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.

Translations from the Hungarian

E38E3D55-6906-43BD-8249-75BA8FAA06FB

I woke up too early, but with good reason: some of my first translations from the Hungarian have been published in Literary Matters, a superb online literary journal! You can now read Gyula Jenei’s “Standing Point” (“Ahol állnék”) and “Chess” (“Sakk”) in English translation, as well as Marianna Fekete’s essay “A Crack in Eternity? Béla Markó’s Grass Blade on the Rock.” The latter quotes 21 haiku poems, which I translated as haiku. I hope you enjoy them! There will be more.

A Perfect Imperfection

IMG_6779_blur
The Veszprém drama festival and the surrounding trip still fill the air; we will be thinking about them, talking about them, resting from them for a while. In the meantime, my thoughts amble back to translation.

Last fall, whenever I had a substantial break in the day, I would go to a quiet café, take out the book, notebook, and thick dictionary, and work on the first draft of a translation (of poems and prose). Over the following weeks, I would revise the translation and begin new ones. The poems are by one of my colleagues, the poet Gyula Jenei; the prose, an essay–about Béla Markó’s haiku, with 21 haiku poems quoted–by my colleague Marianna Fekete. I undertook this project because I admire their work and understand what is involved. In the past I translated many poems of Tomas Venclova; those poems appear in two books, Winter Dialogue and The Junction.

Now the Jenei/Fekete translations, or most of them, are on the brink of publication! My translations of Gyula’s poems “Ahol állnék” and “Sakk,” and of Marianna’s essay, will appear in the spring issue of Literary Matters (in June); three more translations (of “Temető,” “Teasütemény,” and “Zongora”) will appear in the fall issue. These will be my first published translations of Hungarian poetry and prose.

I intend to continue translating Gyula’s and Marianna’s work–and to take on a new project as well. Over the summer, I plan to translate Kata Bajnai’s play Farkasok, with hopes that it will be performed at the Veszprém festival next year.

To translate is to seek out a perfect imperfection. You can’t convey the work exactly, so you work with approximations–but these have to sing. You must immerse yourself in the original work: listen to it, read it over and over, and come to know its rhythms and tones. You must be bold and shy: bold enough to undertake the project, take risks with it, and see it through to the end; but shy enough to hesitate, correct yourself, and return again and again to the listening. In that sense, translating is like playing music. You live out the sounds.

“Az erdei dalos madárnak is van párja….”

e8efb2131afd2eacedf4cef1f4f1fa53--postage-stamps-journalingThroughout my life, I have listened to folk songs and music from around the world–Bulgarian, Russian, Polish, Brazilian, Cape Verdean, Bengali, French, Irish, Dutch, Israeli, Hungarian, and many other songs and traditions. Folk songs and music go right to the heart. In a sense they need no mediation. But their meaning can be especially opaque; it can take years to understand them.

So it is with a Hungarian song I encountered, “Zöld erdőben de magos” (“A green but magical forest”). It starts out with an aching loneliness and then moves into revelry, ending with some kind of wild romance with a young “Gypsy” girl (“cigány lány”). From a modern standpoint, the song has a troubling aspect, especially at the end. That’s often the case with folk songs; they express passions and prejudices that “civilized” society rejects (on the surface, anyway). Keeping this in mind, I love the song’s intensity and allusiveness. It hints at a story instead of telling one. It creates motion. It reminds me a little of the songs in Federico García Lorca‘s Blood Wedding (Bodas de sangre)–and of Carlos Saura’s film as well. But I will need a long time to get to know it; translation is no simple matter here, and even a good translation does not come close to revealing all the meaning. (I have found no English translation online, but it may well exist in a book or CD booklet.)

Here are the first two verses, with my rough translation. I started with Google Translate but found it utterly unsuited to this task, so I corrected it as well as I could. Then I received some additional notes from a friend. It seems that sejehaj has no translation; it’s an interjection comparable to “heigh-ho.” The translation below incorporates my friend’s translation into my own (with her permission).

Zöld erdőben de magos, zöld erdőben de magos a juharfa,
Kicsi madár, a fészkét, kicsi madár a fészkét odarakja,
Az erdei dalos madárnak is van párja,
Csak én magam egyedül, csak én magam egyedül vagyok árva.

Rózsa, rózsa, rózsafa, rózsa, rózsa, tearózsa levele,
Nem beszéltem, sejehaj, nem beszéltem a rózsámmal az este,
A zsebkendőm is nála van a zsebébe,
Visszahozza, sejehaj, visszahozza, ha akarja az este.

In the green woods, in the green woods, the maple trees are so tall,
Little birds build, the nest, little birds build their nest.
The forest song birds have their mates,
Only I alone, only I alone am an orphan.

Rose, rose, rosewood, rose, rose, leaf of rose,
I did not talk, sejehaj, I did not talk to my rose in the evening,
My pocket handkerchief is in her pocket,
She’ll bring it back, sejehaj, she’ll bring it back in the evening if she wishes.

I learned the melody and rhythm from a beautiful performance by Szalonna és Bandája (with the singer Eszter Pál).

I found another recording, entirely instrumental, of a different and lovely melody of the song:

I look forward to finding out how much more I understand of this song in one, two, five, ten years. First the words may come, then the musical forms, then the associations, then the song’s history, then all of these together in new ways. Or the sequence might be different or nonexistent. Understanding comes in stages, with detail and clarity, but it is not a procession.

 

 

Image credit: Hungarian postage stamp, courtesy of Pinterest. (I changed the image after posting the piece; the earlier one was of a nightingale’s nest.)

After I posted the piece, a friend sent me an accurate translation of the song; I incorporated some of her translation in mine (with permission). If anyone else (who knows Hungarian) wishes to comment on the translation, please do not hesitate! It is a work in progress, and these are just the first two verses.

Enter This Landscape

I recently came upon Cynthia Haven’s blog, The Book Haven—in particular, a post about the Lithuanian poet Tomas Venclova, with a quotation of my translation of his poem “Tu, Felix Austria” (one of my favorites of the translations and of his poems). I continue to read her blog with enjoyment and admiration.

It was in 1988 that I first encountered Tomas Venclova’s poetry. I was a senior at Yale; he was directing my independent project on Russian poetry translation. Knowing that he was a poet, I wanted to read his work (but didn’t want to tell him this). So one day I made a furtive trip into the library stacks. I opened up a volume of his poetry and read the lines,

Sustok, sustok. Suyra sakinys.
Stogų riba sutampa su aušra.
Byloja sniegas, pritaria ugnis.

What did these words mean? At the time, it didn’t matter. I was drawn into the sounds, or what I thought were the sounds. “Sustok, sustok. Suyra sakinys.”

(Later, I learned that they meant, roughly, “Stop, stop. The sentence disintegrates. The border of rooftops coincides with the dawn. The snow proclaims, the fire repeats.”)

Not long afterward, Tomas (or Professor Venclova, as I called him at the time) invited me to translate his poems—not a coincidence, but a great honor. Throughout the project (which resulted in a book, Winter Dialogue, most of which later reappeared in slightly edited form in The Junction), I immersed myself in the original poems, through listening to recordings of them and poring over the Lithuanian. I also had Russian literal translations and Venclova’s notes to guide me along.

The strength and weakness of my translations was that I tried to preserve the sound, rhythm, and form of the original—or, rather, to recast the poem in comparable sound, rhythm, and form. When it worked, it worked splendidly (for instance, in “Tu, Felix Austria,” “Pestel Street,” and “Autumn in Copenhagen”). When it didn’t, it came across as stilted. I don’t regret taking this approach. I do wish, in retrospect, that I had trained my ear to hear the translations in themselves. I always heard the originals behind the translations.

I bring this up because I have been repeatedly remembering the poem “Pašnekesys žiemą” (“Winter Dialogue”) and its opening lines:

Įženk į šį peizažą. Dar tamsu.
Anapus kopų gaudžia tuščias plentas.
Su jūromis kariauja kontinentas—
Nematomas, bet sklidinas balsų.
Praeivis arba angelas sniege
Paliko lengvą užpustytą brydę,
Ir kranto atspindys juosvam lange
Mums primena bevaisę Antarktidę.

In my translation (in The Junction), this reads:

Enter this landscape. Darkness still prevails.
Filled to the brim with voices, though unseen,
The continent takes up arms against the seas.
Across the dunes, the empty highway wails.
A passerby or an angel in the snow
Has left a subtle covered trail behind,
And, in the blackish pane, the seaside’s glow
Becomes the bleak Antarctic in our minds.

In the beginning, the landscape consists of sounds—the voices, the wailing. So, the invitation into the landscape is indeed an invitation into the poem’s sound, much like the invitation that I heard when I first read “Sustok, sustok. Suyra sakinys.”

I love remembering this poem and reciting it to myself. One of my favorite stanzas is the sixth (remember that this is a dialogue):

Po sunkiasvorio debesio tinklu
Tarytum žuvys blizga ankštos aikštės.
˶Ar tu atsimeni, ką sakė žvaigždės?”
˶Šis amžius išsiverčia be ženklų,
Tėra statistika.” ˶Mirties trauka
Sukausto žmogų, augalą ir daiktą,
Tačiau sudygsta grūdas ir auka,
Ir štai tada, manau, ne viskas baigta.”

And in English (the translation takes a few minor liberties):

Beneath the screen mesh of the weighty cloud,
The squares, like fish, are glittering and playing.
“Do you remember what the stars were saying?”
“This century is managing without
A sign; there’s just statistics.” “Gravity
Of death has fettered person, plant, and thing,
But sprouts burst forth from seed and sacrifice,
And then not all is over, or so I think.”

How many people have room to enter a landscape of this kind? Even I don’t have that room in the way I once did. I am cluttered with obligations and concerns. A pile of tests to correct lies in front of me. Emails await my response. But at least I know what it means to enter something like this, and I can do so, up to a point. I know there is more to this poem than I can grasp–a history that I have not lived, a consciousness I have not known, a language that is not mine. All the same, when I listen to it, some of the barriers fall away. I understand something of it, beyond the aspects that I can analyze.

What worries me as a teacher (and what sometimes overwhelms me) is that many students don’t know how to still themselves to enter poetry. (I don’t mean this poem in particular, which probably requires adult understanding.) Many children and adults have a persistent need to make noise—not only out loud, but in themselves. I am not referring to my students in particular. I hear from teachers around the country (and even from professors) that students do not know how to quiet down, in part because adults don’t know, either, or don’t practice it.

I am not recommending that schools start including meditation in the school day, though some schools do. The quiet should come through the very attention to the subject, be it a poem, a math problem, or a historical document. But “should” is one matter; “does” is another. Quieting down takes practice, and given all the buzz around us, it may need a kind of practice in itself, even a simple kind.

Nor am I suggesting suggesting that we have all lost our focus and quiet (or that any of us has lost all of it). Nor do I blame technology for the problem. Technology, after all, gives us audio recordings. I can listen to many more recordings in Russian, Lithuanian, and other languages today than I could a few decades ago. It’s possible to listen to “Pašnekesys žiemą” (and other poems) by downloading the MP3 version of Venclova’s album “Winter Dialogue: Chants from the Holy Land” (for those interested, “Pašnekesys žiemą” begins around 56 minutes and 25 seconds into the recording).

Nor would I say that humanity has ever been fully focused. We need a mixture of focus and distractibility in our lives, and the relationship between them is intricate. Problems arise when we tip too far toward the one or the other, when we forget how to navigate between the two.

What would help, then? Maybe more poetry in the curriculum—where students memorized, recited, discussed, and (sometimes) wrote sonnets, villanelles, and other kinds of verse. This isn’t a fix (what is?), but it would help young people start to listen to language and form.  They would develop a tolerance for poems that they didn’t understand immediately. They would learn to hold things in their minds. Also, memorization is a gesture of a kind. It’s a way of saying, “This is important, and therefore I will preserve it.” Students may not agree immediately (or ever) that a given poem is important. But they will gain something from the gesture.

  • “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

  • 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 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.

  • 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.

  • Recent Posts

  • ARCHIVES

  • Categories