A Matter of Interpretation

by Holly A. Case


Attila Kiss

Attila Kiss speaks beautiful English. He has been a simultaneous interpreter—from Hungarian to English and English to Hungarian—for various intellectual and spiritual luminaries, among them the Dalai Lama, and for the European Union. When he speaks of interpreting, it is with uncanny precision, betraying an awareness that even speech is an act of simultaneous translation from thought to word.

Ten years ago, Kiss (pronounced “Kish”) was on an interpreting assignment for the EU in Brussels. One evening after work, he attended the screening of a new film on the 1956 revolution in Hungary. Heading back to his hotel he crossed through a park. Someone approached him, said “Good evening,” and then stabbed him with a knife. A struggle ensued. The man fled. Kiss spent a week in intensive care and underwent periodic operations for years thereafter. His attacker has never been identified or apprehended.

Interpretations of the episode began even prior to Kiss's release from the hospital. Initially the Belgian police thought he had gone to the park for a homosexual hook-up that went sour; they found no evidence to back up this hypothesis. Another of their theories involved a disgruntled student, upset about a grade. Their attention focused on one man, who was indeed a former student, but had not received a low grade from Kiss, and in fact counted as a family friend. And thus another narrative bubble burst over the case. One explanation remained. In the police report, Kiss had indicated that he believed his assailant to have been “an Arab.” The police ultimately concluded that he had been attacked by one of a group of young Moroccan fundamentalists who had been targeting EU officials. Given that Kiss was wearing a suit, carrying a laptop case, and walking in the vicinity of the EU Parliament, he may have been mistaken for a Union official.

Underneath the interpretations lay a realm of symbols and metaphors, tantalizing fragments of unfinished stories. One related to Kiss's passport, which he had been carrying in his breast pocket that night. The assailant's knife had cut into it, but its pages shielded his heart from the blade. “Saved by citizenship,” was the droll retelling. And another one: As a Renaissance scholar, Kiss had been scheduled to attend an international conference the following week whereat he was to deliver a paper on the history of early modern public anatomy theaters. Instead, he was “anatomized” himself: the anatomy theater came to him.

The incident was never covered in the Hungarian press. His students had at least a vague sense of what had happened because he was absent for the remainder of the term. Upon returning to Hungary, the interpreter still had to find words for what had happened. He chose “my accident.” For the sake of his small children, “accident” seemed better than the alternatives. And besides, Kiss reasoned, the assailant had not set out to kill him. Though the attack bore the hallmarks of a crime of passion—multiple stab wounds, nothing stolen—it was, in fact, nothing personal. In a sense it was an accident; wrong place, wrong time, etc.

Kiss had recurring nightmares about being attacked, but says that consciously he never felt traumatized by the event and has never felt the need to visit a therapist. Speaking and thinking about it has nevertheless always been important to him: “Narrative is mastery,” he says, referring to Freud's explanation of recurrent nightmares as attempts to “master” unruly or disturbing experiences.

A few months after the event, when he was well enough, Kiss insisted on returning to Brussels for interpretation jobs, and has been back several times since. Each time he makes a ritual of visiting the place where he was attacked. “It helps to process the thing,” he says. “And I was curious.” What does he feel when going there now? “Now it's just something interesting.”


I've known about Attila Kiss for more than a decade, albeit secondhand, through a common friend who, like him, teaches at the university in Szeged in southern Hungary and has herself worked as a simultaneous interpreter. (Once she showed me the breathing and relaxation exercises interpreters use to cope with the stress of the job.) Kiss's “accident” surfaced in our many exchanges as a bizarre subplot to various other dramas that were playing themselves out in my friend's life at the time.

Last September I finally met Kiss in person during a visit to Hungary at the height of the refugee and migrant influx. Szeged, where I had spent a very quiet year studying abroad as a junior in college two decades earlier, had become the center of world attention as thousands a day crossed the border into Hungary on foot. In front of the city's main railway station, volunteers had set up an aid center where they distributed food, water, and information to the new arrivals. Although the Hungarian government responded to the influx with a xenophobic billboard and media campaign and then a high border fence, in Szeged itself over fifteen hundred people—many of them students and faculty at the university—declared their willingness to help the arrivals. Attila Kiss was one of them.

Volunteer hut

Aid hut outside the train station in Szeged (Sept. 11, 2015). Photo by Róbert Pölcz.

He described the volunteer work he did as largely indirect; contributing food, delivering supplies to the aid hut at the train station, contacting international friends, arranging donations, and working a couple of times as a translator. “The situation is such a large-scale one that it immediately addresses you, and if you are human and if you are decent, you will just think about helping them,” he told me. “And then the next day, you'll start thinking ‘But why haven't I helped others until now? Local children with leukemia, disabled people who can't go to the hospital, the homeless… Why haven't I been doing that?' So you'll have this fight inside of yourself which you will have to come to terms with.”

In his thinking about the volunteer work, there seemed to be a parallel to the “splitting of the mind” that Kiss sees as necessary for simultaneous interpretation. “On the one hand you need to be present mentally in two languages, and that doubles your mind linguistically. But your mind is also doubled in time because, between when you listen to something coming in through the headphones and when you say something, there's a time lapse. And that time lapse makes you schizophrenic; you are present in two temporal dimensions at once. The better you are, the faster you are, but simultaneity can never be fully achieved.” In his fifteen years as an interpreter, Kiss says he has approached perfect simultaneity only about ten times. “That is a blissful experience,” he smiled. “A meditative joy.” To reach this state is both a great feat, as well as a real danger, he continued. “If you're good, you can lose track of who you are.”

The reason the Hungarian government's xenophobic rhetoric has proven so powerful, Kiss believes, is because it tells Hungarians who they are. “A totalitarian system always offers a very comfortable and easy identity to the general public by defining itself as the thing which is not the other. It gives you an identity, it gives you people to hate, and there are so many people who need other people to hate.”


Kiss and I spoke in his office at the university, where he has been chair of the English Department for the past fifteen years. It was clear by the number of ameliorative conversations and interruptions prior to and during our conversation that he is considered both supremely competent and eminently approachable, a catastrophic combination (for those who possess it) in any profession, and especially rare in academe.

I had come to his office with many questions, but not quite knowing what to ask, or how. We discussed his path to becoming an interpreter. He told me that, as a young university student in the mid-1980s, he had taken an interest in Buddhism, which was not formally tolerated in socialist Hungary at the time. His fascination with the philosophical aspects of the religion brought him and other Hungarians into contact with aspiring Buddhists from around the world. He began translating Buddhist texts into Hungarian and doing ad hoc interpreting for Buddhist visitors. In the late 1980s, he was studying abroad at the University of Oregon, Eugene, and he might have stayed on in the US for a doctorate degree had the collapse of state socialism in 1989 not precipitated a period of uncertainty during which he opted to accept a teaching opportunity at his home university in Szeged in 1991. The university was looking to hire young faculty, fluent in English and up-to-date on trends in Western scholarship. Kiss was an ideal candidate.

When our conversation turned to the attack, his tone was calm. “A person came up to me and wanted to kill me. It was bad, but somehow it never became a very traumatic memory to me,” he began, although he later admitted: “I'm just realizing that it's really not easy to talk about it, even after several years.” It had happened at a time when Kiss felt completely safe. “I was at the heart of the European Union, one kilometer from the institutions of the European Union. I was coming off of several successful days of work, and was in good spirits…”

I asked whether there were certain places, people, or events that had been tainted by or that he now associated with the experience. He hesitated for a moment. “No,” he said quietly. “But there is an important thing I wanted to tell you. When you first wrote me that you'd like to have this interview, I initially thought it would be about the refugee crisis and the migrants and the group of volunteers, but then you also mentioned that I had had this accident, and of course there might be an interconnection between the two… But it was actually then, when you wrote me, that I realized I had never really established a serious link between this event, in which I almost got killed, and the fact that most probably the man who attacked me was an immigrant. He was not attacking me because he was an immigrant.”


Early in the interview, I had asked Kiss to relate some anecdotes under the heading “Adventures in Interpreting.” He told me a story about a Hungarian interpreter in the late 1980s who had been assigned the task of interpreting deliberations between the Hungarian socialist party secretary (essentially the head of state) and an IMF officer for a crucial loan.

The interpreter was aware that Hungary's solvency depended on securing that loan. She also saw that the party secretary was “totally wasted,” and instead of taking the negotiations seriously, he was relating lewd jokes and inappropriate anecdotes. “Simultaneous interpreters,” Kiss said, “are also mediators between cultures as much as between languages.” The interpreter faced a choice: to interpret what the party secretary actually said, or to improvise. She chose the latter. “In that way she was totally unfaithful to the philosophy of the profession, but she may have saved Hungary for another five years.” Hungary secured the loan, but the interpreter was sharply criticized by others in the profession for what she had done. “It's difficult to decide what was the right thing to do in that situation,” Kiss says. “I personally believe my colleague did the right thing.”

Towards the end of our conversation, I referred to the IMF-interpreter anecdote and asked Kiss whether he thought he was interpreting the details of his “accident” faithfully, or offering instead a narrative that he believed other people needed to hear. “It is certainly a matter of interpretation that is at stake here, but this is my personal interpretation of the situation since the situation was mine,” he said. “Thus when I'm talking about it I'm not a professional interpreter, I'm a subjective one.”

As a scholar of Renaissance drama, Kiss teaches a course on Literature and the Semiotics of Violence. Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus figures prominently in his scholarly work on the subject, especially the “creation of a new language” in the face of tragedy. In the third act of the drama, the title character discovers that vengeful enemies have mutilated his daughter Lavinia, cutting off her tongue and hands. She had become, Titus lamented, a “map of woe” who speaks “in signs.” In his grief, Titus vows to become her interpreter.

Thou shalt not sigh, nor hold thy stumps to heaven,
Nor wink, nor nod, nor kneel, nor make a sign,
But I of these will wrest an alphabet
And by still practise learn to know thy meaning.

In a short academic article on this scene from 2014, Kiss wonders whether Lavinia hasn't been doubly misused, first by her attackers, then by her interpreter father who claims to speak for her. I understood Kiss's statement about being a “subjective interpreter” better after reading this. Speaking for oneself, finding a language through which to relate a tragedy may seem impossible, but is absolutely necessary. “There needs to be a narrative about this,” he said. “If I don't establish one, it's going to be much worse.”

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