TRANSLATING JÓZSEF.

George Szirtes discusses three translations of the poetry of Attila József (József Attila to the Hungarians, who put the family name first), who committed suicide at the age of 32 in 1937. As regular LH readers know, I love detailed comparisons like this:

For the third of the fourth verses: “Ám egyre több lágy buggya nás. / Vérboý eper a homokon, / bóbiskol, zizzen a kalász. / Vihar gubbaszt a lombokon”, Bátki offers: “More and more soft stirrings. / Blood-red berries on the sand. / Ears of wheat nodding and rustling. / A storm is perched above the land”.
This has a syntactic clarity (four short individual sentences) and conveys simple images in direct language. It even presents us with a rhyme in lines 2 and 4. (The original has an abab structure.) But the berries and the wheat have lost their pressing lushness, and the wonderfully threatening storm is lightened to sparrow-weight. These are not incidental details—they constitute the emotional mass and texture of the poem, without which “kaszaél”, the scythe-blade of the last line, loses much of its force…

To do it credit, however, as with Radnóti, the Mystic Formalist method [used by Zsuzsanna Ozsváth and Frederick Turner] yields results in precisely the areas neglected by Bátki: poetic
texture, music, echo. Keeping with the same poem, “Summer”, the third verse as rendered by Ozsváth/Turner reads: “Still more, still yet, the welling grows. / Strawberries blood-rich on the loam / drowse in the warm, the eared wheat blows. / Crouched in the boughs, a thunderstorm.” For sheer sound as music and emotion this is way beyond Bátki. Certainly there are liberties taken, but liberties may be earned. We can accommodate the tautologous “Still more, still yet” and its echo in “welling grows” because the Keatsian sumptuousness assumes real emotional power. The storm that crouches in Turner is infinitely more threatening than the storm that perches in Bátki. There is a wholesale commitment to romantic density in Turner that corresponds to József’s troubled sensuality. The problem occurs when this has to be cast aside. The plain-spokenness of the last verse (“Ily gyorsan betelik nyaram! / Ördögszekéren jár a szél— / csattan a menny és megvillan, / elvtársaim: a kaszaél”) is wholly missed in “So swift my summer is fulfilled! / On flying witch-balls rides the gale— / sky claps and flashes, sudden, chilled, / with fairy light from winter’s pale.” The first line has taken on some of the grandiloquence of the essay and the last misses the point by a clear mile. Where are the comrades (elvtársaim) and the scythe-blade of the last line? József the man, the political creature whose fate was in the balance, is lost. Instead we have a mystico-romantic sensibility with fairy light. The poem is drunk on its own rhetoric and music and cannot change gear. Bátki’s last verse is at least accurate and human.
For all that there is no doubt that most of the time Turner and Ozsváth offer more than Bátki can. Turner is a more accomplished poet, albeit of a specific sort, and his music, though sometimes rather fusty, does catch the force of József’s passion even while realizing it in a different context.

You can read several of the Ozsváth/Turner translations here (also from The Hungarian Quarterly, which looks like an interesting journal). I wish I thought my Hungarian would ever be good enough to read him in the original. (Via wood s lot.)

Comments

  1. I think that this poem is very hard to be translated saving all the expressions which author put in it. So I think that this translation is not so bad

  2. Thanks for posting this link. I was thinking about buying the German parallel-text edition of Jozsef’s poems (“Ein wilder Apfelbaum will ich werden”) which came out earlier this year to try to prompt me to improve my meagre Hungarian. At 496 pages it must have more (all the?) poems in it. The one reviewer at Amazon.de isn’t too impressed by the translation, but no matter.

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