The University of California at Santa Barbara enjoyed a steady stream of visiting professors from Budapest. John’s friendships with several of them opened for him a window on Hungarian culture. His encounter with Sándor Petőfi’s János Vitéz dates to a 1987 visit to Budapest, during which Gyula Kodolányi and his wife, Ika, took John and his wife, Muriel, to the János Cellar restaurant in Danubius Hotel Erzsébet City Center. John’s eye was caught by the wall paintings accompanied by what were obviously lines of poetry. The painting at their table, showing a young man flying a dragon over a village with its church steeple, particularly entranced him, and Gyula told the Ridlands about the Petőfi work and the story it recounted. What John saw and heard piqued his interest, which grew into a desire to get to know the poem.
Searching for an English version of the poem upon his return home, John was horrified to discover that only one prose translation existed. His seven-year process of translating the epic began with a line-by-line transcription of the original, interlineated with a French poetic translation he had found and, based on that, the corresponding lines of the English prose translation, and then a line he produced through a word-by-word consultation of László Országh’s Hungarian–English dictionary. He was eventually assisted by Márta Egri Richardson, who pointed out errors in understanding and helped him appreciate some of the nuances. John described the process in some detail in his notes to the Hesperus Press edition of John the Valiant. His discussion of the search for the appropriate English metre to reproduce the effect of the original demonstrates his great sensitivity.
THE PREHISTORY OF OUR COLLABORATION
I had no inkling of John’s existence, let alone his interest in Hungarian verse, during the gestation of John the Valiant. Having grown up in Santa Barbara, I had moved to San Diego in 1971 to study at the University of California campus there. After my undergraduate degree, I continued there as a PhD candidate in physics. Born in California to Hungarian émigré parents, I spoke Hungarian but, having never attended formal classes in the language, my language skills became ossified at the early adolescent stage. Reading Hungarian was a chore, not a pleasure, and writing it was torture, used only to pen a few lines in letters to relatives ‘back home’.
It remained so until I reached the stage of writing my dissertation, at which point the idea of diving into Hungarian literature suddenly became attractive. I had bought a volume of György Faludy’s collected poems as a Christmas present for my parents, and on a weekend visit home, I pulled it off the shelf and began leafing through it. One poem caught my eye, then my ear, and imagination: ‘Ode to the Hungarian Tongue’. I thought: ‘Can a poem devoted to the idiosyncrasies of a language be translated at all? If it can, can it become at all interesting to someone who does not speak the original?’ It seemed like an interesting question about boundary conditions—one that also appealed to the physicist in me. Yielding to a weakness in my character, I abandoned the dissertation for at least three weeks to tackle translating the poem.
At the end of that time, I was highly pleased with about half of my translation, but the other half posed problems that were impregnable to my nearly nonexistent prosodic technique. With a sigh, I filed it away (well, I shared it with my mother and a few friends) and returned to complete the dissertation and begin a career in applied physics. What remained with me, however, was the newfound pleasure in, and devotion to, reading Hungarian literature.
In 1992, when visiting UCSB professor Tibor Frank and a group of local Hungarian-Americans organized the Hungarian Spring Festival in Santa Barbara, a visit home provided an opportunity to meet the Ridlands (my mother was already an acquaintance of theirs), acquire a copy of the Corvina edition of John the Valiant, and marvel at the grace of John’s translation. My professional life continued, undistracted by literary endeavours, for a decade.
OUR PARTNERSHIP BEGINS
My mother passed away in 2002 after a brief illness. That summer, I contacted the Music Academy of the West, whose summer master classes and performances my mother had attended with great pleasure, to donate in her memory. When, in return, the Academy offered to dedicate a summer master class to her memory and to host a reception for my guests afterwards, I chose the class taught by the visiting Takács Quartet. The Ridlands were again among the guests, and the reception provided the occasion for my first extended conversation with them. The conversation moved from the memorial occasion to the music (it turned out that the Ridlands knew the Takács members), and then to a discussion of poetry, and translation.
The next day, arriving back in San Diego, I went straight to the computer. I dug up my nineteen-year-old file of Faludy’s ‘Ode to the Hungarian Tongue’, prepared a clean bilingual copy, and sent it via email to John, explaining that I was satisfied with half the lines but not with the rest, and ending with an apologetic ‘just in case you might be interested’. Within fifteen minutes came the return email. It was terse: ‘Damn you, Peter: now we have to finish it.’ And so it began.
We did indeed finish the translation, via a series of back-and-forth email exchanges chewing over alternatives to the lines, each proposing alternatives for the other’s consideration. Gradually we converged on a joint solution. It was John who totted up the number of lines attributable to each of us; to my surprise and gratification, in the end John was responsible for 60 per cent of the total, and I for an astonishing 40 per cent: what splendid beginner’s luck! We had shown that at least one poem devoted to the particulars of one language could indeed be translated into another.
Now the question was: would anyone be interested in reading it? John suggested submitting it to Literary Imagination, and to our delight, they accepted it. A few dozen Anglophones must have since read the poem. In subsequent years, quite a few of our translations appeared in journals in the US, UK, Australia, and Hungary (namely, in Hungarian Review).
VIGNETTES FROM OUR ADVENTURE
One of John’s earliest published poems appeared in The New Yorker in the mid-1950s. He was proud of the fact that he (unlike his idol, Robert Frost) had succeeded in being published there at all; but it puzzled him that he had never been able to repeat the feat. He submitted our translation of Miklós Radnóti’s ‘In Your Two Arms’ to the magazine, and we were both thrilled when it was accepted, half a century after John’s first success. John happened to be out of reach in the Sierra Nevada mountains when it came time to proofread the galleys, so The New Yorker faxed them to me at my workplace. What a thrill to see the poem, set in the magazine’s distinctive font, and learn that it would be in print within a week or two! Then an email exchange with the assistant poetry editor ensued, roughly as follows:
‘I found no errors; it’s ready to print.’
‘Thank you, Peter. By the way, how is it that a poem by such a famed author has never been translated into English before?’
‘It has—just not as well as we’ve done it.’ (A bit of hubris, I thought, was in order.) ‘And never in a venue with a readership close to approaching The New Yorker’s.’ (A bit of flattery, I thought, was also in order.)
‘Oh. That’s a problem, since at The New Yorker, we have an unwritten contract with our readers that nothing they read in its pages has ever appeared in English before.’
‘What? So, if someone produces a brilliant new translation of Horace or Dante, your readers cannot enjoy it?’
‘That’s right. We realize that the policy means foregoing much, but it’s inviolable. Sorry…’
The magazine keeps a file of poems of various sizes handy for such emergencies, and they replaced Radnóti with the same yardage of another poet’s work. It turned out that when they had asked John the same question, he took it to refer to our translation, which indeed had not yet appeared anywhere. When I informed him of the outcome on his return, his chagrin was even sharper than my own.
My response was to don a literary marketer’s hat. Sándor Márai’s US reputation was still riding high from the global success of Embers, and I had just been given a copy of his collected poems as a present. I suggested that we take a look at his poetic oeuvre and see if we could produce something to catch The New Yorker’s editorial eye. John was initially sceptical: ‘Peter, the only writer in English who was equally great in prose and poetry was Thomas Hardy. I doubt that Márai will measure up.’ Nonetheless, I persisted, and the first poems we tackled comprised the wartime cycle published as Book of Verses. John warmed to the task and we happily continued, translating a generous selection of his oeuvre while recognizing that not every piece was of equal stature. None of Márai’s works was accepted by The New Yorker, as it turned out, but our full manuscript was picked up by Alma Classics, a small but distinguished publishing house in the UK, and the book appeared as The Withering World.
Our Radnóti collection came out some years later, from New American Press, as All That Still Matters at All. Both the Márai and Radnóti volumes contain John’s description of our aims and processes as translators, so I will not dwell on them here. Suffice it to say that I would begin with a calque—that is, a syllable- by-syllable mirroring of the original into English, preserving both its syntactic structure and semantic content. I also provided a close, prosaic but more readable English version, along with philological or historical footnotes I considered helpful. This would be followed by each of us attempting poetic renderings and extensive interchanges that yielded the final product.
Of all our collaborations, John was proudest by far of this book, both for the poetic and human qualities of Miklós Radnóti and for the standard of our translations. I, however, had a different view of it, for it offered instances of the pitfalls into which the unsuspecting translator can tumble. In particular, a ‘native speaker’ of the origin language who was either a small child when the family emigrated or was born abroad can lapse into errors of overconfidence. Some of them are risible—when they are discovered before it is too late. One example was a line in Radnóti’s ‘Fourth Eclogue’, wherein I misread ‘honnomat’ (my homeland) as ‘hónomat’ (my armpit); the notion of Radnóti longing at last to be able to see his armpit again luckily did not survive more than a few minutes in our translation. A more serious example occurred in ‘Hymn to Peace’, where I misread ‘éke’ (its jewel, its adornment) as ‘eke’ (ploughshare) in the line ‘forgó századoknak ritka éke’, turning it into the ‘the uncommon ploughshare of turning centuries’. This misreading (grammatical as well as lexical) at least had the luck to yield a biblical allusion—turning swords into ploughshares—that is consistent with Radnóti’s style in metaphor. It just happens not to be the image Radnóti chose. This error made it into publication, and it was duly noted in a critique by a distinguished fellow translator. That mixed some mortification into my own pride in the volume.
In the last months of John’s life, he and I were engaged in two projects: (1) making final revisions to our translations for the Trianon anthology, A Nation Dismembered, and (2) correcting the error in ‘Hymn to Peace’ and making a few adjustments in other poems, for a new printing of All That Still Matters at All. We finished both, but John did not live to see the resulting volumes.
A considerable fraction of our work has yet to find its way into publication. In particular, an extensive selection of Dezső Kosztolányi’s poems—which, in my opinion, includes some of our finest translating work, alongside the best of our Radnóti—has yet to find a publisher. In passing, I note that John quickly recognized that Kosztolányi equalled Hardy in attaining greatness across the prose–poesy divide.
John was that rarity among California poets of his generation, dominated by the Beats: one who favoured closed forms, reserving free verse for rare, specific instances where he held it to be genuinely the appropriate vehicle for the inspiration. His predilection for closed forms offered opportunity for constant joys in translation; one that I recall with particular fondness is our translation (unpublished) of Béla Markó’s heroic crown of sonnets, ‘A Wreath of Poets’. Each of the fourteen sonnets is devoted to a Hungarian poet, from Janus Pannonius to Miklós Radnóti. Following the strictures of the form, the final line of each sonnet forms the initial line of the next, and a fifteenth master sonnet comprises the fourteen initial lines. Since our translation practice was to preserve the original form where possible, while also honouring the semantic content, such a crown represents a stiff technical challenge, especially since English is rhyme-poor compared to Hungarian. What exhilaration it was to work with John and rise to this challenge successfully!
Becoming John’s colleague was one of the great blessings of the past two decades of my life. To enter a new apprenticeship as I approached the culmination of and, later, retirement from my professional life as a physicist was stimulating enough; but it is John’s generosity of spirit that made it extraordinary. Right from the start, from Faludy’s ode, I was not only a language informant but a colleague in the entire process. Yes, of course, he instructed me and helped me develop such technique as I have. Yet he treated me as an equal, while also a student, and our interactions were constantly leavened by our shared sense of humour.
‘Our little life’, says Shakespeare, ‘is rounded by a sleep.’ My work with John is an episode of my little life that was rounded by two sleeps: the final ones of my mother and of John, himself. Both lived to the fullness of years, passing away at the age of 86, and one cannot begrudge them their rest. But if I cannot continue to have the joy of their living company, I can rely on my memories to provide continuing consolation. And when it comes to literary pursuits, John’s voice will always be in my head, giving sage counsel—such as reminding me to look up words even if I think I know what they mean.