“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, and here’s my attempt at singing them (I am a beginner in Hungarian, but singing helps me learn). For the 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.