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. / Vérbő 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 [12.05.2005].)


  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 isn’t too impressed by the translation, but no matter.

  3. ktschwarz says

    Terrific piece by Szirtes. I still don’t have enough vocabulary to get much more out of the original poem than “strawberries on the sand”, but Vérboý eper can’t possibly be right since there’s no ý in Hungarian. Searching on “eper a homokon” finds that the line is actually Vérbő eper a homokon. This was probably an OCR error in converting the print article to HTML; they may not have been able to get an ő in the web font back then.

    Vér is blood, is plentiful or abundant, so vérbő is literally “full of blood”; translation sites show it used in medicine meaning “congested”, but also figuratively like “full-blooded” (as in full-blooded Sicilian), or “hot-blooded” or “red-blooded”. Those connotations must have something to do with what Szirtes calls “pressing lushness”, and with the second translation’s “Strawberries blood-rich”.

    In the last verse, “witch-balls” translates ördögszekér, literally “devil-cart”, a name of a prickly weed that forms tumbleweeds—the most common translation is “tumbleweed”, and that’s what the other translation used. According to the OED “witch balls” has been used to mean tumbleweeds in English, but it’s rare and outdated enough that it isn’t in any other current dictionary.

    Szirtes wrote:

    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.

    That sounds like the translators really screwed up—but wait a minute! Googling lines from the poem, it turns out there are different versions! It’s not the translators’ fault, it’s the poet’s. József published it in three different versions: in 1930, in 1931 “during his ‘class warrior’ period” with the last line about “my comrades” and the scythe, and finally in 1934 with the last line about “fairy light” (which must have influenced the translation choice of “witch balls” instead of “tumbleweed”), and no comrades or scythe. Different translators picked differerent editions.

    Anyway, very memorization-worthy poem, teaching me some onomatopoeic words: dörmög (rumble), zizzen (rustle), csattan (snap/crack).

  4. Thanks very much for that informative and thought-provoking comment! I’ll go put Vérbő in the text now…

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