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Wound through many of the poems is also a strand of religiosity, or at least a motif of why-hast-thou-forsaken-me. This might run the danger of fetishizing ethnic victimhood, were it not for a parallel scepticism about the likelihood of divine partisanship. One collection is called “Behind God’s Back”, a kind of architrave that seems to stand over much of the work and calls to mind the Nick Cave line “I don’t believe in an interventionist God,” turning these religiously tinged poems into pieces which, if prayers, are very off-beat ones. Besides, there is a dose of interest in technology and scientific theory, plus surrealism and classical mythology, and the ability to reference the worst of 20th century European history with a wit that can carry both melancholy and affirmation of life in one breath, summed up perhaps in the line “It is the ultimate delight / to live and not to fear.”

Excursus. The great order of poetry reviews contains the family of reviews of translated poetry, which in turn includes the genus of reviews in which the reviewer begins by fessing up to not knowing the language of the original poems. In this genus, one widespread species is that of reviews of Hungarian poetry in English. Here, there’s no tissue of guessable cognates or visible grafts from Latin which might allow an Anglophone reviewer to feign a linguistic competence in grading semantic and stylistic accuracy. But if you feel like throwing the opening line of John Hartley William’s poem “Hungarian” at the reviewer (“Learn it I must”), allow me to counter with the English Defence. Knowledge of the original can lead a reviewer to concentrate on what is not in the translation, rather than what is. Too many reviews of translated poetry show a niggling pedantry that positions intuitive attempts by the translator to achieve an aesthetically satisfying poetic object as laziness or misunderstanding. Such reviews derive from a deficit model in which the translation “inevitably” fails to attain the original’s qualities. But with poetry from beyond the solar system of Indo-European languages, there is little hope of the translation sending its readers to, for example, their Hungarian dictionaries; in the case of languages written in non-Latin-based scripts, such as Arabic, there is not even the chance of reconstructing, if ever so superficially, sound texture, rhythm and rhyme from originals on a facing page. In these cases, the translation is, and will remain for most of us, all we have to go on, and the reader will be more than usually reliant on the translator to create an authentic aesthetic experience.

Two fairly extensive volumes of translations of Kányádi have now appeared within a couple of years of one another, both of which function as Selected Poems in English. I have no idea whether the respective translators have read each other’s work or regard each other as rivals, but if you were to put the two volumes in a room together, some squabbling might ensue. In one genuinely chilling narrative poem describing Ceausescu-era surveillance, Zollmann’s translation has an armoured car parked outside the speaker’s window, in Sohar’s it’s a jeep. More significantly, in one of Kányádi’s several meta-poems Sohar has this: “words should be stripped / naked just like / those deported.” Zollmann’s version is “words ought to be stripped / naked like the inmates in / concentration camps.” To look at these lines coldly and technically, Sohar wins out here - his collocation of “naked” and “deported” is enough to make the Holocaust connection. It also leaves an openness where Zollmann narrows down the frame of reference. But it’s at this point that bystanders might get involved. The specificity of Zollmann’s version, referring to the concentration camps by name, implicitly affirms Shoah singularity. Sohar’s take, however, is more ambivalent, foregrounding the systematic murderousness of the Nazis to be sure, but allowing in associations with the population movements, enforced or otherwise, that took place in Europe both in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War and on a smaller scale right up to and beyond the end of the Cold War. And on a more general if superficial level, the two volumes, drawing on Kányádi’s entire publishing career, do not even agree about which poem belongs in which collection. Even though both books are subdivided according to collections, poems adjacent in one volume will be separated by a hundred pages in the other.

Beyond these differences of opinion, however, the two translations are recognizably portraits of the same subject. Both translators achieve fluid renditions, mostly avoiding awkward vocabulary and weakened rhythm, and managing to imply great technical accomplishment in the original. Zollmann has rhyme higher in his priorities, opting more often for a complete rhyme scheme, e.g. ABAB, with its concomitant siren calls of forced rhyme and stilted syntax, instead of the classic translator’s compromise XBYB, which Sohar tends to favour. Where Zollmann keeps to couplets, Sohar is happy to vary the rhyme scheme; Sohar invokes a (clearly audible) ghost of a metre, where Zollmann goes for a straight-forward metrical reincarnation (if anything other than straight-forward in terms of technique).

A case in point for some of these issues is the poem that Zollmann leads with, but which Sohar delays until three-quarters of the way into his selection. Zollmann translates:

there is a land with beauty graced
landscapes where the bitter taste
that fouls my mouth is purified

(from “There is a land, Prologue”)

Did I imply complete rigidity in Zollmann’s form? Well, he chops a foot at the start of the second line, but check the formalism of the iambic quadrameter and the inversion of “beauty” and “graced”. The choice of “fouls” seems almost Shakespearian, and gives a great assonance with mouth. Compare Sohar:

There are regions beauty-laced
lands whose poison’s bitter taste
and sweetness on my tongue collide

(from “There are regions, prologue”)

With “beauty-laced” in his first line, Sohar too resorts to a less than frequent grammatical structure (noun post-modified by a noun-adjective combination, itself involving an inversion), but the phrase seems less tainted with older poetics than Zollmann’s “with beauty graced”. Maybe Sohar gets away with it because of “region”, a term knocking around not only European Union bureaucratese but also contemporary academic discourses from genetics to civilization theory. I like that “collide”, a word which feels modern in its associations of car and plane crashes, but “poison” and “lands” seem to me to have been hauled from the well of past poetic registers. Zollmann’s “landscapes” is preferable here to “lands”, and his “purified” associates in my mind at least as much with the very modern process of water purification as with anything metaphysical. But there’s good to be had from the rest of this poem in both translations. Sohar delights in auditory vocabulary like “bounding-babbling” and “twang”. Zollmann comes up with “afterling” for what Sohar terms “ancient kin”, Zollmann’s neo-archaism trumping Sohar’s conventional archaism in terms of surprise value. The poem inaugurates a sequence (different in the two editions) of poems all beginning “There are regions” (Sohar) or “there is a land” (Zollmann), but varying widely in subsequent form and subject matter.

The strengths and weaknesses of the translations are spread around elsewhere too. In “Woodcut”, Zollmann coins a great nonce verb in the line “how indianized our eyes have grown”. Sohar’s “After-Midnight Language” (in Zollmann it’s a dialect) again shows a joyful sense of hearing in “grunts and yowls” and “to bust a breach”. Zollmann’s “Armenian gravestones” has

the crosses have decayed without a trace
for jewish ashes try another place

where the rhyme seems so trite as to undercut the tragedy of the actual circumstances alluded to, but when Zollmann’s rhymes get up to full strength they are reminiscent, in combination with his metre, of the power of Eliot’s “Preludes”, employing rhyme within a clearly modern world. Other reviewers have compared the long poem “All Souls’ Day in Vienna” (Sohar - Zollmann has “Saints” for “Souls”), centred around the funeral of Mozart, with “The Wasteland” in terms of its tone, scope and range of reference. The comparison is possible too in the way that Kányádi moves out from Transylvania not just geographically but also linguistically, including bits of German and French as well as Romanian. A poem in which both translators really get to shine is “Vertical Horses”. Sohar has great sound effects: “When a horse crumples to its rump / he lets his forelegs hang limp…” But Zollmann is fine too with a version that has something Latinate in its gravity and diction, yet remaining fluid. And what occasionally feels in Zollmann like awkward wording can actually be highly appropriate. In “Right Of Assembly With Parentheses”, it’s Zollmann’s more formalized language that is best at mocking and undercutting the pompousness of Ceausescu-era edicts ostensibly guaranteeing minority rights.

What we often get in these translations, then, is Zollmann’s Dialect to Sohar’s Language, Peter’s solidity to Paul’s enthusiasm. But what comes through in both is a poet alive to the colloquial yet in control of form, playful in despair, aware of both the local and the wider world.

Taha Muhammad Ali lives in Nazareth. His collection in English also begins with and is similarly infused with history, but - typically - is modulated through a specific individual:

In his life
he neither wrote nor read.
In his life he
didn’t cut down a single tree,
didn’t slit a single throat
of a single calf.
In his life he did not speak
of the New York Times
behind its back,
didn’t raise
his voice to a soul…

(from “Abd El-Hadi Fights a Superpower”)

Note the blending of the biographical (“he neither wrote nor read”), environmental (“…he / didn’t cut down a single tree”), suprareligious (the sacrificial calf), and political, reaching out across the Atlantic to reference the US-Palestinian relationship, as embodied in the Newspaper of Record. Formally, the unobtrusive repetition and subtle variation of lines in the translation bind these references into a whole. Check the way the “in his life” riff reappears two lines after its introduction, and then four lines later again, or the immediate doubling of the “didn’t” and its longer wait to be repeated, and then in a truncated line (“didn’t raise”). Paradoxically, the negatives denote not absence but the presence of a human life. But the specificity of the title avoids the portentousness of the third person unknown, rife in mid- to late 20th century UK poetry, for which, as an aside, Auden may be partially responsible (10 per cent of the poems in his Faber Selected beginning with the word “he”.)

The translators here seem to be collaborators rather than potential competitors, no translation credits being given for individual poems. In a gently loping and yet intense free verse, they give us English versions of Ali’s poems that on one level work as a poetry of local memory. “The Kid Goats of Jamil” has:

Jamil, my father’s cousin,
our neighbour in Saffuriya,
owned a wide-eyed,
blonde Damascene she-goat…

The poems come over in translation as sustained pieces, their stanzas following the musical phrase in length, firmly balanced between specificity and generality, and spoken in a measured yet colloquial speech. But the poetry is a lot more than recollections of village animals:

I confess!
I’ve been neglecting
my post-operative physiotherapy
following the extraction of memory.
I’ve even forgotten
the simplest way of collapsing
in exhaustion on the tile floor.

(“Post-Operative Complications Following the Extraction of Memory”)

“Physiotherapy”, “post-operative”, elsewhere “thrombosis” and “aircraft carrier” - it’s highly contemporary words like these which counterpoint the rural setting of Ali’s poems to form a body of work that is grounded in immediate, visceral experience as well as in memories and reading which have fully permeated the poet’s consciousness. This is the antithesis of those quick-fixes of imagery picked up on the run from contemporary culture, counterfeiting current relevance, that form the kind of anecdotal poetry which makes you want to engage with it as often as you would with an anecdote, namely once.

Notwithstanding references to the New York Times, Ali, unlike Kányádi, doesn’t really make it even to the nearest great conglomeration of historical association, namely Jerusalem, centring his poems instead around the memory of his childhood village. This localist/cosmopolitan contrast is perhaps also evident in the dominant modes of the poetry: for Ali yearning, for Kányádi irony. But Kányádi’s irony is more casual than caustic, Ali’s yearning more wistful than accusatory, and is mixed with a sense of the absurd: Abd El-Hadi, in Fighting a Superpower (see above), is envisaged encountering “the entire crew / of the aircraft carrier Enterprise,” but “he’d serve them eggs / sunny side up / and labneh / fresh from the bag.” The effect in both poets is thus of simultaneous depth and levity.

Both poets are clearly speaking as members of specific communities threatened in their cohesion, in Kányádi’s case by the assimilation policies of the Ceausescu regime towards Hungarian speakers, in Ali’s the aftermath of the forced clearing and subsequent destruction of his village by the Israeli Defence Force in 1948. From a post-Cold War perspective, such conflicts, combining political, economic and cultural elements, now look at least as representative of the history of the latter half of the 20th century as the necessary but more narrowly political struggles in which the Solzhenitsyns and Havels were involved. As with Seamus Heaney, part of the effect of the work comes from the very real and upfront sense of the conflict on which the poetry draws. Yet as with Heaney, both poets exhibit that lightness which, paradoxically, creates an emotional weight (and wider resonance) which exceeds that of more ostensibly political poetry such Tony Harrison’s: and for all the necessity of creating poetry from working class experience and of dramatizing class conflict, Harrison’s readers have been many but his emulators few.

An old Cold War joke runs: what’s the difference between Capitalism and Communism? In Capitalism you can say anything and it means nothing; in Communism you can’t say anything, but it means everything. It’s worth reminding oneself of the historical and cultural contingency, nay Eurocentrism of statements such as that of Simon Armitage’s comparing poetry to shouting down the toilet. Even writers living in the hegemonic and relatively non-threatened societies of America and Europe must be aware of sources of power and control close at hand which remain democratically unlegitimated (multi-property landlords and shareholding management spring to mind). This is not to fetishize poets writing out of cultural-linguistic oppression, such as Sándor Kányádi, still less those supposedly from the other side of a falsely concretized clash of civilizations, such as Taha Muhammad Ali, in order to assign them the role played by Eastern European dissident poets in the West during the Cold War. But if the public persona of poetry in the UK is ever going to be more than the feelygood alternative to advertising of Poems on the Underground, these two poets represent, I think, two possible starting points for how to talk accessibly and yet not undemandingly about the world. Perhaps even about the globalized, terrorized world.

Copyright © Alistair Noon, 2006

Alistair Noon

After-Midnight Dialects: Sándor Kányádi and Taha Muhammad Ali in English

There Is A Land. Selected Poems, Sándor Kányádi
translated by Peter Zollmann
[104pp, $5.95, Corvina Books}
Dancing Embers, Sándor Kányádi
translated by Paul Sohar
[180pp, Ł14.00, Twisted Spoon Press}
Never Mind. Twenty Poems and a Story, Taha Muhammad Ali
translated by Peter Cole, Yahya Hijazi, Gabriel Levin

[112pp, $11.95, Ibis Editions]

Sándor Kányádi is a Hungarian poet from Transylvania, a region subject historically to a tug-of-love between Hungary and Romania, with the latter awarded custody most recently by the Treaty of Versailles. The situation of the 2 million-strong Hungarian minority and their oppression by the Ceausescu regime is one element threading its way through much of Kányádi’s work. The sense of place is more endangered than the locales typically referenced in UK/US poetry, coloured as the poetic environment is by surveillance, compromise and collaboration. The cultural repression and homogenization attempted by the Conducator is parodied, satirized, ironized.