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.

“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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    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 February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish 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.

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    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.

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