Jerzy Snopek became a researcher at the Institute for Literary Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences in 1976. From 1985 to 1990, he lectured on Polish literature at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest. From 1991 to 1997, he was Secretary of the Hungarian Cultural Institute in Warsaw. Between 2003 and 2013, he was Professor, Dean, and subsequently, Vice-Chancellor of the “Bolesław Prus” Warsaw Higher College of Humanities.
Jerzy Snopek has authored several books on the Polish Enlightenment and a history of Hungary. He has also translated from Hungarian and written introductions, afterwords and notes to more than twenty books, including four volumes of verse and the political studies of István Bibó (3 books).
MG: This year marks forty years of your “adventure” with Hungarian culture. Perhaps you could tell us how you have entered in such an intimate relationship with Hungary and Hungarians.
JS: I do realise that when asking your question, you are somehow impersonating those who will be willing to read this conversation, for you know pretty well what the origins of my fascination with Hungary were. Yes, fascination is the apt word. Because you were there, at the roots. Or, in fact (do not blush, just take down exactly what I am saying), you were the root and the source. In my personal case, I first got fascinated with a certain Hungarian girl and then – well, shortly afterwards – followed my fascination with Hungarian history and culture. When I was twenty, on holiday after the first year of my university course in Polish Studies, I began learning Italian and, in parallel, outlined an ambitious plan for my life, promising myself to learn twelve foreign languages. Hungarian, which was later to become the closest language to my heart, next only to my native Polish, was not among them. And I did not know much about your country, either. I mostly knew about the excellent Hungarian sportsmen. Besides, like my peers, I knew the songs of Omega, Locomotiv GT, Kati Kovács or Zsuzsa Koncz. I heard a little bit about the Hungarian Spring of Nations, featuring Kossuth and Petőfi; the Hungarian October, with Imre Nagy and Cardinal Mindszenty. There were, moreover, Liszt, Bartók, the operettas, some movies by Jancsó – and that was basically it. Well, there was György Lukács too, a very popular figure in our country; his Theory of the Novel was a compulsory reading for students of Polish literature.
MG: How about literature, then?
JS: Before I came across a small group of Hungarian scholarship holders at the Warsaw Polish Studies Department – and you, in the first place – my idea about your literature was pretty vague. I did not really know it, I should say. What I knew was that Sándor Petőfi, the young and outstanding poet of Romanticism and a friend of General Józef Bem, was killed in the Hungarian Spring of Nations. At the first year of my studies, I got acquainted with a volume of Sándor Weöres’s poetry, entitled Kraj ukryty in Polish, translated by Miron Białoszewski and Grácia Kerényi. One of my mates encouraged me to read this; he was enchanted with Weöres and recited De profundis, in Białoszewski’s translation, with great appreciation. I liked reading very much; one of the books that offered me the deepest and the most memorable experiences in the years of my late childhood, so to put it, was The Paul Street Boys by Ferenc Molnár. But every second Pole would tell you the same, I should think. In that time, I also read some novel by Mór Jókai, a copy of which my brother had borrowed from a library.
MG: I can remember, you got interested in the poetry of János Pilinszky when still a college student.
JS: Well, indeed; it all started with a slip of paper on which you have rewritten, in your own hand, a Pilinszky poem – the piece of paper that was fixed on the wall by your bed at the dormitory in Kickiego Street. I was puzzled, first of all, by the Polish name of that Hungarian poet. A couple of months later, in the summer of 1975, I spent a few weeks in Hungary, and bought a collection of Pilinszky’s poems, entitled Szálkák, at a bookstore in your place, Hatvan. This is how my adventure with Pilinszky started, the first stage of which (hoping for more to come, as I am working now on a Polish volume of Pilinszky’s prose works) I concluded in 1999 by editing a Polish volume of his poems, entitled Apokryf. But then, back in 1975, I behaved with bravado, as together with Szálkák I carried on my way back home some serious Hungarian books, including a biography of Attila József penned by Ervin Gyertyán. The leading idea for me was, to be frank, to penetrate into the Hungarian language, for I kept in mind that such was the way Heinrich Schliemann, the discoverer of Troy, had learned his languages. Besides, I can say – half-joking, half-serious – that Hungarian culture has been the Troy of my life.
MG: Have you ever thought what you could have been doing had your life taken a different turn, without Hungarian culture – together with our language, of course – having ever appeared in it?
JS: To be frank with you, I have never looked at my own life from such a perspective. Would I have had a sense of loss, without being aware of what I have lost? And have you ever thought what it would have been like if we had not been united by fate – with you never having Márta, Panni, Juliska and Ignác? A thought like that is painful in itself, since the things we cherish do exist anyway; the rest is an abstract idea. As for me, I would probably have been dealing with the culture of my home country and, perhaps, with the culture of some other nation, Italian or Russian or Bulgarian, for instance. There were multiple options. But I should admit, indeed, taking into account my present awareness and real- life experience, that it makes me pretty confused to figure out any alternative version of my life. As you know, I am loyal not only as far as love is concerned but stay humbly loyal towards everything destiny has offered me.
MG: I do appreciate your approach as a translator: working on the works of poets or prose writers you like, hold in esteem, and find close to you personally.
JS: Is it so really? I think I would not be as resolute: translating just the selected poets, authors, and so forth? Well, I have translated a variety of things, really. It happens that one embarks on translating for a variety of reasons, without necessarily being fascinated by the text, or accepting it thoroughly. Being a professional, and being convinced that the text is not below a certain standard – moral, substantive, aesthetic; that it does not affect or threaten our sense of decency or, using a grandiloquent phase, our shared values. Yet, particularly in poetry, a translation can be masterly when you deal with a piece that moves you to the deepest core, one whose meanings and values we can see “clearly in admiration”. Such an experience is naturally true for outstanding works, above all. Based on my own experience as a translator, I could name quite a number of such pieces: from Petőfi, through Attila József, Gyula Illyés, then even Sándor Márai, up to Pilinszky – just to mention the classics. But some of the poems that have pierced me with a metaphysical shiver, so to say, have been produced by contemporary authors. I could obviously try and analyse the shiver as an aesthetic feeling, but in many a case the frank thing would be to admit that this cannot possibly be rationalised completely. What a translator of verse must strive for, at any expense, is to do his or her best to evoke a similar shiver of metaphysical dread or aesthetic delight in a sensitive reader who encounters the piece through the translation. I hope I have expressed myself clearly.
MG: In what ways do the Hungarian mentality and culture differ from what you can identify in your compatriots? Could you name the essential determinants that differentiate Polish and Hungarian culture, as a broad concept?
JS: One could probably try and describe the essence of Hungarianness, with the assumption that if the Magyars had once arrived in Europe from somewhere beyond the Ural mountains and, in point of fact, had no relatives here, their language being the one and only of the kind (from the European perspective), then some exotic, mysterious elements must exist at the very core of their culture. Stanisław Vincenz, our great erudite and connoisseur of various cultures, who spent the years of the Second World War as a refugee in Hungary, seemed to sense this peculiar Magyar/ Hungarian otherness in Endre Ady’s poetry, for instance. But I would not risk such an analysis right now. Although I have read a lot about the subject and even pondered on it, I would probably have to stay in a library and immerse myself in books for a rather long time to somehow tackle it. Let us not forget that a thousand years of Christianity, relations and intercourse with other European nations, mutual inspirations and interactions are no less part of Hungarian culture. Now, to pluck the core of Hungarianness out of all this would be a fascinating but rather utopian exercise. This core seems best perceptible in your marvellous language, which has so bravely resisted alien influence – even today, when the strongholds of other European languages are cracking under the pressure of English.
MG: In 2010, the all-science periodical Nauka published your treatise in which you critically analyse István Bibó’s views on Central Europe, concluding your argument thus: “The future of Central Europe, which is slowly integrating with the European structures, will be dominated, as one may expect, by a struggle for its identity, cultural sovereignty, and a worthy place among the continent’s major powers. However, above all, the region may be expected to share the lot of the whole of Europe, whose twilight, prophesied a century ago, is becoming a pretty real threat these days.” Well, it seems your forecast is coming true.
JS: I would not consider my diagnosis of the current condition of our continent (from ten years ago, the time I wrote the essay) something to be particularly proud about. Well, it seems true that the developments of the last dozen-or-so months have quite thoroughly confirmed my sinister forecast. But I was really astonished at the short-sighted and superficial – essentially, anti-European – analysis of the emerging threats, and the response to them, which came from the European Union. The leadership team of your country, and only them, have from the outset marked a commendable exception. The governments and significant portions of the societies of the Visegrád Community countries followed them, gradually. As you can remember, last year, in the climate of increasing migration crisis and the related political battles and propaganda campaigns, I worked on a translation of an enormous lexicon of the Poles who joined the Hungarian side during the War of Independence in 1848–49, authored by István Kovács, our friend. While getting familiar with the hundreds of dramatic experiences of my compatriots who fought for the liberty of others, with the independence of their own country on their minds, I thought of what Mickiewicz had once written about those exiles and wanderers: their supreme and utmost purpose was to return some day to their homeland, as soon as they could. For this is what they really did, including those who had fled, after the surrender at Világos, to Turkey, France, England, the United States or Australia. Even though they had set up a family and thrived in those new and distant places, hearing the news that an insurrection broke out in January 1863 or that an amnesty was declared, they would leave everything behind and return to their mother country, oftentimes paying the price of their lives. The great Hungarian poet Vörösmarty’s phrase “Here’s where you have to live, and die” has been coming to my mind no less frequently – not only with respect to those who are advancing and pressing forward on Europe from the diverse parts of the globe, or can do so in the future.
MG: You often say that if people read more good poetry, more intensely communed with works of “high culture”, then the societies might be protected, to a remarkable extent, against the effects of vulgarisation or nihilism, the atrophy of the sense of national identity, or the identity as a community at all. Based on what I can remember, it seems to me that back in the seventies, the everyday reality in Poland was not as brutal as it is today.
JS: You have touched upon multiple questions; we would need a lot of time to cover them to a reasonable degree. Let me just make a by-the-way remark: it seems to me that you tend to idealise somehow the realities of the Gierek period [i.e. the 1970s] in Poland. Well, I basically share your weakness for the seventies’ decade – our years of youth, in any case. Still, I stubbornly stand by my conviction that occupation with the noble products of high culture – poetry, music, painting – could have prevented the invasion of vulgarity, increase empathy, soothe the savage beast, and so on.
MG: What are you working on at present?
JS: I have some deadline-bound commissioned work to do, related to my employment with the Institute for Literary Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences. Besides, before the year ends, once my editions of the poems of Márai and János Oláh are published, I will be glad to see a volume of Pilinszky’s prose works come out, along with an anthology of miscellaneous Hungarian materials: poems by various authors, writings of Bibó, Márai and others focusing on the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, and, finally, submit for publication my book on Petőfi, which has been nearly ready for quite a time now, as you know. Yet, the “nearly” thing does make the difference and is unacceptable for me.
MG: An outsider might ask if you have any free time at all. Your acquaintances know that sport is your passion. For me personally, the most interesting thing is, I think, that you are fond of almost all the sport disciplines – except for water polo, perhaps. I can remember you saying that when you were young, you had a great dilemma of whether you should devote yourself to mathematics or football. As a result, your final choice was Polish philology.
JS: Sport has been my love since early childhood. I have never grown out of it; the difference is that in the past, my passion for sports was given also vent in my practising of it. Today, for a long time now in fact, it has been drastically restricted to a rather passive activity of supporting and cheering on. As for my penchant for mathematics, I have parted company with it, owing to a Polish teacher in my final grammar school year. I can remember myself exchanging the Kuratowski or Steinhaus textbooks into works of Shakespeare, Proust or Wyspiański. I think mathematics has not lost much because of that and I have never regretted the choice.
Some further examples of Jerzy Snopek’s work include an enormous anthology entitled Latinitas Hungarica. Łacina w kulturze węgierskiej (on the Latinitas in Hungarian culture; with Prof. J. Axer and Prof. L. Szörényi; 2013); the books Strażnik pamięci w czasach amnezji. Węgrzy o Herbercie [The guardian of memory in the time of amnesia. Hungarians talk about Zbigniew Herbert] and Tam na Północy. Węgierska pamięć polskiego Września [There, in the North. The Hungarian memory of the Polish September]; the historical monographs by Prof. István Kovács dealing with the history of Poland and Hungary; and, the Constitution of Hungary (2 editions). He also has to his credit the edition of an enormous volume of studies by Prof. I. Csapláros entitled Przyjaciele w biedzie. Związki polsko-węgierskie w okresie niewoli 1772–1918 [Friends in misery. Polish-Hungarian ties in the time of bondage, 1772–1918] (2004).