Spotlight on: Charles Simonyi

As I mentioned in my post on legal translation, often the most enjoyable endeavors are those that continue to be a challenge. Hungarian is one of those challenges. There is not as much demand for translations of Hungarian as there are of French, so I am forced to find my own ways to maintain my knowledge of the language and culture. I translate poetry, for instance.

Luckily, maintaining a broader interest in Hungary is easy: the people are fascinating! I don’t want to generalize too much, but many Hungarians lead dynamic lives pursuing their passions. They are quite an energetic people. Take, for example, Simonyi Károly (Charles Simonyi).

The son of a Budapest-based professor of electrical engineering, Simonyi learned computer programming at a young age. His passion for code developed concurrently with his passion for space. He studied at some of the best schools to become a software architect. In the meantime, he also earned his pilot’s license (a prerequisite for most astronauts).

Dividing his time didn’t detract from either of his passions. The Hungarian worked for Microsoft when personal computing was just taking off, helping design and build Word and Excel. To that end, Simonyi wrote the first WYSIWYG editor (those buttons you click in Word to make your text bold, italicized, right-justified, etc.). He left Microsoft to found his own software engineering firm in 2002, and in his spare time was the fifth private citizen in space. His flights are documented on his website Charles in Space.

One last Simonyi innovation I’d like to mention is a coding system called Hungarian notation. In brief, the system uses prefixes to describe the type of data being stored under a variable name. Like the labels you put at the top of a spreadsheet to keep track of what all the numbers mean. Generally considered outmoded, it continues to have some use marking variables as “us” (unsafe strings); this lets the programmer easily identify which parts of his work still need to be tested before pushing updates.

The reason I mention Hungarian notation is its connection to the creator’s mother tongue. Of course a Hungarian would think to write code like this! The Hungarian language is filled with qualifying markers. For instance, the ‘-t’ added to direct objects. All the ‘meg-‘ prefixes to show completion of an action (megbeszéltük = they came to an agreement about it, whereas a simple beszéltek = they spoke). And so on. It’s a natural way for a Hungarian speaker to think about a new writing system. Isn’t it neat how it manifests?

How do you stay in touch with your working-language cultures? What do you think of this Hungarian?


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