Translating Poetry

September 26, 2022

   Last week someone asked about translating poetry, and in particular about translating from a language you don’t know.  So I’ve decided to give you a chance to see what that feels like.  I chose a poem by the Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti, assuming that most of you aren’t fluent in Hungarian–referred to by more than one commentator as “the devil’s language,” for its difficulty.  Its nearest living relative is Finnish–not exactly a close cousin.  But a native Hungarian speaker told me that when she was in Finland once she could hear, from a distance, some vaguely familiar cadences.

Of course you could search for a translation online, but that would defeat the whole purpose.  Feel free to try a translation program to give you an approximation, and then work on turning it into a compelling musical poem in English.  Read about Radnóti, and anything else you think might help you build your own translation–listen to some Hungarian online, maybe.  Please post your version in Comments no later than Thursday so that we have a chance to look at them ahead of our Fridays at 4 (eastern time) discussion.  Let me know if you have any questions.

Please note that the second U in EGÜGYÚ and the Ó  IN FELESÉGRÓL should have two similar accents, not one, but my keyboard doesn’t have that symbol.  The same is true for two o’s in the poem.  The single accents in his name are correct (see what I mean about the devil’s language?).



Miklós Radnóti

As ajtó kaccan egyet, hogy belép,
topogni kezd a sok virágcserép
s hajában egy kis álmos szöke folt
csipogva szól, mint egy riadt veréb.

A vén villanyzsinór is felrikolt,
sodorja lomha testét már felé
s minden kering, jegyezni sem birom.

Most érkezett, egész nap messze járt,
kezében egy nagy mákvirágszirom
s elüzi azzal tölem a halált.

1940. januar 5




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  • Reply Mary Jane White September 27, 2022 at 11:36 am


    The door clicks on opening, setting the many
    flowerpots to rock, so a small patch
    of grey, sleep-mussed hair
    chirps to life—a startled sparrow.

    The frayed electric cord whips,
    and swings a heavy body his direction, so
    everything moves, not that I bother to write about it.

    He has just arrived, having been away all day,
    In her hand—a huge poppy-flower petal
    and with that, he beats back death.

    1940, January 5
    By Miklos Radnoti

  • Reply Anne Myles September 28, 2022 at 4:06 pm

    A Silly Song about My Wife

    The door creaks as she enters,
    the crowd of flowerpots starts to rock,
    and a small patch of silver sleeping in her hair
    cheeps like a startled sparrow.

    The old electric cord chortles too
    as it swings towards her with its stiff body,
    and everything wheels — I can’t capture it.

    She’s just come home, she’s been gone all day.
    In her hand she holds a large poppy petal
    and with it wafts my death away.

    [I did look up one “real” translation online, which seemed to clarify the pronouns and hence the basic sense for me — I didn’t use it as my basis otherwise]

    • Reply Sharon September 28, 2022 at 4:28 pm

      Thanks! I think this is really good.


  • Reply Joel Katz September 28, 2022 at 6:56 pm

    I’m not sure I can make the Friday 9/30 Zoom session on Translating Poetry. However, I did attempt a “translation” of the Radnoti poem by letting the shape of the Hungarian words suggest a corresponding English version. I ignored the punctuation of the original poem and let my “translation” develop its own punctuation. (P.S. At no time did I use Google Translate or similar software on the original Radnoti poem).

    The result sounds like an excerpt from Gertrude Stein’s “Tender Buttons”.


    Trying to catch an egret, holy blip
    atop a kid’s knapsack; mirage-syrup.
    Feels almost shocking, like a shy but edgy kiss,
    a slipover-shawl, mint-edged, ready to warp.
    [And] When seniors in the village feel cold,
    sudden longing twists their feelings—
    minding, caring, judging someone.
    Most excellent: each nap a missing art,
    cozy edge making an azure room
    into a slice wholly taller than a hilltop.

    • Reply Sharon September 28, 2022 at 10:51 pm

      Hi Joel. I hope you can be there. This isn’t quite what I had in mind this week, but I’ve used exactly this approach sometimes in a class, when I was trying to get students to let sound lead them in their own poems. I usually used Icelandic poems I’d found, again because I wanted something unfamiliar. It’s a great way to get away from autobiography and out of your own head. It was also interesting to me how much overlap I got in those versions based on sounds.

    • Reply Sharon September 29, 2022 at 11:06 pm

      This is really interesting–using the original as a prompt rather than attempting to translate it. I used to do something similar with icelandic poems.

  • Reply Annie Newcomer September 28, 2022 at 7:09 pm

    Impressed with your translation and looking forward to hearing about your process, Mary Jane.

  • Reply Martha Zweig September 29, 2022 at 1:26 pm

    In ignorance of Hungarian & of Radnoti, I have fooled around based on a google translation:

    This morning yesterday’s exit croaks open.
    Commotion seizes her potting shed
    as the one scalp swatch left of her hair
    bristles sizzling electric alarm,

    & that must be his own hanged
    body the cord’s jerking around.
    Whoa! –too much chaos here, I’m
    ducking out of this poem.

    He was too late over & over all day long.
    Serves him right! –the one poppy petal he gets
    to pluck out of her breast against death.

    • Reply Sharon September 29, 2022 at 1:37 pm

      The point was not to know the language. You’ve used the rough translation really to make a poem of your own.

  • Reply Laura Jensen September 29, 2022 at 7:25 pm

    from the poem, A SONG ABOUT THE WIFE, Miklós Radnóti

    At a small house ruined in war
    broken clay pots and roots, stems, flowers
    the hair had matted tangles
    her sounds frightened birds.

    The cord, the plug, stinging in air
    shoved her to the man
    all circled around in the air, no way to endure.

    It is like he is back from a day away,
    He holds something red like a flower
    from this attack it will kill her.

    (Some other person can imagine again
    because so much shock stands before us.

    We would have the housewife
    treated from the torture violation, a survivor.)

    • Reply Sharon September 29, 2022 at 7:29 pm

      Thanks, Laura.

  • Reply Chris Dahl September 29, 2022 at 10:58 pm

    A Song about the Wife

    The door clicks open
    setting the flower pots rattling
    and a small patch of tired gray hair
    chirps like a startled sparrow.

    The old electric cord whines
    as her weary body swings toward him
    and the room encircles them. Nothing
    that needs to be written.

    He has just arrived. He has been far all day.
    In her hand a single poppy petal burns.
    With that he fights off death.

    • Reply Sharon September 29, 2022 at 11:00 pm

      Thanks, Chris.

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