National Day of Hungarian Culture – 22 January

Why today?

Today is the National Day of Hungarian Culture and if you are in Hungary you will find that there are countless cultural events going on this day, such as literary evenings, concerts, award ceremonies, art exhibitions… If you set foot in any school in the country, you will see school children performing, singing, reciting poems, and talking a lot about a Hungarian poet named Ferenc Kölcsey.


It’s not a coincidence that he is mentioned so much today: the National Day of Hungarian Culture is held on the anniversary of him finalising his most famous poem titled “Hymn”, a prayer to God, asking for protection for this tiny nation in the middle of Europe. He reminisces about the past starting with the settlement of the Hungarian tribes in the Carpathian Basin, then lists all the hardships of Hungarians throughout the centuries as God punished them for their sins. He asks God to bless the nation and offer a helping hand.


Some 20 years later another Ferenc, Ferenc Erkel won a competition with his musical arrangement for the poem, which soon gained popularity and people started to sing it at public events. Although there were some initiatives to make the poem and its musical version the national anthem of Hungary, as a reminder of the nation’s stormy past, it wasn’t until 1989 that it gained official recognition in the Constitution of Hungary.


It was also the year when the National Day of Hungarian Culture was celebrated on 22 January, to commemorate Ferenc Kölcsey and his poem.

The poem

Here is the first verse of the poem with a (more or less) modernised spelling, and its English translation by William N. Loew (1881):

Isten, áldd meg a magyart
Jó kedvvel, bőséggel,
Nyújts feléje védő kart,
Ha küzd ellenséggel;
Bal sors akit régen tép,
Hozz rá víg esztendőt,
Megbünhödte már e nép
A multat s jövendőt!

O, my God, the Magyar bless
With Thy plenty and good cheer!
With Thine aid his just cause press,
Where his foes to fight appear.
Fate, who for so long did’st frown,
Bring him happy times and ways;
Atoning sorrow hath weighed down
Sins of past and future days
.

The music

Listen to Erkel’s musical arrangement performed by Hungarian National Philharmonic Orchestra and Choir.

Translation and music

translation and music

Earlier this week I attended a super interesting public event that was part of a conference entitled “Women, Language(s) and Translation in the Italian Tradition”, organised by the University of Cambridge.

Translation and music

Although it doesn’t take much to lure me away from my desk for any translation-related event, I was particularly excited about attending this one. It was a talk followed by a concert! And not just any talk for that matter. Professor Jane Tylus (Yale University) talked about her recent research connecting music and translation, more specifically translation and musical accompaniment.

As in my formative years I was very much involved in music and had the chance to act as a piano accompanist to violinists and singers, and well… now I do translate for a living, I was curious to hear what Professor Tylus had to say about this topic.

The talk

She started her talk with a lovely excerpt by Lucrezia Tornabuoni, 15th century writer and political adviser, who translated the life of Tobias into Italian. Tornabuoni starts her work with a prayer asking God to send her something like the angel of translation to accompany her on her translation journey, just like Raphael provided companionship to Tobias on their expedition.

Funnily enough, the Italian word for translator, traduttore, originally meant “to lead over” or “to carry over”. Much like a companion on a long journey, right? From here, it takes just a small step to arrive at the notion of the translator as an accompanist or, if you like, the accompanist as a translator.

Both translators and accompanists are often regarded as secondary or subordinate to the author or the soloist. They are kind of lurking in the background, leaving all the glory to the “more important” person. Sometimes they even worry about overtaking the author/soloist. (Just think of the title of accompanist Gerald Moore’s memoire: Am I too loud?)

Professor Tylus is at the very beginning of her research into this, but I am really  excited to see what conclusions she will draw once it’s complete.

The concert

The concert afterwards perfectly complemented her talk. It started with an excellent Bach solo piece, originally a Partita for violin in D minor, which the performer herself, Joy Lisney arranged for cello. (Ha! Finding similarities between translation and musical arrangements could also be a great topic!) After the Bach, we went on to a beautiful Chopin Cello Sonata performed by Joy Lisney and Naomi Woo. Last but not least, the evening was concluded by Brahms’ Clarinet Sonata in E flat major, performed by Caroline Grint ad Naomi Woo. I very much enjoyed the individual pieces and liked the concept of the whole concert, too.

By starting the concert with a solo piece then continuing with two pieces accompanied by piano, the organisers invited the audience to think a bit about the relationship of the soloist and her accompanist. How do they work together? How does the accompanist help the soloist in her performance? And also, how does this all relate to translation?

During the concert I thought about how translators and accompanists are related. It’s true, their roles might be traditionally regarded as secondary to the main attraction. And sure, they don’t always get the same attention as their soloist or their author. However, I do think of them as partners, rather than just some extra help that makes things less awkward or strange. They both bring real value to the table and they are just as talented/educated/skilled/experienced/etc. as the soloist or the author, and without them, something would be truly lost. They both deserve credit and appreciation! They really do!

Ok, before I get completely overexcited about the role of these two, I’d like to ask you, my dear readers: what do you think about this? Is there anything similar between translators and accompanists? Or translation and music? What would you compare translation to?