21 March is World Poetry Day and I wanted to do something special to celebrate it. I wanted to share my favourite poem with you but then I realised I don’t have one! I like many different poems for different reasons: there are happy poems, depressing poems, poems that make me think or just evoke a memory. It’s impossible to choose one!
In the end, with great difficulty I managed to pick one poem, Lédával a bálban by Endre Ady. I could not find an English translation though, so I ended up doing my own version. So here it is, both in Hungarian and English!
Do you like poetry? Do you have a favourite poem? Or a bunch of favourite poems? Don’t keep it to yourself, comment below or drop me a line via my Contact Page.
About 2000 years ago in Ancient Rome, on a lovely mid-March day when birdies were happily singing and the sun shone brightly high up in the sky, a bunch of conspirators mercilessly stabbed Julius Caesar in the back (quite literally). He was shocked to find his beloved friend amongst his murderers. “Even you, Brutus”, he whispered as life slowly left him. After he weakly uttered his last words on that spring day, all hell broke loose and a bloody civil war started.
But this is not the Ides of March event I want to talk about today.
We truly swear!
Picture another mid-March day, this time in 1848 in Budapest,
Hungary. Another lovely day when birdies are happily singing and the sun shines
brightly up in the sky. A young, thin little man – a poet – is running towards the
popular Café Pilvax to meet with a few of his friends. This is no ordinary,
friendly catch-up, though. Inspired by the unrest in other countries, they are
preparing a revolution against Hungary’s rulers, the Hapsburgs!
Now, this scrawny little man (Sándor Petőfi his name is) stands up in the middle of that busy café and starts reciting his latest poem, National Song:
Rise, Magyar! is the
The time has come, say one and all:
Shall we be slaves, shall we be free?
This is the question, now agree!
For by the Magyar’s God above
We truly swear,
We truly swear the tyrant’s yoke
No more to bear!
After this, Petőfi and his friends are unstoppable: they go to the nearby law school and read the poem and a 12-point list of their demands to a crowd of excited law students. “What the Hungarian nation wants,” it echoes in front of the university, then they recite their demands: freedom of press, the abolition of censorship, independent Hungarian government, civil and religious equality, universal and equal taxation…
The crowd cheers and grows bigger and bigger as they move on,
taking over a printer to get their demands on paper. Then they go to the
National Museum reciting Petőfi’s poem and the 12 points. Next is the City
Hall. They are ecstatic, cheering on, hoping that they will be able to get
their points across to the “tyrants” of the country.
But shortly after the events of this exciting day, all hell
breaks loose and a bloody war of independence starts.
The Hungarian spirit
Today the 15th of March – the Ides of March – is commemorated all around Hungary, and even amongst expat Hungarian communities in other countries. That day in 1848 is the symbol of the high-soaring Hungarian spirit: bravery, unity and the eagerness to change. We honour these young, courageous people who dared to stand up to their oppressors and voiced their demands, trying to work towards a proud and free Hungary.
A bit of extra info
On 15th March, we Hungarians wear a little piece of tricoloured cloth on our chest, above our heart: a cockade with our national colours, red, white and green. This little thing was and is the emblem of the revolution of 1848. The very first piece was made by Petőfi’s wife, Júlia Szendrey. Although history solely remembers her as the muse of the “Nation’s Poet”, she was great with words herself and was and excellent translator who brought the tales of Andersen to Hungarian readers for the first time.
Paul Auster once wrote that “translators are the shadow heroes of literature”.
Well…, unfortunately he was quite right. All right, in recent years translators have got their small share of the spotlight thanks to Deborah Smith, her Han Kang translation and the Man Booker Prize. However, most readers couldn’t care less about all those hardworking translators who bring foreign literature to them in their own mother tongue. Translators most often remain forgotten and abandoned. They are usually mentioned in a minuscule font on the imprint page – or not even that. All their dedication, late nights and tireless efforts usually go unnoticed and unappreciated.
Or, even if they work tirelessly creating a version of your favourite author’s latest book, so that you can read it in your own language, they are not recorded for posperity as translators but something else: Calvinist pastors, teachers, poets or politicians. I’m not saying it is a bad thing to be known as a great poet but still. These distinguished people deserve some acknowledgement as translators, as well.
This is why I collected a few of Hungary’s famous people who you might know from your religious studies, from history books, from the news or as muses of influential poets… but not necessarily as talented translators.
Click on the images below to enlarge them.
Do you feel I missed a famous person who deserves to be mentioned amongst these great translators? Would you like to nominate someone for this list? Let me know in the comments below or drop me a line via my contact form!