Why I translate Miklós Bánffy

by Thomas Sneddon

I first read Bánffy around Christmas 2010. I had moved to Budapest two months before, then come home to Ireland for the holidays. I was still years away from reading novels in Hungarian—even buying a train ticket was a challenge—but something about the country had got under my skin, and upon returning home I bought several histories of Hungary, as well as all the translated Hungarian literature I could lay my hands on. Sitting by the stove and watching the snow pile up outside, I read Embers by Sándor Márai, Antal Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight and Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy. Both Szerb and Márai are wonderful writers and I have returned to them repeatedly over the years, but it was undoubtedly Bánffy who left the most lasting impression. Why? After all, though the three men were roughly contemporaries, Szerb and Márai both wrote modern, 20th-century literature, while Bánffy’s trilogy feels 19th-century in form, and perhaps also in sensibility. The story Bánffy tells is wonderful—Bálint and Adrienne’s love affair is, for me, one of the most moving and sensitively drawn in all Western literature—but there was something else that drew me to his writing, and has done so again and again over the years: the character of the author that shines through on the page. When reading Bánffy, I have often thought of that well-known passage from an essay of George Orwell’s, in which he describes reading Charles Dickens and clearly visualising a face behind the page:

Well, in the case of Dickens I see a face that is not quite the face of Dickens’s photographs, though it resembles it. It is the face of a man of about forty, with a small beard and a high colour. He is laughing, with a touch of anger in his laughter, but no triumph, no malignity. It is the face of a man who is always fighting against something, but who fights in the open and is not frightened, the face of a man who is generously angry—in other words, of a 19th-century liberal, a free intelligence, a type hated with equal hatred by all the smelly little orthodoxies which are now contending for our souls.

Strangely, though one could never confuse Bánffy and Dickens as writers, the passage above serves remarkably well as a description of Bánffy himself. I do not mean to imply any biographical similarity—though it is true that in outlook both were broadly liberal (in the 19th-century, Gladstonian sense) and had an instinctive, untaught loathing of all injustice and oppression—but  rather something still more fundamental and harder to define. What I enjoy most when I read Bánffy, and what I think Orwell enjoyed in Dickens, is simply the feeling of being in the company of an altogether likeable, admirable human being. It is a quality I sensed vaguely in translation and much more strongly in the original Hungarian, and which, above all, I have tried to reproduce in English: warm, humane, humorous and with the wry, amused tolerance of human foibles and failings which comes of having made more than a few of them oneself. Bánffy is often compared to Tolstoy, and it is true that his fiction—particularly the Trilogy—is replete with the sort of balls, hunts, duels and love affairs that readers of War and Peace and Anna Karenina will already be familiar with. At the same time, when I read Bánffy, the face I picture ‘behind the page’ is altogether different from the one I sense when reading Tolstoy. Where Tolstoy seems to sit in stern, omniscient judgement over his vast creations, Bánffy always seems to have an ironical twinkle in his eye. What is more, while Tolstoy’s fiction became steadily more moralising and didactic as he grew older, Bánffy moved in the other direction: the bleakness which sometimes predominates in his more youthful writings is increasingly replaced by joyful, rollicking stories full of humour and life—culminating in his wonderful novella The Remarkable Mrs Anderson. When I read Bánffy, the face I see is also similar to photographs of the man (and, curiously enough, Charles Dickens—the two share a striking physical resemblance, as seen in the photographs below). It is an elderly face, and shows the lines of grief and sorrow, but the smile is almost boyish. It is the smile of a man still astonished by life, still charmed by its strangeness and variety, and still free of dogma and fixed ideas. It is the face of a raconteur, full of humour, romance, pathos and surprises, and it is what makes him such an endlessly engaging writer. 

In search of Mrs Anderson’s Leonardo

‘Calamity! On the 14th of December a painting by Leonardo da Vinci—and not some careless, half-finished sketch, but a genuine masterpiece—was stolen from the Budapest Fine Arts Museum.’ So begins Miklós Bánffy’s funny, fast-paced, nostalgic novella The Remarkable Mrs Anderson.

But what painting did Bánffy have in mind? The Budapest Fine Arts Museum does possess some works by Leonardo. There is a small bronze statuette of a horse and rider, which is attributed to him, and some sketches that are certainly by his hand (studies of soldiers’ heads and horses’ legs). There is no Head of Christ, though. For that, we have to go to Milan, to the Pinacoteca di Brera, where there is a charcoal drawing that might have inspired Bánffy.

Head of Christ (1500–1510) by a Lombard artist. Pinacoteca di Brera, Milan. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

The painting stolen in The Remarkable Mrs Anderson measured 44.7 by 35.1 centimetres. The one pictured above measures 40 by 32. Was this what Bánffy had in mind? Perhaps. But the Brera only attributes it to a ‘Lombard artist’, not definitely to Leonardo. And it is a drawing on paper. Bánffy makes it clear that the picture in his story is a finished painting, in full colour, on a wooden board.

So was it something like the Salvator Mundi, perhaps, now owned by Louvre Abu Dhabi?

Salvator Mundi, by Leonardo da Vinci, c. 1500. Louvre Abu Dhabi. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

The Salvator Mundi is painted in oil on a walnut panel, but it is far too tall (65cm). And its full-frontal pose is nothing like the work that Bánffy had in mind, which depicts ‘the same figure who later represents Jesus in the Last Supper‘. Bánffy was thinking of something much more along the lines of the Brera image. ‘Experts surmise that the master was perfecting his technique, working from the original model and preparing for the great fresco to come.’

Leonardo painted his Last Supper on the refectory wall of the Dominican friary of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan. Christ’s side-on pose, with eyes cast down, is clear to see:

Leonardo da Vinci, Last Supper, 1494–7, Santa Maria delle Grazie, Milan. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

The Last Supper is also, as Bánffy knew, in poor condition: ‘badly faded,’ as he puts it. Alta Macadam, in Blue Guide Lombardy (1st ed. 2019) tells us that ‘The Last Supper is painted with a technique peculiar to Leonardo, in tempera with the addition of later oil varnishes, on a prepared surface in two layers on the plastered wall. It is therefore not a fresco. In fresco-painting, pigments are dissolved in water and then painted onto a surface primed with fresh lime plaster. If the climate is dry, true frescoes will retain their brightness for an exceptionally long time. In Leonardo’s work, errors in the preparation of the plaster, together with the dampness of the wall, have caused great damage to the painted surface, which had already considerably deteriorated by the beginning of the 16th century. The Last Supper has been restored repeatedly and was twice repainted (in oils) in the 18th century. Careful work (begun in 1978 and completed in 1999) was carried out to eliminate the false restorations of the past and to expose the original work of Leonardo as far as possible.’

Bánffy was an accomplished amateur painter himself; he would have understood about plaster and water, about oil and pigments and varnishes. It is his own beguiling fantasy, that the Fine Arts Museum in Budapest possessed a small Head of Christ, a study work in which Leonardo experimented with his own peculiar technique, not on plaster but on wood, and which yielded a result that did not fade.

Annabel Barber

Press release: Blue Danube

Blue Guides to launch new translated fiction imprint

Blue Guides, known for their meticulous researched travel guidebooks, are launching a new literary imprint, Blue Danube, in May. The new series will be dedicated to publishing some of the finest Central European literature in translation covering travelogues, history, memoirs and fiction.

Blue Guides have an illustrious history, having been in print for over 100 years, since 1918. More than pure travel guides, they include in-depth background on culture, history, art and architecture and even archaeology, with bestselling titles including Blue Guide Rome and Blue Guide Sicily. Lifetime sales for the Blue Guides have exceeded two million copies.

Annabel Barber, Series Editor, commented: “We’re really excited to be launching a new imprint this year. We know from the success of the Blue Guides over the decades that there is a big readership for whom Central Europe holds a special place in their heart. I speak from experience, as I myself fell in love with Budapest when I arrived here twenty years ago, and never left! The literature from the region is incredibly rich and surrounded in an aura of mystique. So, I’m really delighted to be sharing with a wider audience some of the fantastic writers from the region. I’m really looking forward to bringing more undiscovered gems to an English-speaking audience, and I can’t think of a better way to kick off than with Miklós Bánffy.”

The first titles to launch the series in May will be two volumes from Miklós Bánffy, the aristocratic novelist from one of Hungary’s most noble families, best known for his Transylvanian Trilogy and sometimes referred to as the ‘Tolstoy of Transylvania’. Bánffy was born in 1873 into one of Transylvania’s longest established noble families during the days of the Austro-Hungarian empire. He was born with wealth and land to his name but always had deeply artistic inclinations, and though he studied law and followed a political career, he also became manager of the Budapest opera. He only felt free to marry the woman of his choice–a celebrated actress–after the death of his father. But it was the aftermath of the two World Wars that had the greatest impact. Austria-Hungary collapsed after WWI and Transylvania was ceded to Romania. After WWII, the rise of communism across Central Europe meant that, as an aristocrat, Bánffy became persona non grata. He eventually died in 1950 without any land or fortune to his name.

The launch titles for Blue Danube:

The Remarkable Mrs Anderson £12
ISBN 978-1-905131-89-1

When a priceless Leonardo is stolen from the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts, the Hungarian government tries to hush things up and the police show themselves to be completely clueless. Thank goodness for Milla Anderson! A gifted reporter for one of Budapest’s daily newspapers, she picks up the trail in Palermo—and of course an international gang is soon hot on her heels. When a Hungarian detective is apparently liquidated and the oily Schönberg Belmonte begins insinuating his way into Mrs Anderson’s hotel, things start to look very dangerous indeed. This fast-paced crime story and lighthearted romantic comedy, set against a backdrop of Mediterranean scenery and fascist menace in Italy and Hungary between the wars, is Miklós Bánffy at his best.

The Monkey and other stories £12
ISBN 978-1-905131-90-7

The short stories in this collection, from the tale of the idle young man dawdling pleasantly in Venice to the Romanian villager meditating revenge on his tormentor, draw on the author’s experiences of life, love, sacrifice, betrayal and courage, and reveal, as a recurring leitmotif, an indomitable will to survive.

The books have been translated by Thomas Sneddon, an exciting new translator also living in Budapest.

The translations have been given the seal of approval from Thomas Barcsay, a Canadian history professor and great-nephew of Miklós Bánffy himself. Praising the quality of the translation, Barcsay says: “Hungarian is a notoriously concise language and Miklos Bánffy’s prose is more compact than most. To discover the subtle layers of meaning underlying the text and to render these in English without ignoring the hint of lyricism which infuses them requires both talent and sophistication. Thomas Sneddon’s outstanding translation shows that he possesses these qualities in abundance.”

Barcsay has also contributed a biographical Afterword about the life and times of his great-uncle, for the Remarkable Mrs Anderson. As Annabel Barber notes, “It means a lot to have the blessing of one of Bánffy family for these new translations. Bánffy was an aristocrat but his stories range across the whole social spectrum and are full of subtle and unusual depth. Unlike many short stories, they go on getting better each time you read them. And Bánffy always gets just the right balance of light and dark. They evoke a world which a lot of us armchair travellers may well want to escape to this summer.”

The books will be printed in Cornwall and distributed via Gardners. For sales enquiries, please contact: office@blueguides.com or sales@gardners.com

For further information, and to request interviews or review copies, please contact: Amelia Knight on Amelia.Knight@midaspr.co.uk