Who would have thought of John M. Ridland as an ambassador of American diplomacy? Well, that is what he was, and while he would probably have rejected such a title, he was a very successful one, making friends for the United States.

Most people think of diplomacy as a formal occupation involving representatives of different countries working together on common problems, negotiating on arms control, human rights, climate change, business development, and the like, with a sprinkling of consular work issuing visas and passports, or assisting our fellow citizens when they get sick or run into trouble.

Indeed, during my six years serving in Hungary, from the early to the late nineties, such efforts bore much success, as we supported Hungary in its re-entry into the Western world, including NATO and the EU, and worked together to bring peace to Bosnia, and later to Kosovo and Serbia. US business flocked to Hungary, and we in the embassy collaborated with the government, mayors, and the American Chamber of Commerce to bring US investment to under-represented regions of eastern Hungary. We tried hard to convince the Hungarian government to replace its MIG fighter planes with American F-16s (we failed—they chose Swedish-made Saab Gripens instead). On other fronts, our efforts ultimately led to Hungary’s admittance to the US visa waiver programme. We were there to provide assistance when Hungary faced devastating floods from Romania on the Tisza River, and there were dozens of other positive developments achieved through traditional diplomacy.

But under the radar and out of the headlines is where much of the real success of building trust between countries is accomplished. Cultural and educational exchanges are part of the fun of diplomacy, where people to people connections are made and the foundations laid for long-term friendship between nations.

In 1999, John Ridland and his wife Muriel came to Hungary at the invitation of the US Embassy to share with a Hungarian and American audience his translation of Sándor Petőfi’s epic poem János Vitéz, or, in English, John the Valiant.

A beautiful bilingual edition, with drawings by the Hungarian-American art historian and artist Peter Meller, had been published by Corvina Books. Over the course of a few days in Budapest, John, Muriel, and Peter met with poets and other Hungarians from the literary world. The highlight was an evening at our residence in Budapest where John read parts of his translation, while Hungarian actor András Stohl from the Katona József Theatre read from the original. It was memorable, as our Hungarian guests heard the poem they had first listened to in their childhood read aloud in English by a renowned American poet who had come to love the work enough to translate it himself.

Many of us from the embassy, of course, knew of Petőfi as the famous poet of Hungary’s 1848–1849 War of Independence, who was killed in the last battle by the tsar’s army sent to assist the Austrian emperor. His ‘Nemzeti dal’ (National Song) has as much resonance to Hungarians as their national anthem. But when we arrived in Budapest, few of us had read this playful epic, which forms part of the education of so many Hungarian children.

How did John come to take on this challenge? He had paid a visit to Budapest many years before, and his friend and fellow poet Gyula Kodolányi had taken him to János Pince, a restaurant where the walls were covered with paintings telling the story of János Vitéz. Gyula told him part of the story. When John returned to the States, he found a translation and read the entire epic. He was entranced.

The positive effects of our cultural and educational exchanges again came into play. Gyula, whom many of us got to know as the senior foreign affairs and security policy adviser to liberated Hungary’s first prime minister, József Antall, and Tibor Frank, professor of history, including US diplomatic history, at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, had been in the States as Fulbright scholars, working at John’s University of California at Santa Barbara. There they became good friends. A Hungarian colleague of Tibor’s, Márta Egri, talked to John about the poem, and offered to help by creating for him a crib, or rough translation. Working with Márta, and receiving comments from the noted Anglo-Hungarian poet George Szirtes, he was able to render the unique spirit and savour of the original, and to complete the marvellous translation in the nineties, parts of which we heard in our home in 1999.

But John Ridland’s involvement with Petőfi’s verse epic did not end there. A few years later, he succeeded in having a three-language edition published in Pécs, with the second translation in the Roma language. Roma children had added illustrations to the book, and the city fathers in Pécs pulled out all the stops when John and Muriel arrived for the readings. Another example of John’s stepping up to help a Hungarian minority with a different native language engage more fully with this wonderful poem.

Years later, I was posted to our embassy in Ljubljana, Slovenia. While there I visited the eastern part of the country, bordering on Hungary, where much of the population speaks Hungarian. (The former president of Slovenia and the head of the armed forces, both of whom I worked closely with, spoke the language.) So it seemed a natural to invite John and Muriel back in 2007 to address a gathering of Slovenians of Hungarian descent, and read to them an English version of a poem most would have known since childhood. The Hungarian ambassador and I put together a programme for John and Muriel in Slovenia, where again we had a charming couple of evenings with John the Valiant in both languages, as well as John the American reading some of his own poetry. The Hungarian ambassador even found someone to translate parts of János Vitéz into Slovenian. From Lendava in Slovenia they returned to Budapest for another sojourn and readings.

What was most impressive was that he had taken a work so dear to Hungarians and translated it as an epic poem in English. He had shown his admiration and respect, and even love for their culture, and in doing so he made friends for America.

John continued over the years to translate Hungarian poetry into English with the help of Márta Egri, George Szirtes, Gyula Kodolányi, and Péter Czipott, including selected poems of Miklós Radnóti and Sándor Márai. To return the gesture, Gyula and other Hungarian poets translated some of his fine lyric poetry into Hungarian for a book of his own published in Budapest.

Nor was he afraid to voice his political views. In 2014, he wrote a frolicsome epic Lincolniad, where he had Honest Abe roast ‘The Party of Lincoln’: ‘If I had to vote with some of them hearties, I truly believe I’d be switchin’ parties.’ In 2018, he skewered Donald Trump with a rap poem in the style of Lin Manuel Miranda. He was not happy with the direction his country and many countries in the world were taking, and his poetry did not shy away from that.

John and I kept in touch over the years but, living on opposite coasts of the US, we never managed to get together again. I hear his wonderful voice in my head as I read his poems. He and Muriel had become, over a short period of time, good friends. As a diplomat, I always appreciated how the two of them had come to two foreign countries and helped us strengthen our cultural ties. In so doing, John was a true American ambassador. As I told him when I last saw him, fourteen years ago: ‘You have done a good thing for America.’ He had also done a good thing for Hungary and Hungarians.

I miss him, but his work lives on.

Most recent

Newsletter signup

Like it ? Share it !

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on pocket
Share on email