by Claire Gebben
Seattle Free Lances member Helen Szablya has a smile for everyone she meets, and wit and wisdom in never-ending supply. Born in Budapest, Hungary, Helen is an award-winning author, columnist, translator, lecturer, and former publisher of Hungary International, a newsletter for Americans about business in Hungary. She holds two university degrees, and has lived in five countries under seven different political systems. The number of her English language publications exceeds 700 articles and five books, many of which have won awards. With her husband John, former Professor of Washington State University, Helen presented hundreds of lectures on Hungary and co-authored papers in the areas of energy affecting human culture and on translating/interpreting. Five days before her husband’s death in 2005, the couple was awarded the Order of Merit from the President of the Republic of Hungary. Helen needs every inch of her wit and wisdom — and energy — for more than her writing career. She has seven children, sixteen grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
I’m impressed that you’ve lived in so many different countries. How many languages do you speak? Can you write in all those languages?
I speak six languages. I can write in all those languages, but not for publication, for that only in English or Hungarian. However I do translate from all those, but only into English or Hungarian. I grew up bilingual Hungarian and German, but for the past 58 years I have lived in English-speaking countries. I started French when I was six years old and English when I was twelve. We started Latin in school also when I was twelve. We had an excellent teacher who actually made us speak the otherwise dead language. I translated some very interesting texts from Latin, for example a math book published in 1752 in St. Petersburg, Russia and the Emperor Ferdinand the 5th’s letter to the Shah of Iran. Unfortunately, Latin translations are mostly diplomas or birth/marriage certificates, not too interesting. When we started learning Russian I was fifteen. Our teachers of German, French, Italian, etc. were “re-educated” in three weeks to teach Russian instead. I finally received a degree in foreign languages and literature with a major in Russian and minors in German and French at Washington State University. I challenged both those minors, meaning I only had to do the exams. I also have a degree in Sales and Marketing Management — from the time when the subject was brand new — from The University of British Columbia. It was organized like a forerunner to the Executive MBA. You had to own or manage a business in order to qualify. I owned my import business Centennial Agencies in Vancouver, BC. Every year they admitted 60 men and ONE woman. So I had to wait two years to get in.
Did you always want to be a writer?
I always wanted to write. Before I even went to school I invented my own bedtime stories. I started writing in third grade. However, if I would not have lived in such “interesting times,” I was destined to head my family’s Drugstore-Cosmetic Products Empire. There were three girls in our family and I was the oldest. No boys. So there was no question about it. I had to succeed my father. Despite knowing this, I always had the secret desire to become a writer. None of this materialized at first because circumstances got in the way. When you read my recent book My Only Choice: 1942-1956 Hungary you will know everything about my life up to that time. Then you will learn that after the Soviets and the Communists “liberated” us from our businesses, factories, and houses, separated us from our fathers and nationalized our schools, I knew I had no chance of expressing my opinion freely. I knew I had the ability to write, but in those days only propaganda was published, for everything else you were imprisoned.
Luckily, we made it to freedom in 1956, when I was only 22 years old. Not all hope was lost. I already spoke English, so this was not a problem, but one of my sisters was still in Hungary. I could not write as long as she was there because I would have been blackmailed through her. Then, (maybe I should write that story, too) she and her family escaped from Hungary to Canada – through Ethiopia. Now I was free to express myself and fight for the freedom of those who were the victims of communism – with my pen. Until that time, my husband Dr. John F. Szablya P.E. and I lectured widely, together and separately, everywhere they asked us to speak, but we never put anything into writing.
My first article (“To My Husband on Father’s Day”) was published in 1967 in the Our Sunday Visitor, distribution at the time: 500,000. This same article was also published later in Hungarian and German. Since then I have written over 700 articles, many of them award-winning. I was always a freelancer. With seven children you cannot be anything else. However, freelancing fits into family life beautifully. You can write when your children take a nap, later when they go to school. Housework can be done when they are home and you can teach them how to do it. This also gives you the advantage that they can simply take over when you have to go out.
I have written my best articles (mainly opinion pieces and inspirational articles) when I became really angry, or when I cried by the time I finished writing them. These articles sold immediately. The story of our escape with a four- and a two-year-old, and a 10-day-old born during the 1956 Hungarian Uprising against the Soviets, was published first for the 20th anniversary of the Uprising. We were captured twice. The baby was three weeks old by the time we made it to Austria from Budapest (only 200 miles).
What is my message? Extreme right and extreme left are equally horrific. We have to do everything to avoid extremists ever returning to power. This message was relevant in most of my writings, even if only subtly.
Have you written in any other genres, such as fiction and poetry?
I have written poetry as a teenager in Hungarian and in French – just for myself. A book I co-wrote with Peggy King Anderson was young adult historical fiction, but that too was based on true stories, only the characters were changed to protect the innocent. This was a book about an illegal Boy Scout troop in Hungary during the 1956 Uprising against the Soviets. Scouting was illegal in Hungary from 1948 to 1990 because they dared to teach freedom and democracy to young people. Courageous leaders kept organizing illegal meetings. Some ended up in jail for two-three years because of their activity. That book earned first prizes from the Washington Press Association and from the National Federation of Press Women.
With my daughter-in-law Marcey Painter Szablya, I wrote an oral history drama Hungary Remembered about the Hungarian Uprising against the Soviets for the 30th anniversary of that event, in 1986. The genre of oral history drama was developed by my oldest daughter Helen A. Szablya and her first husband, Barry Meiners, for the National Endowment for the Humanities in 1979. They wrote and performed the history of Baltimore: Baltimore Voices based on 7,000 pages of oral histories collected by the university.
Hungary Remembered was researched, written and produced by my daughter-in-law and me. I was the project director coordinating four universities. The project was hosted by Seattle University. For this we received the George Washington Honor Medal from the Freedom Foundation at Valley Forge, the Gold Medal of the Arpad Academy in Cleveland, and a major grant from the Washington Commission for the Humanities (WCH). I was interviewed by Voice of America and it was broadcast world-wide in 42 languages. After this project I was Inquiring Mind lecturer for the WCH traveling all around Washington State lecturing about the 1956 Uprising against the Soviets. My other topic was: Women in Marxist Countries.
Do you enjoy translation as much as writing your own books?
It is a totally different experience. When you write your own book you have to invent the story, or remember it. When you translate a book, it is someone else’s story. What is very similar is that you have to “live” both stories. When either writing or translating, I was so much into the story that if the door bell rang, I had to orient myself first as to where I was and what was happening before I could answer the door.
I don’t read a book before I start translating on purpose, so I’m forced to keep translating because I want to know what is happening. That works very well. I love translating because it is easy for me. Between English and Hungarian I just read and type. Occasionally I look up a word whether there is a better way to express something, but normally I just fly through the pages when it is a literary work.
I also translated my own book The Fall of the Red Star and the oral history drama, Hungary Remembered into Hungarian. Then, I would just read the paragraph and re-write it in the target language (in this case Hungarian) because it was my own story. The book was published in Hungary in 1999 when Hungary was the honored guest at the Frankfurt International Book Fair (in Germany) and my book was exhibited there in both languages. In Frankfurt, I was also on a panel about the Hungarian Uprising of 1956.
The oral history drama translation was also performed in Hungarian by the Vancouver BC Canada Hungarian Theater and they brought the show down to Seattle. It is marvelous to listen to your own words spoken by the actors and see the reaction of the people at the same time.
What has changed for you in journalism?
EVERYTHING. I was President of the Washington Press Association 1987/88 and on the Board of the National Federation of Press Women, when we had the 50th anniversary of NFPW. We all received a commemorative mug which showed an inscription when filled with hot liquid. It read: “From hot type to high tech.” That says it all.
Would you call My Only Choice: 1942-1956 Hungary a memoir? What inspired you to write it?
I would definitely call it an autobiography and memoir. It is our true story. “I lived it. It happened to me!” are the most powerful words in any language. I wrote the first draft between 1977 and 1979. I just had to write it; I had no choice. I wanted it to be told for the whole world to know about the victims of Communism. For Americans it was hard to imagine that they had been helping Stalin, a dictator, who was Hitler’s equal, but surpassed Hitler because he outlived him and Communism is still alive in many places, along with the human rights violations. We had to talk and write for many years to make it believable. Now it is well documented and the concentration camp stories are being recorded, but we have to do it fast because we, who were eye-witnesses may die out before we deliver our full message.
That was also why I decided to translate Mind Twisters , Dr. Ernest Töttösy’s book into English. That book was nominated by Kirkus Review among the 100 best books of 2013. Originally it was published in 1987, but I made it available again through Amazon. The book is the autobiography of the eight months during which the Communists made an international lawyer schizophrenic with a truth serum in prison, then brought him back again. During that time he had a so-called “show trial,” like many did in the early 1950’s in countries under the Communists, as well as during several time periods in the Soviet Union. What is different about this book is that Dr. Töttösy remembered everything while under the influence of the drug. Normally victims do not remember anything about their ordeal.
What was your recent international book tour like?
Fantastic! Hungary is finally exposing the horrors survived during Communist times. The regime-change happened through a (bloodless) velvet revolution, so no one was held accountable for anything about the horrors of those 40 years of Communism. We did several book presentations with Dr. Zsuzsa Hantó, a professor of history and sociology who had edited a book in which my story was also included. We presented that book, Haramiák és Emberek (Bandits and People) a Hungarian book and also My Only Choice: 1942-1956 Hungary an English book. People were buying both, although the audience was Hungarian only. I talked also at the American International School, where they just finished reading my book The Fall of the Red Star.
Do you have any tips for SFL writers about the international publishing market?
Do it with Amazon.com through CreateSpace. Your work will be available immediately, world-wide, in print on demand, and in e-book form. You can choose the option of having it available at other booksellers, libraries and universities as well and you can order any amount of copies for book signings or other events. They will deliver anywhere. Many people read English in the world. I talked to a Hungarian Honorary Consul who ordered the book in Brazil and got it in 3-4 days. She called me immediately when she finished reading it and said I should get the Nobel prize for it.
What else would you like to share about writing and publishing that I’ve neglected to ask?
Write about what you feel passionate about, and what you know well. If you use a foreign word make sure the spelling is correct, or do not use it at all. For Americans those misspelled words will not mean anything, while native speakers will think you do not know what you are doing. The marketing part of selling your book and the PR are much more difficult and require more writing skills than merely writing the book. Translation is expensive. Unless your publisher pays for it, you should either do it yourself, or ask for a grant for the translation and have it done by a professional.
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