Stephen Watts: A Taste of 20th Century Hungarian Poetry
Stephen Watts was born in London in 1952. [His mother's family came from the Italian Alps and he has strong cultural roots there and in Scotland.] He is a poet and editor, much involved in translation studies. His own poetry has been published as The Lava's Curl (1990, repr. 2002) and Gramsci & Caruso, Selected Poems 1977-1997' will be published in the autumn of 2003, as will a bilingual selection of his work in Czech translation. He has co-edited Voices of Conscience : Prison Poems (1995), Mother Tongues : Non English-Language Poetry In England (2001) and Music While Drowning : German Expressionist Poems (2003) and has compiled a very extensive bibliography of 20th century poetry in English translation. His interest in Hungarian poetry is long-standing.

Peter Zollman has previously published individual volumes of work by Sándor Kányádi, Dezsô Kosztolányi and Miklós Radnóti and has also contributed many translations to such important anthologies as 'The Lost Rider'(Corvina 1997), 'In Quest of the Miracle Stag' (Chicago & Budapest 1996 & 2000), Victor Határ's 'The Right to Sanity' (Corvina 1999), Attila József's 'Poems and Fragments' (ed. Thomas Kabdebo 1999) and Éva Petrôczi's 'Peregrinatio Poetica' (Budapest 2001). This stakes out his concerns as both translator and reader, as both writer and critic, since the translator in the acts of translation becomes a writer, and critic. The range of his publications both sets out the grounds of the present book and representatively expands his exponential work. Thus this anthology has its emphases from Ady, through Babits, Kosztolányi, József and Radnóti, such major post-war poets as Pilinszky, Weöres and Nemes Nagy, and on to Kányádi, Orbán and more recent poets. It includes selections from the two finest Hungarian poets who spent much of their writing lives outside Hungary, György Faludy and Victor Határ. And it includes work by less widely translated poets such as István Baka and László Lator and Eörsi. Some poets are represented by one poem, Ady, Radnóti, Pilinszky, Orbán and Nemes Nagy each have three and Babits, József, Kosztolányi and Kányádi are the most represented.

Any collection of forty or so poems, attempting in some way to represent a century of a language's poetry, must have lacunae and absences. Thus there are no poems by Ferenc Juhász (a poet whose work I personally love), Gyula Illyés, László Nagy, István Vas and György Petri, among others. On the other hand when we look at the inclusions, the presences rather than the inevitable absences, we cannot but be struck by both the balance of choice and the informed good 'chance' of the quality of the poetries translated. József Attila is represented by two of his most important poems - two of the finest Hungarian poems surely of the past hundred years - 'By The Danube' & 'The Seventh One', Kányádi's range is explored by the inclusion of his long poem 'All Souls' Day in Vienna' - and this is the longest poem in the anthology, followed by Faludy's Villon-inspired 'Danse Macabre', Pilinszky's 'Apocrypha' and 'The French Prisoner' but also by the stretto-shortened 'On the Third Day', all three poems being in the major line of his art. Határ's superb 'Ars Moriendi' and his very beautiful 'Sacred Simplicity'. Kosztolányi is represented by 'Dawnstruck' and three other poems, Baka's many voices by the one poem 'Philoctetes', . Rába by 'The Reluctant Whale', and L. Szabó by 'Private Truce' there being no room for more. Overall - and this is one of the gifts of the book - the whole is somehow more than simply the sum of the parts.

The poets are not all centred on Budapest: Baka lived predominantly in Szeged (he spent some time also in Moscow and St. Petersburg and was a very fine translator of Russian poetry), Kányádi was born in Transylvania, in present day Romania. Faludy and Határ by force of circumstance were absent from Budapest for many years, Radnóti lived in Paris for a while (as did Ady and József) and died on a forced march returning from Serbia. And yet this is a widely Hungarian anthology that manages to allude to without ever directly exploring national identity. József's poem 'By The Danube' acts as a linking thread, as a passage of water through the range of the poetry, as a catalyst for language - "our fertile, dreamy mother's knee" - a cleanser that "laundered the dirt of all of Budapest".

Peter Zollman has come to translation after a working life outside literature. The energies he was storing up in all this time have been controlledly loosened and the results are undeniably exciting. He feels very strongly about the complexities and richness of rhyme and rhythm and his sense of these complexities and in particular those of rhyme have to a large extent determined his choice of poets and of poems. He has a very strong feel for the qualities that rhyme brings to Hungarian poetry concentrating the sense of many of the best poems into a sort of dense kernel(or a kernel that may explode into the light of language) and he clearly feels that to avoid rhyme in the English is necessarily to fail as an act of translation and to betray both the original and the recipient poem. Therefore he adheres closely, though also very imaginatively, to the needs, openings and dictates of rhyme and to accompanying rhythm without sacrificing syntax or faithfulness to the original text. Because monosyllabic rhyme endings clearly do distress many translations into English of naturally rhymed poetry (this is not simply true of Hungarian poetry, but also of Russian or Turkish for that matter), the translator here has endeavoured to include polysyllabic rhymes and to intermix monosyllabic with polysyllabic, harsh with soft, Latin with Saxon in his usually very successful attempts to bring across rhymed Hungarian poems into rhymed English versions. This indeed is one of the most striking and most characteristic qualities of this book and given the relative lack of rhymed equivalents in the translation of Hungarian poetry into English, it is a quality that, precisely because it so often does work here, we can feel grateful for. Many translations of József or Radnóti either avoid rhyme deliberately in the attempt to gain or retain sense in English, or else fail as English poems because of the clumsiness of their rhyme. In a selection of forty-odd poems the translator has been able to retain the tensions of rhyme and rhythm throughout, perhaps because of the dynamic of translating from his mother tongue into what might be described as an acquired or second 'mother tongue'.

Quite naturally he looks to the poets he most loves and to work that has most moved him throughout the course of his life : there is therefore a stretch of work that pulls from the earliest years of the twentieth century - Ady's first poem dates from 1909 - through into the late 1990's. The most recent poems being by Orbán, Határ and Kányádi . There is a clear tendency away from very contemporary work, and an absence of young poets and - largely the result of this balance - a relative absence of women poets: not I sense because the translator isn't drawn to the work of Nemes Nagy (who is included, but who is the only woman in the book) or Zsuzsa Rakovsky (who is not included, but whose work already exists in fine English versions by George Szirtes) or the work of younger women poets. Rather it reflects the apparent hiddenness or absence of women poets in the first two thirds of twentieth century Hungarian poetry and the fact that this anthology naturally gravitates toward that time span in its sourcing of choices. Perhaps it is a pity that one or two younger contemporary poets are not included : however this is a reflection of the translator's very honest choice and his decision to include those poems he most loves by the poets he is most drawn to and in those of his own translations he himself most trusts. And since there are recent anthologies that precisely are inclusive of contemporary poets and make of such criteria their motivating force, there is no reason why the translator should be scrupulously representative here. It is also worth saying that every anthology of Hungarian poetry - and there have been at least twenty such in English since 1960 - shows a strong balance against the inclusion of women poets and this may suggest a lacuna that another translator might address. The present selection achieves a very fine and energised balance based entirely on this translator's choice.

It is also worth noting that the translator has personally known, sometimes for many years, five of the poets in this anthology : István Eörsi since their childhood and youth, Gyôzô Határ over many London years, and Sándor Kányádi, Ottó Orbán and László Lator over more recent times. Certainly he has worked closely and through conversation with Kányádi, Határ and Orbán, not so much on details of translation but maybe more importantly in the deeper contexts of their poetries. He has read with Gyôzô Határ and Sándor Kányádi in London, and with Kányádi in Oxford. In the five years before Orbán's death, they had a number of intense conversations in Hungary about his poetry, reflecting at the very least Zollman's concern to translate Orbán's late work. Of course these five poets have been translators themselves of other poetries into Hungarian and indeed this is nothing new : Radnóti and Weöres were both prolific translators whose work in translation had profound effects on the development of modern Hungarian poetry. And István Baka's translations of Russian poets helped determine the line of his own writing. This atmosphere of translation (and during the most totalitarian times it was one means of subverting censorship) has always been critical to Hungarian poetry and, by extension, has eased the possibilities of translation in other directions, out of Hungarian, as here into English.

Ady remains perhaps the most difficult of all modern Hungarian poets to translate, partly because his language is almost chemically folded into a time almost remote from us now and partly perhaps because the tremendous struggles within himself and with his poetry synthesises onto the Hungarian page in language that often only just manages balance. Such barely achieved balance is in fact one of his strongest qualities and therefore not to be avoided in translation. His poems crash onto the shore in manifold waves and sometimes carve the outlines of both the temporary sea-breaks and the permanent coast: the English translation therefore can work literally even more rarely than most translation and the balance between fidelity and good sound in the recipient language will be fumbled between acuteness and fluidity. Certainly Ady is far less translated into English than might reasonably be expected of such an important poet and there are very few translations that succeed. To my knowledge the only substantial selection in English - and it is a very large book - is Anton Nyerges's attempt in 'Poems'(1969) : a book I respect a lot for the translator's love and perseverance, but whose translations rarely work too well, a book in other words that gives despite its shortcomings. There are some better translations but none in book-length selections. Peter Zollman has translated ten of Ady's poems and three of these are included in this present book. They work on the edge of religion and love, as indeed do other poems in this anthology: "I toss my carved rock to the abyss,/The earth will tremble for centuries/And future doomed, dejected eyes/Will empathise" is the conclusion of 'Judas And Jesus' and captures the edge-balance of Ady's Hungarian.

Attila József's poem 'On My Birthday' is notoriously difficult to translate because its rhyme scheme is both naive and intricate and because these qualities are tied directly by the language into a particular point in his life. It is nonetheless a quite widely translated poem : I can think of at least ten published attempts, though to my mind they usually do not work too well, most becoming enmeshed in failed rhyme or effectively abandoning rhyme altogether. To my mind Zollman succeeds almost superbly : "a quick impromptu memoir/saluting in this coffee-bar/my birth/on earth" both mimicks the simplicity and holds to the quotidian breath of the poem, while "Thirty two years ... Without a doubt/what Hungary doled me out/was not/a lot" begins to fold in the increasing sense of hurt. I quibble with his ingenious but natural recourse to 'graduand' as rhyme for 'banned' since I cannot quite persuade myself that 'graduand' is a József-like word, but probably I am wrong. In 'By the Danube' and 'The Seventh One' Zollman has chosen two of József's greatest poems, also among the most widely translated, and he again manages to recreate the poetry in English whilst adhering to the poet's chosen rhyme scheme. I think there are versions of 'By The Danube' in free verse that work well, but this is one of the few that work while adhering to its rhyme scheme. I won't quote the translation since it is difficult to extract the flow of the poem. The same can be said of his translation of 'The Seventh One' which really brings the sense across with rhyme pulling through the rhythm. This is partly achieved through stretched or only partly foreseen rhymes : 'chapterhouse'/'sows', 'introvert'/'every skirt', 'checked'/'vivisect'.

One of Dezsô Kosztolányi's great qualities is to intrude almost imperceptible subtleties into the language of his poetry in order to facilitate very clear statements : rather than using form and rhythm as virtuosic emblems he shines tiny light points of language through his poems in order to elucidate a world. Zollman's scrupulous yet rich methodology of translation allows him to bring this intricate quality into the English. Thus in 'I dream of coloured inks. Of every kind' (from the series 'Laments of a Poor Little Child' from 1910) Kosztolányi is able to enter into the child's mind of all the colours ("In reds I want a blazing, burning one/and blood-red, like the blood-stained setting sun") : and at the end to say, both as the child and through his own memory "I want to colour in my life with it". The translation shines light points of comparable English through the Hungarian original.

Mihály Babits is a poet whose work clearly matters a great deal to the translator and in a sense his - and those of József Attila - are key texts in the early part of the book, as of the first half of the last century. It is perhaps human love and concern - unallied to political programmes of any sort - that matter most with Babits, from 'Before Easter''s wartime ode to peace through 'A Gypsy In The Condemned Cell' and the poems associated with the 'Book Of Jonah' and 'Question At Night'. In four of the six Babits poems in the book the poet is questioning language : "there was a time when my fingers could shape the word", "Abandoned by words I'm left alone", "I am the only hero of my verses". Later poets would abandon such questioning or would endure more bitter ironies than "or take a blade of grass as paradigm :/why does it grow if it must wilt sometime ?/why does it wilt if it will grow again ?" But these are questions that work with Babits and throughout his language there is a counterpoint and overlap once again of religion and love.

The distance between Babits's poetry, pinioned on the cusp of analysis and war, and the war and holocaust texts of János Pilinszky is vast and yet hardly more than a generation separates the two of them. All three Pilinszky poems in this anthology are pulled from experience (his and others) of the '39-'45 war and the power of their language is quite unavoidable : "And do you know the name of loneliness ?" or "I hope. There is still hope at least./Your presence throbs here in my throat./I'm frightened, as a hunted beast" or "My shadow jars upon the ragged stone./I stick out of the earth. Worn out. Alone" (all from 'Apocrypha'). I would say that the hexameters of Miklós Radnóti - great classical-modern poet - mediate the poetry of Babits and Pilinszky, but that Radnóti's own experience and fate were too desperate to justify saying that. The translator has included three Radnóti poems, a balance between the sexual imagery of "You're like a bough, so silky-whispery/arched over me" and the final gravity of the 'Seventh Eclogue' where the poet's dear classical metres likely no longer have even a sleepy meaning against the experience of catastrophic betrayal and terrors.

There is really no mediation here from Radnóti to Pilinszky : and yet, of course, poetry was written after both of them. Sándor Kányádi's long 'All Souls Day In Vienna' is included in full. The poet, his back to the column of a city church, listens to a requiem with sure echoes of both Mozart and of war - "who bears the guilt for those who fell" - and perhaps attempts to layer and montage an end of the twentieth century poem of passage. A refrain early in the poem "from the Danube seaward/out to the ocean/the coffin sails on/ the canvas is music" pulls back to Attila József and into this anthology's whole raison d'etre as a taster for modern Hungarian poetry. This long poem of Kányádi's has been published in four different translations in English and it holds a key position in this anthology balancing shorter work and counterweighting the poetry from between the wars.

Ágnes Nemes Nagy's twenty-two line poem 'Thirst' makes use of nearly-full rhyme and the translator, as he does elsewhere, even tightens the rhyme in his English : but whilst tightening the rhyme he mitigates the effects by stretching the flow of the rhyme. Thus 'hand' rhymes 'tanned', 'countryside' rhymes 'glide', 'succulents' rhymes 'scents', 'lantern-light' with 'tight'. In these ways the tensions and freedom of the original are held in English: to stretch and tighten at the same time may risk breakage, but this the translations rarely if ever do, unless breakage is part of the poem. There are examples in the book where the translator tightens the rhyme of the original a little, and in other places slightly loosens it, playing the consonantal reliance of rhyme in English against the more vowel-based assonance of Hungarian, echoing and stretching. In József's poems as mentioned above for instance, or in Gyôzô Határ's wonderful 'Sacred Simplicity': "softly snoozing/togetherfusing", "shoulder-blade/serenade" or whole lines such as "elbow reaches to the thighs/ passion fruit from Paradise". Here, as often through the book, the taste of two linguistically powerful poems by Határ lead us to want more.

With Sándor Weöres the choice could be almost endless: long, intricate formal poems, philosophical meditations, language games, word-play virtuosities. Some of Weöres has been very well translated by Edwin Morgan, and in particular some longer works and word-play texts, though he probably still awaits a representative book in English. Zollman has selected two very short and playful poems by him for this collection. 'Tipsy Furniture' is exact and clear, word-played and just slightly ambiguous and worrying : "Wooden table, wooden chair,/just a stool is missing there// //Wine is spilt? They wouldn't care -/ wouldn't table, wouldn't chair." That's half of the poem and when the end is reached still the stool is absent.

This is a personal choice, a very strong choice of translations that depend on rhyme and that succeed in that choice very often. It provides an opening into some of the richness of Hungarian poetry of the past hundred years : a river-flow whether the reader already knows Hungarian poetry inside-out or is coming nearly new to it. It is almost impossible to condense even a century of poetry into perhaps one hundred and twenty pages: there are anthologies over a thousand pages that only partially succeed. This anthology manages to provide an exciting taster and rightly leaves us calling out for more.



  © All rights belong to the authors or their heirs. 2004.