3/04/2003

I have been giving a lot of thought to the question, what’s the name of the game? and that ABBA song has been going through my head all the time. You have to know what game you’re playing before you get to the rules, and what’s the goal, you know? Most people, it’s not that difficult, they just sort of know and do it, with more or less success, but then there are people everything’s got to be explained to. I’m in the latter category. But—and this is not to brag—I have a somewhat complicated nature. I am a very simple guy with an unfortunately complicated nature. I’m very easily confused by things that most people take for granted. And I will never catch up. I understand that one of the rules of the game is you’re playing against the clock. It’s like going to the horse races and there’s the gunshot and the gates fly open and all the horses bolt out except one, who takes a few ginger steps out onto the track, stops and sort of looks around (which in itself is difficult with those blinders on), sniffs and snorts and wanders over to eat some grass. I’m no thoroughbred. Sometimes it occurs to me I’m a jackass.

And the thing is it’s a big cliché, life. You read about it in novels: the youth who sets off to find himself. I didn’t do anything that anyone else hasn’t done, as for exploring the sensual side of things. And really, I look at those couple of years, where it really was my goal, and I really made a concerted effort to go as far as I could down that road, and in the end I wasn’t suited for it. And that’s not the narrow road, it’s the wide one. It’s not the uphill road, either. It’s not craggy and winding and full of pitfalls. It’s like Main Street, well-paved, well-lit, bright and broad and full of life. But I was not educated to pleasure, it was a foreign thing to me, and I had to force it down as one does a strange dish from a far-off land—something made of pickled fish. And those familiar with the way can always tell a foreigner. Sometimes they play cruel tricks on him, but mostly they leave him to stumble along on his own, or watch him from a distance, amused at his crawling along at the edge of things, clinging to walls, looking frightened and lost-and how can you be frightened and lost in such a place? And their happiness pains you, and their looks pierce you and their laughter sounds to you like screams. So you slip down the first dark alley (and there are plenty along this road), and disappear. No one will miss you.

Hedonists are born that way. Why try to force it? If you don’t enjoy enjoying yourself it sort of defeats the whole point of the exercise, doesn’t it? But I’m not exactly a flagellant, either. I do derive pleasure from sex, and I feel absolutely no remorse about the nature of the pleasure I derive from it. It’s not a question of conscience, again, but of nature.

I have been going through Csaba’s Colloquial Italian book, and I really can’t understand what I found so difficult about this language in college. I think I ended up with a C in it. It was sheer laziness, is all. The photo on the cover of this book (left) is a bit strange. It is of the Fontana del Moro in the Piazza Navona in Rome, but taken from a spot where the Moor is seen from behind in all his naked glory. Rather cheeky, so to say. Glutes front and center. I mean of all the sites of Rome you could put on your cover, and all the angles you could photograph them from, why the Fontana del Moro from ‘behind’? Nice as it is.

The cover of my faded Penguin Classics Le Rouge et le Noir is sort of strange, too. It’s an untitled portrait by Pierre-Paul Prud’hon. From the Snark archives. But why should it be on the cover of this book, I wonder? Is it supposed to be Stendhal? Or Julien Sorel? It doesn’t fit the latter’s description at all. It’s a bit distracting, but I haven’t had to cover it up as I did the cover of Jude the Obscure, since I couldn’t possibly mistake the bloke on the cover for Julien. A much more recent Penguin edition of Stendhal’s De L’Amour shows a painting by Ingres: Comtesse d’Haussonville. It makes sense, given the topic and the era in discussion.

I was reading some more József Attila—"Reménytelenül"—Hopelessness—or Without Hope as George Szirtes has translated it. I don’t like Szirtes’ translations any more than I like John Bátki’s, though. They’re both so bent on rhyming that they are willing to totally destroy the poem to fit their metrics. The thing about József is he’s very simple and direct. His voice is authentic, his suffering is real. It is the voice of someone who knows sorrow, not one who is simply describing it. How you know is that the way he approaches suffering and despair is not at all formulaic. It’s not how you would think to.

I remember once, when I was a freshman in college, a group of us was playing a game out on the veranda of the main building in the quad. Doug Eck would call out some word, and whoever’s turn it was had to mime it. "Pathos" was one—and I remember Doug saying the way they were acting it out it looked more like "bathos" to him, and everyone laughing. I laughed, too, but I didn’t know the difference. (I still don’t.) Doug liked this kind of game. I liked Doug, somehow. It wasn’t a major crush, but he was a big, clumsily built boy with thick, very curly hair and very blue eyes, and he was very clever. Anyway, he had to mime something that had to do with having gone a week in the desert, and what it would be like coming upon a glass of water. We must have carried on the game at dinner, with more liberal rules. He mimed first seeing the glass, with a look of wonder, as if he had been wishing and praying and here was the answer, and then he set about caressing the thing, touching it to his face, and then lustily drinking it down, the whole glass in one gulp. I didn’t mind the last bit, but all the foreplay leading up to it I didn’t think was right. Someone really dying for a glass of water wouldn’t bother with all that. And that’s a little how I feel about these translations. Both of these translators are Hungarian, of course, and I’m sure they’re renowned for their skills, but I imagine they have this attitude about translating Hungarian that says it can’t be done, really, an attitude which frees them from trying to do it faithfully.

"Reménytelenül" is a very straightforward poem. The first stanza reads:

Az ember végül homokos
szomorú, vizes síkra ér,
szétnéz merengve és okos
fejével biccent, nem remél.

(My very literal translation: "Man finally comes to the sandy, sad, watery plain, looks around musing and nods his clever head, [and] does not hope.") Szirtes renders it thus:

Man comes at last to a vast stretch
of sandy, dull, waterlogged plain,
looks around in wonder, the poor wretch,
nods sagely and knows hope is vain.

I only offer my translation, which is absolutely rudimentary, to show what elements are actually present in the original, and where Szirtes has added touches which we might consider editorializing. The content of the first two lines is unobjectionable, but the characterization of (the) man as "a poor wretch" is Szirtes’s invention. József may intend a gentle irony when he says his man "nods his clever head." "Okos" is not a word I would translate as "sage(ly)"—it’s a word used to encourage children and dogs. When he says man ‘nods his clever head,’ we should take it, as in English, as teasing, but without malice, and certainly not with the abject connotations Szirtes lends it. There is a bitterness in the translation that I don’t feel in the original. The feel of the first stanza, in the original, is peculiarly light and loving, whereas Szirtes’s translation is quite heavy and dark. What makes the original so moving, though, is precisely this very human tone that József has. Here he is speaking very plainly but almost whimsically of despair.

In the second stanza he speaks of "ezüstös fejszesuhanás játszik a nyárfa levelén" – again very literally "a silvery axehead playing in the poplar leaves," which Szirtes translates "an axehead, a silvery sighing, shudders across the poplar tree." The tone of the poem in Hungarian is confirmed by the verb játszani, which can only mean "to play". There’s no question that here the axehead is playing in the leaves of the tree. There’s no "sighing" and certainly no "shudder" anywhere to be found in the original. Sticking these words in the poem, Szirtes just gets further and further from the heart of it. When József speaks of despair here, he speaks of it in this light, whimsical way: "Clever" man makes up his mind, "right then, no hope! No problem!" The poet, too, having reached this desolate plain, is trying to calm himself in the same way...

Én is így próbálok csalás
nélkül szétnézni könnyedén.
Ezüstös fejszesuhanás
játszik a nyárfa levelén.

("I, too, am genuinely trying to look around unconcernedly...") Despair is there in the shape of an axe playing amongst the leaves of the poplar, which Hungarians call nyárfa—literally "summer tree." There is a carelessness to Fate—there is no one wielding the axe, either—you can see it dancing through the tree-tops, gaily cutting off the summer leaves before it’s their time to fall.

And then, again, at the very end, the translator chooses precisely the wrong words to express what József had in mind. Where the poet says "the stars gather round gently, and watch, watch," our interpreter says: "the gentle stars jostle and bunch/and gaze on in astonishment." "Bunch" here is slant-rhymed with "branch," "astonishment" with "shivering event." The poet’s "s nézik, nézik a csillagok," which is the final line, might in another context give the sense of astonishment. Nézni being "to watch," if you were to say in English, "they watch and watch" (reminds me of Whitman’s 28 bathers) you’d have to assume that whoever it was doing all this watching had a good reason (Whitman certainly did), that they were mesmerized or astonished, or bemused. Or wondering at whatever it was they were watching. "Gazing" is not a bad choice for nézni in this case, but "astonishment" rings hollow. It’s absolutely not the right word. We are in no way prepared for it.

A semmi ágán ül szivem,
kis teste hangtalan vacog,
köréje gyûlnek szeliden
s nézik, nézik a csillagok.

Szirtes describes the heart (szivem—literally my heart), as "a small, dumb, shivering event," but József describes his heart’s shivering "little body." You can see his heart perched, like a songless bird on nothing’s branch. That’s poetry. What is "a small, dumb, shivering event"? That’s not poetry, that’s rhyming. And not even good rhyming—I mean, "shivering event" and "astonishment" is stretching it. So for this lousy rhyme, we lose what’s truly lovely in the poem itself. In this last stanza, in Hungarian, we have this glorious, sweet, whimsical scene: the little heart-bird perched on nothing’s branch, without a song, and the gentle stars gathering round to watch. In pity, in wonder, perhaps as the Magi looked on the infant Christ, in a kind of awe.

But again, though deeply dissatisfied with Szirtes’s poem, I couldn’t come up with anything better myself, really. The original poem, for me at least, is a masterpiece of sweet simplicity that captures the beauty of despair. Especially the last stanza, where the rhythm is almost sing-songy, as each line is complete in itself, so that it’s natural to pause between them (this is not the case in the first and second stanzas—where the phrases are two lines each—it would not be natural to pause, for example, between okos and fejével, since they belong together in the same breath, okos modifying feje—‘his clever head’).

It really is a lovely, big-hearted poem. It reminds me of Hedgehog in the Fog—it’s got that kind of a feeling. Or like this Mozart Clarinet Concerto in A major. Any translator would be hard-pressed to compete with it, I have to admit.

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