“My eyes, / two eyes, bounce: my salvation”

I have been spending a lot of time with Pilinszky over the break: reading several poems carefully each day, reading his prose, reading about him, reading the poet Tara Bergin’s wonderful doctoral thesis, Ted Hughes and the Literal: A study of the relationship between Ted Hughes’s translations of Pilinszky and his intentions for Crow (Newcastle University, 2013). One question that puzzles me is: why did Hughes believe he knew what the “literal” actually was? Bergin explains that he means something different by “literal” than many do; for him, a literal translation is one that is naked, foreign-sounding, unadorned, as well as accurate. But when it comes to Pilinszky, your interpretation of a single word (which may have multiple possible meanings) will affect your entire understanding of what is happening in the poem.

I was pondering and pondering the last stanza of his magnificent poem “Kráter”:

Úgy érint elutasításod,
ez a parázna, kőbeírott suhintás,
hogy tekintetem – két kavics –
azóta is csak gurul és gurul
egy hófehér kráterben. Két szemem,
két szem pattog: az üdvösségem.

Katalin N. Ullrich translates the stanza as follows:

I feel your rejection,
this wanton swishing set in stone so
that my eyes – like two pebbles –
have been rolling ever since
in a white crater.  My eyes,
two eyes snap: my salvation.

Here’s Ted Hughes’s rendition:

Your rejection has affected me,
this adultery slash inscribed in stone,
so that ever since
my look—two pebbles—
rolls and rolls
in a snow-white crater. My eyes,
two eyes, bounce: my salvation.

I like the first translation better for the first two lines, and Hughes better for the rest, but to figure this out, I first had to figure out what was going on with the rolling pebbles, especially the “snap” or “bounce.” The verb “pattog” can mean “snap, bounce, crackle, sputter, sparkle.” But when does this “pattog” happen? During the rolling, afterwards, or sometime in the future? Both translators leave out the word “csak,” “just,” which to me seems very important: the image of the pebbles just rolling and rolling (“csak gurul és gurul”). So the bounce, snap, or sputter must happen at a different point. When is this?

Another important word here is “két” (two), which occurs three times in the stanza and is thus emphatic. The gaze or glance, “tekintetem,” is singular, but then we have “két kavics” (two pebbles), “két szemem” (my two eyes), and “két szem” (two eyes). “Szem” can also mean a speck or grain of sand; this would help explain the near-repetition of “két szemem” and “két szem.” Basically these two eyes, pebbles, or specks are rolling down.

I somehow wended my way to the physics of marbles in a cone—black hole simulations, in fact—and there it was! The marbles roll and roll as they go down, but then, at the narrowest part, they start to collide with each other, and snap, and bounce, and crackle. This video brought tears to my eyes; I thought, this must be it!

So the last stanza describes a kind of feverish descent of the soul down a funnel-like crater (maybe a volcanic crater), where the gaze is so lost after the other person’s rejection that it just rolls and rolls, until it hits such a low and narrow point that a collision happens; this collision, this instantaneous break, becomes salvation. Antal Kuklay, a retired canon of the Archidiocese of Eger and a scholar of Pilinszky’s work, sees something similar—he likens the downward rolling to a state of spiritual darkness—but in his interpretation, the “snap” marks the beginning of a rolling back upward, toward salvation. I don’t think there’s any upward rolling; I don’t think the salvation is any longer than a sliver of a second. It’s the snap, the bounce, no more. But that is enough.

Image courtesy of Scientific American.

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2 Comments

  1. It is beginning to seem that many things made sense only to TH.
    I also have `Tara B’s thesis. Great many thanks for these posts.

    Reply
    • Thank you! I admire Hughes for what he did (in an era of no internet, the Cold War, etc.). Some of his translations of Pilinszky, such as “Apocrypha,” are magnificent. And any translation, no matter how good, has its imprecisions. What puzzles me about him is his insistence on accuracy as a modus operandi. I don’t know whether he realized that often there is no such thing: that a word in Language A carries a host of meanings and connotations (not to mention resonances) that have no single equivalent in Language B. So-called accuracy has to be balanced with other considerations, even if you aren’t trying to recreate the poem’s rhymes, rhythms, etc.

      Reply

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