Translating Platon Karataev’s “Partért kiáltó” (the song)

I have translated many poems in my life—from Hungarian, Lithuanian, and Russian—and see many more coming. It is an extraordinary, beautiful challenge: the translation will be imperfect no matter what you do, but you can still find ways to convey the essence of the original. Should you preserve the original form, or approximate it? Should you take liberties with words and syntax? The answer will change from poem to poem, poet to poet, time to time.

Translating song lyrics is even more difficult in some ways, because of the interdependence of lyrics and music. You could provide a “literal” translation (a surprisingly complex concept—it isn’t at all obvious what “literal” is), but in doing so, you might lose even more than you would with a poem. Such a translation could serve a limited purpose (conveying some basic sense of the song’s theme) but no more.

A little over a month ago, I woke up in the middle of the night with an idea of how to translate Platon Karataev’s “Partért kiáltó” (the title song of their recently released third LP). I got up and wrote down a few lines. I went back to sleep, woke up early, and translated the rest. This was my first artistic translation of a song: the first one that tried to capture some of the meanings, sounds, and rhythms together. I have translated a song or two before—mostly on this blog—but very roughly, and often just an excerpt.

The translation takes some liberties, and like any translation, it is imperfect. What I like, though, is that I can hear the music behind it and in it. Also, to make the rhymes and rhythms possible (the original song has just two basic rhyme sounds, which would be impossible or extremely strained in English), I varied the syntax. This continual turning and variation reminds me of the sounds of the instruments, rotating in and out of darkness and light. I am presenting the translation below, side by side with the original, with the permission of Gergely Balla.

partért kiáltó víz vagyok
kérlek, magamra hagyjatok

nem nyílnak befelé ablakok
kérlek, magamra hagyjatok

partért kiáltó víz vagyok
a mélybe lehúznak vad habok

nem nyílnak kifelé ablakok
már nálad van, mit adhatok

de te maradj, ha idáig eljöttél
siet, ki gyorsabb az erdőnél

de te maradj, ha idáig eljöttél
siet, ki gyorsabb az erdőnél

partért kiáltó víz vagyok
nincs már, hol átérjek gyalog

az űrbe tátogok, vak vagyok
de sötétet ásnak a csillagok

kérlek, magamra hagyjatok
nem eső ez, csak a tenger dadog

de te maradj, ha idáig eljöttél
siet, ki gyorsabb az erdőnél

de te maradj, ha idáig eljöttél
siet, ki gyorsabb az erdőnél

ezért a mondatért jöttem
ezért a mondatért
ezért az emberért jöttem
ezért az emberért
water shouting for shore am i
i beg you, leave me with my cry
 
the windows won’t open inwards, why
won’t you leave me alone i cry
 
water shouting for shore i am
dragged down deep by the savage foam
 
the windows won’t open outwards, see,
you already have what could come from me
 
but stay, if you traveled all those roads
folly to race with the hallowed woods
 
but stay, if you traveled all those roads
folly to race with the hallowed woods
 
water i am, shouting for the beach
there’s nothing left for my feet to reach
 
i gape blind into the void and yet
the stars dig into the lack of light
 
leave me i beg you, that’s not the rain
stuttering, but the sea again
 
but stay, if you traveled all those roads
folly to race with the hallowed woods
 
but stay, if you traveled all those roads
folly to race with the hallowed woods
 
this is the sentence i came here for
this is the sentence here 
this is the person i came here for
this is the person here

The most difficult line to translate is the one I pondered for hours when the song first came out: “siet, ki gyorsabb az erdőnél.” It means, approximately, “The one who is faster than the forest, hurries,” or “He hurries who goes faster than the forest.” It has an ancient or Biblical ring to it; the structure is similar to that of “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” (“Áldott ki jön az Úr nevében”). I translated it loosely as “folly to race with the hallowed woods,” which I think conveys something of the ancient, adage-like tone.

Try listening to the song by itself, without reading any text, then while reading the Hungarian lyrics, then while reading the English translation, and then once again without reading text. Those four listenings will bring out different aspects of the song. There’s no telling which ones; that will also depend on you. And for a fifth listen, here’s a live duo performance by Gergely Balla and Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly.


And if you enjoyed this, I recommend not only the whole album, but the accompanying lyrics book, with its striking and inspiring illustrations and text layout (by Emőke Dobos). Even without knowing Hungarian, you can glean meaning and sound from the pages.

I translated the song because there’s so much to hear in it.

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  1. Past the bourn, and a translation of “Tágul” | Take Away the Takeaway

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