Thursday, February 15, 2018

Sonnet for Bolyai -- and translations

     The Hungarian mathematician János Bolyai (1802 – 1860) was one of the discoverers of non-Euclidean geometry — an axiomatization  that differs from Euclid's geometry in its stipulations concerning parallel lines. This discovery of  an alternative view of space -- that also was logically consistent -- helped to free mathematicians to explore new ideas, and the consequences developed by Einstein and others have led to far-reaching results.
     Hungarian poet Mihály Babits (1883-1941) wrote a sonnet about Bolyai.  I learned of this sonnet and its English translation (by Paul Sohar and offered below) from Osmo Pekonen, a Finnish mathematician who is engaged in the project of collecting translations of Babits' sonnet into as many languages as possible.  (The original Hungarian version -- along with a Spanish translation -- is available here.) 

     Bolyai      by Mihály Babits              translation into English by Paul Sohar

     God had imprisoned our minds in space.
     Those puny things have remained prisoners.
     Thought, the hungry bird of prey fought the curse,
     but never breached its diamond bars' embrace.  

     I’m though a happy bird who manages to cope
     by peeking outside through a window of my cage,
     from nothing a new universe I learned to stage,
     like from spiderwebs prisoners weave a rope.

     With new natural laws, past the narrow sky.
     I opened up a new infinity past the thinkable;
     no king in history has conquered more than I

     by stealing the secret treasures of the impossible.
     Listen Euclid, your laws command you not to plod
     beyond your prison; I just laugh at you with God.


  1. Thank you for remembering Bolyai with this poem.

    1. Thanks, Paul -- I am so pleased to have your translation!

  2. After letting Osmo Pekonen know that I had made the posting above, I got this message from him:

    A joke is hidden in this web page that you cite:
    The text says that the Spanish translation is by "Wang Wei". However, Wang Wei lived during the Tang dynasty in the 8th century. The real translator into Spanish is Antonio Bernat Vistarini.

  3. Here you can find my attempt to adapt Babits’ sonnet into Italian. I hope you will be merciful.

  4. Thank you for adding this translation to the collection!