Monday, 10 January 2011

Back late, so... János Vitéz (the beginning)

Because I am late home, too tired to write a proper new post, I am grabbing a couple of things from the backlist. Or rather the prose part is from the backlist. It is the beginning of the introduction I wrote for John Ridland's translation of my favourite childhood Hungarian poem, the book length yarn, János Vitéz (literally Knight John, or Childe John) that appeared here as John the Valiant.

John did a good job but I can't help experimenting with my own beloved first reading. Not that I am doing it seriously because I don't have the time, but when I do, I pick at it. So the verse part below is the beginning of my unpublished and very much unfinisehd attempt. There is more than this of course, but this will serve as a filler.

from the Introduction to John the Valiant

Some ten years ago I was staying at a friend’s flat in Budapest, examining the books on his shelves when I chanced on a spine that looked faintly familiar. I drew the book out. One glance and I experienced one of those rare convulsive moments of disorientation and recognition. There in my hand was a copy of Sándor Petõfi’s János vitéz, the very same edition – for all I knew it could have been the very same copy – that I had read and dreamt over when I was a child in Hungary. The book that had thrilled, fascinated and frightened me had also offered me my first glimpse into the adult world of romantic love and loss. It was in fact the book I would have wanted most to keep and take with me when we left Hungary in 1956, left all of a sudden as it now seems, without even necessary possessions let alone cultural or spiritual luxuries, to take up residence in a far-off place.

The book itself was not a rarity, though I had not come upon this particular edition in the forty or so years after Hungary. It was an early 1950s production for the popular children’s press and, as such, was general, indeed univeral, reading matter. Petõfi was, after all, the most famous, most popular poet in the history of the country, a romantic hero who perished in 1849 at the age of twenty-six on the battlefield at Segesvár (Sighisoara as it is now), fighting the army of the Russian Tsar for liberty, equality, and fraternity. In the collective mind he stood for youth, the poor, for the nation: for everything bright, right and rebellious. He was the very icon of the aspirational Hungarian spirit, a vastly productive strolling actor and man of the people, equally at home in the country and the city, a product of the folk tradition but singing the woes and pleasures of his compatriots and contemporaries, the man who launched the 1848 revolution by reciting his rebellious, patriotic poem, Talpra magyar (Rise up, Hungarians) from the steps of the recently built National Theatre...


from my own unfinished translation..

János Vitéz
A Tale of Johnny Barleycorn (Kukorica Jancsi)*

The summer sun blazes, not a smidgeon of shadow,
The shepherd attends to his sheep in the meadow.
No need for the sun or celestial fire,
The boy is in love and aflame with desire.

Tender his heart as it crackles with passion,
He shepherds his flock in amorous fashion.
At the end of the village the vague sheep meander,
He lies on the grass with his cloak spread out under.

An ocean of brilliant flowers surrounds him
But little he cares for anything round him,
A stone’s throw away flows the brook in its station,
His eyes watch the water in rapt fascination,

Yet not quite the water, for all its fine features,
But a beautiful maiden, the fairest of creatures,
The fairest of creatures with midriff so slender,
Her golden hair tumbling, her bosom all splendour.

Skirt to her knees, the bright sunlight flashing,
Bright flecks in the water, she pounds at her washing.
Her delicate knees are a half-hidden treasure
Attending on Johnny Barleycorn ’s pleasure.

Yes it is Johnny ! That’s Johnny all over,
An amorous shepherd sprawling in clover.
Who else could it be? And the maid with the laundry?
It must be John’s sweetheart, the fair Helen, surely.

“Fair Helen, my jewel, my treasure, none dearer,”
So Johnny addressed her and begged her draw nearer.
“Grant me a look, O my sole consolation,
The one point of light in the world’s desolation,

Cast the pure beam of your sloe eyes upon me,
Step from the water, embrace your poor Johnny.
Step from the water,” young Barleycorn beckoned.
“My soul yearns to roost on your lips for a second.”

“O Johnny, my love, I would, but I’m rushing.
The clothes must be clean. I must finish the washing,
If I don’t get it done I’m as lamb to the slaughter..
My stepmother waits. I am not her real daughter.”...


*John Barleycorn is not an exact equivalent for Kukorica Jancsi (the hero's original name before he becomes a dashing soldier). 'Johnny Corn' is closer, but clearly there is a hint of the bucolic deity about him, and John Barleycorn sets him in a somewhat similar domain. Those double rhymes are key to the pace of the original but they're hard to maintain. One does what one can. I am pretty sure that the Fair Helen's bosom gave me my first sense of desire as a child.

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