Attila József’s “My Homeland” translated by Sándor Kerekes

You may recall that a few days ago I wrote that I couldn’t find an English translation of Attila József’s well-known poem “Hazám” (My homeland). My comment inspired our friend “Sándor” (Sándor Kerekes) to try his own hand at a translation.

So, at least for a day, let’s put aside the current political situation in Hungary and turn to a half Hungarian-half Romanian genius, Attila József (1905-1937). Just to give you an idea of his place in Hungarian literature, April 11, the date of his birth, has been the Day of Hungarian Poetry since 1968.

Here I will not recount the vicissitudes of his life, which was marked by poverty and mental illness. A short biography is available on the English-language Wikipedia. Instead, I will reminisce about my own introduction to his poetry.

Jozsef attila fenykepAttila József’s poetry was not widely read until the communist takeover, when the regime promoted him as a “proletarian poet.” It is true that he was a member of the illegal communist party for a short time, but soon enough he left the movement, disillusioned. Naturally, the literary historians of the Rákosi period mentioned neither his abandonment of the communist ideology nor his involvement with psychoanalysis, which was a forbidden discipline at the time.

The first time I encountered an Attila József poem was in grade seven, right after the nationalization of all parochial schools. I was assigned to recite his poem “Mama” at a school function. From that time on, Attila József’s poetry increasingly became an integral part of our intellectual lives, all through high school and university.

It must have been in the second year at the University of Budapest (ELTE) that the Department of Hungarian Literature organized an excursion of sorts to visit the many places in Budapest that could be connected to Attila József. The most memorable was the apartment house where he was born: Gát utca 3 in District IX. Of course, we received the usual spiel about the poverty of the proletariat before the communist takeover, but the problem was that people still lived in the same cramped apartments with a toilet at the end of the corridor. Nothing had changed at Gát utca 3 since Attila József’s childhood.

One final memory. During one of my visits to Hungary in the late 1960s I had an opportunity to visit the Attila József collection at the Petőfi Irodalmi Múzeum. An old college friend of mine, a literary historian, was an associate of the museum specifically working on the poet’s literary heritage. Thus she had access to all the precious manuscripts collected there. It was quite an experience to hold some of those papers and see the original corrections penned by the poet.

And here is Sándor Kerekes’s translation of “Hazám” followed by the original Hungarian.

 

MY HOMELAND

1
At night I was walking homebound,
I felt as velvety noises sway,
In ventilating, soft warmness
The jasmins applauded away,

great, sleepy jungle was my soul
and people slept on the streets. It hit me,
whence from my mind, and my tongue
originates and will feed me,

the community that is husband
to this drunken, seductive
mother nature, or in gloomy

work places cursing there,
or ruminate here in the deep lair
of the night: the national squalor.

2
A thousand endemics waging,
the frequent baby deaths,
orphanage and premature aging,
dementia, single birth, and stark

sin, suicide, the spirit’s inertia,
all doubtfully hopes to be redeemed,
will not be enough to prove:
it is high time to be liberated!

And in the company of
an adept community to
talk over hundreds of our troubles.

Under the spell of violence
so they rue those legislators,
as our beautiful race perish!

3
The landlord, for whom to the hernia
tree trunks and corn were lifted,
orders clearings opened with pickaxes,
destroying village and homestead.

And who protected his doomed home,
the caring, bold, striving man,
they mean to coral, like cattle,
To elect some wise parliamentarian.

Skittish are feathers on gendarmes’ hats
they smile and they guarantee,
to prescribe who the delegate be,

“openly,” decides, who, for a thousand years
was bound like a sheaf,
is either furtive, or follows orders.

4
Our lords were not slothful, nor dumb
to defend their lands against us
and staggered a million and a half
of our people to the US.

His heart sunk, his legs trembled,
on snarling waves he drifted away,
remembering and vomiting,
like drowning sin into wine one day.

One thought he was hearing cow bells
And his mate understood well
he is too dumb to send money home.

Our past is all jammed up together,
and as besett wayferers,
the new world will receive us.

5
The wage of the worker isn’t more
than what he fought for to score,
just enough for soup and bread
and for wine to make drunken roar.

The country doesn’t ask, wherefore
they let to gather hostilities
and why they don’t support for the workers’
interest the industries.

Weaver girl dreams of sweetmeats,
she knows nothing about cartels.
And on Saturday they slip in her hand

her pay and the penalty deducted:
chuckling the change: that’s all
you worked for, not nothing after all.

6
The rich is frightened by the poor
And the poor fears the rich.
Wile fear is governing us
and not fleeting hope’s pitch.

Wouldn’t grant rights to the peasant
He who eats the peasant’s bread
and the labourer dries yellow as straw,
but to raise demands  he dread.

Over the dale of a thousand years,
On his back the vagabond’s bag
walks away the people’s son.

He searches for an underling’s job,
Instead of strafing the grave
where his father is resting.

7
And yet, as Magyar, and as fugitive,
My soul cries startled on –
sweet Homeland, take me in your heart,
let me be your faithful son!

Let twaddle he the clumsy bear
on a chain – I must not go along!
I am a poet – tell your prosecutor
To leave my pen alone!

You gave peasants to oceans,
give humanity to humans.
Give Hungarianness to Hungarians,

So we won’t be the colony of Germans.
Let me write beauty and the good – to me
give my happier song!

May 1937

HAZÁM

1
Az éjjel hazafelé mentem,
éreztem, bársony nesz inog,
a szellõzködõ, lágy melegben
tapsikolnak a jázminok,

nagy, álmos dzsungel volt a lelkem
s háltak az uccán. Rám csapott,
amibõl eszméltem, nyelvem
származik s táplálkozni fog,

a közösség, amely e részeg
ölbecsaló anyatermészet
férfitársaként él, komor

munkahelyeken káromkodva,
vagy itt töpreng az éj nagy odva
mélyén: a nemzeti nyomor.

2
Ezernyi fajta népbetegség,
szapora csecsemõhalál,
árvaság, korai öregség,
elmebaj, egyke és sivár

bûn, öngyilkosság, lelki restség,
mely, hitetlen, csodára vár,
nem elegendõ, hogy kitessék:
föl kéne szabadulni már!

S a hozzáértõ dolgozó
nép gyülekezetében
hányni-vetni meg száz bajunk.

Az erõszak bûvöletében
mint bánja sor törvényhozó,
hogy mint pusztul el szép fajunk!

3
A földesúr, akinek sérvig
emeltek tönköt, gabonát,
csákányosokkal puszta tért nyit,
szétveret falut és tanyát.

S a gondra bátor, okos férfit,
ki védte menthetlen honát,
mint állatot terelni értik,
hogy válasszon bölcs honatyát.

Cicáznak a szép csendõrtollak,
mosolyognak és szavatolnak,
megírják, ki lesz a követ,

hisz „nyiltan” dönt, ki ezer éve
magával kötve mint a kéve,
sunyít vagy parancsot követ.

4
Sok urunk nem volt rest, se kába,
birtokát óvni ellenünk
s kitántorgott Amerikába
másfél millió emberünk.

Szíve szorult, rezgett a lába,
acsargó habon tovatûnt,
emlékezõen és okádva,
mint aki borba fojt be bûnt.

Volt, aki úgy vélte, kolomp szól
s társa, ki tudta, ily bolondtól
pénzt eztán se lát a család.

Multunk mind össze van torlódva
s mint szorongó kivándorlókra,
ránk is úgy vár az új világ.

5
A munkásnak nem több a bére,
mint amit maga kicsikart,
levesre telik és kenyérre
s fröccsre, hogy csináljon ricsajt.

Az ország nem kérdi, mivégre
engedik meggyûlni a bajt
s mért nem a munkás védelmére
gyámolítják a gyáripart.

Szövõlány cukros ételekrõl
álmodik, nem tud kartelekrõl.
S ha szombaton kezébe nyomják

a pénzt s a büntetést levonják:
kuncog a krajcár: ennyiért
dolgoztál, nem épp semmiért.

6
Retteg a szegénytõl a gazdag
s a gazdagtól fél a szegény.
Fortélyos félelem igazgat
minket s nem csalóka remény.

Nem adna jogot a parasztnak,
ki rág a paraszt kenyerén
s a summás sárgul, mint az asztag,
de követelni nem serény.

Ezer esztendõ távolából,
hátán kis batyuval, kilábol
a népségbõl a nép fia.

Hol lehet altiszt, azt kutatja,
holott a sírt, hol nyugszik atyja,
kellene megbotoznia.

7
S mégis, magyarnak számkivetve,
lelkem sikoltva megriad –
édes Hazám, fogadj szivedbe,
hadd legyek hûséges fiad!

Totyogjon, aki buksi medve
láncon – nekem ezt nem szabad!
Költõ vagyok – szólj ügyészedre,
ki ne tépje a tollamat!

Adtál földmívest a tengernek,
adj emberséget az embernek.
Adj magyarságot a magyarnak,

hogy mi ne legyünk német gyarmat.
Hadd írjak szépet, jót – nekem
add meg boldogabb énekem!

1937. május

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52 comments

  1. Dearest Eva, I cannot believe that you have actually removed my response to Some1 Re: Andy Vajda and my book: The Gresham Symphony. Andy Vajda has nothing to do with Attila Jozsef’s poem. I simply responded to Some1’s post, I just couldn’t contain my excitement. ( I remember a few years ago you asked us on this blog to purchase books on Amazon through this site.)

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