Translator's notes


By János Pilinszky

Here is a poem by the great 20th-century Hungarian poet, János Pilinszky (1921-1981). It’s called 'Négysoros' (Quatrain). I’ve marked the number of syllables in each line.


         Alvó szegek a jéghideg homokban. (11)
         Plakátmagányban ázó éjjelek. (10)
         Égve hagytad a folyosón a villanyt. (11)
         Ma ontják véremet. (6)

This poem has been translated into English by Ted Hughes and his co-translator János Csokits and is published in their collection of Pilinzsky’s poems, The Desert of Love (Anvil, 1989). Read their translation and listen to an audio recording here.

The principle driving Hughes and Csokits was literalness, as Hughes says in his introduction to their collection of Pilinszky’s poems The Desert of Love: 'As it is, we settled for literalness as a first principle…These translations, then, in the sense of being word for word are close to the originals, and will have served their purpose if they serve as pointers, to help a reader re-imagine the whole thing.'

Ted Hughes and János Csokits prized literalness, which makes their translation a useful place to start in understanding the poem. However, here are a few more notes on the original poem which will enable you to understand and perhaps hint at the complexity and subtlety of the original in making your own translations.

Line 1: in the first line, Pilinszky refers to ‘alvó szegek’, which literally means sleeping nails. However, the word he uses for nails is not the everyday word we’d use for nails (szög) but an archaic form of the word, szeg. This is the same form of the word used when referring to the nails as an instrument for Christ’s Passion; and is the word used in the Ómagyar Mária Siralom, (Old Hungarian Lamentations of Mary), the first extant Hungarian poem – ‘vas szegekkel átvernek’. 

For me, the central role of (the Catholic) faith in Pilinszky’s life and work strongly suggests a coded reference to the Crucifixion here. More specifically, I would say that the first line sets the scene for us: Golgotha at morning, where the sun has yet to rise, but the instruments of Christ’s passion are laid out, waiting. This is a key theme of the poem and significantly referred back to in the fourth line. 

The clever thing here is that, because the reference is ‘coded’ the poem can also be read without this specifically Christological reference – if the reader doesn’t pick up on it, or doesn’t want to read it this way. It’s a subtle hint more than an out-and-out reference to a critical dynamic of the poem, the interplay of the Christlike and the everyday. The great Hungarian poet Ágnes Nemes Nagy wrote of Pilinszky (a contemporary): 'the temporal and the eternal, the eschatological and the personal, the human and suprahuman all tumble into each other' (quoted by Ted Hughes in The Desert of Love).

Line 2: here, there is a change of tone. The poem shifts from the universal, the big, the dramatic, (the all-important) to the everyday, the banal, the modern, the individual, the urban and personal. The challenge here is the Hungarian word plakátmagány, which is a contraction of two words, plakát (poster) and magány (loneliness), but like riverruns in Joyce’s Ulysses, adds up to more than the sum of its parts. It’s very emotive, and represents for me the isolation of the individual, alone, in the empty city at night, with its adverts, film posters, etc., but also a sort of emblematic loneliness, which could refer to the individual, but also Christ’s loneliness up on the cross. It is a very difficult word to render, not in the sense, but in the tone; there is also a weak rhyme to be aware of between the second and fourth lines that I think is important to retain because of its function in building up the structural framework of the poem (more on this below).

Line 3: this is again concerned with the individual, the everyday, the banal, the little personal tragedies. In an interview published in 1983, Pilinszky says his wife left the light on when she left him.

Line 4: this line is perhaps the most difficult. The Hungarian original is three words and has a lot packed into it. It has a shocking curtness, and is designed to bring the reader up short. Here, there is the element of the speaker being a passive sufferer of an aggressive act done to them (Christ as the Man of Sorrows). Ontják in Hungarian is active – they (plural) shed; there is a strong overtone of violence in the act that is done, or will be done, to the person who is speaking. It has a sense of blood ‘being made to gush’, flowing copiously, freely, in an uncontrolled and lethal way. There is also the sense of someone resigning themselves to, or accepting, something profoundly unacceptable. The Hungarian has a weak rhyme with éjjelek/véremet, (the second and fourth lines). This is the structural link between the middle two lines – which seem on the basis of sense unrelated – to the first and fourth. This is where the universal of the first and fourth, the Christlike, dramatic and eternal, are tied to the individual and banal and everyday; Christ to the individual, Golgotha to the Big City, the eternal to the momentary.


An added complication is the poem’s underlying structure. The Hungarian is principally iambic in nature, and has 11/10/11/6 syllables and 5.5/5/5.5/3 feet, which – until the last line, would suggest the form of a Petrarchan sonnet (though without the rhyme scheme). I think this, too, was a comment on Pilinszky’s part. By building up a sense of classical order and then summarily destroying it in the last line, he seems to be saying that after the Crucifixion, after the Second World War, nothing, anymore, can be perfect.

You can read my translation of this short poem here.

I am grateful to Peter Sherwood for his kind advice and assistance.

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