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...
Fat drops of rain on the roof,
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