Interview with a Hungarian Translator: Kornelia DeKorne

Kornelia DeKorne, a Hungarian translator from New Mexico and Hawaii, shares her experiences in the language industry with CETRA.  

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 Kornelia at the ATA Conference in San Diego, November 2012


What languages do you work with?  What are some of the intricacies or challenges of the particular language you work with?


My main language pair consists of English and Hungarian, but I also translate from French and occasionally, from German. Over time, I have also done a few translations from Russian and even Latin, but my proficiency in these latter languages is limited. Most of my work is between English and Hungarian, and I am equally at ease translating or interpreting in both directions. This took a long time to develop – when I was learning English, I felt I had to grow a new body and mind in it from the ground up, a whole new being who can even dream in the new language, and if I am awakened from sleep, either language would rise to be available at will. People in our profession tend to think that one cannot master another language and should only work into one’s native one. I disagree, I think it can be done, but it takes willingness to create this whole other person. And the same process has to be followed in all languages one embarks upon.


As to challenges between my main languages, I would say that due to their very different grammatical and syntactic structures, they do not lend themselves to linear processing, such as CAT tools sometimes favor. Machine translation attempts into Hungarian are very funny!


This discrepancy also poses a challenge in interpreting, where one has to wait for the speaker to finish a sentence before one is able to begin speaking. In terms of translation, under the pressures of our fast-paced, ever-more-mechanized language processing era, we must resist the temptation to follow the word order of the source language because this would result in a foreign-tasting translation. And sometimes it is difficult to explain the vagaries of Hungarian grammar to English-speaking clients who assume that the same structures apply universally.

Another challenge with translating into Hungarian is that it likes to “speak” in very precise images – one could say, it is a “talking” language, and so when in some English texts I encounter abstract nouns piled on top of each other, they quickly dissolve into thin air as I try to render them in Hungarian. So at times, I must resort to all manner of skillful means to do justice to true, unadorned, meaning.


What are some of your most interesting projects? Why?

Almost all projects I receive are fascinating – sometimes this may sound counter-intuitive, for who can imagine enjoying the dry technical language, say, of road finishing equipment? Strangely, as long as the source document is well written, a tech manual can be a testament to human ingenuity and as such, is quite fun. Of course, there are the glamorous jobs anyone could relate to – for example, I am a script reviewer for National Geographic Television, and I thoroughly enjoy working on, and learning tons from, each script. Another really pleasing type of project is movie subtitles – pitting one’s skills against the ever-changing tides of slang, standing on a gossamer bridge between two worlds, trying to unite them enough to allow movie audiences to take trips into fantastic worlds in a way that they do not notice the sleight of hand of translation. Among other jobs, I got to translate the subtitles for the documentary about the science underlying the Star Wars movies, where behind-the-scenes tech geeks were discussing futuristic technologies and their very tangible present-day incarnations – that was a really fun eye-opener.


The bulk of my work comes from the healthcare field. This is an area I am endlessly fascinated with – I have been studying Chinese medicine as a hobby and as a way to understand how to stay healthy, and I feel very privileged to be able to work on all sorts of documents from Western medicine and research that open up a treasury of knowledge that feeds my own interests, while giving me the precious opportunity to contribute, if only infinitesimally, to the well-being of others, as I make every effort to be accurate and clear.


What is the best part about being a translator? What do you love about it?

For me, it is who I am. It makes me feel useful, makes me feel like I have been graced with great power to build bridges of understanding and coherence, with the attending responsibility that is a humbling honor. It also keeps my magical native language alive in me, though I live far away from the land of my birth and childhood. And I get to make my living playing with this amazing gift that we share as human beings. Who could ask for more?


How did you know you were “ready” to be a translator?

I remember reading Hungarian polyglot Kató Lomb’s autobiography (to the English translation of which I was later lucky enough to be able to contribute) – I must have been ten. I knew then, this was the life for me. The rest has been growing that other body – those other bodies – in other languages, an ongoing project that will last all my life.


What is the most difficult part about your job?

Managing my schedule. My work resembles the Arabian Nights – at any given moment, including weekends, nights, days in bed with fever, and so on, I may have half a dozen projects or more going on at various stages of completion as we go through collaborative processes with colleagues – not counting the “oh, can you just quickly do this for me, but right away” type requests that can hit at any moment. The just-in-time delivery method of scheduling, fashionable in today’s lean and mean economy, leaves very little discretionary margin of time, and reconciling that with the reality of being a freelancer, on call at offices that span all time zones, is a real challenge.


Can you translate a sentence for us? Your favorite quote? Your favorite word?

This is from a poem by twentieth-century Hungarian poet Attila József – it is my motto. It was written out on the wall of my grade school and I still have it on my desk in Hungarian:


Ne légy szeles.

Habár munkádon más keres –

Dolgozni csak pontosan, szépen,

Ahogy a csillag megy az égen,

Úgy érdemes.


Do not be hasty.

The fruits of your labors to others may be tasty –

But work, beautiful and precise,

Same as stars traverse the skies,

Is the only work that’s worthy.