2014. december 17., szerda

I was on holiday in Budapest with my wife recently. During our stay on Múzeum körút, we walked past a row of second-hand and antiquarian bookshops every morning on our way to get coffee. On the last day I decided to buy a book of Hungarian poetry and attempt to translate some of the poems into English.

I had a list of 'innovative' or 'avant-garde' or 'experimental' poets. These labels and their usefulness have been debated endlessly (with good reason) and I acknowledge their flaws. Using them as search terms to find Hungarian poets I really only hoped to avoid popular, historical and nationalistic verse.  Furthermore, I wanted to feel like I would find a large subjective space in the poems in which I could work, by which I mean write. Of course, the bookshops did not stock the poets I am interested in. Instead I chose two books on their looks: both paid attention to space on the page, experimented with typography and made use of graphic symbols. One of the books also had poems in braille. 

The first book I have turned my attention to is Fabula Rasa by Cselényi Béla. Putting his website through Google translate I learn he is a former librarian, archivist and lecturer. The phrase avant-garde is also used in his biographical note but the sentence is scrambled and makes little sense to me. The first poem in the book is on the inside flap of the dust jacket:  túlméretezett ars poetica szonettbe zsúfolva. I recognise the words ars poetica and szonettbe, and it is indeed the unmistakable shape of a sonnet. From the very limited understanding I have of Hungarian pronunciation I can also deduce that is uses the Shakespearean sonnet rhyme scheme. (I don't have the copyright to reproduce the poem here. Since Cselényi is a former librarian and archivist I think it's only fair not to reproduce his poem without permission, as much as I would like to have it here for context.)

The reference to Horace: since this is in the title I can assume it will be an overarching element central to the poem and is therefore not an element I can altogether dispose of. Secondly, there is the Shakespearean sonnet form. I learn that the title translates as Ars Poetica Crammed into a Sonnet. So the form is also an essential element. Before I have even really begun in earnest I can see there are things - formal things and subject things - which I am in some way obliged to make English. I employ found text and quotation in my work regularly and there is an aspect of re-contextualisation which applies to both appropriation and translation, but questions of obligation and fidelity seem more pertinent to translation.

I won't go into much detail about how I created my gloss versions but it involved using two different translation websites and an online Hungarian-English dictionary. I also did lineated and de-lineated versions to see what role enjambment may have played. Here is one of the glosses:


(oversized ars poetica crammed into a sonnet)


than the five-year child if he gets lost

from him the speeding game train
and starts playing dice me, I too regress
and I write in a sonnet form if it is hurt

my seashell with something rough
I wrote in a bisector number eight for example
called a poem good in bad mood
and I started it as a love letter

can be scanned shorts are effective in a weekly paper
on the other hand freer my real face
soars flutters dives bizarrely astonishes

the be-no-I like understanding better
and more will be the [birálatból] the profit
like greased-manicured lot of praise (...)

To me it is slightly lumpy but essentially a good poem. The last line is actually from one of the other versions, since this translation website didn't understand it. I have not been able to translate the word birálatból at all. Perhaps it's an invented word - Ars Poetica tells us it's fine to coin a phrase so long as it's done with care. Here's a delineated version:



(oversized creed crammed sonnet)
than the five-year-old child is lost him racing toy train and dice start I regressed and write sonnet form breach of shell forgotten something interesting booking for example, scored eight overhead wrote saying good verses bad mood and love Mail Recipient start out scanning six rows at a weekly newspaper, however, freedom is the real face soaring verdes fall bizarre amazed at the non-comprehension-and the more I like my birálatból also be more beneficial than the praise of many greased-manicured

We see the translation is slightly different because the machine reads the lineated version as each line being a discrete unit. This delineated version is not without its charms either. 

Next I comb through the poem, translating each word individually as well as combinations of words to find expressions or phrases. I have concluded that the poem moves like this:


  • As a child may grow out of his toys I on the other hand have regressed into the use of the (broken or injured) sonnet form.
  • From inside my rough shell I can bang out around eight good poems in a bad mood.
  • They start like cheap love letters you might read in a weekly paper.
  • Rather than creating something real I go for whimsy and floaty artifice.
  • I would prefer to be misunderstood than praised by sycophants.

I am still doubtful that I have fully grasped the basic semantic meaning of the poem, but there are ideas I can get behind here, and some nice turns of phrase and music in the glosses. I have asked a Hungarian friend, Réka, to produce a gloss of the poem which I will add in to this post when she has finished it.

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