AB: You live in the North of England, one of the most picturesque parts of the country. I’ve heard that you hate fox-hunting but you like crows. More seriously: your favourite English poet is the famous poeta laureatus Ted Hughes, and your favourite Hungarian poet is János Pilinszky. At the same time,you admit that you do not speak Hungarian. Would you be so kind as to explain how this works?
TB: Firstly, I should say that I’m not sure if Ted Hughes is my favourite poet, but I certainly admire him a great deal, and he has certainly been taking up most of my time recently, due to the fact that I am writing my PhD on him. Actually, my PhD is specifically about Hughes’s translations of János Pilinszky. When I was an undergraduate at Newcastle University, I read a lot of poetry in translation – particularly poetry written during or just after the Second World War. A lot of this poetry made a deep impression on me. My teacher at the time was Desmond Graham, and he introduced me to Pilinszky. He also introduced me to the whole idea of co-translation – a practice which involves translating from a language you cannot speak. The way it works is that two people make the translation, one who is fluent in the source language, and one who is fluent in the target language.
AB: In Ted Hughes’s case exactly?
TB: In Ted Hughes’s case, for instance, he didn’t speak any Hungarian either. Instead, he worked alongside the Hungarian writer János Csokits, who prepared for him careful word-for-word English versions of Pilinszky’s poems. Hughes would read these rough versions, and then re-translate them into better English in order to make something that looked like a finished English poem. It is a very common practice here in England, and I myself have worked as a co-translator in this way. But when I first heard about it I was very sceptical – I still am to some degree. Anyway, I also felt sure that the Pilinszky poems must have influenced Hughes’s own poetry in some way, as they seemed to me quite similar to Hughes’s poems, especially the poems in his 1970 volume, Crow. Identifying a connection between Hughes’s translations of Pilinszky and his own creative development then became the subject of my PhD research, but what I found was not as straightforward as I’d thought. It seemed that the real influence came from the whole process involved in co-translation itself. What I mean is that Hughes seemed particularly attracted to the simplicity and roughness of the word-for-word versions that Csokits was sending to him. It was as if this pared back, stripped back Pilinszky represented something new and authentic and true. When we look at Hughes’s own writing in Crow, it’s possible to see that one of his aims in that book was to develop a crude, rough, at times almost foreign-sounding English. It’s as if he recognised a crow-like language in this translated poetry – especially poetry like Pilinszky’s.
AB: Do you mean by “crow-like language” that Hungarian sounds crow-like to you? Perhaps it sounds like that to some ears, probably to Hughes himself? By the way, it seems to me, that Hungarians are pretty depressed people, as if they are being constantly shadowed by some big black birds, with widely spread wings. But never mind, let’s talk about Pilinszky and Hughes.
TB: Actually – and bizarrely – the sound of Hungarian is not a tall relevant here, regarding Hughes at least. Hughes was responding to the sound of the English version: the non-fluent, non-rhyming English of the word-for-word translations. This is not to say that what he was doing with poetry in translation was entirely disingenuous. Hughes’s role in promoting the work of foreign poets was immensely important, and still has bearing on the way we read and translate foreign poetry today. It was Hughes who founded, with his friend Daniel Weissbort, the famous magazine Modern Poetry in Translation, which is still going strong.
AB: Tell us some names.
TB: In the early issues of this magazine, in the 1960s and 70s, poets such as Pilinszky from Hungary, Vasko Popa from Serbia, and Zbigniew Herbert from Poland were brought to the English reading public. And if you look at the early editorials of this journal, you can see clearly that Hughes’s aim was to publish very literal versions. He is very clear about his desire for this, and suggests that staying literal is a way of maintaining a sense of the original author’s voice in the translation. But it’s also clear that this kind of literality was in its own way quite Hughesian. He may have stated that he didn’t want to alter the Csokits’s translations of Pilinszky too drastically, for example, but even by wanting to leave them in their literal state, he was making some kind of poetic choice.
AB: He was impressed by them, surely, and did not want to polish up these Csokits-translations in English. It’s clear that he was doing something else. But what exactly? Let’s look at it longer and more closely. What happened when Hughes started writing his poem…
TB: When Hughes began writing Crow, around 1966, he had already become involved with translation, and he had already seen some literal versions of Pilinszky’s poems. I think that it’s possible to see a connection between the position he was in as a translator (and as the editor of a translation magazine), and his desire in Crow to create a persona who struggles with words, who struggles with poetic language. Csokits’s rough versions of Pilinszky represented elements of the kind of poetry he wanted to write in Crow: an English that was not learned, that did not sound like the English spoken by university professors, something that was almost classless. It was closer to what he said he wanted at the time, which was to produce something which appeared to be written “after the holocaust”. So in his versions of Pilinszky he insisted on keeping the literal sense, which meant avoiding rhyme (even if the original rhymed), and form (even if the original was very formal). The poems became very modern in this sense, quite stark and bare. They became striking, powerful English poems.
AB: Reminds me of Poe’s The Raven also, in some way. But let us talk more about János Pilinszky. What are your impressions of him and his poetry? What is the most attractive thing about him? How do you see him and his work, despite the fact, as we now know, that you don’t speak Hungarian. That’s a lot of questions, just for you…
TB: My first impressions of Pilinszky’s poetry came through Hughes’s interpretation of him, so they are in accordance with what Hughes said about him. Perhaps the most intriguing thing is this idea that he is a silent poet, a poet speaking with great effort, but also with great clarity. I find this fascinating, not simply because of the poetic effect, but because it is a kind of self-mythologizing, and a double-sided sensibility. This interests me. Some of the Pilinszky poems that Hughes translated I don’t like at all – I avoid the poems about Sheryl Sutton if I can, for instance. I concentrate instead on the war poems, and poems such as “Apocrypha”, “Epilogue”, “‘Fable”. These are strange, compelling translations which I never tire of reading. The speaker in them has a nervousness, almost a neurosis which I like a great deal. Also, they seem to be very visual poems. “Harbach 1944” in particular is strikingly visual. I also take note of the way that the translations manage to blend together an impression of acute shyness and aloneness, with a dramatic, declamatory address. Of course, I have also read Pilinszky in other English translations. The recent translations by CliveWilmer and George Gömöri (Worple Press, 2011), make an excellent contrast to the Hughes and Csokits versions. Also,I have listened to him read his poems on YouTube (Hungarian is a beautiful sound actually, to English-language ears), and I have looked at the Hungarian text, and talked to my Hungarian friends about how his poetry is received in Hungary. Different aspects of his work come through, depending on who you ask. His Catholicism seems to be strong, but then someone told me a story that he once went to speak to schoolchildren about his work, and told them not to worry about the religious aspect. In general, I think the war poems – full of guilt and pain, yet also of some unusual beauty – are the best. In the translations I’ve read, at least.
AB: Isn’t he too heavy to read? Like for example “Harbach 1944”? Too tragic?
TB: It is serious poetry, and perhaps one doesn’t always wish to read serious poetry, but there is surely always a pleasure to be had in reading good poetry, which “Harbach” or “On the Wall of a KZ-Lager” are strong examples of, I think.
AB: Please tell us about the connection between Pilinszky’s poetry and yours.
TB: I would never say that my poems are similar to Pilinszky’s, but over the last few years I have become affected by his work, and so the connection is probably more to do with a hidden poetic development, rather than something immediately apparent. I realise when I read Pilinszky that I am attracted to a very particular tone, this slightly anxious, nervous state of being which we find in his poems (or should I say, in Hughes’s versions of his poems), where the person speaking is going through a moment of real intensity of feeling. This is something I try to achieve in some of my own poems, so there is certainly a connection there. Another connection is the subject of war, which I attempt, in a much less direct (and entirely different) way, to incorporate into some of my work. Above all, I have been influenced by the very knowledge that I am reading something which almost doesn’t exist – it is not quite Pilinszky, it is not quite Csokits, and it is not quite Hughes. The translation of poetry has always been a controversial subject, but the questions that it raises are in fact very appropriate to discussions of writing poetry in general – including the use of metaphor and persona, and the desire for truth and authenticity which may come about only through lying or performing in some way. Thinking about all of this, having to think about it, has been of great help to me in terms of developing my own poetic voice.
AB: Some other Hungarian influence?
TB: With regard to my PhD, I have experimented in one or two poems in making direct use of my academic research. One example is a poem which I wrote after reading another Hungarian poet, Ferenc Juhász. I hear that Juhász is not fashionable at all in Hungary these days, but he is quite well thought of in England, mainly because of his poem “The Boy Changed into a Stag Cries Out at the Gate of Secrets”. This was translated into English by the poet Kenneth McRobbie many years ago, and then re-translated by Ted Hughes. In 1977, Auden wrote that Juhász’s poem was “one of the greatest poems written in my time”. I became interested in the poem’s translation history, especially Hughes’s work on it. Then I started to think about making my own, very different version. In the end, I wrote a short poem called “Stag Boy”. You can read this in a new book, just published, called Best British Poetry 2012. Finally, I have written one or two poems which relate to my studies of Pilinszky and Hughes. I haven’t yet published these, but one is due to appear in my debut collection (published by Carcanet, 2013). All I can tell you here is that it is called “Pilinszky at the Tenshi no Tobira” and it incorporates quotes by both Hughes and Pilinszky. I should say that I am quite an eclectic poet: I will take ruthlessly if my poem needs it, and in this poem I take from several different sources. So you can see that even in translation, Hungarian poetry has had a very good effect on me as a poet. For this I will always be thankful.
Some examples of different English translations of János Pilinszky.
(Trans. Clive Wilmer and George Gömöri. Tonbridge, Worple Press, 2011.)
I keep on seeing them: a shaft
rears and the moon is full –
there are men harnessed to the shaft.
It’s a huge cart they pull.
(Trans. János Csokits and Ted Hughes. The Desert of Love, London, Anvil, 1989.)
At all times I see them.
The moon brilliant. A black shaft looms up.
Beneath it, harnessed men
haul a huge cart.
The Passion at Ravensbrück
(Trans. Clive Wilmer and George Gömöri.)
One steps clear of the others, stands
in a block of silence, still.
The prison garb, the convict’s scalp
blink like an old film-reel.
Passion of Ravensbrück
(Trans. Ted Hughes and János Csokits.)
He steps out from among the others.
He stands in the square silence.
The prison garb, the convict’s skull
blink like a projection.
He enters the carriage with a roar –
he clatters in wildly and fills up the carriages with heat,
running through the train, staining the floor
with hooves dirty from the street;
tearing at the ceilings with his new-branched horns,
banging his rough sides against the seats and
the women, who try to look away: Gallant!
He sings hard from his throat,
his young belling tearing at his chest,
pushing at his boy-throat.
the train’s noise hums in his ears,
sharp and high like crickets pulsing
in the tall grass,
and he wounds it with his horns,
maddened like a stung bull,
pushing up his head,
pushing up his mouth for his mother’s teat:
Where is her beestings?
Where is the flowered mug she used to warm his milk in?
No good, no good now.
He’s smashing out of the train door,
he’s banging his hooves in the industrial air,
he’s galloping through the city squares,
and drinking from a vandalised spring –
And still his mother walks through the house, crying: Stag-boy, oh stag-boy come home!
NOTE ON STAG-BOY
It was during my PhD research into Ted Hughes’s translations of the Hungarian poet János Pilinszky that I first came across Hughes’s version of Ferenc Juhász’s poem The Boy Changed into a Stag Cries Out at the Gate of Secrets. I was struck by the fact that Hughes had made this version based solely on an English one by Kenneth McRobbie, and began to make a close comparison between his and McRobbie’s version, in an attempt to find out what Hughes’s alterations told us about his own poetic sensibility.
During this work I happened to take a train to London. A stag party got on at York, and the carriage became, for a short period, territory ruled by them. Their terrible, eager, desperate faces produced in me feelings of interest, pity and fear.
That occasion marked a time when as a poet I consciously wished to write about contemporary society. Juhász’s poem, written by a man in 1955 Communist Hungary, altered and conserved through many translations, suddenly appeared to me as a surprising, but wholly fitting model.