What is Pilinszky’s “korlát”?

I have been thinking about Pilinszky’s poem “Trapéz és korlát” and how the word “korlát” should be translated. Ted Hughes and János Csokits translated the title as “Trapeze and Parallel Bars” and the word “korlátain” in the penultimate line as “parallel bars” too. I am not convinced that this is right; “korlát” can also mean “railing,” “limit,” and more. In bringing this up, I do not mean to disparage the translators, neither of whom is alive today. Inaccuracies and imprecisions are part of any translation, and this particular one has raw, vibrant beauty.

The poem describes a playful but tormented love relationship, up in the skies, that neither person can resolve or escape. There’s laughter, hitting, weaving, plunging, chasing. Flying on the trapeze, plunging. Falling into the net of stars. The “korlát” (apparently) does not come up at first. But in the second stanza, there is a ridge or ledge: the “sugárzó párkány” (“radiant ledge”) that the two run along. I associate this with the “korlát”—but more about that in a moment.

The last stanza contemplates the state of things:

Most kényszerítlek, válaszolj,
mióta tart e hajsza?
Megalvadt szememben az éj.
Ki kezdte és akarta?
Mi lesz velem, s mi lesz veled?
Vigasztalan szeretlek!
Ülünk az ég korlátain,
mint elitélt fegyencek.

Hughes and Csokits translate this as follows:

Now I force you to answer:
when did this hunt begin?
Night has clotted in my eyes.
Who started it? Who wanted it? What
will happen to me? What will happen to you?
I love you unconsoled.
We crouch on the sky’s parallel bars –
like convicts condemned.

The problem with “parallel bars” is quintuple. First, it changes the picture of the acrobatics in the poem. If there are parallel bars, then supposedly the two lovers are swinging around them at some point, in addition to running on the ridge and flying on the trapeze. But there’s no suggestion of this earlier in the poem, and it’s a bit difficult to picture.

Second, convicts don’t typically sit on parallel bars. The image is jarring to me. That in itself doesn’t mean it’s wrong—Pilinszky’s poems have surprising images—but I think a different translation would bring out the weight of the ending.

Third, the phrase has too many syllables. It crowds both the poem’s title and its penultimate line.

Fourth, “ridges,” “railings,” or “limits” would be much more fitting, as it would suggest that the lovers are outcasts, unable to reconcile with themselves or find a place in the world. It’s curious that “korlát” is singular in the title but plural at the end. But there are possible reasons for this too.

Fifth, “korlát” has many definitions and associations; “parallel bars” is so specific that it shuts some of the other possible meanings out. Parallel bars are associated strictly with gymnastics.

I brought this question to my students; I was curious to find out what they would think, since they are all native speakers of Hungarian. Some of them took this up eagerly. One class agreed with me that “parallel bars” was wrong. The other class more or less agreed as well, but made a few additional observations. One student said he found “parallel bars” awkward but understood why Hughes and Csokits had chosen it. Parallel bars look like prison bars, he explained, if you rotate them ninety degrees. The convicts, being condemned, would be found behind bars. All the same, he found the phrase unnecessarily cumbersome; “bars” would have been adequate.

Regarding the relation between the “párkány” (ledge) and the “korlátok,” another student suggested that these convicts were sitting not only on the edges of the sky, but on the edges of reality. That comes close to my understanding of the poem and brings even more out of it. It is not only about tormented love that has no resolution. It has to do with taking part in something that bewilders you: not knowing what is going on, just knowing that it is. That in itself is the “korlát.”

In other words, the “korlát,” as I understand it, has at least a double meaning: a railing or physical boundary on the one hand, and an existential limit on the other. What I do not see is parallel bars.

That in turn reminds me of the ending of “Egyenes labirintus” (“Straight Labyrinth”):

nem tudom,
és mégis, hogyha valamit tudok,
hát ezt tudom, e forró folyosót,
e nyílegyenes labirintust, melyben
mind tömöttebb és mind tömöttebb
és egyre szabadabb a tény, hogy röpülünk.

In Géza Simon’s translation (which also opens up many questions):

I don’t know,
and yet, if there is something I know,
I know this blazing corridor,
this labyrinth straight as an arrow,
the heavier and heavier,
exhilarating fact of our fall.

Painting: Trapeze by H. James Hoff.

I made an addition to this piece after posting it.

Leave a comment

9 Comments

  1. Not sure, but convicts condemned and parallel stakes, if Christian allusions are possible here, would bring to mind the two thieves in Luke’s account of the crucifixion. Indeed, Jehovah’s Witnesses insist σταυρος meant pole or stake, not cross as commonly pictured. Here’s a random discussion off the cuff of the web.

    https://www.bethinking.org/jehovahs-witnesses/did-christ-die-on-a-cross-or-a-stake

    Reply
    • Christian allusions abound in Pilinszky’s poems, but I don’t see them right here. “Korlát” doesn’t suggest “stake” by any stretch. Moreover, in the poem the convicts are sitting on “az ég korlátain” (the railings/limits of the sky), not hanging from them. I see the “korlát” as having at least a double meaning: a railing or ledge on the one hand, and an existential limit on the other. What I do not see is parallel bars.

      Reply
      • Well, I have no stake in either interpretation, but I’m not sure we can place those sorts of limits on the poetic imagination — think of Leonard Cohen’s “lonely wooden tower” — at any rate, I’ve reached the limits of my personal associative matrix, so I’ll leave it there.

      • Thank you, yes, no, that’s not what I mean. Pilinszky’s images are often surprising; I am not trying to shut out possibilities. But if he had imagined the two thieves in erotic acrobatics together before being nailed to the stake or cross, then he would have done a little more to suggest that these were indeed the thieves from Luke. Just having two convicts isn’t enough. In Pilinszky’s poetry, the “convict” is sometimes a metaphor for the human condition. See his poem “Amiként kezdtem” (with English translation): https://www.babelmatrix.org/works/hu/Pilinszky_J%C3%A1nos-1921/Amik%C3%A9nt_kezdtem/en/33694-The_Way_I_Started

      • all men will be convicts then until the penitentiary shall free them …

  2. Also, the word “fegyenc”–in Pilinszky’s poems and in general–can mean “prison inmate”; it doesn’t necessarily refer to a criminal.

    Reply
  3. Anyway, this marks the first-ever interactive discussion of a Pilinszky poem on Take Away the Takeaway! May there be more.

    Reply

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