On the Pains of Translating Miklos Radnoti

“On the Pains of Translating Miklos Radnoti”
(The great Hungarian poet shot by the Nazis in 1944. His mother and twin brother died in childbirth.)

And now I too must wrestle with a brother
Whose dead limbs cumber me within the womb,
Whose grief I pity, but whose cord of nurture
Glides dreadful and unseen in this blind gloom.

That angel, who took Cain to be his mirror,
Knew how to die, knew how to share a grave;
Sometimes he almost overcrows my spirit,
His great feathered wings beating in the cave–

My elder brother died as I first opened
My lips in speech instead of in a scream;
Now he returns to claim the voice I borrowed,
Now he returns, the hero of my dream.

How can I share the lifeblood of our mother?
How can I let his dead voice steal my breath?
But how indeed could I deny my brother
Who, reckless, bought my birthright with his death?

For all alone among that generation
He kept the faith that I have made my name,
That ancient grace, that hard emancipation,
The love of form that touches us like flame.

What can I do but open to his service
The pulse and wordstream of the mother tongue?
Thus I subdue myself and hear him singing
Out of the land of shades where none have sung.

Could I, the western democrat, professor,
Father, essayist, of middle age,
Be given any greater gift than this is,
To share the passion of his vassalage?