On Reading Agnes Walder’s translation of her father Lajos Walder’s writings

by Serge Liberman

The Hungarian poet and dramatist Lajos Walder (born Budapest, 1913-1945), who wrote under the pseudonym Vandor (meaning “wanderer”), graduated as a lawyer in 1937, having been one of the relative few Jews permitted under the numerus clausus to be accepted into university at the time. He had already early seen his poetry published in respected literary journals, but, with the advent of the Jewish Laws in Hungary barring Jews from practising their professions, he found work as a labourer in a factory, wrote stories and presented children’s program radio for a living. During World War II, he served with his younger brother in a forced labour battalion; but, because the battalion had too many men and Walder was a man with a family, he was permitted to live at home through the earlier part of the war – during which time, he wrote his three plays to be discussed here.

With Germany’s invasion of Hungary on 19 March 1944 accompanied by its forced Jewish ghettoisation and systematic deportation, Walder was herded to Mauthausen and, in the final weeks of the war, to the death camp of Gunskirchen. Gunskirchen was liberated on 7 May 1945 by the Americans, upon which Walder and others who had not eaten for weeks, accepted a tin of meat from an American, almost immediately developed stomach cramps and, within a few hours, died in a makeshift hospital. He was then just short of thirty-two.

What remains of his legacy are three known plays and a substantial amount of poetry, which his daughter, Agnes, 18-months old when her father died – resident in Sydney and a poet in her own right, author of In the Fullness of Time: Experiences of a Second Generation Survivor and My life among Westerners: subjective ethnography of an immoderate mother (2004) – undertook to translate in the trust that her father’s profoundly humanistic themes and strong focus on the individual might find a more accepting salutary place in Australia than they could have ever done in communist Hungary. Moreover – and certainly on the Australian scene – Walder’s work is unique, unique in at least two other ways: first, in the words of a later Hungarian novelist and playwright, Gabor Thurzo, who has written that Walder was “a poet, without doubt a lyricist through and through, yet one whose every line and every poetic breath is pure heresy, pure rebellion against the accustomed forms of poetry”; and second, this time as Agnes Walder writes: “Always an iconoclast, he wanted to break down fallacies – to bring about an awareness of the need to examine the old, to show up its errors and downright lies, and not to continue with the resulting misery just because  it had been good enough for the last hundred years… In an era which actively suppressed and discouraged individuality, he affirmed that the only ‘way out’ was via the evolution of the individual.’

I have now twice read her Agnes Walder’s translations of her late father Lajos Walder’s collection of poems, We, the Twenty-five Letters of the Alphabet and his trio of plays, Vase of Pompeii, Tyrtaeus and Below Zero, finding still more pleasure on their second reading some sixteen months after the first.

On contemplating the work that Agnes Walder has had to invest in achieving so accomplished an outcome, I am led to state from the outset that ever since my high-school days when I acquired a substantial number of Hungarian friends in the aftermath of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution and the ensuing migration, I have been conscious of the pronounced differences between spoken Hungarian and English; while, in order to gain some notion of the hurdles that she has had to overcome on translating her father’s work, I have also more recently accessed material on Hungarian grammar and literature and consulted Hungarian speakers about the difficulties involved.

Through doing so, I have learnt that, being a language of Finnish-Ugric origin emanating from around north-west Siberia, Hungarian is totally different from any western language, and certainly from the Anglo-Saxon origins of English. Where English is more succinct in making a point, Hungarian is deemed more long-winded; where English has twenty-six letters with its vowel pronunciation generally determined by convention, Hungarian employs an expanded Latin alphabet, compounded by written long and short vowel variations absent from the former; where English demands consistency of tenses, in Hungarian, these can be altered almost at random; in addition to which, Hungarian has no gender differentiation, its nouns possess up to eighteen cases, its verbs are subject to complex conjugation systems, and its word order is “free”, so that sentence inversion is common to the extent that a verb, say, may appear towards its end, while futurity is often expressed in the present tense.

No light task, then, would Ms Walder’s labours have been in translating her father’s We, the Twenty-five Letters of the Alphabet and his Dramas to meet the guidelines to successful translation principles that I have adopted from other authorities; namely,
1. that the translated version of a work ought to remain true in content, spirit and intent of the original;
2. that translation should faithfully convey the ideas and style of the original and possess the ease of flow of original composition; and
3. that the translation should read as if it had itself been written in English, being simultaneously as felicitous to the drama and poetry of the original, as to the grammar, syntax and idioms of English.

Turning now more specifically to the dramatist and poet Lajos Walder’s works, and beginning with the three plays brought together in The Dramas of Lajos Walder, the first comment that warrants being made is that each is altogether different from the others.

The first, Vase of Pompeii, is a tragedy, inventively constructed in real time, but punctuated with re-enactments of times and events past in the life of a 60-year-old man, Monsieur Robert Lebordin, who, though a noted and respected authority on Antiquities, has failed in life and repeatedly lost the woman he loves, whether at 15, 20, 30 and 40.

The catalyst to this series of returns to those earlier ages is the coming into his life of a young woman, Angela, who, even though her persona differs in each of the re-enactments, retains that name, being variously a kept woman, an artist’s model, a prostitute and an American millionairess. Each time, Lebordin loses her, either because she is an older woman beyond his capacity, as an adolescent, to maintain, or sacrifices for the sake of an academic truth – the dating an ancient vase that his professional righteousness will not have him compromise – the end of this act marked by a delicious irony that his “truth” proves, too late, to have in fact been erroneous, this particular irony heightened by yet another relating to the woman whom he has yielded up, in the comment he grimly makes “Her husband is very grateful to me and holds my academic work in high regard” on the heels of his misdating of the original Pompeii vase –  the error compounded by an innate indecisive inertia and want of courage to make committed choices, a fact that is at least twice revealed to him, “You’re no tragic hero, you’re not even a victim of fate. You simply waited for everything to fall into your lap”, and “Tell me why you live so alone. Even when you’re with someone, you instantly want to chase them away.”

Lebordin, at sixty, too, comes to recognize this, declaring, “As a rule, a person who weighs up everything will choose the least dangerous, the least risky. And whatever contains no risk, is commonplace: the life of the grey ones”. But by then it is too late. He has spent his life avoiding engagement – with even the marriage that he has once made having failed utterly and been embittered by the hatred of his children – and resorting to talking in aphorisms and riddles”

“They are willing to submit themselves to the most awful suffering so no one will think they are suffering”;

“We tend to desperately love the one for whom it wouldn’t matter if we died”;

“The kind of woman for whom the salary which their husband deserves is enough, and for whom the man they deserve is enough”.

When, at last, he is ready to escape from being one of “the grey ones” and expresses his wish “not to live on, but to live!… to start all over again”, the play ends on the most poignant and pathetic tragic note of all as this last young woman Angela who has just entered into his life reveals herself as the real being that she is, (the aptly-named) Angela, the Angel of Death, with whom he must now leave – an ending reminiscent of Franz Kafka’s classic parable “Before the Law” in which a man submissively waits to enter through the guarded gate, only to learn on the approach of death that it was all the time intended for him.

Tyrtaeus is a play altogether of a different order and, arguably, for a translator, considerably more challenging. Constructed in the form of a Greek drama set in ancient Sparta, it carries the weight of allegory reflecting the 1930s and early 1940s when it was written. Without belaboring the point, Sparta is here the 7th-century BCE analog of the 20th century Deutschland uber alles mindset, that of a brutal totalitarian militaristic state whose men learn one thing and one thing only: the service of the Fatherland above all, for which they must be prepared to sacrifice their lives, in which women are mere chattels for giving birth to sons, where even children may be recruited for battle if necessity demands, and newborns who are defective in any way are killed, and in which brainwashing, punishment, bullying, terror and humiliation are all fair means of maintaining discipline among the Spartan army’s ranks, there being no place given for questioning, family sentiment or learning of any other kind – such as philosophy, mathematics and science – such as was to be had elsewhere.

Into this society enters an enemy prisoner – a poet and philosopher with a lame foot what’s more (shown in time to have been a Spartan himself saved by his mother at birth from mandatory death on account of his deformity) – who is incrementally given leave to introduce new ideas, new arguments, new strategies of warfare that are alien to the Spartan mind and who, even at the risk of his life, sows new seeds of humanity into a monolithic Sparta and new ways of doing things, to the extent that even its ruling ephors (community leaders or magistrates) venture to break ranks over their previously uniting rigidly-accepted hoary traditions, and to allow for the first time even a woman to plead before them for the life of her hunchbacked newborn child (in a speech which is among the most eloquent, passionate and moving in the volume).

What, to me, renders this drama more difficult to translate to the stage than the others is that it is at the core a play of ideas, philosophical content, conceptual concerns, and argument, didacticism and debate, in which abstract words in one language are particularly prone to potential imprecisions, approximations, ambiguities and nuances that may divert the translation away from the playwright’s precise intent. However, as I read it, Agnes Walder’s translation overcomes these potential difficulties particularly well. Not only do the theoretical interchanges between protagonists and the outcome of the didactic intent ring true, but also the two levels on which the play is to be understood – as a portrait of war-ridden Sparta in its own time and as a metaphor for 1930s’/1940s’ Nazi Germany – a drama capable of extrapolation to any murderous totalitarian society, in which the individual and his hard-won humane and enlightened social, cultural,  moral and philosophical values alike are subjugated to brutal and annihilatory ideologies, to rigid State authority, to denunciation and to raw dictatorial or oligarchical power. Keeping in mind both the linguistic difficulties of Hungarian in the first place and the separate demands of discursive translation, Agnes Walder appears to have proved equal to the task.

Below Zero is different yet again: a time-tethered situational drama in which successive layers of individual character and relationships are, with measured and rising tension, peeled away to reveal an inner core of deception, connivance, skeletons locked in the past, the desperateness of perceived entrapment and the erosive ache of normal civilian life passed by and lost to inexorable aging in a remote weather station in northern Quebec (an awareness of loss so desperate, as in the case of the station master’s wife, Patricia, that, to escape, she is ready to attach herself to any of the three men spending shorter work periods there), all this coupled with broader issues of marital fidelity, crimes of passion, murder permissible and impermissible – the plot of the play circuiting with mounting suspense and accelerating with unanticipated twists and turns towards a finely worked-out, plausible and highly satisfying denouement.

With time contracting in wait for a bus that is about to take the station assistant away, the parting exchanges between master and assistant mount swift and sharp, their long repressed animosities are unsparingly evoked, their needs (and those of the master’s wife) become more pressingly urgent, their repartee more caustic, cynical and derisive.

“We are frightfully alike in not resembling each other at all.”

“And if somebody is even a tiny bit decent, then we feel compelled to overestimate him.”

“Silence and solitude everywhere. The kind of silence that almost has a voice.”

“It’s not that I’m running from boredom, but I want to run after life so that I can catch up with it.”

“It’s not the city I need but a real man.”

And a passage (P. 284), spoken by Pepin, a double murderer of wife and her lover, who, in a splendidly eloquent sequence, delivers in his way a marvellous reprise of Shakespeare’s “seven ages of man”.

Lajos Walder’s plays are finely plotted, replete with aphorisms, wit and wisdom, deep conflicts, arresting heresies, sharply-wrought tensions and examinations of personal, social, cultural, political and existential issues and sophisticated unravellings.

If translation of prose is fraught with difficulties, the translation of poetry is still more so, with one literary critic and linguist (Roman Jakobson) going so far as to pronounce poetry by definition untranslatable.

However, insofar as poetry, like all other genres, must nonetheless be translated, Agnes Walder proves herself proficient here too, as in the plays, in evoking, among other qualities and themes, the tone, imagery, metaphor, grimness, often bizarre self-reflective jest, subversiveness of conformity, and, as a consciously and confidently self-declared poet and intellectual, his alienation from a world become ugly, perverse, given more to reading their savings books than poetry and being without government, like prehistoric man – with all these and more composed in the hold of the author’s sense of imminent death, foreshadowed inherent in his We, the Twenty-five Letters of the Alphabet, set in a period turned topsy-turvy and marking the end of decent human time; a world:

*in which even the letters of the alphabet threaten to go on strike because of the abuses to which they are put – propaganda, declarations of war, historical falsification, pornography, swindles and bloodied chronicles;

*in which a man alienated from the world nowadays goes walking

-in-arm/with myself./People/ look curiously/at this mysterious couple/ and do not know/whether/the woman is kept/or/the man is a gigolo?” (Arm-in-Arm).

*in which culture and its voice have become so devalued as to be fit for pollution:
“‘A poet lives here amongst you…’ I keep telling myself,/ each time I climb the stairs to the second floor,/but the underjanitor doesn’t even look at me,/and the rude little maid/throws the garbage directly on my head/from the third floor” (A Poet Lives Here Amongst You);

*in which a renewed paganism will annihilate all humanness from earth’s face:
“Sir, I will die tomorrow/and with me, culture will die./And the day after tomorrow/there will not be a human being on earth/only a nazi and a communist” (Last Human Being); and

*in which the living flesh-and-blood man will lose his individual name:
“Now they will call you Steve, possibly Sam/ you have your own name, your worries and your life,/but by degrees you’ll become a ‘concept’/ your fate: mass grave/your rank: heroic dead/and instead of Steve, one day/they’ll call you/the Budapest Division.” (The Budapest Division);

There are other themes and qualities that could be illustrated here – the poet’s insights into human mores and foibles, his sardonic humour and understated wit, his poetic protests against the social, political and cultural transformations of his era and dark prophecies of times to come, and more besides – so much so that, on contemplating the range of his themes and the clarity, mature intelligence and vivid, often pictorial creative ways in which he rendered them, it is not at all hyperbolic to suggest that, had he survived, Lajos Walder could well have emerged both as the voice of his age and a major figure of post-war intellectual reconstruction following the barbarity that had overtaken Europe, his own Hungary no less, at the time.

Specific thematic issues momentarily aside, what endows these works with still further merit is the patent  humanism inherent throughout the playwright/poet’s work: a constant presence that values life, values the individual and values his well-being, sanctity and preservation. In an age, then, that has witnessed in many quarters, particularly in the West, both the decline of religion and the failure of mass ideologies both well-intentioned and perverse, such works as these assume a valued literary place, whether in Australia or abroad. Further, with the plays set in different places, with specific references to the author’s native Hungary being minimal, and with the themes of both the plays and the poems being basically universal, they have the potential to “speak” to readers everywhere.

Given that these poems have been translated in Australia and published by a mainstream Australian publisher, a note concerning the significance of Lajos Walder’s work to Australian culture is not amiss. There is, in the first instance, the immediately preceding comment that his themes can “speak” to readers  and audiences everywhere. Further, in the nature of all writings created and published in Australia by writers from abroad – as was so prominently evident in the heyday of active and visible bi-partisan governmental, moral and financial support and championship of wide-ranging multicultural creativity in the 70s and 80s – Lajos Walder’s works open new vistas to Australian readers, introducing literary subjects, situations, dramatised philosophical exchanges, linguistic forms, theatrical devices and means of presenting them such as I have not yet encountered on the Australian literary scene. Although in these aspects, Walder’s works may be anomalous (certainly different from the norm) in what is perceived as “Australian culture” – itself a concept beyond any possible iron-clad defining – it can of itself only enrich, broaden and deepen Australian letters, potentially release other writers’ imaginations to extend their own themes and techniques and likewise lead readers and audiences to engage with an expanded breadth of ideas, with fresh ways of endowing them with dramatic and poetic flesh, with an enhanced keenness to enter into public discussion of them, and, through other sequelae as may ensue, to bring antipodean island Australia in still greater numbers than at present and more intimately as a valued player into the wider world of letters. This is long-range, to be sure; but, with recognition and wider notice being given to works as polished and accessible as these – their polish and accessibility owing much to the eloquence and flow of their translations – much good may follow.
*Serge Liberman, born in Russia in 1942, came to Australia in 1951. He is a medical practitioner, former editor of the English section of the bi-lingual (English and Yiddish) Melbourne Chronicle, literary editor of Menorah: Australian Journal of Jewish Studies, and of the Australian Jewish News for eleven years. He has translated fiction and non-fiction from Yiddish to English, reviewed extensively, published six collections of stories, three of which received the Alan Marshall Award while still in manuscript form, was himself recipient in 1985 of the NSW Premier’s Literary Award for Ethnic Writing, and is presently updating and annotating the third edition of his Bibliography of Australian Judaica.