Poet George Szirtes and I have something in common, besides the memory of speaking about Czesław Miłosz last week at the glorious British Academy on Carlton House Terrace (the site a longtime residence of Prime Minister William Gladstone).
We share a heritage. The Szirtes family left Hungary in 1956, when George was an eight-year-old. My family left a generation earlier, and it was only in recent years I had a chance to visit Budapest. He returned to Hungary in 1984, although “there had been a brief, curtailed family visit in 1968 when the invasion of Czechoslovakia sent us scurrying out.” The 1984 return proved decisive in forming him as a translator – for which we are grateful, for not many venture into that alien tongue, whose closest antecedents are Turkish and Finnish.
He is mostly known, however, as an English-language poet, and has won a long list of awards, most notably the 2004 T. S. Eliot Prize.
Author and poet Bethany W. Pope (a recent Twitter acquaintance of mine) interviewed the poet-translator for Quarterly Conversation. Here’s a snippet:
B.W.P: Translation seems to me like something very similar to what I do when I write in the person of my ancestors. In my collection A Radiance, I wore their psyches as a way of inhabiting the people I love and bringing them closer. Has the fact that you were forced out of Hungary influenced your need to reconnect with your heritage in this way, and is that what you are doing when you engage in an act of translation?
G.S: It wasn’t so much the language I was reconnecting with back then as with a spirit of place that was, I felt, latent but unembodied in my own work. That is a more precise way of putting it than I felt at the time. The language was in the place. Since then I think it is likely that the language itself has reoccupied part of my neural system.
My ancestors are an absence. I never knew any of them as people and have no record of them in terms of documents. Two or three photographs, that’s all. I have no dynastic sense except in that I am of a race of people that have generally been chased from place to place and are occasionally murdered, which equips one with a vulnerability based on expectation. [Writer Gyula] Krúdy didn’t have that problem. He had a Hungarian version of it: the evanescence of location.
B.W.P: How has living and working so long in the UK influenced your take on Hungarian culture? I was wondering if existing for such a long time outside of it made it easier or more difficult to connect with the writers with whom you work?
G.S: I really only know Budapest culture at first hand. Capitals are not the same as the provinces. Budapest offered so many possibilities. There was a democratic resistance there before 1989 that was intelligent, deeply read, ironic, inventive, affectionate yet brusque. I think that culture has turned out to be more brittle than I thought it would be, but I could be wrong. In terms of their relationship to me, they were welcoming of me, but my nine months there in 1989, under the historical pressure of that year, showed me I could not be of them. In terms of my working relationship to them, they have given me far more than I could have hoped for. My “real” life is in my immediate family and in the English language. They have enriched that language for me, by entering it with me. They have expanded me. There’s nothing difficult about working with them.
Read the rest here – including an account of that 1984 trip.