Whenever I took a poem in my hand to translate, I could see straight away that never in my life would I be able to translate it. Nothing could ease this initial stage fright - those years of practice, the five to ten thousand lines translated; it didn’t help if I loved the poet’s work I was translating, and it didn’t help if I did not like him or her at all. By and by, I got used to not talking about such anxieties to anyone, silently enduring the doubt, like a minor toothache. However, secretly, I was hoping to benefit from my doubts about translation.
The benefit of the doubt
For, doubting can be useful. Gradually I understood that the translator’s anxiety is akin to inspiration. Of course, it is that of the crossbred kind that is more likely to warn us of the size of the task than the way of solving it. Yet, I am wrong. The translator’s anxiety does not really warn us of the size of the task but of the type of it. Namely, that this is a poetic task, and by acknowledging this, I have truly confused the concept of translation with the concept of poetry.
I don’t wish to – besides, I cannot – separate the practice of translation from the practice of writing poetry; a Hungarian poet cannot afford to do so. If we consider our history of translation, with the first Hungarian hexameter four hundred years old by now, we’ll find that it is simply impossible. However, is this really as obvious as we think? Doubts, as I have said, are beneficial, and we’d better take notice of the general doubt concerning translation, beyond the personal one. On the list of intellectual values, translation is prescribed as a necessary evil. It is a drug that we take but that we sniff at.
And in fact, we are right. Perfect translation is a self-contradictory term.
Yet, in this part of the world we believe in translation. Is it purely because it is useful? No, not quite. Cultural history may explain the enormity of Hungarian translations, perhaps even their significance, but it does not explain its quality. I have come across excellent French poets who wondered what sort of ambition-gone-awry had led Hungarian poets to waste a major part of their time on translations. Is there a problem with these poets’ originality? The Hungarian mind would never arrive at this obvious idea. On the contrary, it would perplex them, as if – excuse the comparison – someone were to doubt the originality of Shakespeare on account of his borrowed ropes. What happened, rather, we respond to our foreign inquirers, is a common phenomenon in the lives of small nations: we have made a virtue out of necessity, or (as one of our writers would say) we have exploited our disadvantages. We have started to translate with pleasure, which made translation into Hungarian a much more creative job than is translation in general.
The doubt of the translator – both the personal and the general – can therefore only be cured by poetry.
In praise of the Hungarian language
Nevertheless, the task of the translator is to make poetry. Naturally, neither should it be worse nor better than the original, or different. It is an impracticality we practice every day, and we increase its impracticality by adding the usual Hungarian requirement to it; namely, our loyalty to the form. The roots of this requirement lie in the nature of the Hungarian language.
The Hungarian language is isolated. The Hungarian language means death for world literature. To write poetry in Hungarian is galley slavery. The Hungarian language is exceptionally suitable for poetry. Let me support my bold conviction with a simple reason, with the formal and metrical possibilities inherent in the Hungarian language. Let us repeat this again and again: our rhythmic systems, both individually and in interaction with each other, bring about such abundance in versification that cannot be found anywhere else in Europe. And as for the Hungarian rhyme: the twentieth century loathing for rhymes in European (Indo-European) languages is only partly valid for our entirely differently structured language. No, we have not quite played all the notes of Hungarian sheet music. When we talk about our mother tongue, we should never forget that we are the children of a young mother.
I know that this is not enough. I know (regarding interpretation) that loyalty to the form is still a paradoxical requirement based on consensus; and I have had the chance to learn about the nature of poetry, that opportunities do not always come to fruition. I have been struggling – like all translators – with the unbearable monotony of the Hungarian law of vowel harmony; I am aware of the roughness of the Hungarian sound a, and the boredom of all the e-s. I have been having sleepless nights thinking about the cursed long words of inflective languages, woken from my sleep by such cacodemons like természetszeretet [the love of nature] or ócsárolhatatlansága [the impossibility of it being berated]. Yet, I cannot forget the volume of poems of my adolescent years by Árpád Tóth, the small book with a leather cover called Eternal Flowers (see note) (and the rest), which I loved as much as the original. And 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.
I love the Hungarian language. When writing this down, I am not frightened off by Gide’s advice to his readers: “I am happy if you get me, but please, do not get me that fast.” I have not understood my mother tongue too fast. Most probably, I do not understand it even now. Yet, I love it as I love the conditions of life, I love it with the passion of an adolescent who never forgets and with the wry considerations of an experienced translator.
And I would like others to love it, too.
(Note: Tóth's volume of translations, Eternal Flowers  include such choice specimens from English as Shelley’s "Ode to the West Wind", Keats’s "Ode on a Grecian Urn", Poe’s "Raven", or Wilde’s "Ballad of Reading Gaol" among equally significant translations from the French and German. Tóth considered translation to be one of the most exalted tasks of a poet, the bridge to the successful admission of foreign poets into the realm of native literature.)
Translated by Agnes Lehoczky
This text was originally published in Hungarian in Ágnes Nemes Nagy: Az élok mértana, Prózai írások I. Osiris, Budapest, 2004.
Previously on HLO
Nemes Nagy: Tram – Final Station: a prose poem
Landing on the New Moon: on the 20th anniversary of a periodical