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In Memoriam Peter Zollman (1931–2013)

Thursday 16 January 2014, 7pm
Hungarian Cultural Centre
10 Maiden Lane, London WC2E 7NA

In Memoriam Peter Zollman (1931 – 2013)

Remembering the great Hungarian translator of literature
Featuring Mátyás Sárközi and George Szirtes

Péter Zollman, who passed away on the 3rd of December in the 82nd year of his life, was a unique phenomenon in the history of literary translation. As a trained physicist, he established a successful engineering company which was awarded three times by the Queen for export and excellence. Before reaching retirement age, Péter Zollman sold his business in order to fulfill his longstanding ambition to become a literary translator and through his effort let the English-speaking world enjoy the beauty and excellence of Hungarian poetry. Although he did not write poetry beforehand and came to Britain as an adult, he proved to be a linguistically inventive master of English verse and his translations are excellently faithful to the original. His English version of János Arany's The Bards of Wales was set to music by the eminent Welsh composer Carl Jenkins as a choral and orchestral cantata.

Péter Zollman translated hundreds of classical and modern poems, for which work he was awarded the Hungarian Füst Prize, and later the prestigious Order of Merit of Hungary in 2013.

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The Times obituary on 12 December 2013:

'Industrial scientist who 'joined up' the Channel Tunnel and was a leading translator of Hungarian poetry

Peter Zollman was 25 with little money and only a rudimentary grasp of English when he arrived in England in the winter of 1956, a refugee from Budapest where Red Army tanks had crushed the Hungarian Uprising. He went on to become first an industrial scientist, responsible for the high-precision meeting of the two ends of the Channel Tunnel which was opened in 1994; and second a distinguished translator of poetry and drama from his native language into English. He was also a gifted linguist and had an inexhaustible appetite for knowledge and culture.

Having a degree in electrical engineering, his initial employment was in the Optical Physics department at Imperial College under the Nobel laureate Dennis Gabor (a fellow Hungarian and inventor of the hologram). This work led to a PhD and a lifelong passion for technical innovation, invention and problem-solving. Gabor also nourished his love of the subtleties and nuance of the English language. On Zollman's first day at Imperial College he found not technical manuals on his desk, but a stack of English classics including Evelyn Waugh, C. P. Snow, George Orwell and Thomas Hardy.

Zollman was born into a secular Jewish family in Budapest in 1931. When he was six the family converted to Catholicism, but with all other political converts they were rounded up into the Budapest ghetto. The family suffered persecution under both the Nazis and then the communists. Despite being a brilliant student, Zollman was counted as a class alien because of his father's success as a businessman and was not allowed to enter university or the employment of his choice. These experiences left him unusually free of bitterness or resentment.

As important to him as his formal education was his involvement as a child and adolescent with the Hungar- ian Scout movement which, unlike the British equivalent, was co-educational. As well as encouraging outdoor pursuits and challenges, it also cultivated a love and understanding of the expressive arts, particularly classical literature and music.

Zollman's nature was to see opportunities in all situations, and with the failure of the 1956 Uprising, in which he had played an active political part, he chose to leave for England which he perceived as fair-minded, civilised and (oddly) classless.

Zollman arrived in London on November 26, 1956, with his younger brother John on a Sheffield United football coach which was among a fleet of vehicles sent to the Austrian border to collect refugees. The border was soon closed and escape impossible. But not before another Hungarian refugee, Denise Noseda, was able to board a Birmingham City football coach bound for London. She and Zollman didn't know each other then, but they were to marry in 1961.

Soon after Zollman's arrival he was introduced to a quintessentially English pursuit. Staying with a host family in a country house in the Cotswolds over Christmas, he was taken beagling. He was delighted, but the only suit he possessed was ruined in the muddy chase.

His parents arrived in London 18 months later, having handed over their assets to the Hungarian state in exchange for their safe passage. Zoll-man's father went on to make a living from a plastic mouldings company.

Once established, Zollman moved from academia into industry where he felt he could make a greater contribution. He spent seven years at De La Rue, the world's leading producer of banknotes, as technical director. Then in 1973 he set up his own company, ZED Instruments, a laser technology business, which, radically, was based on trust and open management. It won three Queen's Awards for Technology, Innovation and Export for its ground-breaking, laser-based engraving and tunnel guidance systems. Customers included the construction teams building the Channel Tunnel and the nuclear particle accelerator tunnels at CERN in Geneva, where ZED technology ensured that the tunnels met underground with the required precision — in the order of nanometres in the case of the CERN tunnels.

In the 1960s Zollman and his wife had settled first in Weybridge, Surrey. Denise had secured a job in the Hungarian Section of the BBC World Service at Bush House. They had two daughters. At a school summer fête Zollman amused and amazed children and adults alike by setting up a laser-guidance system on the "shoot the dragon in the mouth" stall. The family later moved to Walton-on-Thames where they remained for 42 years.

At 63 after the sale of his company, Zollman "retired" and turned to his second love: literature and poetry. Having brought up his two daughters as sole anglophones (he was determined that they should not feel like outsiders in their country of birth), he felt a need to share the poetry of his homeland with them.

He began translating in earnest despite having only become fluent in English in his mid-twenties. He became celebrated as a translator of contemp- orary and historical Hungarian poetry and drama, publishing a number of anthologies. His translations have been performed at the Edinburgh Festival and by English National Opera.

Zollman was a prizewinner in the Times/Stephen Spender prize for poetry translation in 2007 and was shortlisted for the Weidenfeld Prize in 2001 and 2004. He was recognised by the Hungarian Government for his contribution to Hungarian culture in the English-speaking world with the Order of Merit, Knight's Cross, in May this year. Two of his best known translations are of the poemThe Bards of Wales, by Janos Arany, which was set to music by the Welsh composer Karl Jenkins, and the libretto of Béla Bartók's operaDuke Bluebeard's Castle.

Zollman was fluent in at least six languages including Latin, and had a considerable knowledge of etymology, world history, politics and international relations, European music, literature and philosophy.

His daughter Catherine recalled how she and her sister, intent on securing a nightly bedtime story from their father, would play on his interest in industrial processes by encouraging him to tell them the story about how glass was made. He couldn't resist.

Zollman, who suffered from heart disease, is survived by his wife, Denise, his two daughters, Catherine, a GP, and Ann, a veterinary surgeon.

Peter Zollman, industrial scientist and translator, was born on June 14, 1931. He died on December 3, 2013, aged 82'

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