Language in Literature: Budapest by Chico Buarque

Last month, we wrote about a work of fiction that did the interpretation profession a disservice through inaccurate portrayals, and it made us think about how the translation and interpretation profession is generally portrayed in literature. One of our most loyal blog readers, Guillermo, suggested that we read "Budapest" by Brazilian author Chico Buarque. Guillermo refered to it as a masterpiece on language, so we had to get it. We ordered it from our local library, and Judy read it in one day. If Dagmar's take on the book differs drastically from Judy's, we will post it here soon as well. Thanks a lot for the great tip, Guillermo!

I don't speak Portuguese, so I read "Budapest" by famed Brazilian artist Chico Buarque in its good new English translation by seasoned literary translator Alison Entrekin. It's quite a challenge to communicate some of the finer points of Romance languages and nuances in a non-Romance language, and at times, the writing doesn't seem as eloquent as it probably is in Portuguese. However, Entrekin certainly did the author justice (she apparently worked closely with Buarque on the translation).

The book, set mainly in Rio de Janeiro and Budapest, Hungary, tells the tale of a ghostwriter who lives in the shadows of his outstanding work, which repeatedly brings others fame and fortune. On a whim, he decides to move to Budapest and learn the "only language the devil respects." What follows is the protagonist's, José Costa's, immersion in the Hungarian language, life, and of course, love, which comes in the form of an enigmatic and unorthodox Hungarian teacher. Buarque's writing is at times breathless and always quite stunning, and it reminds me of some of Andrea DeCarlo's earlier works. Buarque's descriptions of language acquisition are very interesting, and while this book does not focus on the translation profession per se, it's an insider's view of learning a new language as an adult. While some of the aspects of the plot are highly unlikely (we won't spoil it for you here) and some passages seem a bit out of place or don't do much for the story, it is a well-developed tale full of descriptive power.

The passion for language -- both the author's and the protagonist's -- comes through very clearly, and it's a fantastic read for those of us who make our living by working with languages. It's great to finally read a good book about loving language, the place language occupies in our lives, how we define ourselves through language, and the liberty to perhaps choose your own native language. You can buy the book here or check if your local library carries it.


Guija Matías on September 1, 2009 at 3:37 AM said...

I'm so glad you like it, Judy! (And what a relief, also, for chriss' sakes! What if I got criticized for my poor choice?)

As a matter o fact, regarding the "eloquent" aspect, the language used by C. Buarque is misleading in a way. I mean, I think that was L. Fernando Veríssimo that said that "Budapest" presents a false-light writing style, that is, words reveal much more than one may think eventually, just as good ol' Hemingway taught everyone around. ;-)

And I might congratulate you for having described the spirit of the book much better than I could, Judy. Really loved your words on what is all about on "Budapest" without even mentioning the word "doppelgänger", as usual. :P

Guija Matías on September 1, 2009 at 6:20 AM said...

One more thing that I just noticed that your foreign edition probably does not contain. Take a look at the cover and backcover of the Brazilian edition:

Front cover:

Back cover:

How do you like that, eh? ;-)

Judy Jenner and Dagmar Jenner on September 1, 2009 at 1:33 PM said...

@Matías: Thanks for the wonderful tip! Are you the same Guillermo who suggested the book? Perhaps you have two different accounts. :) It was a great read, and even if I hadn't liked it: any book enriches our lives in one way or another, so don't ever worry about that. Also, tastes vary greatly in literature and even twins don't always find the same texts compelling. Thanks for the compliment on the mini-review, I appreciate it. Ah, and very clever covers on the Brazilian edition. Innovative + interesting. The English edition is much more boring than that.

Guija Matías on September 2, 2009 at 5:46 AM said...

That's terrific, Twins. Yeah, I've realized that my nickname on Gmail account was changed. Guija Matías and Guillermo Matías are the same person, indeed. :D

I hope other visitors of this blog / translators read this and get encouraged to read "Budapest" also, that would be awesome.

See ya!

Nataša Pregl on September 2, 2009 at 11:34 PM said...

I have already ordered the book and I can't wait to read it!

Best regards from a Slovenian freelance translator :-)

David Aragon™ on December 3, 2010 at 9:02 AM said...

Chico Buarque is one of the greatest musicians and composers from Brazil, for a foreigner to understand, it would be like if former beatle Paul McCartney began to write novels (great novels).

It amazes me that someone can have that talent both in music and literature.

I read the portuguese and the english translation, and I must confess that a lot of the magic of the words get lost in it. Translation is such a difficult and unfair form of art...

A curious fact that most foreign critics left unnoticed is that the names of all hungarian characters in the book are the names of all the players Hungary national football (soccer) team of 1954. Despite losing the final to Germany, it is considered by football lovers one of the best teams in the history of football.

I really liked your blog, congrats.
Best regards from Brazil.

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