Saturday, 12 September 2009

A faithful translation

So much work, so little time. I have translated four poems by the older Hungarian poet, László Lator, painstakingly, as faithfully as I could, whatever one means by faithfully, and have responded to two PhD's. That is why no Literaturfest today, simply the room in the flat - the literary agent's flat - where we are staying, and work work work at the desk. If desks could burn with effort this one would be ablaze.

A faithful translation: we think we know what we mean by the expression. It means not putting in too much that isn't there; trying to maintain a respectable degree of similarity of tone and form; and hoping that the impression made on the reader in the receiving language resembles, as closely as possible (as closely as you can judge) the impression made on the reader in the original language.

So, given a formal poem, I want to respond in kind. If the form is very specific and very closely adhered to, I try to do the same. Something always gives and has to give, it is true, but something may be gained too. What you lose in one place you may gain in another. Here's an example. Lator's poem in Hungarian goes like this:

Mi ez az ünnep?

Mi ez az ünnep? Mit keresek én itt
ezen a szürke, nincs-szegélye téren?
Ugyan miért kellett épp ezt a helyet?
Se ház, se domb-völgy, se egy szál növény itt,
ki-mi, akinek ebben kedve telhet?

Hosszú asztalok, s itt-ott mintha sátrak,
nagy, össze nem szokott vendégsereg.
Úgy sejtem, hogy se hallanak, se látnak,
ismerősök és ismeretlenek,
feszengenek a rájuk rótt szerepben,
ezektől is, azoktól is viszolygok.

Nyugtalanít, hogy ezen az egészen
kívül vagyok, hogy nem értem a dolgot,
s nem akaródzik félrenézni mégsem.

Ott ül az asztal közepén, világít
sápadtsága a szűk sötét ruhában.
Gyöngédségében van valami szándék.
Néz rám, s értem: valami ismeretlen
helyre kell néma parancsára mennem.

S jól tudom, még ha vissza is találnék
ide, régen nem lesz itt senki-semmi.

Valaki ocsmány átverésre készül.

Talán lehetne még ellene tenni.
Vagy jobb lesz kimaradni az egészből?

In terms of subject and narrative, a figure or voice finds itself at a public occasion in a very plain public square where a lot of people are gathered. They don't know each other though it seems he recognizes a few. He doesn't like them. Is repelled by them. At the main table, in the very centre, is a pale-skinned figure in a tight dark suit who commands him, as by a look, to undertake a long journey. It occurs to the voice near the end, in a single line, that this is all part of some confidence trick or scam and he wonders whether to take action against it or simply walk away.

In terms of form it is pretty tightly, if irregularly rhymed, mostly in flexible iambic pentameters. It indicates order, but nothing too dressy or military.

There is an infinite number of questions that could be asked of any text and, in poetry, we recognise the necessity of ambiguity (ambiguity is partly the point), so we know the answers are all provisional, though we are encouraged to make certain choices over others. Much depends on the way we comprehend the whole. We could read the whole as a political occasion, a festival of some sort, an anniversary, a dream, an allegory. All these are possible an implicit. My sense of it is that the dream element is the most important. It is, after all, that which makes the poem haunting. Here is a draft of the translation.

What festival is this?

What festival is this? What is it to me,
this grey square with nothing to brighten it?
Why here precisely? Why choose the spot?
No house, no hill or valley, not a tree –
how could anyone take delight in it?

Long tables, some tents, a considerable crew
who’ve never met before, whom no-one knew.
I doubt they can hear or see me at all,
though some I faintly recognise while the rest
are strangers, each one playing a required role:
in both groups I find something to detest.

My utter isolation makes me fret,
my failure to understand the place I’m in.
I really don’t want to be here, and yet…

He’s there at the centre , his pale skin
contrasting with the dark, tight suit he wearing.
His gentle manner suggests a purpose of some kind.
He looks it me and I understand from his bearing
that I should go somewhere I’ve never gone before.

And I know that even if I ever did find
my way back there’d be no one here anymore.

Someone’s planning something, some cheap plot.

Maybe there’s time to stop it, maybe not.
Or should I leave now and just drop the lot?

The rhymes are sometimes in different places, and I am not sure 'festival' is exactly right here. Ünnep is a celebration of some sort, so it may be right. The point is - and this is where it resembles a dream - that it is never revealed.

As a translator I try to enter the spirit of the text (if I can locate it) then hope to travel through the English in a similar spirit. It is all travelling: travelling hopefully and never arriving.


Paul Hellyer said...

Thank you George for taking us, your dear readers, on the journey with this poem. I thought it was a very succinct and insightful 'road map' of how you undertook the task of 'faithful translation'. It never ceases to amaze how a comparatively simple word such as Ünnep can carry such shades of meaning that can not always be easily translated. All our local Hungarian society national day 'celebrations' are always described using the word ünnep and I have always taken an element of commemoration, even solemnity in the the use of the word of those occasions. So how does a translator deal with such a task? I liked very much how you captured that task and hinted, perhaps, at the impossibility of ever getting it exactly right.

I have in my head the words of my Hungarian family and friends who keep saying, 'It sounds better in Hungarian'!! Of course it does, but that can not mean other languages should be excluded from the discourse. This must be the eternal dilemma of the 'faithful translator'.

But the journey is the thing, it really is. We have some many vistas now open to us because of the work of 'faithful translators' and that is the miracle you let your dear readers enjoy so openly.

Zsolt Sesztak said...

English Hungarian translation