02. 24. 2017. 17:23

I tend to write very personally – An interview with Ádám Nádasdy

Ádám Nádasdy – teacher, translator and poet (to name a few of his professions) – celebrated his 70th birthday on 15 February. To join in the festivities we held an interview with him, looking back at his life and achievements.


You devote your life to language and the written word, did these feature strongly in your childhood and youth? How did you discover them?

We were a bilingual German-Hungarian family, as my mother was Austrian. My parents were musicians, they spoke Italian well. In an old-fashioned middle-class family it was natural to take French lessons. My father translated lyrics (mainly operas) into Hungarian. I might say I was surrounded by languages, and naturally grew into a language-centred world. But my two brothers did not choose language as a profession – so this environment itself was not enough. Languages are mysterious and unpredictable on the one hand, and logical and regular on the other. That suits my taste.

At what age did you begin writing? And why do you think you started?

I began writing funny poems and parodies as a teenager. Then at 19, when I was hopelessly in love and had to learn what a dangerous thing love is, I wrote a dozen poems, but did not show them to anyone. Ten years had to pass before I started again, this time openly, to write my poetry.


As someone who is both translator and writer, I imagine you are proud of both, but is there a different quality to that emotion when a translation is finally published, rather than a collection of your own poems, or vice versa?

With the poems there is always an amount of embarrassment, as if your nude photos were published (even if they are artistically of good quality). Probably because I tend to write very personally. „Can’t tell it to anyone – better tell it everyone” (as Frigyes Karinthy wrote in a poem). With translation it is much easier: I am the photographer, and the author stands there nude and unashamed.

Do you remember a piece of writing/translation you really suffered for?

Yes, a prose text (or prose poem?) called „Az Úr hegedűje” (The Lord’s Violin), which I wrote after the death of my long-time partner, Ivan.

Why do you translate?

This is like asking a singer why he sings. Answer: because I can do it well, and people seem to like me doing it. It’s good to do something you can do well. Also, since I translate mostly classics (or at least older stuff like Shaw), I like to show to people that these are more interesting than they seem to be. A bit like cleaning an old painting to make it shine again.

How did you learn to translate?

I read English and Italian at Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest, and many of my courses included translation. My teachers would  correct our work, give ideas, tell us anecdotes about how to, and how not to, translate, how earlier work was done, etc.

What’s it like setting about to take on a huge work like The Divine Comedy? And would you ever take on a modern masterpiece?

It’s a great joy and excitement to begin a huge new task. Like embarking on a tour of the world. Or moving into a castle: you know you will live there for years, and get to know its secret rooms from cellar to attic. Modern masterpiece? No, I feel more at home in old castles. There are other (and more numerous) translators who can do modern things well – I stick to my specialty, the old masters.

Hungarian and English are two very different breeds of language. In your experience, what are the traits of both? Is there anything one can do that the other can't?

Oh, plenty. English is wonderful because it has short words – Hungarian is wonderful because it has long words. Take a line from Shakespeare’s „Taming of the Shrew” (III.ii.226):

nay, look not big, nor stamp, nor stare, nor fret;

this is ten words, each of one syllable; like machine-gun fire, ra-ta-ta-ta. Marvellous exploitation of the possibilities of English. My translation tries to exploit the strengths of Hungarian, which are practically the opposite: four words, of which two are monstrous verbs of four syllables each (“stare” and “rage”), with a nice contrast in vowel harmony: á-u-a-a vs. ü-ö-e-e

ne bámuljanak, ne dühöngjenek;

Your work as a professor at ELTE is practically legendary, could you say that teaching at the university has changed since you joined? Have students (or teachers) changed? What do you try to bring to the classroom?

Yes, it has changed and they have changed. They bring much less of what we called „general education”. The other day a group of 15 intelligent students, with a good command of English, did not know that there existed a play „Pygmalion” and who wrote it. (And they were majoring in English!) Their English is much better than ours was, but their lexical knowledge of history, literature, geography is much narrower. I try to bring as much of this as I can, but it is true that most of this information can be accessed in a minute on any modern phone. I try to teach them the need, the appetite to use the internet for such purposes.

Which are those books you return to time and time again? Which reveal something new each time you reread them.

The Bible. But perhaps this is not fair, since the Bible is not a book but a collection of books (even its name means „the books”). I like important books, and this is certainly one. Also linguistically it is challenging because it has been translated so often and into so many languages – think of the New English Bible and its spinoffs. I also love the gloomy ballads of the 19th century Hungarian romantic poet János Arany; the stories may be simple and predictable, but the way he tells them is fascinating, he is such a master of the language.

Owen Good

Tags: Ádám Nádasdy, interview, Owen Good