AB: In the Yad Vashem Museum in Jerusalem, the official memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, there is no mention of the name of Miklós Radnóti. The great Hungarian poet, who was born in Budapest into a Jewish family, later converted to Catholicism, but that didn’t save him from being drafted into a “labour battalion” during the Second World War. Radnóti was killed on a “death march” from Bor in Serbia to somewhere in Germany. Too weak to continue, he was shot by Hungarian fascist troops into a mass grave near the village of Abda in northwestern Hungary. According to some witnesses, in early November 1944 the poet was severely beaten by a drunken soldier who had been tormenting him for “scribbling”. His last poems were found in a small notebook in that grave, in his raincoat pocket, and were published later with the Hungarian title: Bori notesz (In my translation Camp Notebook). This is what children learn at school in Hungary. I’d be surprised however if you had heard about him at school in England.

FRJ: Why Miklós Radnóti does not figure at Yad Vashem is beyond my power to guess. Among the great literary chroniclers of the Holocaust, Radnóti is indeed not as internationally known as Primo Levi or Paul Celan, say. One reason might be that (unlike Celan’s German), few non-natives can read Radnóti’s Hungarian – and another that (unlike Levi’s prose) poetry tends to be more resistant to translation. But resistance to translation can be overcome. With Radnóti in English, say, it has been overcome not by one definitive landmark translation, but by a constellation of translations (to which I am proud, of course, to have added a star with my version of his last notebook). These collectively testify to the excellence of his poetry. And English, of course, is just one of the languages Miklós Radnóti’s work has been translated into. As a result, Radnóti is far from being unknown internationally – and so many poets and other poetry lovers in Israel must have read him.

AB: I’ve mentioned Yad Vashem since I’ve recently heard about Radnóti being completely unknown there. But indeed, what about Radnóti in England, your experiences from the earlier days? And how did you get to the point to decide to translate Bori notesz? There is no Radnóti in schools in England, so the idea cannot have been from the desktop.

FRJ: As for schools in England – reading foreign literature, unfortunately, is almost always reserved for foreign-language classes. And there were no Hungarian classes, sadly, when I went to Doncaster Grammar School. I first came across Radnóti’s work when I was trying to teach myself Hungarian in the early 1990s. In 1993, my family and I visited a friend, Mária Németh, in Abda. Mária had told us where Miklós Radnóti’ s monument stood – just off the main Vienna–Budapest road, not far from where his body was unearthed. We drove there at a crawl: just a couple of hundred kilometres to the south in former Yugoslavia, war and state-licensed ethnic murder had returned to Europe, which meant that this road now carried all the traffic between Western Europe and the Bosporus. A scramble up an embankment brought us to the old brick road: in the middle of it was the statue of an exhausted man in a windswept overcoat. All three of us were silent for a long time, I recall, even our young son.

AB: What happened later? With you and this exhausted man in a windswept overcoat and his unforgettable poetry? Once you pick him up, you can never get rid of him.

FRJ: Later, Mária sent me the Helikon facsimile edition of that last notebook, Bori notesz. I started reading it painstakingly, with a dictionary. The sheer power of the poems blew me away. Here was a major Hungarian poet, literate in the poetries of Europe and beyond, writing from the twentieth century’s darkest abyss – writing about that abyss, but also surmounting it with verse of universal value. With its themes of imprisonment, exile, absence from and yearning for the beloved, hope and despair, I caught echoes of other great world poets. For instance, Seventh Eclogue (“The moon is shining on the land, and the wires are tightening / in her light again”, in my version) reminded me of Li Po’s poems of exile twelve hundred years before and half a world away (“Lifting my head/ I watch the bright moon, / Lowering my head / I dream that I’m home”[1]). To try to make the reading easier, I found an English translation (I’d rather not say whose) of these poems in my local bookshop – but I found the versions disappointingly over-intellectualised and distant. So I felt I had no option but to start translating Bori notesz myself.

AB: Lets put the other translations aside then for the moment, especially if they are so, as you say, disappointingly over-intellectualised. The main thing is that you had this strong pull: you had to make your own version of his poetry in English. But, as you also said, you started reading it painstakingly, with a dictionary. Was there help from anyone else in the translating process? Did you keep to the original or rather make some sort of free translation by yourself? The editor’s note in your Bori notesz says: there is a prevailing view of translated poetry, especially in England, which maintains that it should read as though it had been written in English. Also it says that the translators of poets aim not to hide but to reveal the original.

FRJ: Forme, it’s important to keep as near as possible to the meanings of the original poem, but also to give the original poet – Radnóti, in this case – a convincing poetic voice in English. Normally that’s seen as an opposition – “content vs. form”, “faithful vs. beautiful”, etc. But for me the plural, meanings, isimportant:therearemultiplelayersofmeaninginanywell-writtenpoem. Of course, semantics and image are crucial layers. But there’s also feel, emotion, sound and style – and giving Radnóti a convincing poetic voice involves keeping “near to the original” in this way too.

AB: In practical terms?

FRJ: In practical terms, I do this by tackling different layers in different drafts. The last verse of Gyökér (Root), for example, is:

Virág voltam, gyökér lettem,

súlyos, sötét föld felettem,

sorsom elvégeztetett,

fűrész sír fejem felett.

Before starting to translate a poem, I read it through for overall meaning – and for form, which I record on the left-hand page of my notebook. For Gyökér, this was:

syllabic metre: 8, 7, 7;

½-rhyme ABB, CDD, etc. (final verse 8 8 7 7 AABB)


I then hand-write a literal translation on the right-hand page, using the dictionary. My Radnóti notebook has this in black pen:

I was a flower/blossom, I became [a] root,

heavy, dark earth above me,

my fate has been accomplished/achieved,

a saw weeps over/above my head.

I then put it away for a few days – was it Flaubert who said that “time in the drawer” is crucial for creativity? The next draft takes most time: choosing an English form that suits the original content, and then playing about with synonyms and different ways of saying the same thing, until I get something that fits formally. For me, the relentless trochaic rhythm of Radnóti’s 8–7-syllable tetrameters gave a crucial level of meaning – they parallel the poem’s image of the poet driven underground to survive as a root. So I decided to reproduce this rhythm closely in English. Switching to red pen (so as not to hide the black literal), I laboriously constructed these lines:

Blossom once, a root I

I’m a root who was a flower,

earth’s above me, heavy, dour,

now my fate has run its course,

now weep the

overhead wait weeping saws.

wait mourning

But getting a version that works involves lots of revisions. Later, in green, I tried out various alternatives, eventually returning to the first two red lines, but rewriting the last two:

come full course, my fate’s achieved,

overhead, the saw now grieves,

Of course, it’s not always possible to convey all levels of meaning in an original (and only those meanings, as the addition of “come full course” shows). Then, if there’s a conflict between conveying the source poet’s voice and staying exactly literal, I’ll always let go of the literal, tweaking the semantic details until I get a line with the right sound, nuance and feel. That’s because I strongly believe that a translated poem has to read like a poem in the target language, so that – in my case – it convinces the English reader that Radnóti is a great poet. If it doesn’t, you’ve lost it. Of course, there’s a fine line here, as the editor’s note points out. Aiming for a version that “reads as though it had been written in English” risks “hiding the original” in the sense of concealing Radnóti’s original voice: making it a Francis Jones poem that re-uses Radnóti’s building blocks, say, or domesticating Radnóti’s style into a clone of Auden. Instead, I saw myself as finding a style that Radnóti might have used if he had written in English, which inevitably meant a certain it’s-English-but-not-as-we-know-it flavour – Radnóti wasn’t Auden, but Radnóti. That is why I kept Gyökér’s trochaic half-rhyme structure, say, though it is unusual to English ears: an iambic full-rhyme structure or free verse would be much more normal for mid-20th-century English poetry.

AB: A few more words, please, about the external help. About those, as you write in your book, who believed in your translating project, encouraged you along, and finally made sure it bore fruit. And especially about that help you got creating an English text that tries to echo not only Radnóti’s words, but his music too.

FRJ: The next draft, which I type onto the computer, polishes for voice and style. And that brings me to your question about help from other people. I always try to have this draft read by someone who is a native reader of the source language, but also has a feel for poetry – to see if I’ve misread anything, or missed an idiom or nuance that had gone over my non-native-reader head. This is especially important for Hungarian because I can read with a dictionary, but I haven’t spent enough time in a Hungarian-speaking environment to develop a gut feeling for the language. With Radnóti, I was lucky enough to have a network of people willing to comment on my versions, and put me right where necessary: Mária Németh again, but also Árpád Asztalos, and Edina and Kristóf Vadovics. Also, what I don’t always have, but which is really inspiring when I do, is an English native writer to help me fine-tune my versions before sending them to the publisher. One of my colleagues at Newcastle University, Brian Holton, is an eminent translator of Chinese poetry. Bouncing translation ideas off each other over beers played a key role in fine-shaping the final version of Bori notesz / Camp Notebook – and (I like to think) Brian’s versions of Yang Lian’s poetry.


Bori notesz / Camp Notebook is a bilingual book published by Arc Publications, Visible Poets Series 2000. – Arc Publications, also known as Arc, is an independent publishing house in the UK, publishing contemporary poetry from new and established writers from the UK and abroad.

1 Translated by Arthur Cooper, 1973

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