Bettina Simon’s Beach has been celebrated for its sophistication and complexity, touching on issues of mental health, childhood trauma, and the dynamics between mother and child. The collection is conscious of itself, at times ironizing its own words, making both light and dark of the human experience. Bettina Simon’s poems move like dialogue. “Noah” is the fourth and last cycle of Beach, in which an anonymous narrator rewrites the story of Noah, both playful and bittersweet.
“Noah” progresses through eleven different verses with the absurdity of a dream. Noah’s psychosis becomes increasingly evident with odd, disconnected observations of a world that may (or may not) be imaginary. We get a clearer outside perspective of Noah in the ninth verse, when doctors suggest “he had lost his mind/ when traveling by the Trauma Intercity Express,” though we can’t be sure what the source of his trauma is, as we don’t know which of these events happened in real life versus his imagination.
I first worked with Bettina Simon’s poetry at PesText, an international literary festival debuting in Budapest in the fall of 2019. We read and discussed her work in a seminar, followed by an open Q&A with the author, when we were able to discuss issues that came up in our translations. It was an amazing experience to be able to analyze the work with the author.
At the end of the festival, we read our translations alongside the original writers. Listening to Bettina read her original poems brought their dialogue character to life, and this gave a new interpretation to my translations.
After the festival, Bettina and I continued to work on later revisions of “Noah.” During this process, I was able to see elements that I had missed. In verse VII, I had misread the word for “heat” as “heroism” (hőseg vs. hősiesség), writing “His eardrums pounded with heroism,” rather than “His eardrums pounded from the heat.” Bettina liked this misinterpretation, as it fits well into the poem’s absurdity, so we kept it in the piece. This was one of the best parts of working with Bettina, as we could brainstorm together, speaking openly and creatively about possibilities for the translation.
When translating from Hungarian to English, word order has to be reworked in a way that the original structure or rhythm of the sentence is preserved, even though Hungarian sentences do not follow the format of subject + predicate. Hungarian uses cases, making word order more flexible. When words are stressed they are typically brought to the front of the sentence, the opposite from English. Many sentences translated to English are reversed in order. This has special implications for poetry, because the author chooses line breaks to give emphasis to certain ideas.
Another recurrent issue during translation was the tense of different verbs, as Hungarian has only one form of the past tense, whereas English has several. This came up specifically regarding the statement “[Noah] had lost his mind / when traveling by the Trauma Intercity Express,” which Bettina had pictured to be in a continuous form, rather than "had traveled by the Trauma Intercity Express,” as I had translated on my first impulse. These kinds of minute details continued to surface and change as we looked over subsequent drafts.
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