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Árpád Göncz the legendary literary translator

Árpád Göncz the legendary literary translator

J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings became so incredibly popular in Hungary partly because its Hungarian translation was top-notch. Besides the world-famous epic high fantasy novel, we can be grateful to Árpád Göncz for the translations of many other famous literary works. He was not only the President of Hungary between 1990 and 2000, but he was a recognised author and one of the best Hungarian literary translators.

A translator born in prison

Árpád Göncz was born in 1922, and he passed away two years ago, on 6 October 2015.

Photo: By Ratonyi

Árpád Göncz was arrested in May 1957. He was one of the accused in the notorious Bibó trial, and he was sentenced to life in August 1958 with no chance for an appeal. Interestingly, this was the time when his translating career began. He was eventually released from prison with amnesty in 1963.

In an interview, Árpád Göncz discussed how his time in prison influenced his later life and how he became a translator:

“I became a translator in prison. I was working in the prison’s translation office until my last days in there. It might seem strange but I consider my time spent in prison to be quite useful. On the one hand, because of the human contacts that I made. On the other hand, because I learnt the translation profession in prison. I made a living out of that after I was released. For me, translation was also the first step towards literature. I have been working as a translator for a long time after prison, I even worked for the Hungarian Office for Translation and Attestation among other places. I earned the majority of my livelihood with translating.”

He became one of the best Hungarian translators of all time. Among many others, he wrote the Hungarian translations of the works of Colleen McCullough (The Thorn Birds), Arthur C. Clarke (2001: A Space Odyssey), Mary Shelley (Frankenstein), William Makepeace Thackeray (Pendennis). He also translated pieces from Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe and William Golding, just to mention a few.

He might be most well-known for finishing the translation of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (Ádám Réz translated the first 11 chapters). He used to read The Lord of the Rings when he was sick, even though he admitted not liking the novel very much after he finished its translation. In the following years, the story seemed to grow on him, and he eventually admitted liking it very much. So much so that he said that he actually started to fall for Galadriel’s character.

“If there ever was an act we we should all stand for, then that act was the creation of this novel. This had to be written.”

Árpád Göncz also loved the movies that were based on Tolkien’s trilogy. He said that images and characters appeared to him almost the same as they did in the finished films. He also praised the films’ Hungarian translation.

Titles & awards

  • He was president of The Hungarian Writers’ Association between 1989-1990.
  • He was the honorary president of the Hungarian PEN Club since 1994.
  • He received the Attila József Prize in 1983 (annually awarded Hungarian literary prize first awarded in 1950 in honour of the poet Attila József).
  • He was the honorary president of the Hungarian Tolkien Society since 2002.

His most well-known works as an author are a collection of short stories Homecoming and Other stories [Találkozások], a drama titled Balance [Mérleg] and Gyaluforgácsok in which his essays and other writings are published.

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