19 September 2017

“The Happening of Truth” – Editing an Anthology on the 1956 Hungarian Revolution


The 1956 Revolution, the most glorious chapter of twentieth-century Hungarian history despite its quick and brutal crushing, is regarded worldwide as unequivocally beautiful, valuable, and exemplary. It is an event about which most people in Western countries have heard at least something. An English-language anthology of Hungarian poems and prose related to the Revolution, therefore, will hopefully be greeted with interest among English-speaking people and, at the same time, will introduce readers to a section of Hungarian literature of which so little is translated and even less is known and read.

The sixtieth anniversary of the Revolution gave us a valuable opportunity to offer a multiflorious poetic image of those events to the world. One that might help others to understand the situation that led to the Revolution, the passions that were unleashed, and the disappointments and tragedies that followed. Today, when so much falsification, misunderstanding or wilful distortion of history and politics circulates about Hungary, it is all the more important to present in translation such first-hand experiences transformed into poetry or documentary, lyric or contemplative prose about this short but brilliant historical moment. When the tendency is to relativise every value, and when even in Hungary it is trendy in some circles to talk about many different readings of ’56 and analyse the tragedies as “the rhetoric of loss” (at academic conferences, for instance) rather than what they were: tragic losses. The autobiographical testimony offered by many of these texts gives them unquestionable authenticity. That authenticity often derives from the writer spending time in the prisons of the dictatorships before and after the Revolution, participating in the street battles facing tanks, losing one’s lover or a neighbour’s son. Such immediacy may lend far-away readers the sense and understanding of those heightened emotions, desires, hopes, euphoric joys and tragic frustrations. Other texts written by a younger generation with only second-hand memories (through parents and grandparents) of the 50s, or even of the aftermath, the retributions, the vengeance of the dictatorship, now meditate from the vantage point of the present on the significance of this legacy.

The vast majority of the poems and prose works in Down Fell the Statue of Goliath, an anthology of Hungarian Poets and Writers on the Revolution of 1956 (Budapest: Hungarian Review, 2017), were newly translated into English for this particular volume. They were originally assembled by poet-editors János Oláh and Katalin Mezey for Támadó tűz voltunk (“We Were a Storming Fire”, 2016), a ’56 anthology in Hungarian. As the editor of the English-language version, I am grateful to the translators for their enthusiastic work and the many excellent translations that resulted. Translating prose is difficult enough, and a few essays, addresses, diary-entries, short stories and excerpts from novels are rendered in such good translations that they read as if originally written in English. But poetry is even more tricky and sometimes almost impossible to translate to full effect.

One major problem derives from the immense concision and compression possible in the Hungarian language that must then be rendered in more expansive English. Moreover, Hungarian poetry favours traditional rhythmic and rhyming patterns amalgamated with Western classical prosody, even in the twentieth century partly due to the longer survival and more invigorating role of folk poetry than occurred in English. Instead of English syllabic verse, old Hungarian poetry preferred “segmented verse”, which divides the lines into a fixed number of segments and the number of syllables within each segment may fluctuate. This syllabic flexibility allows Western European metric systems to co-exist with Hungarian accent patterns in the same poem. The simultaneity of metric and accent rhythms, a “rhythmical duality” in Zoltán Kodály’s phrase (which characterised both poetry and folk songs), is regarded as a special quality of Hungarian prosody. “A Hungarian poem written in any Western European metric scansion can be read out loud with the traditional initial word-stress of natural, spoken Hungarian” – as László Gáldi and Ádám Makkai contend in the imposing English-language anthology of Hungarian poetry, In Quest of the Miracle Stag (Budapest – Chicago, 2003). All that sharply raises the general question of translation: whether to attempt to create the feeling of familiarity in the target culture and language, or uphold the sense of difference and foreignness of the translated work by keeping close to the original’s formal qualities. I believe each poem warrants an individual decision, depending on its form, atmosphere, the importance of its embeddedness in its home culture and tradition. If the Hungarian poem observes some traditional form of old Hungarian or folk poetry, then a translation into free verse would ruin it. But imitating the original too strictly may make the translation awkward (not to speak about the danger of changing the nuances of meaning), and the poem would lose its value. Such and similar considerations frequently occurred in the course of translating and we tried to keep some reasonable balance. Obviously, the primary aim was to create as good poetry in English as the original is in Hungarian, but also to preserve the poem’s special features as much as possible.

Attila Gérecz’s personal fate itself could stand as a metaphor for the historical situation: a political prisoner for six years before the ’56 freedom-fighters liberated him, he then fought in the streets for a week, blew up two Russian tanks single- handedly before a third shot him dead at the age of 27. His “The Prison Carol” in John M. Ridland’s and Peter V. Czipott’s inspired translation keeps the “segmented” versification, a combination of metric and accented lines:

 

Candles are lighter, far beyond gray walls,

Bells summon folk to prayer in festive halls –

Our bitter mouths outlined with lines of pain.

Do you hear it, Nazerene?

Heavy are these, our chains.”

 

City life slows down as Christmas nears

A million hatreds tempered into tears,

Sorrow no longer floods the burnt-out heart.

Do you hear it, Nazarene?

Our longings broke it apart.”*

 

My Nine Horses” by János Oláh may serve as an example of evoking folk ballad rhythms and what is called “kuruc”-song-like poems (”kuruc”, the freedom- fighters in the 18th-century Rákóczi War of Independence, produced their own subgenre, deeply rooted in folk culture). Peter V. Czipott impressively re-creates the pulsation of the ballad-like segmented verse and rhythm:

 

My nine horses, my nine oxen

drummed their hooves while in their stalls,

the slimey turnkey sounds the tocsin,

a naked cell is my great hall.

 

They’ve seized my land, my house as prey,

yet I don’t mourn my beggar’s fate:

it’s my star that’s faded away,

the sickly shaman’s ordained estate.

 

Biblical language and images, along with parallels envisioned between nation and Christianity provide another long-fertilising source of Hungarian poetry. Thomas Cooper’s superb transforming into English István Vas’s “The New Thomas” makes palpable the deeply, almost religiously moving effect of the outbreak of the Revolution:

And Thomas spoke: “You have appeared before me,

you are my Lord, my God!”

 

Because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed:

blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.”

Thus Jesus replied.


 

2.

But I, the new Thomas, I say they who see are blessed.

And I am blessed that I see,

that I can say, “risen from the dead!”


 

You have risen from the dead, my nation,

from the grave, my eyes have seen your seven wounds,

and with the mark of the iron nails on your hands

you appeared before me through the closed doors.

Your body stirred among the worms,

you rolled the great stone to the side,

and the Pentecost spirit came among us,

and meaningless words found meaning.

 

Géza Páskándi’s unadorned “It’s Not the Bars” prison-poem has a different tone: desperate, dark, blank. The translation of Péter Balikó Lengyel does justice to its rhythm of thought and its bitter terseness:

 

It’s not the bars that keep you in

but the disgrace of the bunk, the outrage

of having nothing to write with or to read

It’s not the bars, it’s not the nude

etched in the wall in solitude,

it is the fulcrum of the mind,

which we all revolve around,

confined to merciless eternity.

It is no longer freedom, truth to tell,

we yearn for but a nicer, cosy cell –

to rest in undisturbed ignominy.

Glued to the runway of our unbelief,

like flies to fly paper, we drone away,

as if we truly had something to say,

 

The mock-heroic epic about a legendary figure of the Revolution, Géza Szőcs’s “The Ballad of Jantsi Peg-Leg”, with its postmodern playfulness and lethal black humour, eradicates Communism through ridicule by repeatedly referring to the famous opening line of the Communist Manifesto (“There is a spectre haunting Europe”). In Paul Sohár’s translation it sound equally deadly ironic, including the witty inversion of “haunting” into “spectre-hunting” at the end:

 

A red spectre was haunting the parks

of our orphan, single-story land. Stealthily it smeared all with its cause.

...

and to quote the apt words of a famous poem,

all windows and doors got boarded up.


 

Boarded

boarded

securely boarded up,

all windows did, by prison guards.

Trilla-la, tralla-la,

And when they finally boarded up the Sun,

surely, surely, Jantsi Peg Leg

grabbed a gun!

And he armed his friends, everyone.

...

There came the spectre, but it was no use,

the Jantsi bunch locked it up

And sent it back to the sender.

Perhaps the certified package was delivered to Red Square

...

But the spectre’s teeth had wounded Jantsi in that fight.

A nasty,

nasty,

festering bite…

thus his death was a spectre-hunting accident.


The examples of remarkable translations could be multiplied but instead, another complicated
and crucial question should be addressed: that of interpretation. Evidently, every translation just asevery theatricalperformance is interpretation, and as such, reduces the possible ambivalences of meanings. But without interpretation the translation may not make sense. Anna Kiss’s “Octobers”, a somewhat enigmatic, visionary, surrealistic poem, posed an interesting dilemma around the shortest of words: the Hungarian ő a third person personal pronoun, meaning “he” or “she” (but not “it”). Since Hungarian is not a sexist language and does not have genders, English translators must decide if what “őrefers to is feminine or masculine. The context offers several possible readings and we chose what seemed the most probable: “őseems to refer to an allegorised form of freedom. Hence the personal pronoun. But then, since in English there is no neutral, inclusive third-person personal pronoun, only gendered ones, the question continues: what gender is freedom? Could the line de hol van ő?” be translated as “but where is he”? Or, since in some cultures that allegorical figure is female, should it be “where is she”? Either choice would narrow the meaning, but the usual prose solution: “where is s/he”, would sound ridiculous in a poem. So, the translator and I decided on the neutral “it” – and lost the personification. The following short lines read like this:

 

but where is it?

where is it

for which the hole howled

in the flag

 

For understanding the image in these seemingly simple words one must know that in ’56 the Communist symbols in the middle of the Hungarian tricolour flag were cut out and this flag with a hole in the middle immediately became the emblem of the Revolution. In Thomas Cooper’s beautiful alliterative translation “the hole howled” in the flag – in October ’56 and also at the 50th anniversary, another October, one of those the plural of the title “Octobersrefers to when freedom was still in question. How much historical and cultural information can be crammed into lines of poetry? What is well-known for Hungarians, may not resonate at all with foreign readers (which, of course, is true of any translation from any language), so the translators and I sometimes had to resort to footnotes. Nevertheless, we tried to keep the number of footnotes down as much as possible. So, as a clever solution sometimes the translators smuggled some information into the lines, or into the titles when the original only contains a name: “The Poet Vörösmarty”, “The Martyr Katalin Magyar” or – as a forgivable omission – dropped some allusions that would be meaningless to foreigners and would need far too complicated explanations.

In a few cases direct translation proved impossible and became necessary to find equivalents. The line Ottó ütött, talált ötöt when the narrator in István Orosz’s1956” talks about schoolboys and schoolbooks, for example, displays, even for those with no Hungarian knowledge, a high number of similar vowels (presumably for the children to practise their clear pronunciation). The literal meaning would be something like “Otto hit, caught five” which makes no sense, there is no Otto in the story, we have no idea what he hit, and so forth. The context suggests that it must be some kind of a children’s rhyme, probably regional, not well-known to Hungarians either. A similar effect might be achieved using an English tongue-twister, such as “Peter piper picked a peck of pickled peppers”. This occurred in a prose piece but similar intertexts also appear in poetry. In Anna Jókai’s long epic poem, “Chronicle Ballad 1956–2006”, for example, several different narrative voices, tunes, styles alternate in (most frequently ironic) dialogue with one another, with one of the voices reciting children’s rhymes, rhythms, folk songs, straight or sarcastically distorted, to suit the situation. John M. Ridland’s and Peter V. Czipott’s translation preserves the tunes and rhythms of those children’s rhymes as well as the other distinctive poetic voices, the ironies, the parodies. For the cynical tone of those in power who, long after the Revolution, in the “soft dictatorship” of the Kádár era, encourage the miserable revolutionaries to reconcile, the translators found and used – as they say – the “ugliest” phrase in the following murderous lines, “get over it”:

 

Fifty-Six is a holiday, jolly and merry,

get over it, Louis, be reconciled, Mary,*

 

A dilemma frequently emerges when a translator questions how free the translation is allowed to be, how far it can divert from the literal meanings. Again, each case is different, no general rule can define the degree of freedom. Let just one example demonstrate how a literally very different solution can powerfully evoke the meaning and keep the poetry. László Nagy’s “Christmas, Black Glory” features a bitter image of a Christmas tree smelling of blood, literally: adorned with horror hanging from its branches. Péter Balikó Lengyel’s brilliant translation turns the “horror” into an even more graphic image, at the same time concrete and widely recognisable, hence universal:

 

Herald of no peace from God,

you bull-headed angel!

You brought a tree reeking of blood

Glory! –

and caskets for a manger.

These randomly chosen examples only illustrate a few of the many kinds of difficulties while they also give a notion of the diversity of the poems. Translation as an art needs, among others, inspiration, intuition, intelligence, poetic sensitivity, a deep knowledge of the cultures involved, in addition, of course, to a great command of languages. If you do not like a poem, it will prove more difficult to translate, yet liking one, as we are told, does not guarantee that its translation will be easy or successful.

Down Fell the Statue of Goliath as a thematic anthology circles around the same subject- matter viewing it from a great variety of angles, approaches, times, displaying a wide range of styles, verse forms, voices, tones. The many different colours, however, reflect that spirit of unity of the whole nation that quite miraculously was born in those glorious days – unfortunately, never to be seen again. For a moment, the ideal community-existence was spontaneously realised: uniting in freedom and free expression the multiplicity of the similar desires and aims.

Arranging such a rich material was a great editorial challenge. The poems and prose works form smaller thematic groups in an attempt to enhance their potential dialogue with each other and follow roughly the subject-matter chronology. They resist categorisation, however (since any such attempt is inevitably reductive), as many pieces overlap and comprise several moments, moods and memories from the past and/or reflect on them from the present of writing. Not being an author-based collection, works by the same poet often appear in several different sections. The first, introductory part gives a glimpse of life in a Soviet-Block country under dictatorship, beginning with the most famous classic, “Tyranny in One Sentence” by Gyula Illyés which also lends its line to the section’s subtitle: “the stars are peepholes and behind them millions of jailers stand”. Following Illyés’s poem are a few prison-poems from the 50s, growing out of personal suffering, containing phrases that have become oft- quoted common property, such as “they’ve walled up [in another translation: boarded up] every window” (Tibor Tollas). The second part, with its title taken from István Sinka’s poem: “Reborn in flame and blood” reflects the ecstasy at the outbreak of the Revolution through contemporary poems and essays, speeches and letters by the leading writers of the time, enthusiastically hailing, welcoming, supporting those fighting while also mourning the dead (since revolutionaries were shot from the beginning). The third section, “Heroes of the most magnificent autumn” (a line borrowed from Dénes Kiss’s poem), includes poetry and short stories, novellas and extracts from novels that transcribe experiences, often private memories of participants and eye-witnesses, with an engaging immediacy. It opens with Lőrinc Szabó’s “Surprises” that registers feelings before, during and after the suppressing of the Revolution, and from which the line for the title of the whole book was chosen:

 

once numb, now David took his stance

and down fell the statue of Goliath.

(tr. John M. Ridland and Peter V. Czipott)

 

The quick turn of events into tragedy, the terrible vengeful reprisals, the horrendous atmosphere of fear, intimidation, long-lasting despair and frustration rendered into vivid short stories and poems make up the fourth group: “Aftermath: Retaliation, betrayals, fear” characterised by the image of the angel bringing “caskets for a manger” in László Nagy’s “Black Christmas”. Another Christmas poem after the crushing of the Revolution, Sándor Márai’s revered “Angel from Heaven”, along with Ádám Makkai’s heart-rending ”Claemerncy” and other requiems are grouped together with reflections on incarceration in the prison-poems and with those condensing the shock at the cruelty of imprisoning youngsters until they could come of age – so that their executions should then appear “legal”. There are also a few poems, which assert the power of poetry – something dictatorship believed it must suppress: Gáspár Nagy, for instance, lost his job as late as the 1980s, for “Endless Summer: I Turned Nine”, in which he demanded in only partially veiled terms that the martyrs of ’56 be properly buried (the executed victims had originally been thrown into mass graves in secret, face down) and their murderers named. History then followed his expectations, the martyrs were (re-)buried in 1989, even though naming the murderers had to wait.

The poems and prose works in the last group, Retrospect, commemoration, legacy”, either look back from a longer distance in time, or are concerned more with the significance of the Revolution, utilising a less direct and often more meditative or ironic tone. The title quotation coming from Gyula Kodolányi’s “Eternal 1956”: “Something beloved that is freedom”, sets the tone of the section and its long-distance perspective. This part also assembles poems dedicated to the memory of certain significant martyr-figures Imre Nagy, Defence Minister Pál Maléter, Cardinal Mindszenty, the poet Attila Gérecz and the many unknown “kids of Pest”. Albert Camus, too, receives a tribute (in Péter Dobai’s poem), who, as is well-known, wrote “The Blood of the Hungarians”, full of empathetic and very appreciative words at the first anniversary. Although a few of these last poems give voice to frustrations at later events related to anniversaries, a number of them offer a hopeful note that the ideals of the Revolution and the memory of the martyr-heroes will survive. The closing poem another emblematic one – György Faludy’s “You Shining Star, My Nineteen Fifty-Six”, has for its epigraph W. B. Yeats’s renowned line: “a terrible beauty is born” that reflects on the Irish Easter Rising for independence. The émigré Faludy clearly puts the emphasis on the enduring “beauty” in this confessional poem as 1956 remained with him “inseparable from [his] self” and gave “A meaning to [his] life, and daring dreams”.

No such large and comprehensive selection has existed so far either in Hungarian or in English. The anthology brings together the most celebrated, now-considered classic ’56 poems with less well-known ones that earlier were published only in small, obscure journals. The poetry and prose, in their variety of angles, styles, attitudes, moods and modes of speech, contribute to constructing a collage, a multi-coloured mosaic that truly reflects the atmosphere and a whole range of emotions from despair to jubilation, incredulity and admiration, then again fear, contempt (for the betrayers), horror (at the brutality of the reprisals) to tragic catharsis and contemplation on the Revolution’s lasting values. The formal richness and variety of the poems include examples of classical verse forms, archaic ballad-like rhythms, folksong-like flow, visionary or mythic-surrealistic images, from allegories, oratories, chronicles, prayer-, hymn-, or litany-like poems to modern philosophical poetry, free-verse and prose-verse. Occasionally different poetic voices are combined within one poem, as if in dramatic dialogue: pathos, passionate, tragic or melancholic tone alternates with the ironic, mocking, and at times the grotesque. Avant-garde, elegiac descriptive lyrics, concrete visual poetry, new objectivity, postmodern sensibility and playfulness – all find their place in this compilation. Most works of prose fiction are autobiographical or convey stories filtered through subjective experience, appearing in realistic, documentary or lyric, visionary forms of speech. Certainly, this is not a history book, nor an “objective” (if such a thing exists at all) discussion of a part of history – but then truth always glimmers through art more profoundly and powerfully than through history books. Here, in these poems and prose works “the happening of truth” is at work; and which, by saying the unsayable, form “the concept of a historical people’s nature, of its belonging to world history” (Martin Heidegger, The Origin of the World of Art).

 

* Lines rewritten by the translators and/or editors since the publication of the anthology are marked with an asterisk.




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