Once one of his first students at the English Department of the University of California at Santa Barbara, Robyn Bell gave a succinct summary of the life of his former professor of English, the poet and translator John M. Ridland. Readers of this obituary article published by the Santa Barbara Independent knew this tall, kind, and unusually learned man very personally. He lived an exceptionally long life, much of it in the gorgeous hills of Santa Barbara, one of the most beautiful spots of California. ‘John Murray Ridland was born in 1933 in London’, Robyn Bell wrote. ‘His mother was English, his father Scots. He was very young when a doctor suggested that John’s health would benefit from a warmer climate. Decisions can be made. The family relocated to Southern California. He grew up in Southern California, attended Swarthmore College (BA, Hons), and earned a PhD in Claremont Graduate School. Early on, his poems began appearing in literary magazines. One poem, New Zealander, describes an unlikely friendship that began in Northern California. The New Zealander agreed to marry him. Their most recent wedding anniversary marked 62 years.’

There is a special reason why we say such a heartfelt goodbye to an Englishman who became an American poet. To describe this reason in an unbiased, non-Hungarian way we may continue to quote the 7 September 2020 article of the Santa Barbara Independent. ‘John and Muriel Ridland visited Hungary in 1987. He fell in love with the folk epic János Vitéz (John the Valiant) when he saw the János Cellar murals in Budapest. Sándor Petőfi’s spirited poem is for children in about the same way Alice in Wonderland is for children. Though it first appeared in 1845, the poem remained practically unknown to English readers for more than a century and a half. To capture the spirit and the tone of the original Hungarian—which is virtually unrelated to other European languages—John worked with the text for seven years, helped by literal translations and suggestions from Hungarian friends and writers. His translation received enthusiastic recognition (which might be slightly unusual for poetry).’

As a Fulbright visiting professor of history at UCSB in the late 1980s and the 1990s, I was introduced to the Ridlands by one of my predecessors, Gyula Kodolányi, who taught literature there before me and gave very exact hints as to how to find his friends, the Ridlands. This was still in Budapest, just before Christmas 1987, when we were to start for the United States. I vividly remember how carefully Gyula described even their dog Cinnamon. No wonder that we quickly found and befriended the Ridlands (including Cinnamon), and I, along with several other Hungarians, started to help John cope with the translation of János vitéz into English. I clearly remember his careful, almost pedantic method of translating the original, adding three different versions of every line to the original in a large copybook, all by hand. The original line was followed by the French translation of Guy Turbet-Delof, Jean Le Preux (Paris, 1954), another came from the prose version by A. N. Nyerges and, finally, the new translation was to follow. It was hard, meticulous work for somebody with no Hungarian at all. I introduced my old friend Márta Egri to John and she sent from London ‘scrupulously literal line-by-line translations’ and a ‘recording of the poem by the actress Mari Törőcsik’—Ridland described his methods in his Introduction to John the Valiant.1 He also looked up every word of Petőfi in László Országh’s monumental Hungarian–English dictionary, which helped a lot. As someone aptly put it on Wikipedia, ‘John Ridland, professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara, released a complete, rhyming English translation in 1999 entitled John the Valiant. The translation made efforts to retain the informalities and tone of the original, such as rendering “Kukorica Jancsi” as “Johnny Grain o’ Corn” and “Iluska” as “Nelly” or “Nel”. Ridland received several honours for his work, including the Bálint Balassi Memorial Award presented by the Consul-General of Hungary to the United States [in 2010].’ Renouncing his copyright fee, Ridland allowed his English translation to be added to a Beash2 version of John the Valiant in 2001.

John Ridland authored some ten volumes of poetry, including a collection in Hungarian translation: Ballada Brahms névjegyére, 2004 (A Brahms Card Ballad: Poems Selected for Hungarians). I am particularly fond of the Brahms ballad: it was inscribed to me because it was based on my own vicissitudes as a collector of manuscripts and especially visiting cards: I had been trying to get a Brahms card since I was 15. It is essentially about all the ups and downs of life in general. A deeply penetrating poem by a wise man, I am touched that it lent its title to the Hungarian edition of a rich selection of John’s poetry.

John found a perfect match for his later translations of Hungarian literature. Peter V. Czipott was born in the US in a devotedly Hungarian family who taught their American-born son to speak and read Hungarian to the perfection. John and Peter started to work together on the poetry of Miklós Radnóti, published in 2013 as All That Still Matters at All by New American Press. As the translators put it in a note for this fine volume, ‘[t]ranslations are to their originals as reproductions are to original paintings, unable to reproduce the texture of the paint. But good translations will carry most of the poem across that aerial bridge from language to language, as we hope we have done.’

In the same year, Alma Classics published selected poems by Sándor Márai under the title of The Withering World, also rendered into English by John M. Ridland and Peter V. Czipott. Márai is better known for his prose and drama, but this bilingual edition of his poetry did much to spread his fame as a poet in the English-speaking world. Peter Czipott added a serious biography of Márai, while he was joined by Ridland describing their work together: ‘Here’s how we go about our collaborative translations. First, Peter V. Czipott types out the original Hungarian in boldface, then, in a smaller font size, not bold, a word-for- word translation—or rather, a morpheme-for-morpheme one (a calque) since the agglutinative structure of Magyar, a non-Indo-European language, is so different to English. The third line gets the content into decent English word order and syntax, and amounts to the first draft of the translated poem. […] This is then sent by Peter to John M. Ridland. […] John sends back a roughly metrical draft. […] the back and forth procedure has been our practice from the beginning of our collaborations.’3 Ridland also translated Gyula Illyés’s One Sentence About Tyranny, pieces by György Faludy, and Dezső Kosztolányi’s finest poems. All of Ridland’s volumes came with copious academic explanations, useful biographical studies, and charming personal notes.

It is fitting and proper to say farewell to this grand old man, this translator of Hungarian poetry into English, with the words of John the Valiant, translated by John Ridland:

John asked him: ‘What sort of an island, then, is it?’ ‘It’s Fairyland, Master—no place for a visit.

Fairyland; where the world comes to a close, Beyond it, the Sea into Nothingness flows.’

1  John the Valiant by Sándor Petőfi, translated by John M. Ridland, Foreword by George Szirtes (Hesperus Press, 2004), 11–12.

2 Beash is an archaic Romanian dialect spoken by some of the Roma of Hungary.

3 The Withering World by Sándor Márai, translated by John M. Ridland and Peter V. Czipott (Alma Classics, 2014), 236–238.

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