On Attempting the Translation of a Hungarian Poem

adyEndre Ady will be an important character in the next two novels I write. Many consider him the best Hungarian poet of the 20th century. The operative word here is Hungarian. Some of his poems have been translated from the Hungarian into English, but I want to try my hand at it.

It takes chutzpah to try to translate prose from another language, but trying to translate a poem comes closer to hubris.

I know this because for more than a year I have been studying Hungarian. I’ve discovered there are few exact matches from Hungarian to English. For some languages, say German and Dutch, there are probably lots of words that are very close. Even in English, there are lots of words that are similar to German words. Consider ‘apple’ and ‘apfel’ or ‘blue’ and ‘blau’, just to start with ‘a’ and ‘b’.

But Hungarian is related to few other languages. There have been claims that it is related to Finnish, but most Hungarians and Finns just shrug their shoulders and smile when they consider this possibility.

Aranyhíd, one of my favorite Hungarian words, literally means “golden bridge.” Aranyhíd is not in my dictionary and befuddles Google Translate. It means the reflection of the rising or setting sun when it looks like a bridge across the water. What a beautiful word! And just so the moon will not get jealous, the Hungarians invented the word ezüsthíd, which means silver bridge.

That one language has words that don’t map well onto words of another language isn’t surprising. After all, we learn most of our words from context. As children, which is when we pick up most of our words, we listen to how words are used and we form ideas about what they mean. A six year old does not consult a dictionary every time he hears a new word. I think each of us has a language of our own, where words have their acquired special shades of meaning not shared by others.

Similarly, within a family words or phrases can take on special coloring, formed from the experiences of the family members. These special meanings are not known outside that family. Groups, too, have special phrases that are not shared by others. Sometimes group-speak identifies you as a bona fide member, whether the group is the American Medical Association or MS-13.

And so it goes from gangs and groups, to states, to regions of the country, and to people who supposedly “speak the same language.” No wonder translation is an art unto itself.

But it is worse than just not having an easy translation. The words we use will influence the way we think. Words express the intellectual and emotional journey a person, a group, or a country has traveled. Words are the backbone on which culture is built. Which leads me to the uncomfortable question: without understanding a language can one really understand a culture?

I want to write about the Hungarian culture and politics of more than a hundred years ago. Can I really do that without understanding the language?

I started studying Hungarian because much of the research materials are only in Hungarian. It is only now that I realize that this study is giving me more than just the basic facts I get from hundred-year-old Hungarian newspaper articles. It gives me a flavor for the culture. Of course I don’t think I will be able to get the full depth of that culture, but I will do my best.

And that is why I want to translate an Ady poem. I will study each word and nurse the meaning out of it as best I can. Then I will take the feelings I get from these words and attempt to make a poem out of it. But that will not be a translation of Ady’s poem. It will be a poem inspired by Ady. And hopefully it will help me better understand the time and place of my next Hungarian novels.

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