Sándor Weöres in English translation
Weöres' poems came out in English a trifle too late. I wish it would have been otherwise, for in that year Weöres was one of the strongest candidates for the Nobel Prize which kept eluding Hungarians until Imre Kertész received it some years later.
In Hungary Sándor Weöres was considered an outstanding poet of his generation already after World War II, but he had to wait many years before his fame spread abroad. I helped this in a small way, first when I devoted to him a sub-chapter in my Polish and Hungarian Poetry 1945–1956 (Clarendon Press, 1966), though there I approached his poetry mainly from a political angle. In the East European issue of the American magazine Tri-Quarterly (Spring 1967) which I co-edited with Charles Newman, I included three poems by Sándor Weöres. Some years later, when Ivar Ivask, Editor of the American literary quarterly Books Abroad asked me to write an essay on an important Hungarian poet for the special East European issue of the magazine, I did not hesitate in choosing Weöres whom I knew personally and whose work I had been admiring for years. My essay (‟Unity in Diversity”) was published in Books Abroad No. 43/1, 1969, and was well received by Hungarian and emigré critics alike. Weöres himself was very much pleased with it (thanking me both on a postcard and later in person). In 1990 Emery George published a long essay on Weöres’s poetry in the American magazine Cross Current. Incidentally, the only book on Weöres in English was written many years later by the Hungarian-born Swedish scholar Susanna Fahlström (Form and Philosophy in Weöres’s Poetry, Uppsala, 1999 – also available online).
Weöres is a poet with a very wide range, difficult to translate. His poems for children are deeply embedded in the language, are full of puns and jokes, often written in complicated verse forms which present an unusual task for a translator whose ambition is to do them justice. A Scot, Alexander Fenton tried to render the poems for children in his collection If All the World were a Blackbird (Aberdeen, 1985), but with only limited success. A different tradition exists for this genre in English and in Hungarian: while the former’s nursery rhymes are full of quaint images and absurd ideas (think of my favourite, ‟The Owl and the Pussycat”), it is not mainly the strangeness of characters and situations but the strong rhythms and beguiling melody of the poems that make them attractive for Hungarian children. In his recent book In the Land of Giants (Salt, 2013), the prize-winning poet George Szirtes offers some skilful translations of Weöres’s poems for children.
The philosophical and mythological poems of Weöres pose different kind of problems. An erudite translator could cope with them, but often they can be appreciated only by a highbrow audience. While the view that ‟Weöres is untranslatable” is by and large not true, there are certain parts of his oeuvre which could fall into this category. Miklós Vajda points out in his introductory essay to Eternal Moment that the collection Psyche is probably one of these, for here the poet plays a double role, speaking through the persona of an invented female poet of high social rank who lived in the first half of the 19th century and writes in an early biedermeier style but full of unbridled eroticism and no sentimentality.
I am now going to discuss the collection Eternal Moment published in 1988 as a joint venture of Anvil Press and Corvina Press, Budapest. In this book there are two forewords (labelled as “Foreword” and “Introduction”) by William Jay Smith and Miklós Vajda respectively, and the poems themselves are followed by an “Afterword” by Edwin Morgan. As this collection was edited by Vajda, editor of the New Hungarian Quarterly at the time who had also been responsible for the “recruitment” for Hungarian poetry of both W. J. Smith and the Scottish Edwin Morgan, clearly it was his priorities that governed the selection both of the poems and the translators.
Miklós Vajda’s selection of the poems is judicious, three quarters of the poems taken from the post-1945 oeuvre of Weöres, cautiously balancing the ‘philosophical’ poems with the humorous pieces. As for the translators, we have six of them, three Brits (Alan Dixon, Edwin Morgan, George Szirtes), two Americans (Daniel Hoffman and William Jay Smith) and one Irish (Hugh Maxton), but the vast majority of the poems were translated by Morgan and William Jay Smith. With the exception of Szirtes, none of the six poets knows Hungarian – that is not necessarily the precondition of a good translation but it makes the faithfulness of the English versions dependent on a good ’rough’ version of the original. Also, it makes the translators responsible for changes which they may or may not impose on the Hungarian poet’s idiosyncratic style. As I have collaborated with Edwin Morgan on his translations of Attila József, I can affirm that he was a flexible and not a self-centred translator – whether Vajda had similar experiences with William Jay Smith, I cannot tell. Szirtes had the advantage of knowing the original texts and he tries to rhyme those poems of Weöres where rhyme plays a significant role.
It was probably Miklós Vajda’s idea to ask Weöres to contribute his own whimsical drawings to the collection (as the poet also did in his famous collection The Tower of Silence back in 1956), some of which (such as ‟The Spirit of the Wind” or ‟A Girl Combing Hair”) enchant with their playfulness – not unlike the famous drawings of Jean Cocteau.
Weöres’s best and most prolific English translator is Edwin Morgan. Morgan has translated from many languages, even doing a Scots version of Mayakovski, but I think he had a special regard for Hungarian poetry. In his ‟Afterword” to Eternal Moment he does not hesitate to call Weöres ‟a great poet [who] keeps his translator stretched” and he makes a determined effort to keep not only the structure but also the formal aspects of the poems he renders into English. Already back in 1970, in the Penguin selection shared with the much younger Ferenc Juhász, Morgan translated well not only the mythological and philosophical poems (amongst them ‟The Lost Parasol” is a rare poetic achievement), but also the grotesque and absurd pieces such as ‟Coolie” and ‟Monkeyland”- as well as ‟Le Journal”, a long poem which I analysed for its barely camouflaged political message already in my already mentioned book Polish and Hungarian Poetry 1945–1956. I know from the poet himself that he was slightly bothered by the attention I brought upon this particular poem of his, yet I maintain that the years of Hungarian Stalinism (known as well as the Rákosi era, after the Communist dictator Mátyás Rákosi) were not summed up with similar accuracy by anyone else in Hungary. Let us hear a stanza in Morgan’s translation:
What I don’t think let me declare
and what I do think let me conceal
shut up the truth the fake is shrill
the rest must be clawed from its lair
Of course, today we would need many footnotes if we wanted the generation that grew up after the change of regime in Hungary to appreciate this particular poem.
For ‟Le Journal” Eternal Moment provides only one footnote about poets born in Debrecen – and I doubt whether the other allusions of the poem could be grasped even by an educated British reader. But footnotes should have been applied to another poem, ‟Toccata”, as well – here Weöres makes allusions not only to Plato but also to Klapka, Perczel and a Rákóczi (which one of them?). How many English readers are aware of the fact that György Klapka who emigrated to England in 1849 became close friends with the Jerome family and that it was he who lent his name to the author of Three Men in a Boat, so that it is really Jerome K(lapka) Jerome?
George Szirtes and myself liked Morgan’s translations of Weöres best, so we selected some almost exclusively from his work for our 1996 anthology The Colonnade of Teeth.
There was one exception though: there existed a very good version of an important poem, “Murals of the 20th Century” by Richard Lourie, which we also included. This is a characteristically ‘ageless’ poem which nonetheless works with a ‘crypto-Buddhist’ message in the context of 1945: powerful images of destruction are evoked, no great joy being expressed over the victory of the allies in the Second World War, for now “only the Angel of Disgust is alive”, all other angels (including the Angel of Hatred) being gone. It was probably on account of this poem that Weöres’s poetry was defined as ‘nihilistic’ by some post-war critics in Hungary.
Although I said earlier that Edwin Morgan is Weöres’s best English translator, the quality of the rest of the translations in Eternal Moment is reasonably good. The American William Jay Smith manages to re-create Weöres’s imagery as well as the British George Szirtes. If there is one translator in the book whose work we ought to scrutinize in some detail that is Alan Dixon. He is described in the biographical notes as ‟a regular translator of poetry for the The New Hungarian Quarterly for many years”. In other words Dixon is not a novice in this field and three of his translations in Eternal Moment are perfectly all right. The fourth one requires, I believe, critical comments.
This is a version of ‟Canzone”, a personal love poem, rather rare in Weöres’s oeuvre. It was written to Amy Károlyi, his future wife, whom Weöres met in 1947. Alan Dixon translates the first three stanzas of the poem quite fluently, with rhymes and all, but in the fourth stanza he mistranslates a phrase. ‟Ez a megtépett ideg” is rendered here awkwardly as ‟The nerve torn out” instead of ‟this exhausted nerve(s)”. Also, in the last line of the poem, the lady’s garment ought to be ‟red” or ‟crimson” as in the original (piros) not ‟pink”, as Dixon translates it. Both may be small changes but they are irritating and I am not certain whether the errors were made by the author of the rough version or by Dixon himself. In either case, the editor should have picked them up.
The title of my paper may sound enigmatic, but I could not resist the pun. ‟Eternal Moment” refers to Weöres’s approach to poetry: he regards himself but a medium of the Muse, catching ‟the hot words that shine in the soul’s estuaries” (‟Ars Poetica”), thus his best poems are destined to be ‟eternal”. While this collection earned good reviews, amongst them Denis O’Driscoll’s in Poetry Review (Vol. 79, no. 29, Summer 1989) and mine in the TLS (1989. II. 24) and in World Literature Today, it came out too late: with 1988 as publication date, but in fact during the first months of 1989. Sándor Weöres passed away at the end of January of 1989, so technically he became disqualified for the Nobel Prize in Literature. (The prize is awarded posthumously only in very exceptional circumstances.) In this sense, and only in this sense was the publication of Eternal Moment some months (a mere ’moment’ in the eye of eternity) too late. I wish it would have been otherwise, for in that year Weöres was one of the strongest candidates for the prize which kept eluding Hungarians until Imre Kertész received it some years later. I am convinced that Weöres whose centenary we celebrate today, would have deserved the Nobel, for the scope and depth of his poetry makes him one of the greatest Hungarian poets of the second half of the 20th century.
Tags: Sándor Weöres