ON THE TRANSLATIONS OF FERENC RÁKÓCZI II’S
CONFESSIO PECCATORIS AND MEMOIRS*
Bernard Adams’ English translation of Ferenc Rákóczi II’s two major literary works definitely fills a niche in research on 18th-century Central European literature as this is the first time that Rákóczi’s Confessio peccatoris and Memoirs (Mémoires) have become accessible to Anglophone readers. This timely publication aligns with current international research trends in the history of literature, namely that the past few years have seen an increasing interest in Hungarian and Transylvanian traditions of autobiographical writing. Its importance extends far beyond the limited field of Rákóczi research since Adams’ translation counts as an essential source text for a deeper understanding of the political, philosophical and religious tendencies that prevailed in the first half of the 1700s in Hungary. The author’s notes placed on the very first page of the Latin manuscript of Confessio indicate that Rákóczi set out to write his autobiography in Grosbois (known today as Yerres), France, on Christmas Eve, in 1716. He interrupted this work in the early months of 1717 to start composing his memoirs before fleeing into exile to Tekirdağ, Turkey. Whereas Confessio is written in the tone of deepest atonement and repentance, Memoirs was originally destined to be an informative text which reports on the War of Independence led by Rákóczi against the Habsburgs between 1703 and 1711. Besides providing an account of the circumstances that eventually led to the uprising of the Hungarian nobility, Rákóczi also makes an attempt to evaluate the reasons behind the failure of the war. The manifest differences that can be perceived between the two pieces of writing with respect to authorial intention make, on the surface, Confessio and Memoirs the two opposite poles of Rákóczi’s identity as a writer. Whilst such a sharp distinction might be justified in terms of genre, from a literary-psychological perspective the two texts cannot be treated independently of each other. Already at the moment of their genesis, they become intertwined and inseparable by the author’s faith in predestination and in earthly punishment. The repenting tone of Confessio resonates in the historical narrative of Memoirs, revealing that Rákóczi’s religious conviction leaves an indelible imprint in his concept of history.
Bernard Adams’ translation of the two texts is published in two volumes, each accompanied by Gábor Tüskés’ (Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Institute for Literary Studies) study at the end. Adams’ preface in Confessio is followed by Oxford historian Robert Evans’ study focusing on Rákóczi, the prince and the politician. Evans gives an overview of how the dominant ideologies that have characterised Hungarian politics and culture have formed the Prince’s reputation throughout the past three centuries. To fully understand Rákóczi’s oeuvre, Evans argues, one needs to see how the different roles he fulfilled – those of the Prince, the diplomat, the Christian believer, the writer and the outlaw – formed together the complex personality that emerges in his writing.
The first volume contains the translation of Confessio, preceded and followed by the two aforementioned studies. Confessio is regarded as a representative piece of religious confessions of Augustinian inspiration written in Latin. What makes Rákóczi’s work a truly invaluable source for literary research is the fact that it betokens a transition between Christian confessions and profane autobiographical writings imbued with a sense of spirituality. It is thus not infeasible to say that genre-wise Confessio is a forerunner of sentimentalist literature, which appears to be often identified with Rousseau’s Confessions. Also, the eclecticism surfacing in Rákóczi’s confessions can be considered a common feature of mainstream literary tendencies characterising the late 17th–early 18th centuries. Contrary to the conventional forms of religious autobiography, Confessio comprises several different genres which vary rhapsodically throughout the text. To give an example, meditations are interrupted by narrative parts or travelogues, and the same goes for the other way around: the author’s prayers and meditations are integrated into the autobiographical narrative infused with Rákóczi’s recollection of contemporaneous history, of which he was a central figure. While the Augustinian tradition of atonement and repentance undoubtedly has a major influence on Rákóczi’s mindset, one can also notice the effect of French Jansenism, and with that of the Port-Royal tradition of confessions. By virtue of its genesis and eclecticism, Confessio becomes a spectacular example of Hungarian and Transylvanian autobiographical writing. More than that, it portrays the Prince’s state of mind in the relatively long transitional period between losing the War of Independence against the Habsburgs (1711) and the beginning of the Turkish exile (1717). In this respect, for Rákóczi writing not only meant self-justification but it was also a way of self-reflection and spiritual practice in his search for a new life exempt from his previous sins.
Whereas Confessio, written in Latin, belongs to the intimate genre of autobiography, Memoirs, originally composed in French under the title Mémoires du Prince François II Rákóczi sur la Guerre de Hongrie depuis 1703 jusqu’à sa fin, were destined for a larger audience, primarily targeting the world of diplomacy. Although the author intended to provide the international political scene with an impartial and informative report on the War of Independence, he failed to fully achieve this goal for the simple reason that it reflects the same religious conviction as his other masterpiece, i.e. his faith in predestination and in the original sinfulness of man. Tinged with subjectivity and resentment, Memoirs give the impression of a defence speech rather than a historical account. Published in The Hague as early as 1739 by printer and bookseller Jean Neaulme, Rákóczi’s narrative of Hungarian political events became widely known to contemporary political and philosophical thinkers. Being practically the only source of first-hand information about the war the Hungarian nobility had fought against Vienna, Memoirs served as a reference work even if the reliability of the account was in some cases dubitable in consequence of its biased tone. Even Voltaire, towards the end of his Candide, made mention of Rákóczi’s Turkish exile.
Interestingly though, blending subjectivity into political accounts was not at all alien to the memorialists of the age, and this is especially true for authors writing in French. One needs to go no further than the political memoirs of Cardinal de Retz, Saint-Simon or François de La Rochefoucauld to see how organically one’s subjective experience integrates into their interpretation of history – and how little they pay heed to conceal their emotional involvement, most often a sense of utter disappointment. Rákóczi’s Memoirs therefore fit well into the memoir-writing trends of the age.
Let us now turn our attention to Bernard Adams’ translation of the two texts. Historically, the original Latin manuscript of Confessio was first published in 1876, followed by its first Hungarian translation in 1903. Another Hungarian translation came out in 1979 by Erika Szepes. A lesser-known fact about Confessio is that it had a French translation made shortly after Rákóczi’s death by a Camaldule monk, Chrysostome Jourdain; the critical edition of this manuscript was compiled by the Department of 18th-Century Literature (Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Institute for Literary Studies), and will be published by the French Champion in the course of 2020. What makes Rákóczi’s Confessio a challenging task to translate is the detectable influence of French classical rhetoric in the Latin text, including paragraph-long multiple-complex sentences, multiple recursions and free adjuncts as well as mid-sentence interjections. In addition, the whole text resonates of a pathetic tone, enriched with metaphors and allegories evoking the Augustinian and the Jansenist symbol systems. The linguistic complexity and the poetic force of Confessio are definitely its most characteristic features, which, at the same time, make the reading more difficult, even somewhat cumbersome. In his English translation, Adams successfully reproduces the pious tone and the spiritual atmosphere of the original text. Based on the Latin original and Erika Szepes’ 1979 Hungarian translation, Adams’ version enables the non-Hungarian reader to access Rákóczi’s world considerably more easily than any time before: having opted for a modernised language – with the proper names used in accordance with current orthographical conventions –, Adams produced a fluent and enjoyable text comprehensible to anyone interested in the subject area. The translator stuck to the original text in the sense that he preserved its rhetorical characteristics, but he made the intra- and inter-sentential grammatical relations more clear, thus facilitating the interpretation process. To this also contributed the aforementioned orthographical modernisation, of which punctuation was a crucial element. In comparison with Jourdain’s French manuscript, which was fairly inconsistent in punctuation and thus lent a sense of heaviness to the whole text, Adams’ work follows a persistent logic in using, for instance, commas to separate recursive free adjuncts or clauses from one another, or, similarly to the original text, semi-colons to link related ideas.
The clarity and fluency of Adams’ use of the English language manifests itself in his translation of Memoirs as well. From the reader’s perspective, what makes these two volumes particularly valuable is that there is no feeling of dissonance when reading the two books one after the other – which was the idea the translator genuinely had in mind. The two texts create an impression of stylistic harmony, thanks to the systematicity of the translation. The footnotes provide readers with the information they need to better grasp the cultural reality that formed the array of perspectives emerging from the texts. The selected bibliography at the end of each volume contains the relevant literature published in Rákóczi research, mostly in French up to this date. Adams’ work shows commitment and scholarly expertise, and his translation of Ferenc Rákóczi II’s two principal writings is definitely a substantial contribution to the field of 18th-century Hungarian literary studies.
* This book review is based on the following editions: Ferenc Rákóczi II: Confessio peccatoris: The Confession of a Sinner […], transl. from the Latin and Hungarian and with notes by Bernard Adams, preface by Robert Evans, essay by Gábor Tüskés, Budapest, Corvina, 2019, 386 p.; Memoirs: The Memoirs of Prince Ferenc Rákóczi Concerning the War in Hungary 1703 to the End, transl., notes by Bernard Adams, essay by Gábor Tüskés, Budapest, Corvina, 2019, 239 p.