One is that, unlike most translators, who are comfortably multilingual or at the very least bilingual, Hughes was far more at home in English than in any other language: in producing these translations he often worked with preliminary versions produced by collaborators or sometimes by the poets themselves (such as those of his contemporary Amichai, a close friend). And secondly - and perhaps following naturally from Hughes's position, his particular competency as well as his limitations - is his minimalist, literalist theory of translation, reflected not only in these poems but explicitly articulated in the editorials he wrote for the influential journal Modern Poetry in Translation, which he founded in 1965 with Daniel Weissbort.
If Hughes was not among those skeptics and naysayers who believe that poetry is always lost in translation, he also believed that there was nothing to be gained by a certain kind of translation: one in which a translator is not so much a conduit as an active player. In an editorial for the third number of MPT (1967) he wrote that he and Weissbort held that in translation "the first ideal is literalness. The very oddity and struggling dumbness of word for word versions is what makes our own imagination jump."
In the 1982 edition of MPT he wrote, looking back, that instead of translations that somehow domesticised the original, "we favoured the translations that best revealed the individuality and strangeness of the original. This usually meant a translation that interposed the minimum of the reflexes and inventions of the translator….We were happily resigned, that is, to all the losses sustained by the most literal translation of the verbal sense. Most often, oddly enough, we found the closest thing [to the ideal] in translations made by poets whose first language is not English, or by scholars who did not regard themselves as poets….Yehuda Amichai seemed good in any translation, but the best, the most touching and haunting, were by himself."
Whatever the problems with this approach - and note that in emphasising a scrupulous word-for-word fidelity to the original, Hughes does not simultaneously call for a similarly close rendition of the poem's form, which is arguably as much a site of its meaning as its language - I took a great deal of pleasure in dipping into this beautifully produced and meticulously annotated volume (the notes are by Weissbort) and found lots of poems in it that I liked, some by poets I'd never read before.
Here is one, "Harbach 1944", by János Pilinszky, translated by Hughes from a crib made by the poet János Csokits. Pilinzsky (1921-1981), a Hungarian, saw from up close the horrors of the Second World War, doing time in German prison camps. His poem evokes, in a series of unforgettable images, the spectacle of a band of exhausted and doomed labourers working at night - a memory that, as the first line asserts, the speaker has never been able to leave behind:
Harbach 1944The faraway celestial troughs, death with its gates "flung savagely back" - these scything images are a reminder to us prose writers that we should always read poetry. Regular encounters with the intensity and concision of verse serve to discipline our work, our forms which encourage and allow for expansion, and can sometimes lead to us making lazy choices of words or phrases in the knowledge that there are masses of other words to distract the reader's attention.
At all times I see them.
The moon brilliant. A black shaft looms up.
Beneath it, harnessed men
haul an immense cart.
Dragging that giant wagon
which grows bigger as the night grows
their bodies are divided among
the dust, their hunger and their trembling.
They are carrying the road, they are carrying the land,
the bleak potato fields,
and all they know is the weight of everything,
the burden of the skylines
and the falling bodies of their companions
which almost grow into their own
as they lurch, living layers,
treading each other's footsteps.
The villages stay clear of them,
the gateways withdraw.
The distance, that has come to meet them,
reels away back.
Staggering, they wade knee deep
in the low, darkly muffled clatter
of their wooden clogs
as through invisible leaf litter.
Already their bodies belong to silence.
And they thrust their faces towards the height
as if they strained for a scent
of the faraway celestial troughs
because, prepared for their coming
like an opened cattle-yard,
its gates flung savagely back,
death gapes to its hinges.
And here is a very different kind of suffering - a lack with which the speaker has more or less made his peace - in Hughes's translation (in collaboration with Antonela Glavinic) of the Bosnian poet Abdulah Sidran's "A Blind Man Sings To His City":
A Blind Man Sings To His City
The rain stops. Now from the drains,
From the attics, from under the floorboards
Of the shattered homes in the suburbs
Oozes the stench of the corpses
Of mice. I walk seeking
No special meaning in this. A blind man,
To whom it has been given to see
Only what others don't. This
Makes up for my deprivation: in the south wind
That touches me I recognise the voices
Of those who left this city. As if they were crying.
There, scent of the linden trees, close.
The bridge is near, where my step and my stick
Will ring differently - more light
In the sound.There, now, right by my ear
Two flies mate in the air.
It will be scorching hot again
Brush past me,hot
Smelling of bed, smelling of lust. I walk muttering
To God, as if He were beside me:
'Surely nobody in this city
Better than me - better than me, God,
To whom you have given never to see
The face he loves.'
I like very much the absolute certainty (and the rhyme) of "There, now, right by my ear/Two flies mate in the air" as well as the closing lines, both plaintive and gruff, aggressive and defensive. The blind man says that he has never been given the opportunity to see the face of God, but surely he knows that even those blessed with sight do not get to see the face of God either. One might propose then that his meaning is angular: the face of God is the world itself, from which he is walled off by his blindness even though he is part of the same order of creation.
An essay by Hughes on János Pilinszky can be found here, and some more translations of Pilinzsky's poems by Michael Castro and Gabor Gyukics here. You might also want to read Lajos Koncz's essay "Ted Hughes and János Pilinszky". An exchange between Daniel Weissbort and David McDuff on issues of translation in The New York Review of Books in 1982 is here. Some more poems from Selected Translations are here, including the very fine “O fold me away between blankets . . .” by Mário de Sá Carneiro.
And an old post about another fine Hungarian poet - "The despair of Attila Jozsef" - and two recent posts on other poets in translation: Constantine Cavafy and Wislawa Szymborska.