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Weöres translation workshop, 22 May

On Wednesday 22 May, UCL-SSEES is hosting a one-day knowledge exchange workshop to mark the centenary of Sándor Weöres’s birth, entitled Translation in the light (or shadow?) of language, culture and politics [poster pdf]. The event is co-organised by the Centre for Language-Based Area Studies at UCL-SSEES, the Balassi Institute Hungarian Cultural Centre London, and the University of Glasgow Centre for Russian, Central and East European Studies.

weöres tollalVenue: Masaryk Senior Common Room, 4th floor, 16 Taviton Street, London WC1H 0BW

Time: 10 am – 5 pm (registration from 9.30 am)

The work and legacy of Sándor Weöres (1913-1989), one of Hungary’s most influential twentieth-century poets, provide an exceptionally intriguing starting point for discussing the possibilities of translation in its most challenging form, the translation of poetic texts, which, in turn, also challenges the notion and the possibility of translation itself.

Labelled ‘formalist’ in Socialist Hungary, Weöres was banned from publication in the 1950s. Like many similarly sidelined poets, the only way he could see his work appear in print was through translations of literary works during these years of relative silence. He not only translated from Russian, French, Italian, English, and Chinese – often taking a rough translation of the source text as a starting point – but in his poetry he also explored such diverse areas as Eastern philosophy, Polynesian and classical European myths, early modern Hungarian literature, and children’s nursery rhymes. Following his Europe-wide recognition, which included two public readings in London (1966 and 1980) and in New York and Washington, D.C. in 1977, his works have been translated into a variety of languages, including English, French, and Russian.

The first part of the workshop will address Weöres’s work and legacy, as well as broader issues related to the difficulty of translating poetry.

10.15-11.45 Discussing Weöres in translation: George Gömöri, Zsuzsa Varga and Eszter Tarsoly.

12.00-13.30 Discussing translation in Weöres: Ádám Nádasdy, Daniel Abondolo, Philip Barker and Ágnes Lehóczky.

The afternoon will feature a panel discussion between publishers on the commercial, cultural and political considerations that play a part in the commissioning of translations, followed by a translation workshop.

14.30-16.00 Joana Zgadzaj (Stork Press), Susan Kojakovic-Curtis (Istros Books), Clive Boutle (Francis Boutle), and Mike Tate (Jantar Publishing).

16.15-16.45 Hands-on translation workshop

Ob-Ugric 8: Bears (cont.)

The Mūnkēsiŋ uj-ēriɣ (‘Song of the Creature of the Village of Munkes’), collected by Munkácsi in 1889, recounts the foraging activities, capture and death of a bear, followed by a bear feast. The narrator is the bear, who frequently refers to himself in the third person, Vojle-ōnle, ‘animal-majestic’. During summer, he gathers pine cones and berries in the forest, eating as he goes, to make fat for his back and belly so he can sleep through the winter. Noting that his Heavenly Father has descended (in other words, autumn has arrived), he finds a large mound of earth at the banks of the noble river, where he decides he will hibernate. He scoops out the earth with both paws (see below), lines the earthen house with moss, and enters, where he rests his plaited and beautiful head. His sleep is disturbed by men with dogs. The men hold axes and ice-breaking poles, and make an arrowslit in the roof of his lair. When the bear pokes his head out, his head is ‘run through’, he is bound with rope and dragged out. His five buttons are undone (he is skinned), the fat of his back and belly is placed on a sledge and taken to the village, where the hunting party is greeted by men and women whooping and throwing snow. The bear is placed on a dais inside the house, and sits in his splendid nest while fish is brought to eat. The men disguise themselves and performs songs and plays for five nights, then a blood sacrifice of reindeer is placed before the bear. His head and paws are cut off, cooked in a pot and shared out; the bear then gets up and, in the form of a mole, slips away with the blood sacrifice. He looks up (prays) to his Heavenly Father, who lets down the iron ladder from heaven, which the bear ascends with his blood sacrifice. He attaches the blood sacrifices to the iron pillar, enters the gold roofbeamed house where his Heavenly Father sits, and asks “whither will you direct me?” Numi-Torem replies he should hurry to the berry-laden, cone-laden grove, whereupon the bear, in his joy, jumps forward with a three-jump jump and a four-swing bound.

Archaica, Russians, animals in folklore

Bear narrators frequently recount their deaths by knife, lance or bow and arrow, while heroic songs feature warriors in armour using swords, despite the fact that automatic weapons had already been commonplace in the region for centuries. It seems that rifles have some taboo attached to them, described perhaps as a firing ‘noisy, loud-noised thing’, but in any case the animal’s death will be quickly passed over, and only referred to in an exceedingly circumlocutory way.

I say that the animal’s death is glossed over using ornate language because the bear describes ‘losing consciousness’ or falling into a deep sleep, and goes on to narrate the ensuing bear feast and performances, the ‘hand-turning, leg-turning’ plays. A bear feast for a male bear lasts five days, corresponding to the number of buttons the animals is said to have, four for a female bear, and three for a bear cub. The technology (tools) with which the bear was killed is sometimes blamed on the Russians, who provided tips for the spears and suchlike, but at any rate, the hunters go to great lengths to absolve themselves of guilt, for killing a bear is not something taken lightly. The supernatural abilities of the bear include an imputed ability to conceal its scent from men and dogs; performers of the plays often disguise their faces, bodies and voices so that the dead bear being entertained will not recognise them. Taboo words are discussed further in Marianne Bakró-Nagy, Die Sprache des Bärenkultes im Obugrischen, Budapest, Akadémiai, 1979.

Furred animals provided a form of currency, as well as a unit of measurement. G. F. Cushing’s article on the bear in Ob-Ugrian folklore cites a poem in which squirrel furs represent kopecks: the cunning Vogul offers to repay the Russian his 100-squirrel-fur debt with ‘hidden treasure’, a buried corpse. As they dig, the corpse moves and the Russian collapses in terror. The narrator declares to the corpse, ‘whether you come to life or not, it’s all the same to me’. (See G. F. Cushing, ‘The Bear in Ob-Ugrian Folklore’, Folklore, 88, 1977, 2, pp. 146-59.)

In the Mūnkēsiŋ uj-ēriɣ the bear, while preparing his hibernation place, fills five pine marten skins with soil with his right paw, and then six with his left (here, in Munkácsi’s transcription):

jḁmes-pāl ḁlnė kātläp-pālėm


at ńoɣs ḁsmäń ɣuri’

kwon ti patilāli;

vorti-pāl ḁlnė kātläp-pālėm


ɣḁt ḁsmäń ɣuri’

kwon ti patilāli.

Gyula Illyés translates this as:

Jobb felőli fél kezecském


öt nyusztbőrből varrt cihába

férő föld omol ki,

bal oldali fél kezecském


hat nyusztbőrből varrt cihába

férő föld bomol ki.

Illyés, ‘Medveének’, in Péter Domokos (ed.), Medveének. A keleti finnugor népek irodalmának kistükre, Budapest, Európa, 1975, pp. 39-46 (41).

One of the tasks of the translator is to render the repetition and parallelism (R&P) of the original. To the Western reader, R&P may seem cumbersome: no new information is given, but synonyms are employed to vary the repetition (see above, lines 1 & 5, and 2 & 6). It is crucial that the reader recognise the forms and role of R&P, not least because repetition aids reading. Illyés makes full use of his skills as a poet, and exploits the resources of Hungarian, balancing the literal with the creative. He recreates participial phrases (which participate in both noun and verb systems) immediately recognisable to the reader, thus kinsəlėnėm xaltə, during the course of my search, lit. ‘in my seeking’, becomes keresgéltemben, while ūnlėnėm xaltə, while sitting, ‘in my sitting’, is rendered ültömben.

Last, but not least, the raw materials for comparative Finno-Ugric morphology are contained within the poem: āmp/eb (dog); at/öt (five); ɣḁt/hat (six); xōs/húgy (star, here taboo for the bear’s eyes); xåsä/hosszú (long); ūləm/álom (dream); jåməs/jó (good); ńēlm/nyelv (tongue); lowint/(meg)olvas (to read), an instance of metathesis where, here, consonant and vowel exchange places. The past marker here is -m- (Cf. HU -t-). Such correspondences are central to the comparative method in historical linguistics, evidence-based internal reconstruction of language(s).

Ob-Ugric 7: Mansi (Sygva) numbers, bears and bear poems

In the last class, we took a look at the noun system in the northern Sygva dialect of Mansi, and started reading a bear poem.

The order of noun suffixes works as follows: plural + possession + case. As I’ve already mentioned, Sygva Mansi is elaborate in marking number: it has separate sets of endings for dual, and for three or more subjects and objects. Case endings may be instrumental (e.g. I hit him with an axe) or comitative (e.g. I hit him together with my friend, i.e. my friend and I hit him); ablative; locative; lative; or translative (without plural or possessive endings). Where two full vowels (but NOT ə) appear next to each other, a -j- is inserted between them.

For instance, where sāli is reindeer, sālijanəl (sāli-j-anəl: reindeer-1-their (3 or more possessors)) means 1 reindeer belonging to 3 or more people; while sālijaɣamēn (sāli-j-aɣ-amēn: reindeer-2-our (2 possessors)) means 2 reindeer owned by two people.

Or, where kol is house:

kol-əm-t in my house

kol-aɣ-ən-t in your (1 possessor) two houses

kol-an-ə-t in their (3-or-more possessors) houses

kol-ət-t in 3-or-more houses

Further examples can be found in Béla Kálmán, Wogulische Texte mit einem Glossar, Budapest, Akadémiai, 1976.

Now onto bears.

The bear song, Mūnkēsiŋ uj-ēriɣ (‘Song of the Creature of the Village of Munkes’, HU: ‘Múnkeszfalvi állat-ének’), was collected by Munkácsi on 8 March 1889 in Berjozovo, and was first printed in his Vogul Népköltési Gyűjtemény, III/2, pp. 260-5. This song was translated by Gyula Illyés (1902-83) as ‘Medveének’, a masterful translation that exploits those elements of rhythm, syntax and word formation shared by Hungarian and Vogul. Illyés created a verbal art form that is unmistakably modern Hungarian, but which transcends the strictures of that language’s verse conventions to have the reader hear an echo of the Mansi language and pre-modern oral culture, transforming the basic structure of Uralic folk poetry, that of repetition and parallelism, into an exceptionally skillful translation. His translation is available in: Péter Domokos (ed.), Medveének. A keleti finnugor népek irodalmának kistükre, Budapest, Európa, 1975, pp. 39-46; and Béla Kálmán (ed.), Leszállt a medve az égből. Vogul népköltészet, Budapest, Európa, 1980, pp. 224-31.

Before a discussion of the poem and its translation, some notes on bear mythology.

In Ob-Ugric mythology, the bear is the most sacred and the most feared creature. Tales of the bear’s origin are perhaps reminiscent of the fall of Adam: the bear’s father is Numi-Torem, Mansi God of the heavens. She (for it is usually a she) disobeys the Heavenly Father’s commands to stay in his house of gold and silver, and descends to Earth, where her life becomes full of difficulty. She must gather enough berries and sustenance to last the winter hibernation.

[The bear] is the guardian of justice and takes note of the most solemn oaths. It appears as a higher power who may take revenge for broken promises and as such plays a central role in the thought-world of the Ob-Ugrians.

G. F. Cushing, ‘The Bear in Ob-Ugrian Folklore’, Folklore, 88, 1977, 2, pp. 146-59 (p. 147)

Taboo words are used to refer to the bear: a male is the one with five buttons, a female bear has four, while a bearcub has three buttons. Bears may also be referred to as ‘the old one of the forest’, ‘the little idol’, ‘the holy beast’ and ‘the strong beast’. Its eyes are ‘stars’ (xōs) or ‘currants’, while its front paws are ‘hands’ (kāt), its back paws ‘boots’, and it skin a ‘cloak’. When a bear is killed and skinned, the skinning process is referred to as āŋxwəlawət: ‘undressing’, removal of the cloak (HU: kibont, levetkőztet). Words for the bear’s stomach include xurəɣ (sack), såut (birch-bark basket, a word of Tatar origin), and pajp (birch-bark butt, HU: puttony), while its back is pūtjiw, the two struts from which a cooking pot is suspended over the fire. The name for the sledge on which the bear’s corpse is transported, ťāťä, also comes from Tatar. It is not so important where the word for an object comes from, then, what is important is that we should not say what it is.

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Ob-Ugric 6: Mansi, Munkácsi, Nagy and sleep

I mentioned that Munkácsi’s collections of Mansi song and verse (Bernát Munkácsi, Vogul Népköltési Gyűjtemény, 4 vols., Budapest, MTA, 1892-1963) had inspired a number of twentieth-century poets, and referred to the imagery of a particular kind of deep sleep, the sort so deep that the sleeper would not wake up, even if their head/torso were cut off.

This motif of the deep sleep might, for instance, refer to the shaman’s loss of consciousness after performing his rites.

Here’s an example of the Mansi neck-/head-/trunk-cut, firm/rooted sleep image:

slot 1 slot 2 slot 3 slot 4
puŋkä jäktim tāriŋ ūləm
its head cuts/chops rooted sleep

Slot 4 is always occupied by the same word for ‘sleep’, ūləm, which will be familiar to Hungarian speakers as álom, dream. The preceding slots may be filled as follows:

1. puŋk-ä (head-3rd person possessive), sip-ä (neck-3rd person possessive), or porx-ä (shoulder/trunk-3rd person possessive);

2. Slot 2 might contain jäktim (cuts/chops) or ńawlənə (pursues/chases);

3. Slot 3 might contain tār-iŋ (root-ed), vaɣ-in (strong, lit: strength-ed), porx-iŋ (shoulder-ed/ trunk-ed), sari (true/genuine), ńaŋrä (powerful/firm/hard), xosä (long, C.f. HU hosszú), or usi (powerful/strong)

Such forms were explicated by Munkácsi (nyaklevágott álom, neck-cut-off dream), and read by, amongst others, the poets László Nagy (1925-78, below left) and Ferenc Juhász (b. 1928).

Nagy transforms the nyaklevágott álom in his poem ‘Medvezsoltár’ (Bear-psalm) into a fejlevágható, szív-kiszakítható álom, in which the dream becomes rather ‘head-cut-off-able’, and the new attribute is ‘heart-tear-out-able’ (szív-kiszakítható). Note that the -ható is not there in the original. Translated into English as ‘Bear Psalm’ in Tony Connor and Kenneth McRobbie (trans.), Love of the Scorching Wind: Selected Poems 1953-1971, Budapest, Corvina, 1973, pp. 61-3, this line is translated as ‘the dream can be beheaded, my sleeping heart torn out’.

See László Nagy, ‘Medvezsoltár’ in Versek és versfordítások, Vol. I, Budapest, Magvető, 1975, pp. 444-6, or at the Digitális Irodalmi Akadémia.

Further reading: Robert Austerlitz, Ob-Ugric Metrics: the metrical structure of Ostyak and Vogul folk poetry, Helsinki, Suomalainen Tiedeakatemia, 1958; and Peter Sherwood, ‘Ob-Ugrian Sleep’, in L. Jakab, L. Keresztes, A. Kiss and S. Maticsák (eds), Congressus Septimus Internationalis Fenno-Ugristarum. Sessiones Sectionum. Dissertationes Linguistica, Debrecen, Debrecen University Press, 1990, pp. 308-13.

Ob-Ugric 4: Mansi vocabulary, Song of Conversion (cont.)

At around the same time as Europeans were colonising the Americas and decimating the native populations there, Russians were pushing eastward. Siberia was colonised during the reign of Ivan IV (Ivan the Terrible, 1530-84) and, by the end of the sixteenth century, the Mansi had been pushed from ‘European Russia’ to the other side of the Urals. Incidentally, the word ‘Ural’ itself comes from Mansi: ur (mountain) + ala (roof).

While the Mansi religion is polytheistic and shamanistic, images of worldly deities (tsars, Lenin) were gradually added to sacred places in Mansi dwellings over the centuries. Leonid Trauberg and Grigori Kozintsev’s 1931 film Одна (Alone), for which Shostakovich wrote the score, was filmed in the Altai mountains. Although shamans were to be liquidated together with the kulaks under collectivisation, the film includes footage of a surviving shaman, and the entire crew were reportedly terrified of him. Their awe is almost tangible, if not contagious, in the scene in which he dances and sings by a fire.

A few notes on borrowed words in the northern (Sygva) dialect of Mansi we’ve been studying. Some words for ‘modern’ things come from Russian: ārkeri (архиереи, bishop), aťēl (отдел, carriage), xōsax (казак, Cossack), konkrēs (конгресс, congress), rūt (род, kin), sāprańi (собрание, meeting), tēsis (тезис, thesis), and also pil(i), the word for car, which comes from автомобиль.

Others come from Komi (also known as Zyrian), another Uralic language, but one spoken on the western side of the Urals: nēpak (nipik – paper, letter, book, writing), and tujt (tūjt – horsedrawn sledge). The Sygva Mansi words for Russian, cross (as in crucifix), and bread (as in naan bread) also come from Komi. We can see how Russian, and other more western-ly items are imported via other Uralic languages that exist in closer proximity to Russian(s).

Oddly enough, however, the Sygva word for silk (japak), comes from Tatar, which means that it must have travelled a great distance. The word for cow, too, comes from the south, where livelihoods depend on herds, rather than on reindeer and fish.

Mansi is, as one would expect, particularly rich in river vocabulary. So far, we’ve come across words for the flat piece of land next to the riverbank (pōx), downriver (lui), and the part of a river between two bends (wōľ). There’s also reindeer vocabulary, such as kot, the skin on a reindeer’s leg; mańśək, a reindeer’s tail; and xār-ōjka, a reindeer bull, where xār is reindeer, and ōjka is the same as the Hungarian bácsi, uncle or older man.

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Ob-Ugric 3: Mansi (Tavda), Song of Conversion

Before languages die out, they go mad. This means that agreements fail, phonologic differences may fade away, there is syntactic loss: the language’s systems fall apart. We need to bear in mind this kind of craziness when looking at dialects of Mansi that have died out, because samples collected from Tavda in the late 1800s, for instance, a southern dialect that was probably the closest to Hungarian, may well contradict each other.

Mansi belongs to the Ob-Ugrian sub-group of the Finno-Ugric branch of the Uralic languages, and its speakers mostly live along tributaries of the river Ob, while a few live along the river Konda. There are, or were, three distinct Mansi branches. The Northern Mansi speakers live(d) along the banks of the rivers Sosva, Sygva and Upper Lozva. Speakers of Eastern Mansi lived along the Konda valley, while Southern (including Tavda) and Western Mansi no longer speak Mansi.

Tavda had vowel harmony, and displayed some fascinating Ugric ideas that speakers of Hungarian will be familiar with. In Hungarian, definiteness might be expressed in one of four ways. Here are the ways in which distinctions between conjugations are made:

1. látok / látom – I see something, vs. I see it. Here, the difference is in the consonant used.

2. -unk, -ünk / -juk, -jük: these are first person plural endings, in which the sequence of letters is jumbled up, the ‘n’ disappears and a ‘j’ appears at the beginning.

3. -t-ak / -t-ák: here, the vowel is lengthened to denote definiteness in the third person plural.

4. néz-tek / néz-i-tek where something (here, ‘i’) is inserted for the second conjugation (you [informal plural] look vs. you look at it).

Tavda used the fourth principle, in which a slot for a definite marker appears before personal endings. However, all pronouns are definite in Mansi and Khanty, not just the 3rd person.

Tavda had an accusative marker, and two sorts of instrumental, for when an instrument is used (e.g. I hit him with an axe) and a comitative (I hit him [together] with my friend), as well as an equivalent to the Hungarian translative -vá/-vé, which denotes something becoming something else, e.g. vérré vált ez a sör (I’ve just drunk this beer and it has become blood in my body).

Tavda died out in the 1920s, at around the same time written forms of Mansi and Khanty were introduced, using the Cyrillic alphabet.

After looking at the grammar, we moved on to a poem collected by Bernát Munkácsi (1860-1937) in 1888, but which dates from the early 1700s, when the Russians decided to convert the ‘heathens’ of Siberia to Christianity. Munkácsi’s original family name was Munk, and his family were so poor he grew up in a cave in Nagyvárad (today Oradea in Romania). He travelled to the Urals in the 1880s, and his collections of Ugric song and verse, first published by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in 1892, delighted and inspired a number of twentieth-century poets. Ferenc Juhász and László Nagy both borrowed imagery from Khanty and Mansi verbal art forms and motifs, such as the ‘nyaklevágható álom’, literally, neck-cut-off-able dream, a sleep so deep your head could be severed and you wouldn’t wake up, rendered as ‘fejlevágható álom’ in László Nagy’s poem Medvezsoltár (Bear psalm).

The poem we read has been translated as the Song of Conversion, and is one of the most powerful, sparse poems I have ever read.

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