Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Some Attila Jozsef fragments on his birthday

Precisely 107 years ago, Attila József, one of the greatest twentieth century poets was born in a Budapest slum. Son of a poor factory worker and a peasant woman, his father deserted the family when he was three. He was fostered out for a while but came back. A relative put him through school but he failed to get into university because one of his poems was taken to be offensive. His first book of poems appeared when he was twenty-two and he survived as best he could by his writing. He joined the Communist Party then left it and died, run over by a train at the age of thirty-two. There are a number of good translations of him the best probably being Edwin Morgan, but there are others including the one by Frederick Turner and Zsuzsanna Ozsváth. Other interesting ones include those by Peter Zollman, John Bátki, and Peter Hargitai.

I have translated only a little of József. That tone is hard to strike as well as keeping form. It is colloquial, romantic yet firmly rooted in realism. Here are a few I prepared earlier. The first four lines form the last of three quatrains from Reménytelenül (Without Hope). It can serve as epigraph.

...My heart is perched on nothing’s branch,
a small, dumb, shivering event:
the gentle stars jostle and bunch
and gaze on in astonishment.

Fat Drops of Rain...
Hizlalt esö

Fat drops of rain on the roof,
       metallic pit-a-pat.
Cluck on old hen, brood me time,
       hatch me some of that.

Produce the eggs, sweet mamma,
       that any mother lays,
delicious soft blue, green,
       and scarlet days.

I’ll wait for you. I’ve got no cash.
       There’s nothing I can buy.
My heartbeat shakes me as I feel
       your fluffy feathers fly.

It beats and shakes. I hear it,
       gloomy, proud, aloof.
The thoughts of a tramp beneath
       a first class carriage roof.

The silent machine
A hallgatag gép

Look, the silent machine has arrived
and rolls on across hulks that are still squealing.
The medium groans. Now, through the masses
come ranks of workers wheeling.

It’s hard work. How can they squeeze through
when white-eyed gods in an advanced state
of decomposition, stand either side, to watch
bankers flit in and out at the gate?

The hoops of the world are cracking.


We’ll found a workers’ state of refined steel -
on a bed of polished rock
and see its symbol flitter across lined faces
like a snatch of song through a tenement block.


May the butcher’s hefty cleaver
Dagadt hentes bárdja

May the hefty butcher’s cleaver slice you open
so the snow falls down the gaping wound in your back,

tyrant of trembling hands and witless cack.

The three fragments were translated for Thomas Kabdebós Poems and Fragments of Attila József


Marion McCready said...

I picked up a Selected Poems of Attila Jozef when I was in Budapest many years ago, the collection's always been a favourite of mine. I particularly love this poem, translated by Batki -

A Tired Man

Solemn peasants in the fields
straggle homeward without a word.
Side by side we lie, the river and I,
fresh grasses slumber under my heart.

A deep calm is rolling in the river.
My heavy cares are now as light as dew.
I'm not man, or child, "Hungarian" or "brother" -
lying here is just a tired man, like you.

Evening ladles out the quiet,
I'm a warm slice from its loaf of bread.
In the peaceful sky the stars come out
to sit on the river and shine on my head.

Graham Mummery said...

A truly great poet.

Love your your translations as I loved Eddie's. He deserves the tribute also, as he did with ome wonderful work of Weores.

And of course, with typical modesty, you don't mention your own wonderful poem that must have in part been a tribute this this master "The Idea of Order at the Josef Atilla Estate."

Hope you are well


oliver dixon said...

I wrote a brief review of the Bloodaxe Selected Poems of Attila Joszef last year and was caught between fascination for this astonishing poet and disappointment at the mostly dodgy translations by Frederick Turner. I thought at the time I wonder if George Szirtes has translated any because I'm sure he would do a much better job - and you've proved that with this post. Ever thought of tackling a whole book of Joszef versions?

George S said...

Thank you very much, Graham.

Oliver, I too reviewed the Turner and like you I felt rather iffy about it. Turner is not a particularly good poet and he mystifies too much about metre. József's language and metre are fairly straightforward which is precisely what makes him so difficult.

Very difficult in fact. I have put my better efforts up here. I think I would have to compromise a good deal with the form to get József right. No one has - not even Eddie Morgan - who is the best of the bunch. One must consider Peter Zollman too who is distinctly better than Turner. It may be best to go light on the form and see what happens.

Dave Dalton said...

I thought the first Batki one from 1973 was better than the second, for the reasons you say: he doesn't try to be too strict formally. But maybe that's because it was the one that I read first. Edwin Morgan's are the best I've seen, though, as his technique is good and he has a great deal of empathy with the content--ie the battered working-class landscapes and people, which in some ways overlap with his Glasgow Sonnets. But the fairly original existential-Hegelian-Marxist-Freudian philosophical fusion, which Attila somehow turns into apparently simple images, is also difficult to contend with, since who is going to have all of the implied necessary background, temperament and skills? Anyway, I'm glad you reminded me of his birhday.