TRANSLATION Richard Robinson

This month, Words & Pics regular series on translation of books for young people brings you an interview with Richard Robinson, who lives in Budapest, Hungary. Richard's latest translation is a YA book by Judit Berg, Alma and the Dark Dominion.

What made you interested in translating this particular book?
I was approached by the publisher of the Hungarian version, and when I saw it I jumped at the chance, Judit Berg is a highly acclaimed children’s author in Hungary. It’s an enjoyable read and I like the fact it has a positive, but slightly unusual protagonist. In fact, all four of the children in it are rounded characters. There’s a withdrawn video-gamer, an irritating know-all… so yes, I can relate to them.

The book also features chess problems and a game played by Judit Polgár, the best woman chess player of all time, and deals with the psychological strategies necessary to solve the problems. It’s a book that works on different levels, and although the chess is seamlessly integrated into the story, it doesn’t matter if you don’t play chess.

Chessboard Wikimedia Commons

“Any chess piece can be sacrificed for checkmate!”
“For sure, for sure,” chucked the white queen mockingly. “But don’t forget, my angel, that chess is like life. Are you prepared to sacrifice your companions, if the situation so dictates? And how do you feel about sacrificing the queen? As you well know, at times that is what is required.”

What made you interested in writing and translating in the first place?
I’ve always enjoyed the craft of using words, of shaping a text, ever since school. Today’s world is a noisy and opinionated place, and I like to act as a bridge-builder. Translation is one way of doing that. But I never had a childhood dream of being a translator. It simply seemed a good way to capitalize on my proficiency in Hungarian.

What are you most proud of in your writing and translating work?
This book certainly features high on the list, because it was the first complete novel I translated. Since then I've done others, for children and adults. But I’ve also been lucky enough to have an ongoing cooperation with a record label, BMC, which specializes in jazz and contemporary classical music.

Richard likes challenges!
How did you become interested in Hungarian?
My first contact with the language was when we studied Bartók’s opera Bluebeard’s Castle at school: the score featured the most exotic language at the time. At university I was fascinated by the music of Ligeti, another Hungarian composer. Much later, when I had become an EFL teacher I was offered a job in Budapest. I was certain I wanted to go, because I was interested in the music of the country and also the language.

How did your Hungarian become so good?
Mainly out of perversity. In the 1990s a lot of my colleagues (mainly British) in the language school spent their time saying how difficult or impossible Hungarian is, but I decided early on that I wasn’t going to be daunted. It helps that Hungarian literature is rich, and if you’re familiar with any European traditions the cultural gap is much narrower than the linguistic one.

Richard Robinson
I sing in a choir, and at Christmas we write verses for one another – in Hungarian. To begin with this was an enormous challenge, but it has helped to sensitize me to the rhythm of the language (of course, singing in Hungarian also helps). Usually I model my poem on an existing one and change a few words but last year I started from scratch with my own. It was fun.

What made you want to translate for children/young adults?
I was keen to do this book because the genre was familiar to me and I felt I knew how to pitch the tone (for “nearly teens”), and the range of vocabulary. Books for younger readers are more challenging – there is a fine line to tread between being faithful to the original, and simplifying some of the richer vocabulary.

How long did the translation take?
About five months. But it was a few years before it was published, just before the 7th London Chess Conference in 2019, and it fits in with the theme of Chess and Female Empowerment.

What were the hardest parts to translate? Was there anything you wished you could ask the author? Any funny stories about the translation? (Was it fun?)
At the end of the adventure there is a big show-down where the children battle against the ruler of the fantasy land in a game of chess. Like any battle, it’s quite confusing, but it makes sense – in fact it has to, because it’s based on an actual game of chess that Judit Polgár played. When I’d finished, I read through my translation, and was quite relieved to see that it does make sense. What’s more, the excitement doesn’t flag.

Another aspect was the chess problems the children have to solve. Some of these related to technical chess terms, so I had to brush up on my basic knowledge of the game. In fact I became interested in more sophisticated moves and strategies.

What do you hope to translate next?
The author Judit Berg plans other books about these four characters, and it would be marvellous to work on them too. The next few months are taken up with other projects, including an adult fantasy novel.

* Photos provided by the author
* Translation logo, Jess Stockham 


Richard Robinson was born in London, and after a spell in Italy teaching English, he moved to Budapest. He translates from Hungarian, French and Italian, in the fields of music, art history, psychology, and fiction for adults and children. He enjoys hiking and yoga, and sings in a choir. 

Richard's website:
Twitter: @richardinpest

Alma and the Dark Dominion, by Judith Berg (with contributions from Judit Polgár). Illustrated by Barbara Bernát.

Follow Barbara on Instagram: @barbibernat.illustration
MORE about the book illustrations

courtesy of Ádám Győrfi and Gyula Bodó

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