Saturday, 15 January 2011

A little more János Vitéz...

Picking the unfinished draft up where I left off...

...So answered fair Helen, her trim little figure
Pounding the laundry with ever more vigour.
The shepherd arose intending to coax her
Over the stream, and approached somewhat closer.

“Come out, my sweet dove, come over my poppet,
The kissing and hugging will take but a minute;
Your stepdame is elsewhere, she’ll cause you no anguish.
Come, rescue your lover or else he must languish.”

So gently he charms her she yields to his wooing.
His hands round her waist are her tender undoing.
One kiss then? Or two? A hundred if any -
The Lord God alone could tell you how many.

Meanwhile the minutes and hours were flying,
Sun dyes the water dark red in its dying.
Stepmother’s furious, wickedly fretting:
Where is that sloven? How late it is getting!

Wicked old thoughts swirl round in her bonnet
Till she has to give voice to it, cry out upon it
(Nor does her manner of speaking grow kinder)
“She’d best not be slacking, by God, when I find her!”

Poor Helen, poor orphan, what fiend waits to bind you!
The furious witch is standing behind you;
Her mouth is wide open, her lungs swell like bellows,
Love’s dream is ended, awakening follows.

“Shame on you, slut! You wastrel, my sorrow!
You think I’ll be mocked before the whole borough!
You blasphemous hussy, you mocker of labour!
To blazes with you!...Take the devil for neighbour!”

“Enough of this now! you old venomous bucket!
Shut it at last, or I’ll force you to shut it.
You curse her once more, or try to dismiss her,
You’ll lose the few teeth you have left in your kisser.”

Seeing his lover so frightened, the tender
Of sheep rose up boldly to try and defend her;
He glared at the witch as to say woe betide her
And added the following caution as rider:

“If you don’t want your cabin reduced to mere ashes
You’ll leave this poor orphan alone when she washes.
She labours for you quite enough, you old sinner,
And gets but a crust of dry bread for her dinner.

Away with you, Helen, you’ve a tongue that can utter,
Just tell me at once if she dares give you bother.
And as for you, ma’am, leave folk to their labours.
Your sheets are no cleaner than those of your neighbours.”

With this Johnny snatched up his cloak in a fluster
And dashed off to catch all the sheep he could muster,
Alarmed to observe that while he’d been blazing
Only a few scattered ewes were still grazing.

The distinction between poetry and verse tale in translation is complex. I am looking for a language that will allow for both swaggering archaism and contemporary colloquialism, where "You’ll lose the few teeth you have left in your kisser" and "Shut it at last, or I’ll force you to shut it" can sit alongside, "He glared at the witch as to say woe betide her". Then there would be the occasionally comic effect of the double rhymes.

What the translation needs is space enough to develop a sense of confidence in language. The heroic, the tragic, the lyrical, and the belly laugh are all part of the original. The trick is to keep moving through splendour and bathos with a certain brio. Try to think of Byron and push on.


Gwil W said...

No easy task. It seems to me that Mark Twain had great problems with Struwelpeter when I read it in the English and compare it to the original. But anyway you must press on regardless. In 50 years someone will come along and do it again. You have have my sympathy.

thegedle said...

How much, when translating such things, is literal, word by word and how much is more like reading a portion, sitting back and trying to write a verse that says much the same thing?

George S said...

To say something sensible about translation in a comment is beyond me, Gwilym, but I persevere with things I like because I like them and think they may be likeable in English too. János Vitéz is a great yarn in verse. So I try to follow it and write the great yarn in English verse as best I can. I have been picking at this poem in odd moments for years now. No commission, no pressure - but certainly some pleasure in getting one more stanza down. Then I go back and revise and move on. In between getting on with everything else.

George S said...

Of the two option you give, The Gedle, I pick the second. There is no way of reproducing poetry word for word, but it may be possible to pick up the mood of the thing and the way it moves. Idioms don't translate directly in any case, but the effect of an idiom has echoes in another language, perhaps even a near equivalent. In the case of Petöfi I am pretty sure I can feel the workings of the poem at depth, in its mixture of the folksy, bardic and colloquial. There may be such a tone in English so I look for it. The big problem is the double (feminine) rhyme - but that's needed for the bounce.

I think and work verse by verse, so each English verse must contain what the Hungarian verse does, meaning it does the same job by whatever means.

thegedle said...

It sounds like a whole heap of fun. It makes me wish I had another language.