There is an insistence about the memory of a poet. It is an irresistible and involuntary awareness, born of being a witness – one who perceives and then bears that perception upon his shoulders. Where can he carry it, and can others, like Simon of Cyrene, bear it also? This is a steep path indeed, as the title of the new compilation of translated Hungarian poetry by Clive Wilmer and George Gömöri indicates. Memory and its mission may be girded internally but find neither origin nor purpose there. “What the poets in this anthology most obviously share”, in Wilmer’s view, is “a sort of generous overflow.” But the overflow too is an insistence. “If the translation of Hungarian poetry can teach us anything”, Wilmer continues in the introduction, “it is of the poet’s compulsion, perhaps duty, to bear witness.”
This duty, this calling, clearly marks the composition and translation alike, as proven by Wilmer and Gömöri’s nearly half-a-century of Hungarian-to-English poetry, commemorated and sampled here. An émigré bound by love and obligation to illuminate his cultural inheritance “beyond Dévény”, and an English poet caught up by the call of an inimitably distinct voice. “The translation of poetry into English must be, in almost all circumstances, a labour of love”, Gömöri has reflected elsewhere. And when the original is Hungarian, “the labour must involve a commitment bordering on obsession”. Wilmer is keen to emphasise that Steep Path is not intended as a representative survey of Hungarian poetry, but this is no fault. We have sweeping objective anthologies to hand, and are the better for them, but this Ebenezer stone of personal selection gives us something else.
And, as one might expect from a volume that looks back over fifty years’ collaboration, the quality and pertinence of witness and memory permeate the poetry. Sometimes memory’s insistence takes the form of a scar, as with the troubled and troubling recollections of János Pilinszky (1921–1981), who pushes out into his poem, “The French Prisoner”, with the sigh: “If only I could forget him, the Frenchman”. Again, in “The Desert of Love”, he murmurs, “I can’t forget that summer”. This is a haunting of the senses that jangle still with the meaning of past stimuli. “Years go by, years, and hope is now no more / than a tin cup upset in the dry straw.” Recollection is a haunting too for the Transylvanian poet Domokos Szilágyi (1938–1976) in “Job”, whose biblical narrator concludes: “But however much I am, by old or young, / loved and respected, no, no one can be – / not even you – Lord of memory”.
In the selections from Gömöri himself, the witness carries both reproach and defiance, lament and hope. Within “Polishing October”, the detailed testimonials of 1956 have become a simple banner held aloft. The hole in its middle has removed the nearly incomprehensible moments; what remains is a plain tricolour of home and land – the pain of loving it made sweet: “No, what I will say can be grasped by anyone, / by those not there to see it or born later: / I could never before have said the word ‘Hungarian’ / with my head raised so high or with such certainty / so conscious of my integrity as a human.”
Looking back on the same year, György Petri (1943–2000) is characteristically unblinking in “To Imre Nagy”, as he recalls the future martyr’s halting October address in Szabadság Square: “Who can say what you might have said / from that balcony? Butchered opportunities / never return. Neither prison nor death / can re-sharpen the cutting edge of the moment / once it’s been chipped. What we can do, though, is remember / the hurt, reluctant, hesitant man / who nonetheless soaked up / anger, delusion / and a whole nation’s blind hope.” Meanwhile, the contemporary poet Anna T. Szabó draws on the deepest and most fundamental memory and empathy in “She Leaves Me”. Those who had the pleasure of attending the book’s London launch will recall it movingly and humorously read by Pamela Miles: “I need her – it is death to live without her – / she picks me up to warm me, and she leaves me. / Her arms make up a cage, her lap’s a house; / I’d love to go back in there, but she leaves me.”
But it is in the selections from Miklós Radnóti (1909–1944) that we find witness and memory at their most searing. At the start of his 1939 prose memoir, Ikrek hava, translated by Kenneth and Zita McRobbie as Under Gemini, Radnóti’s awareness of the sister he has barely seen since he was twelve invades his consciousness through the recollection of her voice: “Ági is more than even in my thoughts these days, and when she comes to mind I hear the cadence of a sentence, an excited little girl’s voice uttering the sentence, and that’s what sets me off.” Before even precise meaning is clear: “The cadence of the sentence haunts me as I strive to make out the words. I bow my head and listen.” This attentiveness before insistent memory lays out the path for the eloquent beauty of Radnóti’s poetry: “It was the past, or not even the past anymore; it existed in dream timelessness deep down among other hidden memories, from where it will slowly surface, composed of tiny flashes, flavours, fragrances, movements, and also of sounds.”
This surfacing can mock a grim present with a happier past, as in “À la Recherche”, which refers to Marcel Proust’s masterwork, À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time). The juxtaposition makes memory itself appear a cruel regression to which vivid experience recedes: “You too, past gentle evenings, are being refined into memory, / Bright table, once adorned by poets and their young women, / Where in the mud of the past, now, do you slide away to?” But as the war closes around Radnóti, his witnessing of the recent past becomes an urgent vocation beyond fear: “I know we ought to forget, but I / Never forget a single memory”, he insists in “Foaming Sky”. Within that urgency is the eschatological wrath which Radnóti attains in his “Eighth Eclogue”, where the poet converses with the Hebrew prophet Nahum, who had pronounced condemnation on Nineveh: “And I wish again to see the strongholds of sin / Fall – wish to bear witness for the ages yet to come”, the prophet tells the ground-down poet, who feels older in youth than the ancient seer, strengthened by truthful anger. “And once a man has been sent by the Lord, he has no age, / He has no peace. The coal, angelic, burns on his lips.” That coal is the prophetic consecration of Isaiah, who alone answered Yahweh’s call to serve. Yet Nahum’s words are not rebuke, but seek to rouse the poet – his testimony will not fail. And so the poet, even into his third and most brutal forced service in a wartime labour battalion, writes on, amid the mud and blood. The final selection of Radnóti’s is his last, written with the immediacy of a friend’s death and the expectation of his own.
Wilmer and Gömöri have distinguished themselves with the breadth of Hungarian poets they have translated, as this volume attests, with Jenő Dsida, István Vas, Sándor Kányádi and Zsuzsa Rakovszky also represented. Yet it is appropriate to linger with Radnóti, since his work also highlights these collaborators’ approach. In the 1970s, when they first embarked on translating Radnóti, little of him had appeared in English. Most recently, three Americans (Polgar, Berg and Marks) had, in Wilmer’s words, “translated a selection of Radnóti into prosy free verse with demotic diction, missing the importance to the Hungarian of consciously civilised discourse and classical form”. Among a growing wave of translators committed to free verse renderings of metered verse, Wilmer and Gömöri insisted that, in Hungarian poetry, form itself is a kind of cultural memory, a principle and purpose: “It seemed to me that a translation which shirked Radnóti’s formal disciplines”, Wilmer concludes, “would undermine the civilising purpose of his poetry.”
On this point, there is support from Radnóti himself. While arguing in his memoir with Jean Citadin about translation, Radnóti insists: “Truth? Without form? How can formless poems be true? The form is basic, old chap. That’s what strikes to the heart.” There is no need for us to take sides on this matter, with distinguished advocates for both, but we can appreciate Wilmer and Gömöri’s close attention to the meaning-laden context. And it is certainly hard to feel entirely at ease when János Csokits, by contrast, described his and Ted Hughes’ translations of János Pilinszky as “X-ray Pilinszky”, which gets to “the thoughts, feelings, emotions […] without the softening effect of the original metre and rhyme scheme”. Can Pilinszky or Radnóti’s prophetic voice be faithfully conveyed without heeding the carefully woven manner with which they formed it? Radnóti speaks to us, pen and paper in hand, hemmed in by tawdry death, with Virgil’s hand on his shoulder; and this too is part of his testimony.
But what makes this harder to portray is the combination – common in the best Hungarian poetry – of precise form and stark or non-formal language. Radnóti is a classicist but never stiff. In English this seems harder to pull off effectively, and so in Radnóti’s English translations we have the extreme formal looseness of Polgar, Berg and Marks on the one hand, and Emery George, stricter on form than Wilmer and Gömöri, on the other. With the hexameter of Radnóti’s eclogues, for example, the first and eighth of which adorn this collection, the cadence of Hungarian fits neatly into the classical form. In English, as Gömöri describes it, Wilmer used “an English hexameter of mixed feet, a six-foot line. […] This compromise allowed us to approximate the special diction which Radnóti uses in his eclogues – a kind of poetic speech which is colloquial and rhetorical at the same time.”
Translators, therefore, pull us by the ears of our language into a personal and cultural particularity it has not yet known. The balance necessary must be made more delicate still by English’s current status as the lingua franca. There exists the temptation to imagine particular is being transformed into universal, as if any man or tongue could exit particularity, or would morally benefit from doing so. Surely, something nobler is attempted. When a translator makes the mind of another people intelligible to me, he puts in my grasp the understanding of what and how other particularities see and know. That Steep Path contains not merely English-language poems, but English poetry that ushers Hungarian-ness and Hungarian poetry into our consciousness, shows the value of such a labour of desire. Radnóti, himself a consequential translator, had pondered “those secret and intimate pathways of French literature; virgin territory to alien promenaders, they quite conquered me”.
But what may arrest us most, as we trace the witness of these poets through our language’s extension into their world and words, is that also this is an extension of memory. What “the keen, inquisitive hunger of the eye” has fed on, as Petri’s exquisite image has it (“A Smile”), what the mind has formed in testimony, translation further perpetuates. “A translation issues from the original – not so much from its life as from its afterlife”, wrote the philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin in the early 20th century. The translation of works of literature “marks their stage of continued life”, and, in these translations, he even claims, “the life of the originals attains its latest, continually renewed, and most complete unfolding”. Perhaps “most complete” is a step too far, but, in literary translation, the bones of St Nicholas may both find exaltation in Bari and remain unmolested in Myra.
Indeed, what the classical and Christian imagery that pervades Steep Path also indicates is that we are taken by these translations into a foreign version of our times via a shared heritage. This aids the process of understanding, but it is also a crucial aspect of expanding it. There is something thrilling for an Englishman to see his own Western heritage, which can be dulled and sullied when only felt within his own purview, through a Hungarian’s eyes. While worldwide empire often led British culture to adopt a more presumptuous sense of emulation in relation to classical and biblical roots, there is a melancholy of aspiration and an ardour of defence in the Hungarian connection to them.
Fittingly, this profound Hungarian-to-English connection is likewise possible because of Hungary’s own tradition of creative adoption and translation. The landmark Latin poetry of Janus Pannonius (1434–1472) used classical forms to elucidate Hungarian life. “From the late 18th century on”, as András Kiséry and Zsolt Komáromy explain in Worlds of Hungarian Writing, “the project of a Hungarian national literature was inseparable from the project of translating modern Western European literatures into Hungarian.” Great Hungarian poets have long been both prodigious translators and cultural mediums, seeking to sit at the table of their Hungarian and European forebears, to add to what has been said, rather than dismiss or overturn. Thus, soon after translating Virgil’s “Ninth Eclogue”, with its meditations from the midst of war on the power of song, Radnóti begins his own series. The result is verse no less Hungarian for being idiosyncratically classical and European.
Therefore, when these poems come to us in English, as Wilmer puts it, we feel that “Radnóti unites some very Hungarian characteristics with the common heritage of European poetry”. Without translation, both the knowledge of Hungary’s expansively-minded poetry and the new view of a common tradition, would be beyond English-speakers’ ken. Could it be that, in some way, a poem effectively translated has made itself available for translation? Surely a poem cannot be press- ganged, as a poem, into another language, only ushered into a tongue to which it unknowingly stands open. There is something of Pentecost about it, of Wesley’s “loosened tongues employed”. “Behold, are not all these which speak Galilaeans”, wondered the multilingual crowds on that Jerusalem afternoon (Acts 2:7–8). “And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born?”
So, what is left of the witness, what he knows, and how he has known it? “I know your ancient fury – your writings have been preserved”, the poet tells the prophet in Radnóti’s “Eighth Eclogue”, doubtful that his too will last. “It was not even noticed”, Radnóti wrote of another poet’s death in his first eclogue. “At best, the wind in the pyre’s ashes, / Groping, will find among them some broken line to remember / This much is left, no more, to the curious who come after us.” But, like strength, our weakness will not determine endurance. The insistence of memory is ultimately in the hands of neither the preserver nor the destroyer. In Pilinszky’s “On the Wall of a KZ Lager”, a victim strangely lives on. “But now it’s you who won’t give up. / Did we fleece you? You’ve grown rich. / Did we blind you? You watch us still. / You bear witness without speech.”
We know that a year and a half after Radnóti was shot at Abda, his carelessly buried body was reclaimed and, with it, the notebook containing his last poems. “Know this: nobody will mourn you”, he had written in 1939 (“In a Restless Hour”). But, “the high cliff-side”, he continued, in Wilmer and Gömöri’s rendering: “If not today, then tomorrow – will echo, singing, / What I have to speak, which sons and daughters / Will understand, the more as they grow in stature.” This volume and the long labour it marks are part of this sonorous echo. In the end, the poet as prophet and lover – his motion and mind, his words and world – remain; tranquillity and terror, vision and desire; the book in which poets have inscribed, the tree where they found it. “In getting ready for the end of a world”, as Seamus Heaney wrote of Joyce, Pound and Eliot, “they extended its life.”
(Clive Wilmer and George Gömöri, Steep Path. Budapest: Corvina, 2018.)