Attila József’s “My Homeland” translated by Sándor Kerekes

You may recall that a few days ago I wrote that I couldn’t find an English translation of Attila József’s well-known poem “Hazám” (My homeland). My comment inspired our friend “Sándor” (Sándor Kerekes) to try his own hand at a translation.

So, at least for a day, let’s put aside the current political situation in Hungary and turn to a half Hungarian-half Romanian genius, Attila József (1905-1937). Just to give you an idea of his place in Hungarian literature, April 11, the date of his birth, has been the Day of Hungarian Poetry since 1968.

Here I will not recount the vicissitudes of his life, which was marked by poverty and mental illness. A short biography is available on the English-language Wikipedia. Instead, I will reminisce about my own introduction to his poetry.

Jozsef attila fenykepAttila József’s poetry was not widely read until the communist takeover, when the regime promoted him as a “proletarian poet.” It is true that he was a member of the illegal communist party for a short time, but soon enough he left the movement, disillusioned. Naturally, the literary historians of the Rákosi period mentioned neither his abandonment of the communist ideology nor his involvement with psychoanalysis, which was a forbidden discipline at the time.

The first time I encountered an Attila József poem was in grade seven, right after the nationalization of all parochial schools. I was assigned to recite his poem “Mama” at a school function. From that time on, Attila József’s poetry increasingly became an integral part of our intellectual lives, all through high school and university.

It must have been in the second year at the University of Budapest (ELTE) that the Department of Hungarian Literature organized an excursion of sorts to visit the many places in Budapest that could be connected to Attila József. The most memorable was the apartment house where he was born: Gát utca 3 in District IX. Of course, we received the usual spiel about the poverty of the proletariat before the communist takeover, but the problem was that people still lived in the same cramped apartments with a toilet at the end of the corridor. Nothing had changed at Gát utca 3 since Attila József’s childhood.

One final memory. During one of my visits to Hungary in the late 1960s I had an opportunity to visit the Attila József collection at the Petőfi Irodalmi Múzeum. An old college friend of mine, a literary historian, was an associate of the museum specifically working on the poet’s literary heritage. Thus she had access to all the precious manuscripts collected there. It was quite an experience to hold some of those papers and see the original corrections penned by the poet.

And here is Sándor Kerekes’s translation of “Hazám” followed by the original Hungarian.

 

MY HOMELAND

1
At night I was walking homebound,
I felt as velvety noises sway,
In ventilating, soft warmness
The jasmins applauded away,

great, sleepy jungle was my soul
and people slept on the streets. It hit me,
whence from my mind, and my tongue
originates and will feed me,

the community that is husband
to this drunken, seductive
mother nature, or in gloomy

work places cursing there,
or ruminate here in the deep lair
of the night: the national squalor.

2
A thousand endemics waging,
the frequent baby deaths,
orphanage and premature aging,
dementia, single birth, and stark

sin, suicide, the spirit’s inertia,
all doubtfully hopes to be redeemed,
will not be enough to prove:
it is high time to be liberated!

And in the company of
an adept community to
talk over hundreds of our troubles.

Under the spell of violence
so they rue those legislators,
as our beautiful race perish!

3
The landlord, for whom to the hernia
tree trunks and corn were lifted,
orders clearings opened with pickaxes,
destroying village and homestead.

And who protected his doomed home,
the caring, bold, striving man,
they mean to coral, like cattle,
To elect some wise parliamentarian.

Skittish are feathers on gendarmes’ hats
they smile and they guarantee,
to prescribe who the delegate be,

“openly,” decides, who, for a thousand years
was bound like a sheaf,
is either furtive, or follows orders.

4
Our lords were not slothful, nor dumb
to defend their lands against us
and staggered a million and a half
of our people to the US.

His heart sunk, his legs trembled,
on snarling waves he drifted away,
remembering and vomiting,
like drowning sin into wine one day.

One thought he was hearing cow bells
And his mate understood well
he is too dumb to send money home.

Our past is all jammed up together,
and as besett wayferers,
the new world will receive us.

5
The wage of the worker isn’t more
than what he fought for to score,
just enough for soup and bread
and for wine to make drunken roar.

The country doesn’t ask, wherefore
they let to gather hostilities
and why they don’t support for the workers’
interest the industries.

Weaver girl dreams of sweetmeats,
she knows nothing about cartels.
And on Saturday they slip in her hand

her pay and the penalty deducted:
chuckling the change: that’s all
you worked for, not nothing after all.

6
The rich is frightened by the poor
And the poor fears the rich.
Wile fear is governing us
and not fleeting hope’s pitch.

Wouldn’t grant rights to the peasant
He who eats the peasant’s bread
and the labourer dries yellow as straw,
but to raise demands  he dread.

Over the dale of a thousand years,
On his back the vagabond’s bag
walks away the people’s son.

He searches for an underling’s job,
Instead of strafing the grave
where his father is resting.

7
And yet, as Magyar, and as fugitive,
My soul cries startled on –
sweet Homeland, take me in your heart,
let me be your faithful son!

Let twaddle he the clumsy bear
on a chain – I must not go along!
I am a poet – tell your prosecutor
To leave my pen alone!

You gave peasants to oceans,
give humanity to humans.
Give Hungarianness to Hungarians,

So we won’t be the colony of Germans.
Let me write beauty and the good – to me
give my happier song!

May 1937

HAZÁM

1
Az éjjel hazafelé mentem,
éreztem, bársony nesz inog,
a szellõzködõ, lágy melegben
tapsikolnak a jázminok,

nagy, álmos dzsungel volt a lelkem
s háltak az uccán. Rám csapott,
amibõl eszméltem, nyelvem
származik s táplálkozni fog,

a közösség, amely e részeg
ölbecsaló anyatermészet
férfitársaként él, komor

munkahelyeken káromkodva,
vagy itt töpreng az éj nagy odva
mélyén: a nemzeti nyomor.

2
Ezernyi fajta népbetegség,
szapora csecsemõhalál,
árvaság, korai öregség,
elmebaj, egyke és sivár

bûn, öngyilkosság, lelki restség,
mely, hitetlen, csodára vár,
nem elegendõ, hogy kitessék:
föl kéne szabadulni már!

S a hozzáértõ dolgozó
nép gyülekezetében
hányni-vetni meg száz bajunk.

Az erõszak bûvöletében
mint bánja sor törvényhozó,
hogy mint pusztul el szép fajunk!

3
A földesúr, akinek sérvig
emeltek tönköt, gabonát,
csákányosokkal puszta tért nyit,
szétveret falut és tanyát.

S a gondra bátor, okos férfit,
ki védte menthetlen honát,
mint állatot terelni értik,
hogy válasszon bölcs honatyát.

Cicáznak a szép csendõrtollak,
mosolyognak és szavatolnak,
megírják, ki lesz a követ,

hisz „nyiltan” dönt, ki ezer éve
magával kötve mint a kéve,
sunyít vagy parancsot követ.

4
Sok urunk nem volt rest, se kába,
birtokát óvni ellenünk
s kitántorgott Amerikába
másfél millió emberünk.

Szíve szorult, rezgett a lába,
acsargó habon tovatûnt,
emlékezõen és okádva,
mint aki borba fojt be bûnt.

Volt, aki úgy vélte, kolomp szól
s társa, ki tudta, ily bolondtól
pénzt eztán se lát a család.

Multunk mind össze van torlódva
s mint szorongó kivándorlókra,
ránk is úgy vár az új világ.

5
A munkásnak nem több a bére,
mint amit maga kicsikart,
levesre telik és kenyérre
s fröccsre, hogy csináljon ricsajt.

Az ország nem kérdi, mivégre
engedik meggyûlni a bajt
s mért nem a munkás védelmére
gyámolítják a gyáripart.

Szövõlány cukros ételekrõl
álmodik, nem tud kartelekrõl.
S ha szombaton kezébe nyomják

a pénzt s a büntetést levonják:
kuncog a krajcár: ennyiért
dolgoztál, nem épp semmiért.

6
Retteg a szegénytõl a gazdag
s a gazdagtól fél a szegény.
Fortélyos félelem igazgat
minket s nem csalóka remény.

Nem adna jogot a parasztnak,
ki rág a paraszt kenyerén
s a summás sárgul, mint az asztag,
de követelni nem serény.

Ezer esztendõ távolából,
hátán kis batyuval, kilábol
a népségbõl a nép fia.

Hol lehet altiszt, azt kutatja,
holott a sírt, hol nyugszik atyja,
kellene megbotoznia.

7
S mégis, magyarnak számkivetve,
lelkem sikoltva megriad –
édes Hazám, fogadj szivedbe,
hadd legyek hûséges fiad!

Totyogjon, aki buksi medve
láncon – nekem ezt nem szabad!
Költõ vagyok – szólj ügyészedre,
ki ne tépje a tollamat!

Adtál földmívest a tengernek,
adj emberséget az embernek.
Adj magyarságot a magyarnak,

hogy mi ne legyünk német gyarmat.
Hadd írjak szépet, jót – nekem
add meg boldogabb énekem!

1937. május

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Guest

The first gifts I ever received from Hungarian friends were copies of “By the Danube”, a bilingual edition of Attila József’s selected poems. I have copied the translation and original of “Házam”. Thank you, Sándor Kerekes and Éva.

Member

Thank you, Sandor! Beautiful translation!

One of my favorite Hungarian language blogs is the “Vincent! Happy?” (Örülünk Vincent?). It’s a quote from the movie Pulp Fiction. These guys have a regular post called “Right Wing Poet’s Horribly Lame Poems”. Yes they are that bad. And they are prolific … Endless fun. If you speak Hungaran check it out.
Here is a sample:
http://orulunkvincent.blog.hu/2014/07/03/jobboldali_koltok_borzalmasan_gyonge_versei_cxlvi

Guest

Thank you Eva for sharing part of your life as well as the poem.

Csaba Kuthi
Guest

Dear Éva and all of you, My Friends!
First of all pls. receive my best wishes for this new year wealthily stuffed by good health and good humour. Many thanks for this poem and the translation, which gives a clear picture of our homeland’s social situation of our days,for all of those without speaking in Hungarian.Please read the following home page: http://www.arshumanica.org

Csaba

TeamBritanniaHu
Guest

Reblogged this on hungarywolf.

Karl Pfeifer
Guest

Thanks Sándor and Eva. I have participated in 1942 at a memorial event for J.A. at Vigadó Budapest. At the time I was not even 14 years old.

Marcel Dé (@MarcelD10)
Guest

Excellent initiative, thanks to you both.

For too many reasons to list, French readers are luckier when it comes to Attila József’s works however there is of course at least one published translation of Hazám into English, by Frederick Turner & Zsuzsanna Ozsváth (in The Iron-blue Vault: Selected Poems, Bloodaxe, 1999). A short excerpt:

The workers’ wage no further stretches
than one man’s soup and one man’s bread,
and wine-and-fizz, so the poor wretches
yell and sing out to wake the dead.

The country’s interest never reaches
to why they let these problems breed:
industry starved, the nation’s riches
wasted when workers are in need.

The weaver dreams of cake and icing,
knows not the great cartels’ devising.
She clutches, Saturdays, her money,

docked by a fine – ‘it’s almost funny,’
her shilling grins in silent mirth:
‘I show how much your work is worth.’

Kirsten
Guest

I am not very good in understanding poetry, so is my impression right that he explains in parts I to VI that the country is barely worth being lived in but closes in part VII stating that this is his “sweet homeland”? And out of curiousity, I would like to know what interpretation a line like “Given Hungarianness to Hungarians” could possibly have except for all what we already know about Hungarianness being a religion of exceptionalism.

Member

@ Kirsten What the poem is about how for centuries it was never the mass that made the decision about Hungary. All decisions are being made by others and even when they cab decide by themselves, how could they since their “free will” is manipulated by fear or lack the knowledge:
“openly,” decides, who, for a thousand years
was bound like a sheaf,
is either furtive, or follows orders.”

As the ruling class make decisions about how to protect their own interests there is no choice left to the poor but to leave their country, their homeland in order to survive.
“Our lords were not slothful, nor dumb
to defend their lands against us
and staggered a million and a half
of our people to the US.”

Still, wherever Hungarians end up, Hungary is their home, the homeland, and not everyone can leave. The poet prays to God for a better system, for humanity, and for Hungariannes (free from the Germans, and German influence).

Guest

Moving but difficult to understand – even more when you’re not Hungarian …

Re “So we won’t be the colony of Germans”:
Does he mean the Austrian emperors or is he writing about the influence of Hitler and Nazi Germany? Did he feel that in 1937 already?

Re “cartels”:
I always thought that Hungary was a feudal state between the World Wars where the village people depended on the land owners – those industrial workers surely were a minority, or am I wrong there? Is he writing only about the “proletariat” – we who have nothing, and nothing to lose …

Kirsten
Guest

Wolfi, the “heart of Habsburg Austria” was German; and Austria was not entirely satisfied with being left out from Bismarck’s project. This is how I understand “colony of Germany”.

To some1, thank you very much for the “translation”! What appears interesting to me is the importance of Hungarianness, if that is attained, the sweet homeland will indeed be “sweet”. But is that not as mythical and vague in effect as what we hear from our current proponents of Hungarianness? (I apologise for asking as I understand that poetry means a lot to many people and Hungarians in particular.)

Member

@Kirsten I would think that Hungariannes means the same thing as the patriotism for Americans. Being proud of being Hungarian, and act accordingly. I dnot hunk Attila Jozef refers here some form of nationalistic values, as he himself was not “pure” Hungarian (and either was Petofi). I think he refers to a concept of having common values, and some form of equality for the many layers of social structure legislators, landlords, lords, and commoners (he does not use the word commoners, but peasants, workers, poor, sick, and such).

Member

I really should stet to read my text before I post… “I do not think Attila Joszef ” (and probably more)

Member

I really should start…. (I think my autocorrect is playing with me, although I have no idea what stet means.)

buddy
Guest

lovely poem and great translation!

Marcel Dé (@MarcelD10)
Guest

There might be another meaning to the ‘German colony’. Wasn’t the poet’s greatest flame Márta Vágó married to a German? 🙂

Some background on the patriotic elements in his late poetry: http://books.openedition.org/ceup/2027#tocto1n2

Marcel Dé (@MarcelD10)
Guest

@Eva S. Balogh

Has there been much discussion about these two verses of A Dunánál?

At the time A.J. also probably thought, as he had been told, that his father was ‘in America’ – while the latter had founded another home in Timișoara (which the former only learnt in 1937). The role of psychoanalysis in his work may not have been a mere coincidence. 🙂

Paul Sohar
Guest

Paul Sohar
14 Sydenham Rd.
Warren, NJ 07059
sohar.paul@gmail.com

FROM MY HOMELAND
(Hazám) by Attila József

The rich live in fear of the poor,
and the poor in fear of the rich.
Cunning fear is ruling us,
not only hope’s fickle twitch.

Those munching on the peasant’s bread
would not give him his fair share,
the migrant worker dries like straw,
but he still demands what’s fair.

From a distance of a thousand years
the son of the people appears
with a bundle on his back,

looking for a doorman’s job.
Yet instead, he should take a rod
and give his father’s grave a whack.

ambator
Guest
Paul Sohar, that’s pretty good! I’d like to address the “Hungarianness” now. It refers to a complex, multilayered, historical injustice. Up to the poet’s time the “Nation” was represented by the nobility and the aristocracy and the poor without property were not considered even eligible to vote. They were simply excluded from the ranks of Hungarians. It also means that, clumsy as the term may sound, “Hungarianness,” the ancient valor and ethos was not recognized to be an attribute of the poor, it could be acquired through generations of breading and property. The demand for a share of that ethos here is almost a rebellion against the established ownership of that ethos. It also means, and is only a lead up to, the warning agains being a German colony, as the case has been for the previous 300 years. Or, as it is the time, a mere year just before the Anschluss, perhaps a warning, a prophetic protest against the approaching German encroachment. When Eva referred to this poet as a genius it was not just idol talk. The words and ideas of the poem are deceptively simple, a mark of the genius itself, but also, in many respects carry… Read more »
Kirsten
Guest

Ambator, to be brutally insensitive to all admirers of poetry and Attila Jozsef, no it cannot be sensed by the uninitiated. I read “historical injustice”, “Hungarianess”, “we do not want to be a colony”, and I just cannot sense any difference with respect to what I read at the peace marches. It was written in 1937, that I understand, but it apparently appeals to people today.

Kirsten
Guest

Eva, I would not at all wish to question Attila Jozsef’s moral integrity. The only point that strikes me is the similarity in vocabulary.

Marcel Dé (@MarcelD10)
Guest

Well, “historical injustice” is not part of the poem. The rest certainly is.

If I’m not mistaken Hazám was first published in May 1937 in an issue of the Szép Szó review titled Mi a magyar most? (‘What is Hungarian now?’). Another episode in a never-ending debate. I don’t think József used the words ‘gyarmat’ or ‘magyarság’ in any other poem, and he died six months later.

In any case, one is also entitled to prefer his first famous text:

With Pure Heart (trad. Gabor G. Gyukics and Michael Castro)

Got no father, no mother,
no god, no homeland,
no cradle, no shroud,
no kiss, no lover.

Last three days I haven’t eaten
neither a lot, nor a morsel,
my twenty years is power,
I am looking for a buyer.

If no one wants it,
the devil will take it,
with a pure heart I will plunder,
if need be I will murder.

I’ll be caught, I’ll be gallowed,
with blessed earth I’ll be covered,
& death spreading grass will grow,
on my oh, so beautiful heart.

Kirsten
Guest

I am not assigning blame :-), and a dead poet cannot influence how his work will be interpreted. But it can be read as a lamentation about what hardship and injustice has been inflicted on Hungarians, something that is being told to an interested foreigner on every possible occassion, perhaps not as beautifully. It ends with a vague notion of “Hungariannism”, which apparently carries meaning to the “initiated”. We spoke about the importance of past and future for the nation. In Hungary, the past is far too present and precise, while the present and future remains vague. I apologise to Attila Jozsef for reading his poem as if it was written now, as I said, the similarities in words – even if probably meant differently – appeared striking to me.

Member

@Kirsten: You must look at that line forma historical perspective. Jozsef did not try to play a nationalistic game. Not by today’s standards. It is just like the cockade in 1848 and the cockade of today. In 1848 Hungary fought for an independence and for more but that is not that same what the Jobbik uses this symbol for. THe right tries to expropriate all Hungarian symbols, so you must rise above that 21st Century interpretation.
Most Hungarian poets did look towards the West. Many poets, writers and artists lived in Paris. Their hart was open to other cultures and influence, not like today’s right.

latefor
Guest

Happy New Year, Eva!
Attila Jozsef is my favourite poet. I feel that his deep pain and disillusionment with everything around him is lost in the English translation.

d'magyar
Guest

to the attention of oogly, and to our other proud friends!

Has the Hungarian history been characterized by honesty or by lies?

May i suggest a path to liberation, let us be honest, because those many layers of lies have been killing or at least, destroying our nation.

cheshire cat
Guest
Kirsten, on this “Hungarianness”: Poems are usually understood and interpreted subjectively, often it’s the rhythm or the sounds of words that make them interesting for example, as I’m sure you know. Like pop songs. “Give Hungariannes to Hungarians” can be interpreted in many ways. Reading this poem, the way I automatically understand it is that we should have a sense of belonging to each other, think about our shared future. Not necessarily that we are all that exceptionally precious as Hungarians, and better than others nations. But you have a point. I would say there is sometimes a tendency for pathological compensation in Hungarians, for being a small, insignificant nation. We sense that we don’t matter, as Czechs, Finns etc also sense, and instead of accepting it and looking at what we can do in this situation, we rebel against it like a provoked pitbull, or like the troublemaker kid in the classroom, just to get noticed. Of course not everybody, not all the time, but it is definitely in the air, this feeling of “we should be entitled to a lot more” – growing up in Hungary, I definitely wasn’t taught to be humble about it. “German colony” –… Read more »
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