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2 December 2012

Poet Between Languages: Ádám Makkai

From time to time Hungarians will speak with great pride of the many Hungarian scientists and artists who have won international fame. One thinks perhaps first and foremost of physicians (Ignác Semmelweis or Albert Szent-Györgyi), physicists (John von Neumann), mathematicians (Paul Erdős), and musicians (Béla Bartók, Zoltán Kodály). The case of literature, however, is made a bit more complex by questions of translation, given the distinctiveness of the language. Thanks to a handful of very fine translations, a few Hungarian poets and novelists have found their place in an emerging canon of world literature in English, but many of the finest Hungarian authors remain largely unknown to the world outside Hungary and the Carpathian Basin. In this context, the work of Ádám Makkai, which includes original poetry, literary translations into several languages, and scholarship in the field of linguistics, is particularly striking. One of the most notable details of his career as a linguist of international renown is the simple fact that as a native speaker of Hungarian he is the author of some of the most prominent scholarship, both articles and books, on a topic as fundamental as idiom structure in English. As an editor and literary translator he is responsible for one of the most significant contributions to Hungarian literature in English, In Quest of the Miracle Stag, a two-volume anthology of Hungarian poetry in English translation from the 13th century to the present. And as a poet he has written several volumes of poetry in Hungarian, but also poetry in English, innumerable literary translations of his own poetry and the poetry of others into or rather “between” several languages, and innovative combinations of original poetry, literary translation, and scholarship on linguistics converging in a single work that foregrounds his own existence between languages.

“Am I bound to go schizophrenic?”, Ádám Makkai asks in the opening lines to an article on what he has dubbed “anasemiotic multilingual poetry” (“Anasemiotic Multilingual Poetry: Fact or Fiction.” Hungarian Studies, Vol. 5, 2. 1989, 167). When one looks at his oeuvre, it is tempting to think that perhaps he did, at least a bit, for one does not necessarily expect a linguist who represented a formidable challenge to the ideas of such prominent theorists as Noam Chomsky at the same time to be a poet in several languages. Where might the origins of this “schizophrenia” lie? Born on 16 December 1935 in Budapest, Makkai was exposed to several languages at a young age.

He completed his first two years of primary school in German before the war, and its aftermath began to make the study of German both difficult and risky. At university, following a brief stint in the faculty of law he was able to change fields of study and majored in French and Hungarian. Several of his literary translations from French were published in Irodalmi Újság, a periodical that by the mid-1950s had begun to represent a voice of dissent from the regime. His university studies were interrupted by the outbreak of the Revolution in October 1956 and the brutal suppression in the early days of November. On 19 November Makkai managed to escape across the border into Austria. On 1 January 1957 he arrived in the United States, where he was admitted one month later to Harvard University as a third-year student majoring in French and Russian. He completed his Bachelor’s Degree in 1958 and taught German, French, Latin and Russian at a private school in Hawaii for two years, and then in 1960 enrolled at Yale University as the recipient of a scholarship from the Ford Foundation. He received his MA as a general linguist in 1963 and his doctorate in 1965 (his dissertation, entitled Idiom Structure in English, was published in 1972). He then moved to Chicago to teach at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), where he has lived ever since, though he has continued to travel and teach abroad, including in Singapore and Hong Kong.

Makkai has written several hundreds of poems in Hungarian, filling several collections. His verses range from gentle lyricisms to flamboyant experiments with form and style in which his own almost precarious existence as a polyglot who lives between languages is palpable. At times he resembles a ventriloquist, donning the garb of another poet, at times another era or even language. “Il faut cultiver nos jardins”, he writes in the fifth strophe of his poem “Az isten kertje” (which one might translate as “The Lord’s Garden”), intoning the voice of Voltaire, a line from the closing passages of Candide. But French erudition (a playful citation of a work rife with irony) quickly gives way to a mock (yet sincere?) “folkish” tone:

Il faut cultiver nos jardins
mondá jó Voltaire koma,
de ha hozzá kapám nincsen?
- Arról nem szól adoma.
Könnyű neked franciául
krákognod nagy bölcseket!
Minket az osztrák kiárult

és az orosz tönkretett.


How might one translate this into English? Should one leave the French in French? Would it be permissible to use Voltaire’s given name for the sake of (an easy) rhyme:

But we must cultivate our garden”,
Says old chum François-Marie,
But what if I don’t have a mattock?

- Adage not much help to me.
An easy task in French for you
Cough up an axiom or two,
The House of Habsburg laid us low,
Then Russians dealt the final blow.

The poem is at once an ironic remark on the pretensions of “Enlightenment” philosophy, a blend of stylistic and social registers (“chum” does not quite catch the folk-tale tone of “koma”), and a succinct synopsis of Hungarian history of the past two centuries. But the force of the irony derives perhaps most from the contrast between the philosopher’s smug maxim, phrased in a universal (i.e. imperial) language and the pleading voice of a nation that can find no comfort in the complacent bit of wisdom, but rather is bound to history. Makkai enables one to hear the voice of the Enlightenment as it must have sounded to the disempowered. Perhaps his most experimental work, and the one in which what he characterises as his schizophrenia figures as a particularly powerful creative force, is Cantio Nocturna Peregrini. The first half of the book consists of 96 different translations or adaptations (recastings, rewritings, or simply new poems?) in eight different languages based on Goethe’s poem “Ein Gleiches”, also known as the second “Wanderers Nachlied”. Makkai includes translations by five of the most prominent Hungarian poets of the 20th century, as well as the English translation by Longfellow and the Russian translation by Lermontov. These are followed by twelve “variations”, which are essentially original poems in German inspired by Goethe’s poem, and English, Spanish, French, Russian, Hungarian and Latin translations. The second half of the book consists of essays (I am deliberately using a term that has proven very flexible since Montaigne) in which Makkai presents his ideas regarding the relationship between linguistics and translation. Essentially he presents the argument that any translation is a creative rewriting, what he refers to as “anasemic” writing. Makkai expands on Barthes’ and Derrida’s notion of intertextuality. “The inter- relatedness of one text with another is not merely a matter of horizontal expansion”, he argues, “but essentially a vertical relationship. […] texts do not necessarily function as paraphrases of other texts; related texts can rather be thought of as the independent outcomes of their ancestor text, which is located in the individual or the national memory”. The poems in the first half of the book offer examples of this relationship between individual and national memory, poet and language, creativity and tradition.

As an editor, translator and scholar of Hungarian literature, Makkai’s most substantial contribution is the anthology In Quest of the Miracle Stag. Unlike existing anthologies ofHungarian poetry in English translation, In Quest of the Miracle Stag is both scholarly and historical, offering an attempt at an exhaustive presentation (to the extent that any anthology can be exhaustive) of Hungarian poetry from its origins to the present day. The undertaking clearly must have been daunting, and was fraught with difficulty. Translating poetry that is, even for native speakers, primarily of historical interest is perhaps something of a thankless task, since the translator runs the risk of being criticised for having produced something of little immediate poetic value. The publication of the first volume of In Quest of the Miracle Stag was met with precisely such criticism. In an interview published in Magyar Hírlap on 9 August 1997 Miklós Vajda, himself the editor of a collection of Hungarian poetry in English translation, made the contention that many of the translations in Makkai’s anthology would be of little interest to an English-reading audience. Vajda went so far as to suggest that the anthology might well dampen enthusiasm for Hungarian literature in translation. Vajda seems to overlook the importance of the anthology as work of historical scholarship, too. One of the many strengths of the anthology is that it contains succinct biographical sketches of the authors, and also offers footnotes of considerable value, noting for instance lines in 19th century poet János Arany’s epic Toldi that have since become almost proverbial. The Miracle Stag also sometimes offers multiple translations of a single poem. One may well have reasonable objections to many of the individual translations in the anthology, but if translation is more broadly understood as an attempt to offer an embodiment of cultural memory (however plural or contested this memory may be), the Miracle Stag is peerless as a contribution to Hungarian literature in English. No wonder Makkai treasures the review Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney published in the 5 December 1997 issue of The Times Literary Supplement, in which he wrote that the anthology “is a revelation, an inundation... and education in a great corpus of poetry insufficently known in English”.

“Itt élned, halnod kell”, writes 19th century Hungarian poet Mihály Vörösmarty in his poem Szózat, or “Appeal”, “Here you must live, here you must die”. This struck me as a strange and burdensome thought the first time I read it, but I am the child of another culture (perhaps the phrase “pursuit of happiness” has been my burden). For many of Hungary’s finest creative minds of the past century, forced to flee one form of totalitarian rule or another, this was not a real choice. Having been compelled to leave his homeland, Makkai even struggled at one point to leave behind his mother tongue and make the other languages he knows his exclusive home. “I don’t think I will ever manage to shake loose of Hungarian completely”, he writes. “There was a period when I tried, but now I realise that it is useless. I carry the language with me, like a turtle carries its shell” (“Anasemiotic Multilingual Poetry: Fact or Fiction.” 167). One is reminded of a remark Hungarian exiled author Sándor Márai made in his dairy, recalling Humboldt, “die wahre Heimat ist eigentlich die Sprache”, or “the real homeland is language”. Makkai seems to have been perhaps less of a schizophrenic and more of a voyager, someone who is at home in many lands, but also always elsewhere, listening to the harmonies of one language while hearing the overtones of another.


* From his book Dear Lord, Let me Die! The poems of Sándor Petőfi written after his death. The words are those of Makkai’s ghostly “Petőfi”.

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