News – 21st February, 2012

For better or verse?

News–21st February, 2012


For better or verse?
A fair amount of hot air has been emitted over literary translation in general, with talk of the destruction of source-texts, the invisibility of the translator and the rest. Verse translation, however, is spoken of even more oddly at times, and the object of this paper is to examine the problem and propose a future course.

In the introduction to his selection from Ágnes Nemes Nagy (The Night of Akhenaton, Bloodaxe Books, 2004) George Szirtes comments that "Translation is always a peculiar enterprise, but... a terrible responsibility". He quotes Don Paterson (Afterword to The Eyes): "It should surely, by now, be axiomatic that poetry cannot be translated in a way that will preserve anything of the flavour of the original." He quotes Ágnes Nemes Nagy herself, in her introductory essay to Bruce Berlind's selection of her work (Iowa Translations, 1980), "The Poet's Introduction", saying that "All poetry is untranslatable, and Hungarian poetry even more untranslatable".

When one considers the work of poets who have translated into Hungarian it becomes immediately obvious that the broad-brush dismissal of the possibility of successful verse translation does not bear scrutiny. Mihály Babits ventured the opinion that the best poem in Hungarian was Árpád Tóth's translation of Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind", and who can forget the monumental achievement of Lőrinc Szabó in translating all (sic) of Shakespeare's sonnets? Ágnes Nemes Nagy, herself no mean translator despite the remark quoted above, in her essay "Az élők mértana" (Prózai írások I, Osiris, Budapest, 2004) attributes this success in no small part to the intrinsic qualities of the Hungarian language. She goes on "The very fact that the translated poem can be as enjoyable as the original justifies the existence of translation – and is the triumph of the Hungarian language." This view is supported by Miklós Radnóti in his essay "A műfordításról" (in his collection of translations  Orpheusz nyomában, 1943), where he says that in the final analysis there is very little that cannot be successfully translated – meaning, of course, into Hungarian.

That is all very well if one is a Hungarian poet, but most of us are not. Translations from Hungarian into English, however – to restrict the field – often leave much to be desired. If success in translation into Hungarian derives so much from the language itself, is there some intrinsic defect in English that precludes successful translation in the other direction? There is, after all, no shortage of excellent native English verse. All languages have poetry of one sort or another, reflecting their structure and the culture that supports them, even perhaps the different ways in which the minds of speakers of different languages may be said to work. Verse translation in either direction between any pair of languages ought therefore in principle to be no less possible than prose translation. There may well be difficulty, but there is no osmotic membrane utterly to restrict the flow of translation between Hungarian and English to one direction only.

As a translator of Hungarian, I have met three situations in which I have undertaken verse translation. Sometimes a poem simply appeals to me and the idea of putting it into English seems attractive. I will try to break in at some point, to see experimentally to what extent the original form can be sustained, build on a line or two that seem to work; there is no pressure, and sometimes I will fail at first but return to the problem later and have more success. Sometimes I have run into verse – usually short – embedded in a prose text, in which case some account has to be taken of it; the process is the same, except that if the problem defeats me there is always the alternative of leaving the Hungarian verse in situ and offering a prose translation in a footnote – there is usually little prospect of finding a version by someone else. The third situation is the rarest – I have occasionally been asked to translate specific poems, in which case the reply is that I will try but will promise no more than that.

I have, however, no pretensions to being a proper poet. Sometimes I feel that I have achieved reasonable success in a verse translation, more often I have had to give up. There can be no doubt that the verse translator has to have poetic ability in his target language. Whether he is a practising, accredited poet is beside the point; even if not, he must be able to summon up that mystic flair in handling language which some have and others lack. When I was at school we routinely had to translate English verse into Greek and Latin verse as an exercise. Indeed, a demanding exercise, as we not only had to have a good command of the target languages but also a sound understanding of their highly technical metres. Goodness knows what Romans or Athenians would have made of our efforts – but I am reminded of this process when I see Hungarian verse put into English by a Hungarian. It looks like the real thing, but somehow it just isn't. One has to be a native speaker to have the instinctive command that is required to write convincing verse. Full marks for effort, perhaps, but effort alone is not enough. Even a native-speaker poet has to make an effort to write satisfactory verse.

Numerous translations of Hungarian verse into English have been made by accredited poets with the aid of intermediaries; a Hungarian with good English will give the fullest explanation of the meaning of the original, which the poet will then versify despite his (almost) total lack of Hungarian. This is an ancient practice – Sir John Bowring in his Poetry of the Magyars (published in 1830) used the good offices of Károly Rumy. Others, up to and including Ted Hughes, have since done likewise and still do. Hugh Maxton, in his Between: Selected Poems of Ágnes Nemes Nagy (Corvina, 1988), suggests that under these conditions it is perhaps better for the poet not to know Hungarian. This process may have the merit of producing English versions of poems that otherwise would be inaccessible, but it also has the grievous demerit of placing heavy reliance on analysis and explanation, and all too often leads to rather wooden versions. In his introduction to Miért szép? (Gondolat, 1970, p.6) György Rónay points out that "One must not first and foremost dissect a poem but take pleasure in it, resonate to it', which is very improbable of achievement if the 'translator" (a loose use of the term, surely!) has no first-hand understanding of the source-text.

Comparatively very little Hungarian verse has been translated into English by native English-speaking translators. Indeed, there are very few native English-speaking translators of Hungarian, verse or prose, and of those few even fewer are accredited poets. Obviously, the ideal translator of Hungarian verse is one that can both understand the source-text and write good English verse, but this is asking a lot. Unless and until more of our compatriots study Hungarian seriously this situation is not going to change.

In Hungary, however, poetry is important; indeed, many will say that lyric poetry is the best of Hungarian literature. It follows that it is well worth trying to make it more widely known through translation both for the benefit of the international public and the enhancement of the reputation of Hungarian poets. For international circulation, English is the language of choice as, in its various forms, it has more speakers and readers in the world than any other.  Indifferent English translations, however, will be taken for translations of indifferent originals and will prove detrimental to Hungarian literary interests. Szirtes is quite right about translators' "terrible responsibility": in our hands lie both individual writers' international reputations and those of national literatures.

I would suggest that the best way ahead is firstly to urge Hungarians who feel that their English is good enough to enable them to write verse into collaboration with sympathetically critical native English speakers. Secondly, translations should always be published together with the original so that readers can compare them. Thirdly, ours may be "a peculiar enterprise", but those who say that it is impossible should not interfere with those that get on with the job.

(The illustration is a detail of the cover of The Colonnade of Teeth: Modern Hungarian Poetry, edited by George Gömöri and George Szirtes. Newcastle upon Tyne: Bloodaxe Books, 1997)

Bernard Adams


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