Monday, 23 August 2010

Edwin Morgan as Translator from Hungarian

My first contact with Hungarian poetry when I returned to it in 1984 was through Edwin Morgan. His translations of one of the greatest of not only Hungarian but European poets, Sándor Weöres formed half of the Hungarian volume Sándor Weöres / Ferenc Juhász in the Penguin Modern European Poets series, the other half being formed by David Wevill's translations of Juhász.

It was Weöres long poem, The Lost Parasol that particularly fascinated me and impressed me, but every one of the Weöres translations was fully alive. I was drawn to both poets in it, but Weöres was more fully within my experiential and temperamental range.

The Lost Parasol in Edwin Morgan's translation begins:

Where metalled road invades light thinning air,
some twenty steps or more and a steep gorge yawns
with its jagged crest, and the sky is rounder there,
it is like the world's end;
nearer: bushy glade in flower,
farther: space, rough mountain folk;
a young man called his lover
to go up in the cool of daybreak,
they took their rest in the grass, they lay down;
the girl has left her red parasol behind...

There are some thirty-six more verses of the same length, the lines tabbed, as the link shows, not justified left. The poem is about the disintegration of the parasol and its return to nature. I can imagine better translations than Morgan's (one always can imagine better) but don't think I could produce one. Nor do I really need one. The translation does what very good translations do: it doesn't attempt to become the original, it yearns and points towards it.

The point was that Weöres's status as a great poet was established in my mind by Edwin Morgan. Like all the Penguin Modern European series, the Weöres / Juhász volume was not only an eye-opener, it offered possibilities.To me, in my position, it offered highly relevant ones.

As the title of the series implies, the minds from which these poems sprang were European, which is to say that their tone and field of reference owed as much to the history of the European mainland as to the shared heritage of Greek and Latin classics, Biblical traditions and the products of European colonialism, which included the introduction of myths, fables and approaches from outside Europe. Modernism was a fully assimilated language to them. It was what they spoke out of experience. They were where it grew up.

In that respect Morgan's instinctive Europeanism was an enormous help. The body of his translation work is a fat volume in itself, and shows he was always curious about those related yet distinct areas to which parts of Britain have at times aspired. The Columbia University edition of Modern Hungarian Poetry (ed. Miklós Vajda, New York, 1977) would have been a lot thinner and a lot less exciting without him. He did more translations than anyone else, followed only by two Americans, William Jay Smith and Daniel Hoffman. He has translations of most poets in the book and instinctively understands them, which is not always easy. He also follows form, not so much as replica but as ghost, throughout. We know what form the originals employed and can sense the way this has created both poem and translation.

Apart from Weöres his other major Hungarian poet is Attila József. Weöres, József, Radnóti, Pilinszky and Nemes Nagy were five of the great poets of the century (one might add some others but would not remove any of those), and Morgan has two of them. His Attila József: Sixty Poems, is, I think the most even and most convincing of the available translations, if only because while others have matched József's form or caught some of his colloquial street voice, Morgan is the one who best knows what József was writing about: urban poverty. His version of József's 'Night in the Suburbs' that begins:

The light smoothly withdraws
its net from the yard, and as water
gathers in the hollow of the ditch,
darkness has filled our kitchen.

Silence. - The scrubbing brush sluggishly
rises and drags itself about;
above it, a small piece of wall is in
two minds to fall or not.

The greasy rags of the sky
have caught the night; it sighs;
it settles down on the outskirts..
Light assonances, indications of the passage of rhyme, hold together a picture that might have come from one of Morgan's own Glasgow Sonnets. Poor Glasgow, poor Budapest: the tenement blocks in each city support a similar range of feeling. József is a greater poet of this world than Morgan, but Morgan makes József speak and sing in English, and besides, what Morgan offered was breadth and variety rather than visionary intensity. It is wrong to expect from someone what he does not give, especially if it gets in the way of what he actually does give. Morgan understands, quite viscerally, where the visionary intensity in József comes from, and that (as well as art) is what matters.

It is not unusual in Hungarian poetry for the collected works of specific poets to consist of more volumes of translation than of original verse. Morgan has something of that. The Carcanet volume of his translations shows what is possible: the translations are the work of someone who has not simply co-opted those he has translated into a personal project, nor has he set out to imitate everything to the point that we seem to be wandering through a museum dedicated to replica furniture. He strives to understand through similarity, by understanding the nature of the dance and letting it move through him as something familiar, just slightly elsewhere.

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