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.

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.

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!

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.

Csenger Kertai’s Reading: Before- and Afterthoughts

Beforethoughts

Tomorrow evening I am going to a reading by Csenger Kertai in Budapest, my first time hearing him read. I am very excited about this and have been rereading his second collection, Hogy nekem jó legyen (also the title of the last poem in the book). The poems are straight labyrinths in themselves; in that sense they sometimes evoke Pilinszky for me, just at moments. Their language is clear, charged, mysterious. They have to do with religious searching, introspection, fallibility, destruction, solitude, desire, love, barriers, eruptions of life. The first poem, “Aztán legyen béke bennem,” begins,

Nézd, szakadozik az ég,
és fehér hasú fények mutogatják maguk neked.
Valaki rendet rakott,
a virágok pedig nem akarják, hogy megköszönd,
ha tavasszal rózsaszín szirmokba pirulnak előtted.

An informal translation (taking a few minor liberties for rhythm and sense) might go like this:

Look, the sky is breaking up,
and white-bellied lights reveal themselves to you.
Someone has put things in order,
but the flowers do not want you to thank them
when in spring they blush into petals before your ey
es.

Translating this collection would be a fascinating project, and one I might propose at some point, if someone else hasn’t done it by that time. I have a big project to complete first, though.

I have been wondering, over the past month or so, how I would translate the title itself. It is not easy. It means, approximately, “So that it/things will be good for me,” but that’s a bit cumbersome in English. I thought of a few possibilities, such as “For My Well-Being,” or “For My Good,” or even “Pursuit of Happiness” or “Pursuing My Happiness,” but those don’t convey the grammatical suspension. In Hungarian, you sense that the phrase completes something else; it’s part of a sentence and does not usually stand alone. Its standing alone here means that you have to find the completion, in the poem and throughout the collection. “To Make Things Good for Me” or “To Set Things Right for Me” or something along those lines, might possibly work (though I am not satisfied with the word “things” here). Also, as I hear it, the emphasis in the Hungarian phrase is neutral; neither on “nekem” (“for me”) nor on “jó” (“good”). With a different word order, this would change: “Hogy jó legyen nekem” would emphasize the “nekem”; “Hogy nekem legyen jó,” the “jó.” So the translation, too, must be neutral in its emphasis. That allows the reader to consider different meanings and nuances, not just here in the phrase, but throughout the poem and collection.

But this is just the beginning; the poems are full of puzzles of these kinds, even without any thoughts of translation. Not only linguistic puzzles, but puzzles of form and spirit. I can stay with just one stanza for an hour, thinking about what it might mean and how it connects with the rest. The clear, condensed language calls for a kind of meditation.

A musical project emerged from this book; various musicians created, played, and recorded musical versions of poems from the collection. It was Cz.K. Sebő’s musical reworking of “Balaton” that introduced me to Kertai’s poetry. (In this recording, Kertai himself reads the poem aloud, and the music joins, interprets, and colors it.) The poem begins,

Megvan a lehetősége, hogy minden elromlik,
pedig a pazar panoráma eddig valami megnyugvásfélét nyújtott.
Ne bennem nyugodj meg – mondja a vitorlás egyedül a tó közepén –
nyugodj meg magadban, hogy bármi, bármikor elromolhat.

This reminds me a little of T.S. Eliot; I would translate it roughly like this:

It’s possible that everything falls apart,
yet until now, the lush panorama has offered some kind of reassurance.
Don’t take comfort in me – says the sailboat alone in the middle of the lake –
take comfort in the knowledge that anything, anytime, can fall apart.

The challenge here is that “njugodj meg” has so many different meanings, at least two of which play out in these lines. It can mean “calm down” or “quiet yourself,” but it can also mean “submit,” “resign yourself.” The translation would need to show both the repetition and the change of meaning. There’s a lot to think about here. The music brings out these underwater paradoxes.

Another favorite musical rendering from this project is daydreaming twins’ interpretation of “Én” (“I”):

I don’t want to quote or translate more here, since putting something on a blog constitutes publication, and it’s too early for that. Or too late! Just thinking about a few lines of these poems brought me close to 11:00 p.m., and tomorrow morning we have our closing ceremony at school.

Whether or not I ever translate these poems, or any of them, I love taking time with them and look forward to the reading tomorrow.

Afterthoughts

It was great. I got a little lost looking for the Három Szerb Kávéház, now one of my favorite cafés in Budapest, since I started out walking in the wrong direction from Kálvin tér. In the last few minutes before 7, I ended up sprinting the last block or two, and arrived all sweaty and ready for a beer. Fortunately the event hadn’t started yet. It was out on the terrace, where birds were singing in oversongs and undertrills, and a tree stretched far up above the building.

It was a combination of reading and discussion: the author Zoltán András Juhász interviewed Kertai about his work, life, and thoughts, and during the course of the discussion, Kertai read aloud five poems: “Ikarosz,” “Balaton,” “Hogy nekem jó legyen,” “A másik bármi lehet,” and (I think) “Nem lesz béke benned.” The discussion ranged from his name (which is rather unusual) and how it might have shaped his identity (it didn’t, he said), his place in the contemporary scene (he doesn’t really have one, he said; he doesn’t fit into any of the particular trends, nor is he part of a fixed literary community), the poets who are important to him (he brought up Attila József, Szilárd Borbély, and others), the challenges of dedicating yourself to writing poetry, the ways that poems can come into existence, the changes in his work since the first volume, and more. Throughout the interview, he was frank and thoughtful, unafraid to challenge people’s assumptions.

As for the poems, the first three I had read and reread at least several times, and hearing them brought new understandings. Also, I could appreciate the rhythms: free verse with hints of ancient metrics. “Balaton” has something of the feel of a Greek ode.

On the way to the event, on the train, I had been reading and pondering “A megváltásról” (“On Redemption”), which came together all except for a grammatical question, which I figured out this morning. I was puzzled because I thought “alkonyat” was the accusative of “alkony,” “twilight,” and if it was the accusative form, where was the verb? But then I woke up this morning realizing that “alkonyat” was a variant of “alkony,” and not its accusative form, which is “alkonyt.” The whole poem came together and has become one of my favorites.

Those may seem like elementary ponderings. But through them, I came farther into the poem than I would have if there had been no grammatical question at all. The knot became an opening. Poems can break and bend grammatical structures, but it’s essential to know when they are doing so and when they are not. This happens to me in English too: a grammatical structure in a poem doesn’t make immediate sense, and I have to look at it closely, and read it over and over, to figure out what is going on. Then, when it clicks, it resounds.

The atmosphere out on the terrace was friendly and enthusiastic; many people there were Kertai’s friends and acquaintances, but there were some strangers and newcomers, like me. Mr. Juhász welcomed people to stay afterward and talk with him, and buy a book. I had brought my copy with me, so I asked for an autograph, then headed out happily to catch the 8:50 train back to Szolnok.

On Listening to Poetry in Unfamiliar Languages

I have some upcoming posts about TED and what it could do to improve. My TEDx talk may appear on YouTube any day now, so I speak from an inside-like place. (TED refers to TEDx events as “TED-like,” so I suppose the inside of a TEDx event is “inside-like.”)

But right now I have something different on my mind: poetry in unfamiliar languages. Last night I went to the wonderful Uncle Vanya Cafe (quiet, cozy atmosphere, delicious food) to hear three poets: Tomas Venclova (whose poetry I have translated), Valzhyna Mort, and Vasyl Makhno. All three were superb in my ears. Mort and Makhno read some of their poems in Belarusian and Ukrainian, respectively; although I do not know those languages, I enjoyed listening as carefully as I could, picking up not only on familiar words (that is, words that had similar-sounding counterparts in Russian), but on cadences, repetitions, rhythms.

In some strange way it is possible, when listening to a poem in an unfamiliar language, to tell whether it is good. You can sense a mastery of orchestration. Something about the momentum and structure will come across strongly. For this reason and others, I love the exercise. Also, when you listen with that intensity, you remember the poem later.

Two of Mort’s poems stand out in my memory. One was titled “Psalm 18” (I think). She read it in Belarusian and English. There was a magnificent passage with curtains opening and closing, opening and closing. I can’t find it online, but I hope to track it down.

Another one, “Belarusian I” (which she read only in Belarusian, I think) had a progression that I immediately grasped. I didn’t understand the words at the very end, but I understood what led up to them. You can read the poem in Belarusian and English, listen to an audio recording, and watch a video here. (For the first four minutes of the video, she speaks about her work and background; then she reads the poem.)

In the video, she explains that she came to poetry through music. In childhood, she studied music with the intention of becoming a professional musician. When she started writing poetry, she thought of it as music too; she used words she didn’t understand, just for the sound of them. Something of this quality has stayed in her poetry; this partly explains why I could listen with such involvement. Her  poetry, reaching the listeners, returns in some way to its beginnings. At the same time, I need to take time with it to understand it better. Someone who understands nothing in a poem may still understand something (nonverbally); someone who understands something, a little more, and so on. Understanding a poem is a long and layered feat.

 

Note: I made some minor changes to this piece after posting it.

 

  • “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)

  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    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.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    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.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

    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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