06. 29. 2016. 18:40

My dog Hattyú

DezsKosztolányi, the self-styled homo estheticus, was one of the great men of Hungarian letters in the first half of the twentieth century. Little of his poetry has been translated because of its technical ingenuity, but anything by him is ipso facto worthy of attention.


The common problems of translating Hungarian are not much in evidence here, though now and then the syntax has to be followed carefully, while the occasional grammatically significant syllable is cut metri gratia. Kosztolányi uses lines of alternating eleven and ten syllables, little different in length from my iambic pentameter, and an irregular half-rhyme scheme which I have not followed.
In this poem we see the differing but complementary characters of Kosztolányi and his dog. The kuvasz is one of the ten traditional Hungarian breeds, a handsome animal; it is off-white in colour, whence the name Hattyú, which means Swan. Historically used for defending herds, it makes a good guard dog, but not a good house dog; to keep one in town, therefore, is distinctive; they are seldom seen. So unusual a dog is just what one might perhaps expect a poet to own! Strongly loyal to its master and very defensive of his property, Hattyú is a lay element in the creative sanctum. But the breed has also a reputation for surliness, which Kosztolányi certainly had not: in this poem we hear an echo not only of Horace's Odi profanum vulgus but also of Kosztolányi's own Kornél Esti stories: Kornél is his alter ego, who thinks the thoughts, even does the deeds, that Kosztolányi himself would often like to but in fact would never dare. (Bernard Adams)

Sit you here, Hattyú, keep watch on the house,
gentle, white progeny of wolves, to whose
inveterate misanthropy footsteps

mean nervous tension, sleepless vigilance.
Do not allow the impious to corrupt

what heart and mind and hand have here contrived,
and may your master day-dream undisturbed
within this narrow circle close confined.

May those who with myself and with my work
have naught in common never pass this wall.
Beyond it is the street, the vulgar street,

a horror alien to my inmost heart.
Stand on the line between and keep the faith
of ancient values in this fickle world;
lie at the gate a cautionary form,
wise Magyar kuvasz, as my watch and ward.
Come here now, pay close heed to what I say.
Turn to me your myopic, opal eye
where goodness with distrust eternal blends.
Above all else, preserve tranquillity.
Him that disturbs it bite and drive away,
and him that over trifles makes a fuss,
for still before me lies a long, long road;
my busy hand still plies the pen on trust.
And yet, do not be angry with the poor,
the beggars that may stare in at the gate,
gaunt figures standing in the moonlight, for
already they have troubles that are great.

But rather keep your mind on literature,
and if this way should come some snide attack
and you should hear somebody bark at me,
do me a favour and just bark straight back.

(1924)

Translated by: Bernard Adams

Tags: Dezső Kosztolányi