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POETRY: Was there a particular guide or model for you while working on these translations? Also, “The French Prisoner” is very different from the other poems here—can you describe the range of Pilinszky's prosody?

CLIVE WILMER: The difficulty of translating Pilinszky is mostly to do with his extreme economy and plainness. With most poets there is a richness and complexity in the language which leaves room for paraphrase, but many of Pilinszky's lines can only be translated in one way. The last stanza of “Van Gogh's Prayer” is a good example. I introduced the word “though” in the second line to create a rhyme: it doesn't represent a word in the original. Otherwise my stanza is virtually a literal rendering.

Most of Pilinszky's work is written in simple traditional quatrains, rhyming in the even-numbered lines. The meter is what Hungarians call “syllabic.” This has nothing to do with English syllabics. It has to do with fixed clusters of syllables and is the foundation of traditional or popular Hungarian prosody. The nearest equivalents in English would be the ballad meters or the sort of accentual scansion you get in popular poetry. I've borrowed certain devices from such English poets as William Blake, whose songs are composed in popular forms and measures. I have done something a little different for “The French Prisoner.” This is basically in stanzas made up of two simple quatrains, but it is also syntactically more complex and the poem includes a more elaborate narrative. In this case I found it easier to write in a more orthodox English measure— a strict iambic pentameter line, which organizes the thought and narrative more effectively than the more elliptical ballad structures can. I should emphasize, though, that I don't think I've distorted the feeling of the Hungarian—or if I have, not by much. Of course, in all the translations I do, I am dependent on my cotranslator, the Hungarian poet George Gmri, who tells me if in his judgment I've got the feeling wrong.

Pilinszky is also concise to an exceptional degree. When I translated “Harbach 1944” for Poetry last year, I found that there was not enough room in my English lines to convey his full meaning, so that I had in effect to prune statements that had already been cut back to the bone. But more often with Hungarian poetry the opposite problem occurs: the poet appears to need many more syllables than English does to say the same thing. This was the case with the first stanza of “On the Wall of a KZ Lager.” The problem is quite simply that Hungarian words tend to have more syllables than English ones, so sometimes a passage that is very stark in sense takes up more space than seems necessary to the translator. Because the shape of stanza is repeated and because I judge that fact to be important, I have endeavored to elaborate the sense a little in order to fill out the stanza. This is tricky: one doesn't want to lose the starkness and simplicity. Quite often there is something distinctly strange or obscure in the prose meaning of Pilinszky's lines. This strangeness is the more powerful because of Pilinszky's formal conventionality. I have taken this as a kind of key to his poetry and used it as the model I was aiming at.

P: About the last four lines of the second stanza of “The French Prisoner”—is the poet actually saying that the food encountered delight and disgust, which is then compared to two people, one happy, one unhappy, making love?

CW: The delight and disgust bit is tricky but typical. Pilinszky means that at first the food was received with delight (because the mouth was so hungry) but the delight was followed by disgust because, after long abstinence, it made him vomit—just as sexual delight may be virtually simultaneous with a disgusted reaction, or possibly the reactions of the two lovers are contrasting. I think the analogy is very significant and ties the poem in with certain love poems that we haven't attempted to translate. The oddness is very characteristic.

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This poem originally appeared in the March 2008 issue of Poetry magazine

March 2008

Originally appeared in Poetry magazine.

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