Találkozásunk óta, 1980-tól
számos verset írtam feleségemnek,
Marinak. Ezt a kötetet az ő
hatvanadik születésnapja alkalmából
állítottam össze hálám és szeretetem jeléül.
Since 1980, the year we met,
I have written many poems
to and about Mari. I have compiled
this book for her sixtieth birthday
as token of my gratitude and love.
On Translating George Gömöri
When I first met George Gömöri in (I think) 1970, I had read a handful of poems by Ferenc Juhasz in David Wevill’s very convincing translations. I don’t think I’d heard of any other Hungarian poet. But though I had never been to Hungary, I was not wholly ignorant of the place.
I had learnt something of Hungarian history at school, especially of the uprising of 1848; and I remembered with some intensity the comparable events of 1956. That year was crucial to my education. Not only was it the year of the Hungarian Revolution, as we called it, but also of the disastrous Suez adventure. It might be expected that, for an 11- year old English schoolboy, the end of British imperial power outweighed the Central European drama, but this was not the case. My widowed mother, who earned her living by taking lodgers, agreed to give a temporary home to a 13-year old Hungarian girl, a refugee who needed to learn English as quickly as possible. Her stories of tanks in the streets of Budapest and her family’s escape on foot across the Austrian border affected me more deeply than anything I’d seen in the papers or heard on the radio.
I was not conscious of the fact in 1970, but it now seems obvious to me that my first meeting with George Gömöri revived subconscious memories of that girl, the stories she’d told and the images she’d generated. Eleven years older than me, George had been directly involved in the conflict. I wanted to hear about that involvement and to read a poetry that grew from such commitments. I was not alone. In Britain in the early 1970s there was a growing interest in the poetry of what we then called ‘Eastern Europe’ – a poetry very different from our own, produced by very different circumstances, and therefore inimitable – yet not for that reason not to be learned from. Many did learn from it and several have written about what they learnt – Seamus Heaney and Ted Hughes, to name the most famous examples. But most of the poetry being translated in 1970 was from the Slavonic languages. Of Hungarian we knew almost nothing. The translations from Polish and Czech, however, provided a useful example; they showed how the poetry of difficult ‘minority’ languages could be successfully be rendered in English through collaborative work, and George, with his fluent but imperfect grasp of English, was able to offer me that opportunity.
The great English literary critic Donald Davie once pointed out that no language, however rich, is ‘exhaustive of human experience’: that to translate creatively is to extend our language and our knowledge of human experience at one and the same time. Such has been my experience of working with George and learning of such poets as Miklós Radnóti and György Petri. (We have published English versions by both of them.) Moreover, much of George’s own poetry is the kind of thing I was looking for when I first agreed to work with him: the work of an engaged patriot, for whom the fight for justice and the pursuit of poetic truth are simply inseparable. The poems in this collection, it should be said, are not poems of that sort by and large. They are love poems, and are therefore much more intimate and personal. But you don’t have to read very closely to see that the love poems of a Hungarian exile are not quite the same as the love poems of an Englishman or a Frenchman. That is how translation extends experience: not just that we learn what it is like to live under a different political dispensation but that the common human experience is modified by differences of language and of history. George Gömöri’s unexpected appearance in my life in 1970 provided me with that opportunity and I shall always be grateful for it.