Lost and found in translation: Gyula Friewald

danube 8

Three weeks ago (as I wrote in an earlier post) I was part of a writing retreat in Alicante with poets Hilary Elfick, Gyula Friewald, and Christopher North …who is the presiding spirit of  Almaserra Vella at the Old Olive Press in Relleu, Alicante. (If you’re interested in the residential courses he offers just follow this link: http://www.oldolivepress.com/).

We’d agreed that each of us would volunteer to run at least one morning workshop over the seven days. For me it was a chance to try out some workshop activities; Hilary and Chrisptopher are already experienced tutors. I wanted to find a role for my friend Gyula.

Actually, I should introduce him, before we go any further. Gyula, as you can see from the image, his Tree of life, is a craftsman. These days he does relatively small pieces, working in a variety of metals and wood. What you can’t see in the image is that it’s a laminate of layers of worked sheets. It’s intricate, and as full of stories and significance as the cave paintings we went to see during the week. Gyula used to create monumental ornamental works..street pieces; great ornamental embassy gates, beautifully forged lamps, doors, staircases. His works grace the streets of Budapest, and the streets of London. He’s a talented man. He’s also a courageous man. A Hungarian with German forebears (as are so many, since Hungary’s been used as moveable feast by its stronger and conscienceless neighbours.) He’s had access to senior government offices in his time, because of his work. But he left it behind..family, work, workshop, tools…he’ll describe himself as a dissident. He left Hungary and just kept going until he reached London, and built up a new workshop and a new life. He now lives in Murcia, and makes small, beautiful pieces of work in his garage workshop. And he writes poems.



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I met him five years ago at Almaserra Vella. We went for long walks; he found the bones of a fox for me and told me about his life and his philosophy. I wrote a poem for him, as you do for a man who remarks casually that his father once had to hide, in a hollow tree, from Stalin’s motorcade. The backstory is worth a book on its own. Still. Translations. That’s what this will be about.

I’ve spent time workshopping Gyula’s poems with him, and at a distance via email. Two difficulties emerge…he tends to explore life philosophically and metaphysically. This tends to shift his writing towards abstraction, and it leave me pushing him, for good or ill, to find the moments (images, stories, objects, landscapes) that the abstract meanings grow out of. Sometimes he writes directly in English, sometimes he translates from his Hungarian originals. In either case, we’ll come up against the problems of idiom and syntax that stop his intentions coming through. You’ll see how this works before long. Anyway, I though it would be good to spend a morning which he could lead by giving us poems in Hungarian, and also their English adaptations. He could read the Hungarian so we could hear the texture, rhythm and rhyme of the original; we’d read his English version back to him. The key thing is that when the idiom /syntax made the meaning puzzling or unclear, we could ask him to unravel them for us. He could give us backstories where we needed them. And then we’d go off and write our translations/adaptations. And later, we’d workshop them in the afternoon sessions we set aside everyday. So, there we are. The context and the rationale.

What I’ll do now is three posts in a row illustrating what happened.

In this first post, I’ll give the texts that Gyula brought to the sessions, but I’ll also annotate the English version, adding the questions we asked him for clarification, and the answers we needed. I’ll leave those of you determined to press on to think about how you might set about writing your versions, and then day by day, I’ll post what three of us wrote in response. How’s that?

Ideally, I’d set Gyula’s Hungarian text side by side with his English version. WordPress has defeated me when I’ve tried to do this, which makes it a bit awkward to work between the two texts. I hope you’ll find itt worthwhile


Lejárt zenélődoboz                                 


Panoráma szélesnyomtávú anyuka,

tegnap óta, járdán heverő

szavatossági félcédula birtokosa.


Embere rég nem került elő

Elmerülő, a terpeszkedő vak idő

lassan,szárnysuhogva énekel a vastüdő.


El nem töltött  évekkel,

kiforduló sérvekkel,

jogerővel átitatott érvekkel,


Vasárnapos  bértlettel beléphet

a Népjóléti beléndek kertjébe,

a vadvirágos, petrezselymes tömjénbe.


Nyugdíjmentes jólétbe,

a tv, kézihímzett kamuterhes ölébe,

onnan a napi alkohol gödrébe.


A törvény kötényében elrejtve

cifra kis szelencében

nyekergő Offélia eszmélve,


a rugók kelepcéjében dudorász,

pentaton dallamot.

Állapota kataton.


Gyökvonással hipnózis.

növekvő adrenalin dózis

a család élesztője:  pszichózis.


Rádiógumin edzett politikus

egyszerűen, ravaszul etet:

a kerítéssel a határaidon életed véded.


Tanítása…? Ereklyézett bódulat,

Kolduló alázat és

Fennhéjázó gyalázat.


Újgótikus álomfejtő hagymázas,

választási, bizományi varázslat

övezi a T. házat.


You’ll pick up on qualities of sound and something of rhythm….you can see the end rhymes, and you’ll certainly have a sense of the rythm of polysyllabled words (they may look impenetrable, but just think how easily you deal with them in your own language: multiplication, reciprocity, comprehensible). You’ll also get the sense that there are a good many hard ‘k’ and ‘g’ sounds as well as the softer ‘j’ and ‘ch’ , and the soft and hard ‘th/d’ . You may think about whether translation includes translating sound. It’s nice to have a Hungarian text, I think, because, like Finnish, it’s not an Indo-Europen language. You’re not much distracted by things you think you know as you may with German or Spanish, say. Right, here’s Gyula’s version in English with the notes that resulted from our asking questions about what was puzzling us.

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Elapsed Musical Clockwork                                                  (Musical box)


Panoramic wide stance mother,             (she’s gross, obese; we don’t know why)

yesterday found on the street and now,

she has a valid mental disability card.       (in theory this guarantees some help)


Husband vanished long ago, since

she sinks in sprawling blind hours,

Her iron lung sings on slow wings.          ( she can’t breathe, her lungs are shot)


Her never lived years, turned into

strangulated hernias of arguments,

bulging with full force of the law.


With her Sunday season ticket she can go        (metaphor; the social system is  a trap,

into the Public Welfare henbane garden,          a deceit; it’s a poison garden

scented with wild flowers and parsley.              camouflaged with herbs and simples)


Step into the pension free retirement, drop in          (pension-free. Think on.

the hand embroidered, fake loaded lap of TV,            Daytime TV..same everywhere…

from there into the pit of alcohol, daily.                      this what you sink into)


Concealed in the apron of the law,                       (the apparatus of the apparatchik)

a  little hidden fancy box. Inside,                          (the music box,the central image)

Ophelia awakens and caterwauls.


In the trap of stiff  hard springs              (coiled clockwork springs…not sofa springs)

she croons, hums pentatonic melodies,                    (discords)

her condition is catatonic.


Extraction of roots with hypnosis               (basically, the lying diagnoses and ‘cures’

growing adrenalin doses,                              of the system and the state)

the yeast of family is psychosis.


Gum chewing radio politician                      (we suggest that these last three

Shrewdly hand feeding us.                            stanzas could be collapsed)

Explanations simple as a borderfence.


His doctrines…?  cause

residual stupor, beggers remorse

with haughty, lofty arrogance


The Respected Parliament:

a New Gothic delirium quarry,    (the building is Neo-Gothic)

a spell bound electorate of pawns.

danube 3

The second poem is more obviously personal, autobiographical. I think all three of us felt on more familiar/accessible ground. The literal meaning of the title is ‘Decay’



Buda hegyei a távolban mosolyogtak.

A remény dúdolgató fákat ültetett.

Családomba született ácsok

vénen és korhadtan faragták

érkező életem inoga kunyhójául

ősatyai legendák lobogózott tornyait.


A roskadó évek gerendái hullottak

a virágoskertjem megsüketült

sárga, bókolgató nárciszaira,

amint a hallhatatlanságba

csomagolt hamuszürke

apámra várakoztam.


A zöld sárfolyó öblében

a két kőparton kuporogva,

alvó sárkányokat dédelgetve,

a hangyaboly cirkuszán ámulva,

lassan elfeledtem a család levágott

kezeinek utolsó görcsös rángatódzását.


And Gyula’s English version: When we talked it through, the backstory emerged..the storyof his childhood, an absentee father who worked on the State railway, a grandmother living on the banks of a Danube backwater….a woman who managed the forest that surrounded them, and nine relatives, forebears, who were carpenter roofbuilders. He also talked about how he would sit on the step, waiting for his father to come on a weekend visit. You hear that, and the poem breaks open like a flower.


Budapest Boy´s Birth

Buda´s green mountains

smiled in the distance.

Hope planted whispering trees.

Aged carpenters of my family    (these are the nine relatives, uncles..)

built flagged towers of forefathers,  (the intricate structures they built)

to cradle my emerging life.


Rafters of collapsing years

fell on deafened yellow nodding

daffodils in my garden,

as I waited for my

ashgray father,

wrapped in immortality.


In the bay of the green, muddy river   (for ‘bay’ think ‘backwater’)

crouching over  both banks,

I saw sleeping dragons.

Amazed by an anthill circus,

slowly I forgot the last convulsive

twitches of my family´s severed hands.   (this is the broken family)

danube 2

So, there you are. You go away and try to write your own version that’s as true to the intention, the meaning, and possibly the shape and heft of the original as you can. Have a go. Tomorrow I’ll start to post what we came up with. And reflect on what we might have learned from it. See you soon.





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