On April 11, Hungarians celebrate the birthday of Attila József, one of the deepest and most original poets I have ever come across. He had, if you will, a “typical” poet’s life: he was born into poverty in 1905 and saw more troubled times than not—and took his own life at the age of 32. From his poems, he comes through as someone who is intellectual but not academic or erudite: he is a man of elementally intense emotions, put in perfect words and flawless music. (He wasn’t a musician himself but most of his poems give themselves easily to musical arrangement—and of those, there are plenty.)
You’ve laid yourself proudly bare,
You’ve scratched your wounds always, everywhere,
you are now famous, but do you care?
How nigh, you fool, is Judgement Day?
(Karóval jöttél – You came with a stick, translated by Peter Zollman – here it is sung in Hungarian by the Kaláka ensemble)
Attila’s birthday is actually the Day of Poetry in Hungary.
I have a connection with Attila, one that won’t wash off easily. My name is “Kis Balázs” in Hungarian—and the most famous Hungarian lullaby ever has this in the refrain line (“aludj el szépen, kis Balázs” – “sleep nice now, sleep, little Balázs”, translated by Edwin Morgan**). The poem is called Lullaby and was written by Attila. My parents say this was deliberate—thanks Mom and Dad.
This keeps haunting me, not that I mind much. In 2002, I remember visiting a couple of universities in London, together with my then boss, looking to build connections about teaching translation and interpreting technology. One person we had just met took my business card, looked at it, and said, “Kis Balázs? I know this name, it’s in József Attila’s poem, aludj el szépen, kis Balázs, right?” Turned out he spent at least one summer in the well-known Hungarian-for-foreigners summer school in Debrecen.
Thanks to my job, I’ve met several foreigners who spoke great Hungarian and were translating from the language—and, on the whole, had more chances of using my native language abroad than I expected.
Attila József is one of the poets who translate easily into foreign tongues—and there are translations available. Give them a Google and read away – or much better, buy an e-book –, you won’t regret it.
This is also a shout out to my friends and long-lost acquaintances who took the effort to learn my language and make it heard around the world. Filippo, Arle, Mark, Rob, Laurentiu, and all the others I don’t recall right now, if you read this and feel like it, drop me a line about how you are. And of course the great translators who give you access to Hungarian literature also deserve a lot of cheering (George Szirtes and Len Rix are two of my favorites).
Attila even wrote a poem for his own birthday (that turned out to be his last) that ends like this:
I’ll teach my people, one and all,
much greater things than what you call
I don’t know about you but I think Attila achieved this—and beyond.
Nothing I write here can do justice to Attila József. But if I manage to get some of you to fire up Google or Amazon, and to begin reading some Hungarian poetry, I am content.
* Not to be confused with Atilla the Hun. The Hun used a different spelling (if he used any at all) and had an altogether different disposition.
** Actually, there is at least one other English translation that doesn’t include my name. I dare you to find that one.