The Hungarian poet Gyula Illyés (in Hungarian order, Illyés Gyula) was widely considered one of the greatest living Hungarian poets before his death in 1983, and his 1950 poem Egy mondat a zsarnokságról (“A Sentence About Tyranny”), immediately suppressed, was passed around in a Hungarian version of samizdat, as Mátyás Domokos explains:

…the “non-existent” censorship of “existing socialism” made it impossible for the poem to be republished, whether in a newspaper or a review, or in Illyés’s own books, including various editions of “collected” poems. Indeed, anyone purveying the poem in any form or through any channel could expect the police to take action against them, especially in the aftermath of the revolution. In the meantime, the poem acquired a historic patina and a place in the public mind on a par with Sándor Petőfi’s “National Song”, a poem that had played an inflammatory role in the 1848 Hungarian revolution and subsequent war of independence. It was copied in different versions and passed from hand to hand in secret.
Two years after the poet’s death, on 31 October 1985, in the small village of Ozora, where he had spent part of his childhood, a newly built school was named after him. The school was opened with an address given by György Aczél, a member of the Political Committee of the HSWP, and the Party’s cultural overlord. It was in this address that, for the first time, someone representing the official political line claimed in public that the poem was in fact about “the indisputable historical calling of socialism—the fight for the totality of freedom and against all kinds of dictatorship” and it was not up to Illyés, nor the poem, that in 1956 it “had become a weapon in the hands of those triggering and inciting violent emotions and of harbingers of hopelessness.”
This strange story, with its morbid and grotesque turns and spanning thirty years, is nothing else than that of a show trial that had been initiated against a poem…

You can read George Szirtes’s translation of the poem here, and listen to the author read it in Hungarian at this YouTube post. (Via wood s lot.)


  1. SnowLeopard says

    In light of the last stanza, it seems both predictable and a bitter irony that the poem would be co-opted by the Party after the author had passed.

  2. Some memorable imagery in the poem, especially the “like moles in sunlight we crawl
    in pitch darkness.”
    And a haunting voice throughout. A poet I’m happy to discover.

  3. Vance Maverick says

    Wow. This is one of the best translations-of-poetry I’ve read. The rhythm really snaps.
    I suspect Szirtes has “rewritten” it considerably. (Is this the original?)

  4. I agree, as far as can be judged without knowing Hungarian it’s an excellent translation; I much prefer it when the translator makes an effort to give a feel of rhythm and (if possible) rhyme. Yes, that’s the original; it’s the second link in my post.

  5. Vance Maverick says

    Oops, sorry I missed your link.
    It’s one thing to read translations of a classic like Dante, where no effort of the translator is going to bring us the feel of the rhythm and rhyme of the original, and they might as well not bother. But here, I applaud whatever liberties S has taken — he’s made a real English poem of something we might otherwise not know.

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