Hungarian poetry has had a huge impact on my writing life. My first attempts at translation were at The Hungarian Translators’ House near Lake Balaton, when the British Council paired me with a young Hungarian poet, Anna T Szabo. We have been friends ever since, and during her years editing poetry for The Hungarian Quarterly she would often send me literals to work on – from Miklós Radnóti to Tamás Jónás – giving me an education in Hungarian literature. Aila József is one of my great poetic loves, as is János Pilinszky in Ted Hughes’ ferocious co-translations with János Csokits, ‘burning | In the glass cabinet of the present tense.’
Hungarian poetry had a huge impact on Hughes too – without Pilinszky there could never have been Crow. As co-founder of Modern Poetry in Translation, Hughes was continually planning a Hungarian issue – the second editorial promised that one was forthcoming featuring Weöres, Pilinszky, Juhász and Csokits, and issues seven and eleven both talk of it as in preparation. In the end it never quite happened (according to the Csokits obituary in The Guardian this was ‘due to infighting within the Hungarian emigre community’), although Hughes did dash off his remarkable version of the Juhász poem ‘The Boy Changed into a Stag Cries out at the Gate of Secrets’ when he and co-editor Daniel Weissbort were in Devon considering material for the issue.
This autumn is the 20th anniversary of Ted Hughes’ death, and we wanted to mark it in some way. We commissioned three poets – Polly Clark, Tara Bergin and Zaffar Kunial – to write something in response to Hughes’ translations. We have a translator of Ted Hughes into Hungarian, Júlia Lázár, part of Arvon’s Ted Hughes Translated project, talking about the specific challenges of reimagining his ‘nuclear syllables’ in another language. And we decided that fulfilling Weissbort and Hughes’ hopes for a Hungarian issue would be also be a fitting tribute.
There was an enormous response to this call for submissions. Many thanks to all those who spread the word and shared their ideas and contacts, particularly Eniko Leanyvari, Andrew Fentham, George Szirtes, Eszter Krakkó and Diána Vonnák. It is so interesting to see how certain images recur within Hungarian poetry – there were multiple cups of coffee in my inbox, but also, more tellingly, many mirrors and a lot of mist. Academic, artistic and press freedom are under pressure in Hungary. The country is currently in the news as state control increases over civil society, with the government recently announcing that it would close down gender studies courses in universities and impose an ‘anti-immigration tax’ on the income of organisations supporting migrants. Whilst not always explicitly political, many of these poems meditate on the ideas of home, roots, identity. What if that other you fear is, as Mónika Mesterházi suggests, ‘always you’? How can we live comfortably in our bodies, our minds, our histories, our countries?
As Brexit advances in the UK, these Hungarian poets offer up a kind of mirror. Like us, they are trying to find a way through what Ferenc L. Hyross calls this ‘extremely simple fog’.
– Clare Pollard