August 8, 2023
The literary, linguistic, and acoustic metamorphosis of translation
In her essay ‘In Praise of Echo’, Jhumpa Lahiri writes that the art of translation is “central to the production of literature and not an accessory to it.”
Throughout the rest of the pieces in ‘Translating Myself and Others’, the collection to which ‘In Praise of Echo’ belongs, the transformative power of translation — which Lahiri deems an “imaginative” and not merely “imitative” act — is repeated.
The joys of translation, owing to the literary, linguistic, and acoustic metamorphosis that the practice allows, are inextricable from its challenges. The process of translating poetry, as I have learned, is not merely using a dictionary to transcribe word-for-word from one language to another; in order for a translation to sound idiomatic without sacrificing the imaginative authority of the original creator, both literary ingenuity and sensitivity are required.
One of the poems included in ‘The Lost Rider’, a bilingual anthology of the most renowned works of Hungarian poetry, is Endre Ady’s ‘Párizsban járt az ősz’, or, as titled by George Szirtes, whose translation was selected for ‘The Lost Rider’, ‘Autumn Appeared in Paris’.
The poem is a short, sixteen-line lyric with an ‘XAXA’ rhyme scheme and describes the speaker encountering a personified apparition of Autumn on the St Michel boulevard in Paris. Characteristic of the Symbolism of late nineteenth century and early twentieth century literature, the tone and imagery of the poem is informed by the vivid colouration and vagueness of impressionism.
Autumn Appeared in Paris
Autumn appeared in Paris yesterday.
Silent down St. Michel its swift advance,
In stifling heat under unmoving branches
We met as if by chance.
Ambling in the direction of the Seine
My soul was brent with tiny shreds of song:
Dark things, oddments, squibs, laments, which whispered
That death would not be long.
Autumn caught up and mumbled in my ear,
The entire boulevard trembled to the eaves,
Ts, ts…along the street as if half jesting
Flew bright-eyed civic leaves.
A moment; Summer hardly had drawn breath
But Autumn was on its cackling way and now
Was gone and I the only living witness
Under the creaking bough.
The challenges of translation are implacable, even in free verse, and the familiar problems of preserving form and meaning are foregrounded in the juxtaposition of the Hungarian and English versions of ‘Párizsban járt az ősz’.
The replication of the rhyme scheme, for instance, comes at the cost of Ady’s dulcet alliteration, which is lost upon translation, though Szirtes manages to maintain the ten syllable line constraint, and also transcribes sensory details with vivid onomatopoeic language.
Szirtes’s creative liberties become more readily apparent when considered alongside other English translations of Ady. The following poem was translated by Doreen Bell.
Autumn passed through Paris
Autumn slipped into Paris yesterday,
came silently down Boulevard St Michel,
In sultry heat, past boughs sullen and still,
and met me on its way.
As I walked on to where the Seine flows by,
little twig songs burned softly in my heart,
smoky, odd, sombre, purple songs. I thought
they sighed that I shall die.
Autumn drew abreast and whispered to me,
Boulevard St Michel that moment shivered.
Rustling, the dusty, playful leaves quivered,
whirled forth along the way.
One moment: summer took no heed: whereon,
laughing, autumn sped away from Paris.
That it was here, I alone bear witness,
under the trees that moan.
A few obvious discrepancies can be noted: Bell, for one, ascribes her ‘Autumn’ with more of a dynamic presence, using active verbs to describe the personified entity “[come] silently down Boulevard St Michel”, and employs more frequent use of the “I” pronoun.
Overall, one senses that Bell’s rendition reads more casually compared to Szirtes’s formal and occasionally taut prose. This colloquialism seems to suggest an effort to stay faithful to the original Hungarian work, which is written quite conversationally, and applies none of the complex syntactical arrangements that Szirtes chooses. Translated into English, however, Bell’s simplification negates the material and aesthetic complexity of Ady’s chosen vocabulary, thereby reducing its creative integrity.
Consider the second stanza, for example. Bell imagines “little twig songs” that are “smoky, odd, sombre, purple.” Relative to Szirtes’s “soul […] brent with tiny shreds of song: / Dark things, oddments, squibs, laments, which whispered / that death would not be long”, Bell’s vision is much more innocuous, and loses the strong mood of disillusionment and melancholy that is generated in Ady’s verse.
Despite its occasional mangled syntax, Sziertes recreates a tone of desperation that is much closer to what is evoked by the original piece (which literally translates to something along the lines of “little twig-songs burned in my soul”). Though Bell’s images might be more visually similar to the original, Szirtes’s intricate, perhaps idiosyncratic use of language offers a better estimate of Ady’s poetic conviction.
Some of the drama of ‘Párizsban járt az ősz’ is further erased by Bell’s “I thought they sighed that I shall die.” Sziertes’s translation offers no uncertainty: “[tiny shreds of song] which whispered / that death would not be long.”
For my own translation, I selected Mihály Babits’s ‘Magyar szonett az őszről’, written in 1927, which was previously untranslated into English.
During my first attempt at a word-for-word blank-verse translation from Hungarian, I faced several difficulties that spotlighted the poem’s lexical ambiguities. The word “farsangi”, for instance, translates literally into English as “carnival”, but “carnival” itself has different meanings in English depending on ecclesiastical or regional context.
The problem of “farsangi” is multiplied by formal considerations — “carnival” is a three syllable word in which the first vowel is stressed, resisting my vision of a perfectly iambic metre. Nonetheless, I wanted to preserve Babits’s simile that compared fallen petals to carnival posters to illustrate the arrival of fall in two distinct (and markedly Hungarian) phenomena.
I knew that certain turns of phrase and Hungarian idioms would need to be altered in order to be palatable for an English audience. Many of these lines required my own research to make sense of (“megestek a lányok”, for example, means “the girls have fallen”, but is also used as an equivocation for pregnancy — “well-fed” is what I came up with as a way of reflecting the expression’s projection obscurity).
The struggle of the word “Szentmihály” also occupied much of my internal deliberation: the Hungarian holiday, celebrated at the end of the summer when the grape harvest begins, is almost certainly meaningless to any English speaker. But though I considered replacing the reference with a description of the holiday festivities, I ultimately decided to keep “Szentmihály”, which I believe will not only encourage the reader to research this Magyar tradition, but also justifies the Hungarian association of the sonnet, which is denoted by the title of the poem.
In this case, the decision to maintain Babits’s word choice identified a point of convergence between form and content; nevertheless, the struggle of translation is generally not so easily resolved, and it is eventually up to the translator to decide what considerations to privilege. Below is my finalised poem:
Magyar Sonnet about Autumn
Bright flowers call, prefigured fall perfume
like petals, rags, posters for carnival,
through fasting winds that howl we need you not
our wedded wives shall be well fed by night.
All grave and grey, a shyness all too proud,
of harvest bounty cradles fall sowed seeds
that will release the hound of Szentmihály
And die, heroic mother, when frost sets.
On grass too sparse the hungry rabbit feeds.
The birds are wailing while the sun still bleeds.
Through heavy smoke the steamer goes to Pest.
The wolf in wrinkled forests is upset.
And anxious is the heart of meadowed man:
What others hold in sight looms near the blind.
In 1993, the Italian author Umberto Eco observed that “the language of Europe is translation.” Eco’s contention is perhaps uniquely germane to Hungary’s literary heritage, which is endowed with a pressure to be ‘outward-looking’ in the context of Hungarian’s linguistic isolation as a non Indo-European language.
But while translations from English to Hungarian abound, the quantity of untranslated Hungarian poetry remains far greater. Even more apparent is the poetic disparagement of those canonised works that have been afforded access to global audiences through their English translations.
To produce a just treatment of a poem in translation is, unmistakably, a near-impossible task; it nonetheless demands an attempt.