Tamás Gergely The way we translated Rafi’s poetry into Swedish (1-7)

1 – The Szekler is talking about women

I´ve told you several times how we had translated Rafi’s poetry into Swedish. I was the translator of the meaning of the text, Ove Berglund was the real translator of he poem. We worked via E-mail: I emailed him the raw translation, indicating the page numbers in the book, Ove had the Hungarian book “A Marvel Thrown to the Ground”. If he did not understand something, he asked for clarification immediately. Sometimes I had to explain the versification,other times the meaning. It wasn’t easy at all.
In his poem “February in Güdüc “, Rafi writes:
“The Székely is talking about women.
My throat feels dry,
I feel the desire to have a sip with him “

(Translation by Janna Eliott: My throat feels dry; I want to take a dram with him.)
First of all, we had to clarify what the “Székely ” is. The Swedes know who the Hungarians are, but Ove has never heard of the Székelys (Szekler in English) – so I made a small presentation.Then I had to explain his identity as related to the Székelys (“in my throat”), a Roma, or as Lajos liked to call himself, a Gypsy who doesn’t belong to the Szeklers.Now, “to have a sip with him” in Hungarian does not really mean just drinking with somebody, but it refers to the desire to belonging together, so that he can speak about “women” in the same way (my) as the unnamed Szekler does.
Now, a translator understands all this, but it is really difficult to pass it on to the Swedish reader. That Berglund succeeds is in fact Rafi’s merit: by using „too“ twice in passages 2 and 3: “he feels his beauty, too” or ” It would be all nice for me, too” he re-affirms the message

2 – Gipsy Dowry

We know from various sources that Attila József’s poetry was essential to Lajos. When the two translators (Éva Gergely and Tamás Gergely) started to analyze Rafi’s poetry, only as readers, the influence of Attila József was obvious to them. So, it was relatively easy for them to cooperate with Ove Berglund, since Berglund’s first translation from Hungarian was also an Attila József volume, thus he knew what this was about, but the average Swedish reader had no idea…
In the first section of his poem Gipsy Dowry, Rafi takes a line directly from his great predecessor: “and washed out all the city’s filth” and writes: “she washed out the city’s filth”. The Hungarian reader does know that this was originally written by Attila József. The reader also accepts the missing word, because the essence is what’s important. Rafi Lajos’s line is about himself, but it incorporates the A. J. poem, and by bringing into the picture the mother of A. J., he identifies A.J.´s destiny with his own. But how to explain this to the Swedish reader?! One cannot add footnotes to every second line …
The result was that the line was quoted, but the explanation was skipped. Thus, he foreshadows that someone sometime had this life experience and put into verse already. Could this be the poet himself?

3 – Dwarf Pine

And sometimes the rough-translators were at their wits end … Because it was easy to recognize Attila József, or other Hungarian literary connotations, but what was the meaning of “Dwarf Spruce”? What is that? Especially in such a surrealistic connection like: “in the Dwarf Spruce is the Worry”, “Dwarf Spruce” with capital letters!
Well … it was time to send an email to György Bajna, Lajos´s mentor (and who became this translation’s mentor too), his very-very close acquaintance and friend. He was the connection between us, the linking thread, as I explained it earlier.
And he solved the mystery: The Dwarf Spruce was a little pub somewhere nearby. It was a place Lajos repeatedly visited, as a tinsmith. Oh, of course, we should have known that … We knew that Lajos often visited such joyful places, sometimes even used to write there, we also knew that he covered large areas while looking for work, of course, the Dwarf Spruce is that small pub, what an imaginative, cozy name,
“Uncle Gyuri”, thanks for your help! …

4 – Mute Desire

Translation from any language – including from Hungarian – to any other language has its challenges. For example, the Hungarian words for “love” and “affection” are expressed by the single Swedish word ”kärlek”.The first section of his poem “Autumn Amble” sounds like this:
“Mute desire penetrates my body”
Mute desire … In this speculative, short poem in Hungarian, we are not quite certain what kind of desire he is speaking about — at least in my interpretation —whether it is of a sensual nature, or it is about his desire to identify himself with the environment.
We exchanged some emails on this topic, and Ove finally solved the puzzle by concluding that the poem is written by a thirty-year-old adult man, therefore is it pretty clear that the most appropriate of the multiple translation possibilities of the word “desire” is the Swedish word “lust”
”Kroppen min
This was one of those poems that convinced Ove Berglund to begin translating Rafi´s volume, because Ove enjoys poetic challenges and plays. It´s a short poem, a sensitive one, and although without rhymes, the discovery of every single word’s meaning was a challenge.

5 – My Little Woman

Lajos proudly told us once about how, while analyzing his poems in great detail young students discovered the many ways the woman appears in his poems (as lover, as a mother, and so on). Well, this issue came up also when translating his poems into Swedish, mainly because of the proper use of words.
For example, when he used in his poem Prologue expressions such as: “my baby” and “my little woman”, the raw translator could only be sure, that no poet would describe these in such a pejorative way nowadays. The translator suspects that in Gyergyószárhegy, specifically in the Roma communities of Gyergyószárhegy people generally speak in this “old-fashioned” way.
Well, Owe Berglund translated these words as “lilla kvinna”, which literally means “my little woman” and “little wife”; but he also used the Swedish expression “min älskade”, “my sweetheart” in English, describing the many ways the Hungarian language can call the loved woman. This expression can be found in older but also in modern Swedish texts. This way, the Swedish translation became a successful a faithful translation of the original Hungarian version.

6 – As Babits or Attila József

After Rafi´s first volume, “A Marvel Thrown to the Ground ” was released, I tried to find the channels through which his poetry could reach more people, especially those who are receptive to his kind of poetry and his way of looking at things.
What was his way of looking at things? – one could ask. Who actually was our late friend, Rafi?
I promised Ove Berglund that he would have to translate the work of a Hungarian poet with Roma roots, emphasis on Hungarian. But one, who still provides insights into the Roma (Gypsy) society. Not by depicting a sociological image, but merely by showing who his people are, what their thoughts and their hurts are.
So, we started with the Roma Center in Stockholm. We showed up, the two rough-translators and Ove Berglund and met the person in charge, the director, a writer too, but mainly a singer. We explained to him what we were up to, and also that Ove would like to recite some of Rafi´s poems in the Roma Center. The answer was a polite “yes”. Ove was invited, he described the poet and recited some of his poems. But they never contacted him again, and apparently, they didn´t really considered Rafi as one of them. At least, that was my feeling. Then we contacted the Roma newspaper in Sweden; they also wrote about him, but only half-heartedly, their lack of enthusiasm was obvious.
After this, since we, the National Library of Sweden received requests from book fairs to present Roma authors, I sent them some of the sample copies I had received from Ove. Sometimes I got them back at the end of the event, and if not, I was happy that someone was interested and took the book home. But there was no feedback ever. And when it comes to the subject of the Roma – it seems that times are changing, this is not a hot topic right now.
The press has mentioned Rafi´s volume. Not the whole press and not in long reviews, but Rafi received at least as much attention as, let’s say Babits or Attila József. However, a small group was really interested in his poetry, but temporarily only. There was no hype about him and no sequel either, so the “attention” dampened as well.
At time of these events, or maybe somewhat later, a minority poet of Palestinian descent appeared in Sweden. Yahya Hassan wanted to approach the majority, without being able to identify himself with them. He also shows his own world from within, and it’s no accident that I refer to him when thinking of Rafi. Hassan had a meteoric career for a while, his poems were translated, there was a lot of discussion around him, public appearances, etc. Moreover, he was threatened with death by other Palestinians, which was actually great publicity. His publishers were well-known and financially well endowed. Nobody was surprised by his great success. But the spotlight is dimming, and I am convinced the reason is that right now most people don´t feel able to identify with the problems of the minorities.
So, then what? I wonder how can we expect from the translator, the publisher, who works on the periphery for fun, and who completely missed the opportunity to ”provide” the living poet with his poems, to make a star out of our Lajos Rafi. I think it´s a commendable thing what he achieved so far.

7 – Playful Rhymes

I promised Ove Berglund playful rhymes to lure him into translating Rafi´s first volume and indeed, the volume had both: rhymes and play. I avoided telling him about stanzas full of ballad-like density; this made me somewhat worried during the translation…
Éva Gergely and I (the two rough translators) had to point out to him the various folkloric influences and those of Attila József ‘s poems. We did this because it seemed to me that basically these had the dominant effect on Rafi´s poetry. In high school he read the classics with great enthusiasm. Several sources mention that literature, Hungarian literature was a great reading experience for him.
Rafi and the school librarian seemed to like each other. She could most likely tell us what books Rafi read, in addition to the very good ten- and eleven-grade textbooks. The point is, that Attila József had a big impact on him, mainly in the elegant shift between concrete and abstract within a stanza, within a verse (“My tears are soaking my black life. I’m leaving. Sadness is leaning on my mind.” Slow rambling). Endre Ady’s influence also shows: abstract words, concepts are emphasized and capitalized (“Perhaps the World will forgive my Sin“ Curriculum Vitae). The depths of the Gypsy reality are not far from the bitterness of the folk songs (“I wish there weren’t, I wish there weren’t: / I wish there weren’t autumn wind.” Gypsy Autumn). And what I´m not sure of, I can only suspect that the Gypsy folk poetry also could have helped him in expressing his emotions. But, as I said, that´s just my assumption, I don´t speak the Gypsy language and I’m nether a literary critic nor a literary historian.
Ove was happy to hear our comments. And the translation did not cause any problems, let me thank you Mr. Berglund for this. No wonder that this Swedish physician, who speaks no Hungarian but has an intimate familiarity with the Hungarian literature – he had translated by then poems by Attila József, Sándor Kányádi and Mihály Babits – had no problems with neither understanding nor transplanting Rafi’s work. That’s why the Swedish translation is so good. And his bonus: he had enjoyment of the playful rhymes… (“Black minutes keep gathering. / Black wrinkles keep gathering//… Black children keep gathering.” Gipsy State Of Affairs)

The way we translated Rafi’s poetry into Swedish © Tamás Gergely, Stockholm, 2017. (Mail to Gergely: gergely90@hotmail.com) Translated by Zsuzsanna Tódor, Proofreading by Gabriel Farkas, 2019

2020. december 12.

Szóljon hozzá!