anticipated and popular, such as the Harry Potter books were. Who the hell has the patience to sit around waiting for a translated book when they get to read it in English as soon as the book is released?! And then the Hungarian publisher might decide not to continue with a series due to lack of interest – which I guess happened with the Cal Leandros series as well.
Ugh. This is a pet peeve of mind, and most likely I’ll end up ranting, so feel free to jump over this section. As I noted at the beginning of this post, I love Hungarian to pieces. But more times than not, modern translations annoy the hell out of me. Translation is a unique kind of art. You don’t only have to translate the words, but you also have to convey the author’s style and voice in a language that has widely different rules. And that’s fucking hard to nail. I personally think that our translator did a really great job with the Harry Potter series, even if I occasionally get confused with names (we did change a few such as Hogwarts → Roxfort, Hogsmead → Roxmorts, McGonagall → McGalagony, Severus Snape → Perselus Piton, etc.). In most cases these changes are really good as they kept as close to the original as possible but still made it more acceptable in our language. And some of them are even contain a bit of humor. Overall, it kept as close to the original tone as possible. And I also have to mention as a positive the Cal Leandros series. The first two books are perfection. I swear they are even slightly better than the original because of some of the phrases the translator used. It’s a shame the series didn’t get more love over here.
But though I have many positive examples, there are just as many negative ones. Every once in a while I walk into a bookshop to peer into some of the books, and I get instantly put off. In some cases I can feel the translator trying way too hard and ending up being forced and unnatural. One of my biggest pet peeves regarding translation is the names. For some damn reason we Hungarians feel the need to translate names, ALL the damn time. Even if there is no reason. Because fuck that, we need Hungarianised (is that a term?) names, no matter what. Gods forbid we keep names as they are. This can lead to really awkward reading experiences. Also that’s one of the reasons I never read Kings of the Wyld in Hungarian. I swear I tried but gave up on page one.
This is sad, because in the 20th century we had writers who also acted as translators and we had some really awesome quality of books. For example, I tried reading One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in English but gave up. Switched to Hungarian and it was so well done. The problem might be that these days translators are “only” translators and not prominent members of the literary world as they used to be. And at the end of the day, I prefer reading books in their original language, as they were meant to be after all.
My too critical brain
I confess, every time I try to read a Hungarian book, I cringe hard. Before I started blogging, I tried to find a community here in Budapest, and joined to a newly started Magazine. The people who edited that Magazine also organised events. I went to a few because they were self-published or indie authors, most of them writing fantasy and I was curious. The majority wrote YA/romance which is absolutely not my cup of tea. But that’s fine. I tried to take a look at some, but my brain constantly wanted to edit the hell out of them. Turns out I’m less forgiving with bad writing and editing in Hungarian than English. I guess it’s because it physically hurts to see people butchering my beautiful language. Interestingly, I usually cringe at my own writing too, but oddly, I feel better about them once they are translated into English *shrug*.
I probably should make bigger effort to actually seek out some Hungarian authors, but as I said, YA is the most popular, and many authors use English sounding pen names, so it’s hard to pick them out.
But the truth of things: I’m a sucker for old Hungarian. One of my favourite novels, Eclipse of the Crescent Moon was written toward the end of the 19th century. It was probably modernised a bit later on, but that I just LOVE the language in that book. The phrases, the words the author used we don’t or rarely use anymore. Old Hungarian has a certain melody to it and modern Hungarian vocabulary seems to be diminishing. And that’s sad. Not coincidentally, the books I’m planning to read when I get a chance are all older works and classics. Because that’s how I roll.
Too busy schedule
This past 2 years I took up many responsibilities and obligations with review requests, SPFBO, editing and I never seem to catch up to myself. There are sooooo many books I want to read and there are always new ones coming out. I just can’t justify why I should squeeze a Hungarian book into the schedule. When I couldn’t even talk about them. Well, I could, but then no one would be able to get it and read with me or talk about it, because hardly any book gets translated into English from Hungarian. My audience is – I believe – 100% not Hungarian. Okay, fine, I dont have to blog about every book I read and I certainly don’t, but in this past couple of years I was so busy with everything that I just couldn’t find the time for it.
So, basically, this is all your damn fault!!
Just kidding. Or am I?