Reuven Tsur



Occasional Comments on Two Hungarian Translations

Of Kiplings If



Rudyard Kipling : If...


If ......


If you can keep your head when all about you,

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,

If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too;

If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,

Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,

Or being hated, don't give way to hating,

And yet don't look too good or talk too wise:

If you can dream and not make dreams your master;

If you can think and not make thoughts your aim;

If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster

And treat those two impostors just the same;

If you can bear to hear the words you've spoken

Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools

Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,

And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings

And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,

And lose, and start again at your beginnings

And never breathe a word about your loss;

If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew

To serve your turn long after they are gone,

And so hold on when there is nothing in you

Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,

Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds worth of distance run,

Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,

And—which is more—you'll be a man, my son!




Rudyard Kipling: Ha


Ha ......


Ha jzanul tudod megvni fődet,

midőn a rszegltek vdja mar,

ha tudsz magadban bzni, s mgis: őket

hogy ktelkednek, megrted hamar;

ha vrni tudsz, trelmed nem veszett el,

s csalrdok kzt sem Issz hazug magad

s nem csapsz a gyűlletre gyűllettel,

de tl szeld s tl blcsszav se vagy;


ha lmodol — s nem Issz az lmok rabja,

gondolkodol — s ezt clul nem veszed,

ha nyugton pillantsz Győzelemre, Bajra,

s e kt garzdt egyknt megveted;

ha elbirod, hogy igaz szdat lnok

torz csapdv csavarja a hamis,

s mirt kzdttl, mind ledőlve Itod,

de felpted nyűtt tagokkal is;


ha tudod mindazt, amit megszereztl,

                        kockra tenni egyetlen napon,

s vesztve j kezdetbe fogni, egy fl

shajts nlkl nmn s vakon;

ha tudsz a szvnek, nnak s idegnek

parancsot adni, br a kz, a Ib

kidőlt, de te kitartasz, mert tebenned

csak elszns van, m az szl: "Tovbb!";


ha tudsz tmeggel szlni, s l ernyed

kirllyal is — s nem fog el zavar,

ha ellensg se, hű bart se srthet,

ha szved mstl sokat nem akar;

ha bnni tudsz a knyrtelen perccel:

megtltd s mindig mlt sodra van,

tid a fld, a szraz s a tenger,

s — ami mg tbb — ember lssz, fiam!


(Devecseri Gbor fordtsa)


Rudyard Kipling: Ha...


Ha nem veszted fejed, mikor zavar van,

s fejvesztve tged gncsol vak, sket,

ha ktkednek benned, s bizol magadban,

de rted az ő ktkedsket,

ha vrni tudsz s vrni sose fradsz,

s hazugok kzt se hazug a szd,

ha gyűllnek, s gyűllsgtől nem radsz,

s mgsem papolsz, mint blcs — kegyes gald,


ha lmodol — s nem zsarnokod az lmod,

gondolkodol — s becsld a valt,

ha a Sikert, Kudarcot btran llod,

s gy nzed őket, mint kt rongy csalt,

ha elbirod, hogy igazad rkre

maszlag gyannt hasznljk a gazok,

s letműved, mi ott van sszetrve,

silny anyagbl pitsk azok,


ha mind, amit csak nyertl, egy halomban,

van merszed egy krtyra tenni fl,

s ha vesztesz s elkezded jra, nyomban,

nem is beszlsz a vesztesg felől,

ha paskolod izmod, inad a clhoz,

s szved is, mely nem a hajdani,

mgis kitartasz, br mi sem acloz,

csak Akaratod int: "Kitartani",


ha szlsz a nphez, s tisztessg a vrted,

kirlyokkal jrsz, s jzan az eszed,

ha ellensg, de jbart se srthet,

s mindenki szmol egy kicsit veled,

ha a komor perc hatvan pillanatja

egy tvfuts neked s te futsz vigan,

tied a F1d s minden, ami rajta,

s — ami tbb — ember leszel, fiam.


(Kosztolnyi Dezső fordtsa)




All art, including poetry, is an elegant solution to a problem. On the verbal level, semantic accuracy or figurative language may demand one word, metre another, and rhyme yet another; syntax may require one word order, metre another, and rhyme yet another, and so forth. The poet must choose the best words in the best order so as to comply with all these demands. While the original poet has considerable freedom in shaping these problems, in poetry translation there is an additional constraint: the words chosen must comply with the figurative language, syntactic structure, metre and rhyme pattern of the original.


Accordingly, no translation on earth can survive a criticism which merely points out the elements that occur in the original but not in the translation, or vice versa. Rather, a translation must be judged according to the solution offered to the problems, and its elegance.


The translator must have his hierachy of preferences as to which dimensions are more essential to preserve, and in which dimensions he can afford greater flexibility. This hierarchy changes from poem to poem (and from translatior to translator). According to my scale of values, the translator must try to preserve the general movement of the poem: the prosodic and syntactic structures and their interaction; semantic strategies rather than the precise words.


Aristotle defined virtues in the middle between two (undesirable) extremes. Courage, for instance, is the middle point between cowardice and foolishly getting into danger. Kipling in If defines (nameless) virtues by two antithetical expressions — but with a twist. Sometimes there is a third expression which somehow contrasts to both earlier opposing terms, refining the definition of the virtue.


These antitheses are expressed in short, straightforward, parsimonious, epigrammatic clauses or phrases. These clauses or phrases are strung together in a way that involves no syntactic expectation. At the end of each such unit one may stop without expecting continuation. The ends of such units usually occur at the end of a verse line or at the caesura (in the middle of the verse line). Such structures amplify their epigrammatic, straightforward character. Only in the minority of the cases clauses are run on from one line to another. These run-on clauses are constructed such that they arouse least tension. The shorter a syntactic unit, the more it resists stretching over a metric boundary. Consequently, the nearer the beginning of a run-on clause to the line ending (or its end to the beginning of the next line), the greater the tension it arouses. Such run-on clauses may weaken the straihgtforward quality, but may heighten the integration of two consecutive lines.


Feminine rhymes are difficult to achieve in English. So, the systematic alternation of feminine and masculine rhymes in English is perceived as virtuoso rhymes. In Hungarian, feminine rhymes are easier to achieve, so the virtuoso effect must be achieved by other means. The virtuoso effect can be amplified by rhyming words that belong to different parts of speech, e.g., about you (preposition + you) and doubt you (verb + you).


The poem If has a peculiar syntactic structure: it consists of a single sentence. The main clause occurs only in the last two lines; what precedes it consists of a long series of parallel subordinated (conditional) clauses. The syntacic-metric structure of the subordinate clauses produces, as I suggested, a straightforward effect; the expectation for the main clause produces tension and suspense.


Both Kosztolnyi and Devecseri are considered in Hungarian literature as being of the best Hungarian translators. But, in the present instance, by the above criteria, Kosztolnyis translation of If is far superior to Devecseris. (If, however, you compare Kosztolnyis translation of Blakes The Tyger or Shakespeares  A Midsummer Nights Dream to Szab Lrincs or Arany Jnoss respective translations, Kosztolnyis are the inferior ones).


The first four lines and their two Hungarian translations may illustrate most of my points. Consider lines 3–4, omitting the subordinating If.


If you can trust yourself / when all men doubt you,

But make allowance for their doubting too;


At the end of each syntactic unit one can stop, without expecting continuation. In Kosztolnyis translation it runs as follows:


ha ktkednek benned, s  bizol magadban,

de rted az ő ktkedsket,


The first line of this excerpt contains a pair of antithetic clauses; the second line contains a third clause that somehow opposes the preceding two. The two lines are literal translations of the English original (with the necessary changes for Hungarian). Word order here is the most natural possible. The only significant change is that the order of the two clauses is reversed. But this does not disturb the principle that the virtues enumerated in this poem are suggested by two antithetical expressions. Now consider Devecseris translation of the same lines:


ha tudsz magadban bzni, s mgis: őket

hogy ktelkednek, megrted hamar;


In these two lines there are only two opposing units. The sense when all men doubt you is missing, and can be, at best, inferred from what is explicitly stated. This disturbs the straightforwardness of the expression. The two clauses őket / hogy ktelkednek, megrted hamar form a rather meandering sequence, far away from the directness of expression characteristical of this poem. Such a construction as őket hogy could be idiomatic in English (e.g., They that have power to hurt, yet will do none, etc.). But it is perfectly alien here, in Hungarian. The word hamar too is superfluous here, required only by a virtuoso rhyme, but is quite alien to the message in the original. Directness of expression is further disturbed by the strained run-on clause. As I said above, the shorter a syntactic unit, the more it resists stretching over a metric boundary: őket is an esceptionally short chunk, and therefore highly resistant to direct expression. One can compare the effect of this to that of the run-on clause from the first to the second line in the English original:


If you can keep your head when all about you

Are losing theirs and blaming it on you


when all about you is much longer, begins, in fact, at the caesura, and the effect is musch softer, less strained. In spite of the run-on clause, the three-part structure is preserved here too, but with a different distribution of the focus of the units. 

Kosztolnyi creates here end-stopped lines, very much in the vein of the second pair of lines.


Ha nem veszted fejed, mikor zavar van,

s fejvesztve tged gncsol vak, sket,


Losing ones head suggests confusion. Accordingly, Kosztolnyi writes If you dont lose your head when there is confusion; again a pair of clauses that form an end-stopped line, conveying a straightforward opposition. The phrase zavar van enables a virtuoso rhyme with magadban, but at the price of relying on the same metaphoric expression in the antithesis. But the translation compensates for this in the next line: nem veszted fejed — fejvesztve. Devecseri, again, offers a two-part rather than three-part construct:


Ha jzanul tudod megvni fődet,

midőn a rszegltek vdja mar,


Even the little that this translation conveys from the original meaning is in the wrong tone. The two words megvni fődet not only belong to an inappropriately high style register. But they are inappropriate in other respects as well. While megvni can be regarded as a more or less adequate translation of the isolated verb to keep, and fődet is an exact translation of your head, but the two together do not have the idiomatic meaning that nem veszted fejed (in Kosztolnyis translation) has. Thus, one can make out the appropriate meaning only by a complicated process of inference, whereas nem veszted fejed conveys it in a straightforward manner. The opposition between the two lines makes no use of the same idiomatic expression, and the very identification of the opposition depends on a much more complex process. Rszegltek does have an ingredient of confusion, but its main meaning is the intoxicated ones, literally or metaphorically. This has an element of intensely excited which is quite alien to the mood of the poem. The same happens with vdja mar. Vd may be regarded as a straightforward translation of blame. But the phrase (including the verb mar) adds two inappropriate connotations: grave accusation and pangs of affect. Thus, the virtuoso rhyme vdja mar hamar relies on terms both of which is out of keeping with its context. Blaming it on you has more moderate implications, rather something like placing responsibility for some fault. Kosztolnyi could easily use the verb vdol, by writing, e.g., s fejvesztve tged vdol vak, sket, In this way he even could gain, without effort, an impressive alliteration: vesztve vdol vak. But he preferred a more moderate if less accurate meaning.

Kosztolnyis second line is, then, far from being an exact translation of the original verse. Still, as we have seen, it attempts to preserve the general movement of the original. The last too words are the most problematic. The word sket is conspicuously needed for an exceptionally virtuoso rhyme sket ktkedsket. sket means deaf. It is hardly appropriate hear. To increase its requiredness in this context, the translator inserted before it vak, that is blind. Thus, the occurrence of this word becomes more motivated by the parallel adjectives, less arbitrary. It becomes something like the modern use of the Talmudic phrase חירש שוטה וקטן (deaf, fool, and small). By the same token, the reader may abstract from the two some common abstraction, such as defect, deficiency.  Admittedly, this is not a very convincing solution to the problem. But the line supports, at least, in several respect an environment that abounds in other elegant and adequate solutions.