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The Day of Hungarian Poetry: Beloved Poems with Translations

Fanni Kaszás 2019.04.11.

Each year on April 11th, Hungarians come together to celebrate the Day of Hungarian Poetry. The event – which has been held on famous Hungarian poet Attila József’s birthday since 1964 – brings people of all ages together to admire the inspiring achievements of the country’s greatest literary geniuses.

Attila József

One of the greatest Hungarian poets, Attila József, was born in 1905 in Budapest. Although his first poems were published when he was just a teenager, real fame only came after his tragic death. József spent two years of his childhood with his foster parents in Öcsöd, where he worked as a swineherd. At the tender age of nine, he attempted his first suicide. He made his literary debut with his first collection of poems, A szépség koldusa, in 1922. This was followed by his second collection, Nem én kiáltok, in 1925. József’s third collection of poems, Nincsen apám, se anyám (1929), reflected the influence of French surrealism and Endre Ady, Gyula Juhász and Lajos Kassák. Later in 1936, he became one of the co-founders of the review Szép Szó.  His most famous love poem from 1933, “Óda,” took the reader for a journey both around and inside the body of a beloved woman. The poet underwent psychoanalysis in 1931 and was hospitalized several times before committing suicide by train in Balatonszárszó on December 3, 1937. Below is Leslie A. Kery’s English translation of “Tiszta szívvel,” the poem for which Antal Horger expelled József from the university.

With a pure heart

I have neither native sod,
nor a father, mother, god,
cradle gone, the shroud I miss,
lack a lover, lack a kiss.

Three days’ hunger, not a bite:
nothing heavy, nothing light.
Just on twenty, strong and well,
twenty years I’ll try to sell.

If a buyer can’t be got,
let the devil take the lot.
Pure at heart, I surely will
break and enter, even kill.

They will catch me, I’ll be hung,
blessed earth on me be flung,
deadly grasses will then start
growing on my splendid heart.

Tiszta szívvel

Nincsen apám, se anyám,
se istenem, se hazám,
se bölcsőm, se szemfedőm,
se csókom, se szeretőm.

Harmadnapja nem eszek,
se sokat, se keveset.
Húsz esztendőm hatalom,
húsz esztendőm eladom.

Hogyha nem kell senkinek,
hát az ördög veszi meg.
Tiszta szívvel betörök,
ha kell, embert is ölök.

Elfognak és felkötnek,
áldott földdel elfödnek
s halált hozó fű terem
gyönyörűszép szívemen.

Miklós Radnóti

Radnóti, one of the greatest Hungarian poets of the 20th century, was born into an assimilated Jewish family in Budapest in 1909. He married Fanni, his wife and muse, in 1935. Besides writing poems, he also translated Apollinaire, Henry de Montherlant, essays, fiction and African folk poetry. His life came to a tragic end at the age of 36. From 1940 on, Radnóti was forced into several labor services. He was killed in August 1944 during a forced-march when weakened from hunger and torture, he collapsed and was shot and thrown into a mass grave. The most exceptional piece of Radnóti’s bequest is indisputably the Bor Notebook which includes ten poems he wrote while in the forced labor service in Serbia. Read Emery George’s translation of “the Seventh Eclogue,” one of the five poems that Radnóti handed over to Sándor Szalai in the autumn of 1944 in the lager of Bor, below:

Seventh eclogue

Look how evening descends and around us the barbed-wire-hemmed, wild
oaken fence and the barracks are weightless, as evening absorbs them.
Slowly the glance loses hold on the frame of our captive condition,
only the mind, it alone is alive to the tautness of wire.
See, Love: phantasy here, it too can attain to its freedom
only through dream, that comely redeemer who frees our broken
bodies – it’s time, and the men in the prison camp leave for their homes now.

Ragged, with shaven heads, these prisoners, snoring aloud, fly,
leaving Serbia’s blind peak, back to their fugitive homesteads.
Fugitive homesteads – right… Oh, does that home still exist, now?
Still untouched by bombs? as it stood, back when we reported?
And will the men who now groan on my right, lie left, make it home yet?
Is there a home, where people can savor hexameter language?

No diacritics. Just one line under another line: groping,
barely, as I am alive, I write my poem in half-dark,
blindly, in earthworm-rhythm, I’m inching along on the paper.
Flashlights, books: the guards of the Lager took everything from us,
nor does the mail ever come. Only fog settles over the barracks.

Here among rumors and worms all live, be the Frenchmen or Polish,
loud-voiced Italian, partisan Serb, sad Jew, in the mountains,
bodies hacked and in fever; yet one life that all live in common:
waiting for good news, a womanly word, for a fate free and human,
waiting the end plumbing viscous dusk, or miracles – maybe.

Worm-ridden, captive beast: that is just how I lie on the bunk board.
Fleas will renew their siege; the battalion of flies is asleep now.
Evening is here: once again our serfom has grown a day shorter,
so have our lives. The camp is asleep. On mountain and valley
bright moon shines; in its light once more all the wires pull tighter,
and through the window you see how the shadows of the camp’s armed,
pacing sentries are thrown on the wall in the midst of the night’s lone voices.

Camp is asleep, dear one: can you see us? the dreams come rustling;
starting, one will snort on his narrow bunk, turn over;
sleeping again, his face shines. Lonely the vigil I’m keeping;
in my mouth I taste that half-smoked cigarette, not your
kisses, and sreams won’t come, no sleep will come to relieve me,
since I can face neither death nor a life any longer without you.

Hetedik ecloga

Látod-e, esteledik s a szögesdróttal beszegett, vad
tölgykerités, barakk oly lebegő, felszívja az este.
Rabságunk keretét elereszti a lassu tekintet
és csak az ész, csak az ész, az tudja, a drót feszülését.
Látod-e drága, a képzelet itt, az is így szabadul csak,
megtöretett testünket az álom, a szép szabadító
oldja fel és a fogolytábor hazaindul ilyenkor.

Rongyosan és kopaszon, horkolva repülnek a foglyok,
Szerbia vak tetejéről búvó otthoni tájra.
Búvó otthoni táj! Ó, megvan-e még az az otthon?
Bomba sem érte talán? s van, mint amikor bevonultunk?
És aki jobbra nyöszörg, aki balra hever, hazatér-e?
Mondd, van-e ott haza még, ahol értik e hexametert is?

Ékezetek nélkül, csak sort sor alá tapogatva,
úgy irom itt a homályban a verset, mint ahogy élek,
vaksin, hernyóként araszolgatván a papíron;
zseblámpát, könyvet, mindent elvettek a Lager
őrei s posta se jön, köd száll le csupán barakunkra.

Rémhirek és férgek közt él itt francia, lengyel,
hangos olasz, szakadár szerb, méla zsidó a hegyekben,
szétdarabolt lázas test s mégis egy életet itt, –
jóhírt vár, szép asszonyi szót, szabad emberi sorsot,
s várja a véget, a sűrü homályba bukót, a csodákat.

Fekszem a deszkán, férgek közt fogoly állat, a bolhák
ostroma meg-megujúl, de a légysereg elnyugodott már.
Este van, egy nappal rövidebb, lásd, ujra a fogság
és egy nappal az élet is. Alszik a tábor. A tájra
rásüt a hold s fényében a drótok ujra feszülnek,
s látni az ablakon át, hogy a fegyveres őrszemek árnya
lépdel a falra vetődve az éjszaka hangjai közben.

Alszik a tábor, látod-e drága, suhognak az álmok,
horkan a felriadó, megfordul a szűk helyen és már
ujra elalszik s fénylik az arca. Csak én ülök ébren,
féligszítt cigarettát érzek a számban a csókod
íze helyett és nem jön az álom, az enyhetadó, mert
nem tudok én meghalni se, élni se nélküled immár.

Péter Závada 

Péter Závada is a contemporary poet and playwright born in Budapest. His plays have been performed in the Katona József, Belvárosi and Trafó theatres in Budapest. He has performed with rap and slam poetry group Akkezdet Phiai and is a member of the József Attila Circle Literary Association of Young Writers. The following poem is from his more personal and formally free second collection, Mész, published in 2015. The poem “Vákuum” (But nothing) was translated by Mark Baczoni, who brought three of Závada’s poems to an English-speaking audience for the first time:

But nothing

It is not grief, diffusing through me,
but emptiness; and what the blind see
isn’t darkness, but nothing.
But we can’t imagine nothing,
and in fact even a vacuum
is never completely empty. Just think:
for years they thought there was nothing
around the moon but a vacuum
yet it, too, has
a thin, rare atmosphere. The lighter atoms
are blown away by the solar wind
but some of the heavier ones remain
near the surface.
In dreams, I look for you in the bustling street
but it’s like searching the cosmos for signs of life.
What if you’re one of those civilisations that
destroy themselves before we even know they exist?
But if we did meet, I would tell you
what’s been on my mind:
that the night is nothing but the shadow that our planet casts on us
and that your memory, mother, is like
a thin atmosphere – just substantial enough to suffocate in.

 

Vákuum

Nem a gyász terjed szét bennem,
inkább üresség ez, mint ahogy
a vakok sem a sötétet látják,
hanem a semmit. A semmit persze
nem tudjuk elképzelni, az üresség-
értelemben vett vákuum voltaképp
nincsen. Gondolj csak bele, sokáig
azt hitték, légüres tér veszi körül,
pedig a Holdnak is van egy egészen
vékony és ritka légköre. A könnyebb
atomokat magával sodorja a napszél,
de néhány nehezebb a felszín
közelében marad. Álmomban megtalálni
téged az utca forgatagában: mintha
az univerzumban egy idegen élet
nyomait kutatnám. Félek, hogy olyan
vagy, mint egy civilizáció, ami azelőtt
elpusztítja magát, hogy hírt adhatna
létezéséről. Ha mégis találkoznánk,
elmondanám, ami egy ideje foglalkoztat:
hogy az éjszaka csak a bolygó ránk
vetülő árnyéka, hogy az emléked is,
mint a ritka légkör: még bőven
meg lehet fulladni benne.

Radnóti’s Bájoló

Have you ever wondered how your favorite Hungarian pop song would sound translated into English? Well, a young Hungarian crew living in England translates some of the most popular tracks and reproduces them in their own style:

“We bring our personalities to the covers”: Hungarian Duo Translates Popular Hungarian Songs into English

Writer-translator Luca Tréfás explained how the idea began: “I’ve always loved to write poems and I’ve also been translating from Hungarian to English and vice versa since the age of 15. I started with easier pop songs then moved to poems. When Fred asked me to do “Bájoló” by Radnóti, I just fell into it.” She first translated the poem four years ago and has now decided to share a revised version of the translation with Hungary Today:

Enchantment

My eyes are wondering,
sitting in the light,
a rose tree is jumping
through the fence outside,
light is jumping too,
all the clouds gather,
lightning strikes down
giving an answer
up in the sky
it’s rumbling wildly
with all the thunders,
and the blue withers
blue of the waters,
glass of the lakes sweep
come into our home,
undress your body
undress your soul,
it’s already raining,
let the rain wash
our hearts together.

Bájoló

Rebbenő szemmel
ülök a fényben,
rózsafa ugrik
át a sövényen,
ugrik a fény is,
gyűlik a felleg,
surran a villám
s már feleselget
fenn a magasban
dörgedelem vad
dörgedelemmel,
kékje lehervad
lenn a tavaknak
s  tükre megárad,
jöjj be a házba,
vesd le ruhádat,
már esik is kint,
vesd le az inged,
mossa az eső
össze szivünket.

featured image: the statue of Attila József