Saturday, November 17, 2012

The Siege of Sziget

My life, such as it is, is extremely international. I work in a multilingual, multiracial department with clients from all over the world. In my world speaking two or three languages is the norm, and almost all my colleagues are in bicultural relationships or part of a bicultural family.

About six months ago I started a project. I began discussing with my colleagues and their spouses about producing a series of epics and legends from their various countries. This has, to date, produced some very interesting translations (more on that later).

In my search for works that are (in the west) little-known, I came across ‘The Siege of Sziget’, a Hungarian epic on the Turkish wars. It was composed in 1651 by the grandson of Croatian Count Miklós Zrínyi, who, in 1566, defended the Fortress of Szigetvár against an overwhelming Ottoman siege. The poem is described variously as ‘one of the cornerstones of Hungarian literature’, ‘one of most important works of the seventeenth century’, ‘one the finest of European epics’ and ‘the last great European epic’. The kind of literature I love, so why had I never come across it before?

I contacted the wife of a colleague, I native speaker of Hungarian, very literate and a talented writer, and suggested she translate it as part of our project. Her first comment was about the length. Translate an epic poem of approximately 1,500 stanzas? A young mother? Not going to happen. Then, of course, is the sheer difficulty of translating Hungarian poetry into English. After the conversation I was depressed, not so much because it wouldn’t be part of our project, but because I would never get to read it.

Fortunately a very readable English version of ‘The Siege of Sziget’ has since been published. An authentic war chronicle describing the life of the sixteenth-century soldier’s way of life, it is also a romance, an adventure story and, among other things, a theological treatise. It is very human, but larger than life, occasionally fantastical. Its huge cast of characters includes the hero Count Zrínyi, an angry God, Sultan Suleiman, wizards, angels and demons. It’s a fascinating read.

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