Past the bourn, and a translation of “Tágul”

This morning I woke up with a different idea for my translation of Pilinszky’s “Egy szenvedély margójára” (which I wrote about earlier, and which will be part of the program at the Pilinszky event next Sunday). I had been bothered by the tenth and twelfth lines (“He turns to the waves and hurls it far and fast” and “And yet a breakless ocean booms it back”). “Far and fast” seemed padded; the “fast” seemed extraneous, even though I liked its subtler meanings. But the real problem lay in the last line: a “breakless” ocean seems like an ocean without waves, rather than a whole ocean. Also, the iambic pentameter was a little too regular and placid compared to the Hungarian (also regular iambic pentameter, but with a little bit of friction at “egy egész tenger”). Those problems, though, seemed worthwhile for the sake of the whole. Then I thought of a different way of doing it. Here’s the last stanza as it was before.

Never again will he get rid of it.
He turns to the waves and hurls it far and fast.
The mute breach does not give up a sound,
and yet a breakless ocean booms it back.

Here’s the new version:

Never again will he get rid of it.
He turns to the waves and hurls it past the bourn.
The mute breach does not give up a sound,
and yet a whole sea booms it in return.

The word “bourn” (“limit”) evokes Hamlet’s soliloquy (“The undiscover’d country from whose bourn / No traveller returns”) in an appropriate way, in that the action of throwing the stone is irrevocable. Neither the stone nor the throwing can return. That striking line “Nem szabadul már soha többé tőle” (“Never again will he get rid of it”) puzzles the mind at first; you might expect “Never will he get rid of it” or even “Never again will he find it.” But there’s a singularity to the very act of throwing the stone away. As for the last line, I like how “whole” and “sea” struggle against each other slightly, each one claiming rhythmic stress. And “booms it in return” brings out the paradox of noise in the voicelessness. Also, you can hear a parallel between “mute breach” and “whole sea.”

So the whole translation reads as follows:

A boy who likes to walk along the beach
always finds one among the many pebbles
that has been his for all eternity
and never could become anyone else’s.

He grips unlosability itself!
His whole heart is throbbing in his palm,
the stone’s so one-and-only in his hand,
and with it he has grown so alone.

Never again will he get rid of it.
He turns to the waves and hurls it past the bourn.
The mute breach does not give up a sound,
and yet a whole sea booms it in return.

I started thinking about catharsis in this poem. There is a purification in the throwing of the stone. The verb “szabadul” (“to be freed of, get rid of”) is very close in meaning to “rid,” which derives from the Proto-Indo-European root *reudh-, “to clear land.” The stone becomes too much, I think; it has to be thrown. But this will come up at the event, so I won’t say more here.

What I will do now, though, on a somewhat different subject, is provide a loose translation of “Tágul” from Platon Karataev’s “Partért kiáltó.” The song is indirectly related to the poem; the two juxtaposed say something to each other. “Tágul” has so much of what I love about Platon Karataev: lyrics, sounds, the duet of Sebő and Gergő, atmosphere, eternity. I have heard this song played by the whole band and by Sebő and Gergő in acoustic concert. Each version brings out something different. I think a cello cover would be beautiful; I will keep that in mind for the future.

While my translation is mostly literal, more so than my translation of “Partért kiáltó,” I took some liberties to convey the rhythm and richness of the words. I translated “elmém egy hangyaboly” as “this my mind is an anthill” to keep the stress on the first syllable of the line, since this is so important to the music.

I initially translated “tágul az űr belül” as “spreading within, the void” to convey both the rhythm and the continual motion. I think there’s supposed to be some ambiguity about what is spreading: the void itself, the moment, the shadow, the self, the non-self? But then I changed my mind, and changed it to “the void expands within.” (“Spreading within, the void,” requires the commas, but those can’t be heard. So the meaning was too unclear.)

I translated “ez a pillanat most minden pillanat” as “this moment is now each moment of all time,” for the sake of emphasis (that is, both a strong final beat and a strong statement).

The translation as a whole is imperfect (what translation isn’t?), and I might see reason to revise it later, but I think it conveys the essence and could work with the rhythm of the music.

az égbolt köldöke a Hold
elvágom a köldökzsinórt

az éjjel szitálja az énem
nem-énem kitárja, elérem

elmém egy hangyaboly
kisgyermek vizet önt belé

elmém egy hangyaboly
kisgyermek vizet önt belé

látok már a víz alatt
ez a pillanat most minden pillanat

tágul az űr belül
árnyékom talpam alá feszül

tágul az űr belül
árnyékom talpam alá feszül

talpam alatt már szűkül az árnyék
lépek, mintha vízen járnék

tágul az űr belül
árnyékom talpam alá feszül

látok már a víz alatt
ez a pillanat most minden pillanat
the heavens’ navel is the Moon
I sever the umbilical cord

the night dissipates my self
pours forth my non-self, I touch it

this my mind is an anthill
a child pours water into it

this my mind is an anthill
a child pours water into it

now I see below the water
this moment is now each moment of all time

the void expands within,
my shadow tightens beneath my soles

the void expands within,
my shadow tightens beneath my soles

beneath my soles the shadow thins
I step as though walking on water

the void expands within,
my shadow tightens beneath my soles

now I see below the water
this moment is now each moment of all time

I made a few changes to the translation of “Tágul” after posting this piece (most recently on March 23).

Art credit: Cloudy Day (1871) by Alfred Thompson Bricher.

A Pilinszky Retreat

The Pilinszky event is just a week and a day away. The March 15 national holiday (in commemoration of the Revolution of 1848) comes at a good time. We have Monday and Tuesday off from school. I have nothing scheduled for those days, so they will be dedicated to Pilinszky. The rest of the week is quite full: on top of teaching, a literary event here in Szolnok on Wednesday (Gyula Jenei’s book release, at the library), a photo session in Budapest on Thursday afternoon (more about that later), a Szim Salom service that I will lead on Friday night, and a benefit concert in Budapest on Saturday, featuring Cz.K. Sebő, Cappuccino Projekt, and Sallai Laci, with proceeds going to Budapest Bike Maffia. Then on Sunday, from what I can see, my day will be open; I can rest, relax, and gather my thoughts for the event, which starts at 8 p.m. here.

It will go by all too fast, I think. We’ll get started, the discussion will take off, and then the time will be up. But that’s the way these things go. If the audience gets to hear a few Pilinszky poems, a dialogue about them, and a few performances of the guests’ own work, and if the various parts come together even loosely and tentatively, we will have done what we set out to do. It seems that lots of people are coming—from the U.S., Hungary, and other countries (including the UK, the Netherlands, France, Germany, Finland, Greece, and Turkey). I hope everyone who wants to come can be there!

The photo at the top is from the Kolorádó Fesztivál back in August.

Meanings of “Mindíg” in Pilinszky’s Poetry

It’s easy to assume you know what a word like “mindig” means. It means “always,” and we know what “always” means, correct? Not necessarily.

Yesterday I started thinking of Pilinszky’s “mindig” (which he spells “mindíg”) in more than one way. (By the way, speaking of ways, the Pilinszky event is three and a half weeks away!)

Pilinszky’s poem “Egy szenvedély margójára” (“Onto the Margin of a Passion”) begins:

A tengerpartot járó kisgyerek
mindíg talál a kavicsok közt egyre,
mely mindöröktől fogva az övé,
és soha senki másé nem is lenne.

I have translated it as follows (taking liberties for rhythm and sense):

A child who likes to walk along the beach
always finds one among the many pebbles
that has been his for all eternity
and never could become anyone else’s.

I first took this “mindíg,” “always,” to mean that the child does this every day—that he has claimed, loved, and thrown away stone after stone. But there is a different way of hearing the “mindíg.”

It could also suggest an archetype, an eternal state of things. There is “always” a child doing this, it is happening now. The “mindíg” brings space and time together into the current moment.

Why is it spelled “mindíg” in Pilinszky’s poetry, when the supposedly correct spelling is “mindig” (without the accent over the second “i”)? I asked my students this question recently, and they thought that it was a way of giving emphasis to the word. If that is so, then there’s even more reason to suspect that Pilinszky’s “mindíg” is not the everyday “mindig” but something else.

This applies to other Pilinszky poems as well, including “Egy szép napon” (“On a Fine Day”).

These thoughts came to mind yesterday after our short technical run-through for the event. I intend to bring up “mindíg” when the time comes.

I am looking forward to it so much and have so much to do in the meantime. You can already download a program containing the Pilinszky poems and quotes that we will be discussing, with English translations. We might not get to everything on the program—and the event includes a lot that is not listed in it—but it should help you follow along.

A tangentially related thought came to mind: if you are in New York, and enjoy frequenting the Hungarian Pastry Shop, you can easily attend the event from there! Just get yourself situated with a pastry and coffee, don the headphones or earphones, and join via Zoom. I last visited the place three years and a day ago (a couple of hours before my event at Book Culture) and can vouch for its pastries and atmosphere.

Wherever you attend from, we look forward to seeing you.

Photo credits:

Pilinszky image credit: Pilinszky János, Szép versek 1971 (published 1972). Photo # 44.
Photo of Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly by Pál Czirják, published in
Kortárs Online.
Photo of Csenger Kertai by Dénes Erdős, published in
Photo of Gergely Balla by Márton Ficsor, published in
Photo of the Hungarian Pastry Shop by Clayrey. Published in Wikimedia Commons.

Seven Reasons to Come to the Pilinszky Event

It looks like lots of people are coming to the Pilinszky online event on March 20! But if you are undecided, here are seven reasons to come:

  1. János Pilinszky (1921–1981). Whether you grew up with his work or haven’t heard of him until recently, this event will introduce (or re-introduce) you to a few of his poems.
  2. The guests and hosts. This is a rare chance to hear Csenger Kertai, Gergely Balla and Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly discuss Pilinszky and perform from their work. For the hosts—Diana Senechal and the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers—this event is an honor and a joy.
  3. The languages. How often are literary events held in both English and Hungarian? The discussion will be mostly in English, with some translation back and forth; the poems, in both Hungarian and English, and the music, in one or the other. And speaking of that….
  4. The format. Instead of having a discussion followed by a performance, or vice versa, we will be combining discussion, poetry, and music. Literary events in Hungary are often conducted in this manner. It’s exciting because of the unexpected connections that arise between the various parts.
  5. The ease of attending. All you have to do is log in via Zoom. There is no charge. The instructions are on the website and the Facebook page. To find out exactly when the event starts in your area, go here. We have also prepared a downloadable program (containing the Pilinszky poems and quotes that we intend to discuss).
  6. The lack of dogma. We are not trying to drive home a particular message about Pilinszky or his world. The discussion will be inquisitive rather than didactic. We have a few working ideas but do not know where they will lead.
  7. The chance to ask questions. We will save time at the end for a few questions and comments. We can’t promise to get to all of them, but we do hope for some exchange with the audience.

The list could go on and on, but instead I will leave off with a quote from the poet Ágnes Nemes Nagy (whose centennial is now being celebrated in Hungary, a year after Pilinszky’s). I would only combine it with a suggestion that Pilinszky’s poetry contains exhilaration too, the exhilaration of facing the spectre.

“Pilinszky added a dimension to our lives (all our lives, now, the life of poetry), he enriched us with want, with being lost, the dearth of existence pared down to the bone. The extraordinary catharsis of his poetic power arched over such dearth. It would be good to look now into those places to which he opened a breach, look in through the inner doors of the ante chamber, to those places where destruction is spread out like the sky.”
—Ágnes Nemes Nagy, “János Pilinszky: A Very Different Poet” (1981), translated by Rudolf Fischer

“Egy dimenziót csatolt hozzá Pilinszky az életünkhöz (most már mindnyájunk életéhez, a költészet életéhez), meggazdagított a hiánnyal, elveszettséggel, az egzisztencia csontig, képletig letisztított ínségével. Költői hatalmának kivételes katarzisa ilyen ínségre boltozódott. Most volna jó benézni oda, ahova ő nyitott rést, benézni az előszoba bentebbi ajtaján, most volna jó oda, ahol a pusztulás úgy terül el, mint egy égbolt.”
—Nemes Nagy Ágnes, “Valaki más” (1981)

P.S. Seven reasons, but eight books? Yes, well, the eighth reason is up to you.

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 between the lyrics and the 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.

The Winter 2021–2022 issue of Folyosó

It is out! To simplify things, I will just copy the “Letter from the Editor” here (since I am the editor, and the letter says what I would want to say).

Winter is in full swing, the year is proceeding sometimes in slow motion, sometimes in a flurry, and somehow, almost out of nowhere, this winter issue came into being. We usually have plenty of pieces set aside from previous semesters or years; that wasn’t the case this time. But with a few requests, invitations, assignments, and encouragements, a plethora of pieces took form. This may be my favorite issue yet, at least in certain ways.

One piece from last fall’s international contest, by Nerses Boztaş (a student at the Lycée Sainte-Pulchérie in Istanbul), had intrigued me with its style and subject matter; I had promised to publish it in the winter issue, after some more editing and correspondence with the author. The final version has the liveliness and intensity of the initial version, along with clearer meaning for a general reader. We are delighted to feature it here.

For one English assignment, I asked students to write a piece inspired by the phrase “straight labyrinth”; if they wished, they could draw on János Pilinszky’s poem “Egyenes labirintus” for inspiration, but this was not required. This resulted in an exceptional variety of interesting pieces—funny, philosophical, melancholic, startling, agonized, matter-of-fact. Eighteen of them are published here in a special section.

Speaking of Pilinszky, you are cordially invited to a free online event hosted by the ALSCW (Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers) on March 20. While not directly related to Folyosó, it is of possible interest to Folyoso writers and readers. I will be interviewing the poet Csenger Kertai and the musicians/songwriters Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly (Cz.K. Sebő, Platon Karataev) and Gergely Balla (Platon Karataev) about Pilinszky’s influence on their work and thought. The discussion will be combined with recitations of Pilinszky and performances of the guests’ own work. For more information, see the event website and Facebook page.

Another section of this Folyosó issue features imaginary college application essays, an assignment for American Civilization class. Students were asked to pretend that they were applying to an American college or university and to write an essay in that vein. The purpose was to explore some differences between the educational systems Hungary and the U.S. The results were intriguing and lively.

The issue is rounded out by two dream-stories, two essays (one on walking and one on reading), and three beautiful works of art by Lilla Kassai, the cover artist for this issue.

The next issue will come out in mid-May. In the meantime, stay warm and healthy, come to the Pilinszky event if you wish, and—if you are a Varga student—send us your writing! (Our next international contest will be in the fall.)


Diana Senechal
Founder and Editor of Folyosó

A Few Thoughts about János Pilinszky’s “Straight Labyrinth” (“Egyenes labirintus”)

I am not going to say much here about “Egyenes labirintus,” because we will be discussing it at the Pilinszky event in March. These are just a few preliminary thougths, along with a translation. The poem is a brief masterpiece; to see why, it is necessary to pay attention to every word and the relationships between them.

First of all, what is a straight labyrinth? The title confronts us with an ancient paradox. Directness may inhere in the labyrinth. Many of us know the experience of pondering a math problem, for instance, looking at it from every possible angle, trying this, trying that, and suddenly having the solution flash in our heads, a solution which, once it arrives, seems both obvious and elegant. But when it comes to life itself, such an insight is cataclysmic, or can be. I think of Oedipus realizing that he is the source of the plague. I think of Rilke’s “You must change your life.” I think of Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, “Suddenly some force struck him in the chest and side, making it still harder to breathe, and he fell through the hole and there at the bottom was a light.  What had happened to him was like the sensation one sometimes experiences in a railway carriage when one thinks one is going backwards while one is really going forwards and suddenly becomes aware of the real direction.”

Pilinszky creates a labyrinth in the poem itself.

Milyen lesz az a visszaröpülés,
amiről csak hasonlatok beszélnek,

he begins, which I have translated, “What will it be like, that return flight / that only similes speak of?” Here the puzzling element is the “visszaröpülés,” the “return flight” or “flying back,” which one would take to be a metaphor, except that Pilinszky treats it as the reality, in that “only similes” can speak of it. If there is a “visszaröpülés,” what is the original flight, the “röpülés”?

The next four lines bring up the similes that might describe the flying back; then comes a renewed question, “what will it be like at last, what will it be like,” and then a return to the image of flight, with new intensity:

olyanfélék, hogy oltár, szentély,
kézfogás, visszatérés, ölelés,
fűben, fák alatt megterített asztal,
hol nincs első és nincs utolsó vendég,
végül is milyen lesz, milyen lesz
e nyitott szárnyú emelkedő zuhanás,
visszahullás a fókusz lángoló
közös fészkébe?

In my translation: “Words like altar, sanctuary, / handshake, homecoming, embrace, / a spread table in the grass, under the trees, / where there is no first and no last guest, / what will it be like at last, what will it be like, / this wide-open-winged ascending dive, / this falling back into the focus, the flaming common nest?”

The similes seem like isolated attempts, distinct from each other (though pointing to the same thing); then the poem picks up tempo, asks the question again, and swoops back into flight, a falling and soaring at once. Then comes a turning point, something like a sonnet’s volta, though this is no sonnet: “—Nem tudom,” “—I do not know,” and then a shift of focus to the “röpülés” itself, which was hiding here all along:

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.

(“and yet, if there is something that I know, / well, this is it: this burning corridor, / this labyrinth straight as an arrow, where / thicker and thicker, freer and freer / falls the fact that we are flying.”)

The word “tény” is the key to the whole poem: “the fact that we are flying” means that this is no metaphor, but reality—which, like the flying back, may be untouchable by language. Perhaps the ways we describe our lives, the things we take for reality, are in fact approximations and similes—that is, the “röpülés,” like the “visszarópülés” is something “amiről csak hasonlatok beszélnek.” So that when we start to recognize that we are in flight (towards death? towards the point of turning around?), when it becomes thicker and thicker, it also becomes freer; we no longer have to take it for anything else.

In my translation I especially wanted to draw attention to the relation between the flying back and the flying, the beginning and end of the poem. Here it is in full below; you can also read the translations of N. Ullrich Katalin, Géza Simon, Ted Hughes, and Virág Natália Szűcs. Each translation brings out something different. I think that of the three, mine is closest to Hughes’s, but I am also haunted by Simon’s (and by the way that each translation can “speak of” the original only in approximations).

What will it be like, that return flight
that only similes speak of?
Words like altar, sanctuary,
handshake, homecoming, embrace,
a spread table in the grass, under the trees,
where there is no first and no last guest,
what will it be like at last, what will it be like,
this wide-open-winged ascending dive,
this falling back into the focus, the flaming
common nest? I don’t know,
and yet, if there is something that I know,
well, this is it: this burning corridor,
this labyrinth straight as an arrow, where
thicker and thicker, freer and freer
falls the fact that we are flying.

When Pilinszky reads this poem aloud on a recording, the intensity comes to a breaking point with the very word “tény” near the end. It tells a lot about the poem.

This was the first Pilinszky poem that I fell in love with. The first one I ever read and memorized, on a student’s recommendation, was “Egy szenvedély margójára”; it was important to me at the time, but I didn’t go on to read more Pilinszky, partly because I was still more or less a beginner in Hungarian and read very slowly. But when I came upon “Egyenes labirintus” through Cz.K. Sebő’s 2014 rendition, I kept coming back to it, then to “Egy szép napon,” then to more and more. I started hearing Pilinszky allusions in Platon Karataev’s songs, and hints of Pilinszky’s influence in Csenger Kertai’s poems. I started reading Pilinszky collections cover to cover, memorizing more poems, reciting them when alone, and attending Pilinszky events. The idea for the event—now less than six weeks away—started taking shape. And all of this is still a beginning.

I made a few small edits to this piece after posting it.

Translations of Kertai’s “Lake Balaton” and “On Forsakenness” in Literary Imagination!

My translations of Csenger Kertai’s “Lake Balaton” and “On Forsakenness” (“Balaton” and “Az elhagyatottságról”) appear in the online version of Literary Imagination and will be published in the March 2022 print issue!

Literary Imagination is published by the ALSCW and Oxford University Press. According to OUP guidelines, I am allowed to share the links through my personal websites but not directly over social media. So please feel free to share this blog post, which contains links to the published translations.

This particular event has meaning for several reasons. First, Literary Imagination is journal that I have loved and admired for years. Second, “Lake Balaton” was the first of Kertai’s poems that I ever read and heard. Sebestyén Czakó-Kuraly (Cz.K. Sebő) had set it to music; upon hearing it, I ordered a copy of Kertai’s second poetry collection, Hogy nekem jó legyen, and soon afterward attended his reading at the Három Szerb Kávéház. Soon after that, the idea for the Pilinszky event arose, and soon after that, I began translating Kertai’s poems. Four have now been published (in Literary Imagination and Asymptote); another four will be published soon (in Literary Matters and Modern Poetry in Translation).

P.S. The links at the top of this post are to the PDF files of the published translations. The non-PDF links are here and here.

“Onto the Margin of a Passion” (translation of Pilinszky’s “Egy szenvedély margójára”)

It is likely that we will be discussing Pilinszky’s poem “Egy szenvedély margójára” at the Pilinszky event in March. I have been thinking about this poem day after day, with new understandings. It tells a brief story of a boy who walks along the beach and finds a favorite stone, one that has been his since the beginning of time and could never be anyone else’s. He grips it tightly, in a moment of solitude, and then hurls it far away. No sound comes out of the gesture, but an ocean murmurs (booms, roars) in reply. This is no isolated event (it “always” happens, thought the “always” can be taken in different ways), and yet it is the most isolated event in the world.

The poem does much more than tell a story. Something happens there in the pivot, the throwing of the stone. Through going back and forth over the poem, you can start to glean what it is. I had a new understanding in the middle of the night.

I don’t want to say too much about it right now, but in an interesting way, Platon Karataev’s new album, Partért kiáltó, gave me an insight into the poem, a way of hearing it that brings all the parts and details together. I had been thinking about how the Hungarian words “egy” (one) and “egész” (whole) have entirely distinct origins; they are not etymologically related at all. The poem is filled with words that have “egy” as their root: “egy” itself (three times, including in the title), “egyetlen” (unique), and “egyedül” (alone); “egész” occurs twice. As long as the boy possesses the stone, he is in a state of singleness, aloneness; as soon as he releases it, he becomes part of the universal. But as with so much of Pilinszky, these opposites are aspects of the same thing.

In November I brought this poem to my classes. One student became very quiet when reading it. Then he looked up. “Pilinszky must have suffered greatly,” he said.

This morning I translated the poem. Normally I would save this and submit it for publication, but in this case I want a few translations to be available for the Pilinszky event, and it can take a long time to hear back from a journal and then to be published after that. So here it is. You can find the original text, and a translation by N. Ullrich Katalin (quite different from mine), on the Magyarul Bábelben site.

Onto the Margin of a Passion

(Translation of “Egy szenvedély margójára” by János Pilinszky)

A child who likes to walk along the beach
always finds one among the many pebbles
that has been his for all eternity
and never could become anyone else’s.

He grips unlosability itself!
His whole heart is throbbing in his palm,
the stone’s so one-and-only in his hand,
and with it he has grown so alone.

Never again will he get rid of it.
He turns to the waves and hurls it past the bourn.
The mute breach does not give up a sound,
and yet a whole sea booms it in return.

Painting: Pebble Beach by Kathy Ferguson.

I made a few edits to the translation after posting it (most recently on March 13, 2022). This translation is not entirely literal; I take a few liberties for the sake of the larger sense, internal correspondences, and rhythm.

I also made a few minor edits to the post itself.

Translations Published in Asymptote, and More

This is one of those glistening days. First of all, a milestone and an honor: Asymptote is the first to publish my translations of Csenger Kertai’s poems. “Redemption” and “I,”, as well as the original poems and a recording, appear in the January 2022 issue, which came out today. I am thrilled, not only because these are the first published English translations of Kertai’s poems, not only because I started this translation project last July and have been enjoying every bit of it, but also because Asymptote is a journal I admire and avidly read. The January 2022 issue is full of enticing pieces, including an interview with George Szirtes!

(How can a milestone glisten? you may ask. Well, it can. Suppose it has been raining. Then the sun comes out. All sorts of stones glisten then, not only milestones. But milestones glisten symbolically too, in the mind.)

Csenger Kertai will be one of the featured guests at the March 20 Pilinszky event, which is not so far away now. I have enhanced and updated the website and spend much of my time thinking about the poems we will discuss. One of these is Pilinszky’s “Egy szenvedély margójára” (“Onto the Margin of a Passion”). I will write some thoughts about it here soon.

I am at a café in Budapest, catching up on things before heading to the Turbina to hear Pandóra Projekt. (I can’t stay for Damara; I have to head back to Szolnok before it gets too late.) Before heading over to Turbina, I am going to tune in to WFMU’s Continental Subway. (Update: David Dichelle, the DJ of Continental Subway, played Platon Karataev’s “Elmerül”!)

Tonight at midnight Platon Karataev’s third album, Partért kiáltó, is coming out! Along with the album, the band is releasing an illustrated lyrics book (pictured and linked here on the left). They will have their record release show on the 28th; I will be staying over in Budapest so that I don’t have to worry about catching a late-night train back to Szolnok afterwards.

This is just a fraction of the things happening in my life, which in turn is a tiny sliver of lives and deeds in the world. But as far as slivers go, this is pretty good.

I added a little to this piece after posting it. And an update: Partért kiáltó is out!

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

  • Always Different

  • Pilinszky Event (3/20/2022)



    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.


    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.


    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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