Hungarian Chaucer


Back in November 2016, I received a delightful parcel from my cousin, Shanna Buck, who regularly shuttles between Pampa, Texas, and Budapest, Hungary. Inside were copies of of Szenczi Miklós’ 1961 translation, Canterbury Mesék, and Júlia Képes’ 1986 translation, Troilus és Cressida! What a treat!

Although the outside windchill is 10 degrees F, the opening lines of the Prológus intially put me in a hopeful, springtime spirit:

Ha édes záporait április

a szomjas földre önti, lenne friss,

hadd kortyolhasson a mohó gyökér,

s virág serkenjen: sárga, kék, fehér;

ha Zephyrus fuvalma édesen

szétkóborol erdökön, réteken

s bont új rügyet; ha már a zsenge nap

a Kos felén tul víg eröre kap….

As I looked more closely, though, I gathered that my sense of hope was my own projection, not what the Hungarian text conveyed. Let me explain.

Without any knowledge of Hungarian, it is clear that the translation marks each of Chaucer’s “What that…” clauses with “Ha,” a word that Google Translate equates with English “If” and only “If.” When I translate the passage into French, I get the same: “Si” and not “Quand.”  This conditional, “Ha,” transforms Chaucer’s “Whan” from a marker of seasonal events that regularly and cyclically happen to a marker of events that might happen. Moreover, there’s something about “édes” (which Google Translate translates as “sweet” when it stands along) that marks “áprilles” with a first-person possessive, “my” when it is returned to the entire line.  In this translation, Miklós seems to be taking possession (and responsibility) of springtime events that may not happen–or at least seemed they might not ever happen in 1961 Hungary.

Of course, this is all conjectural.  I’m relying not on my knowledge of Hungarian but on Google Translate, a resource of variable reliability.  It’s also unclear to me how many other translators were involved in the project; perhaps as many as another ten “Fordította” contributed to the translation.  Nevertheless, it seems to me that Canterbury Mesék and Troilus és Cressida can tell us a great deal about medieval and English literature’s reception in the Hungarian People’s Republic (1949-1989).  I’m eager to get started on this work.