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?).
EGYÜGYU DAL A FELESÉGRÓL
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
A SONG ABOUT MY WIFE
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
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]
Thanks! I think this is really good.
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”.
Title — AT THE EDGE OF ALL: FALSE EGRET
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.
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.
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.
Impressed with your translation and looking forward to hearing about your process, Mary Jane.
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.
The point was not to know the language. You’ve used the rough translation really to make a poem of your own.
IMAGE THAT RESONATES
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.)
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.