Bosnian theatre and film director Haris Pasovic once stated that: “The meaning of art in a time of suffering, a time of war, is much more intense. People are more focused.”
Today, via the translation efforts of British linguist Robert Nisbet Bain, the writings of Móric Jókay de Ásva (better known outside of Hungary as Maurus Jokai), and the fallout following the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, we have a work that, much like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, extends beyond the bounds of a typical narrative to provide a social commentary, discuss customs and ways of life, and, at the very heart of the work, express the beauty, eloquence, and grandeur of a language and, indeed, identity, that, upon gasping for its first modern breath of recognition and independence, had so recently been subjugated and humiliated into a second-class status.
In understanding any work, it is important to understand the author. Jokai’s personal story begins with an educated youth who, once noticed for his first play, Zsidó fiú (The Jewish Boy), abandoned his family’s desires of following his father into the legal profession, moved to the Hungarian capital of Pest in 1845. Producing his first romantic work, Hétköznapok (Working Days) in 1846, Jokai soon gained widespread praise for writing what critics called a work of original genius and was made editor of the leading Hungarian literary journal, Életképek; unfortunately, this success was quickly derailed by the Hungarian revolution of 1848. An ardent nationalist, Jokai fought tirelessly for Hungarian identity and sovereignty in his writing as well as on the battlefield. While close to achieving independence from the faltering Austrian Empire, the prospect of victory soon turned, by means of Austrian-allied Russia entering the war to crush the Magyar rebellion, to somber defeat- both nationally and personally, as Jokai considered suicide to avoid imprisonment. Along with losing their revolutionary banners, Hungarian prestige, freedoms, and national identity were greatly diminished, and, it was in this repressive environment that Jokai, thought to be an agent provocateur and monitored by the Austrians, decided to devote himself to the task of resuscitating the now-downtrodden Hungarian through the beauty and eloquence of his writings.
The story that he presents with Egy magyar nábob (A Hungarian Nabob), published in 1853, is essentially that of an aristocratic, landed Hungarian, his marriage with a young girl, and their attempts at thwarting the intrigues of his decadent, rakish heir. Regardless of how straightforward this may seem, it is interwoven among the interactions with and among a motley crew of characters, from attendants and companions to gamblers and gypsies. Considering that all of the characters are anxious to tell their own story, it should come as no surprise that the work itself is able to contain a wide array of depictions, such as the custom of selecting the Whitsun King, and emotions, from tragedy to romance to humour.
Thanks to this rollercoaster of variety, Jokai is able to utilize the full depth, breadth, and expressive applicability of the Hungarian language in order to present a captivating story as well as showcase the language itself. Yet, this story would not be available to us were it not for the efforts of the translator, Robert Nisbet Bain. Employed by the British Museum, Bain was a historian and linguist with an astounding useable knowledge of 20 languages. First encountering Jokai’s work in German, Bain vigorously taught himself Hungarian so that he could read Jokai, later becoming the most prolific translator of Hungarian works into English. As he wrote in his translation preface to Egy magyar nábob in 1898, though he was forced to make significant cuts in the work due to an embarrassment of riches found in this masterpiece, his “profound admiration for the illustrious Hungarian romancer” led to his “intimate conviction that, of all continental novelists” Jokai would especially appeal to English tastes for a story full of humour and romance rather than a specific novel of purpose.
A rare first edition of Robert Nisbet Bain’s translation is part of EVS Translations Book Museum, a collection of reference works highlights the importance of translating ideas and knowledge so that it can be shared globally for the benefit of all.