In Memoriam: Bruce P. Berlind, Poet and Translator of Hungarian Poetry

We are sad to bidberlind  farewell to Dr. Bruce Berlind, who was professor and former chair of the English department at Colgate University; veteran of both the Second World War and the Korean War; founder of the Colgate English department visiting writer series; and winner of the Hungarian PEN award for his extensive translations of Hungarian poetry in 1986. He passed away in his home in Madison, WI, on November 1, 2014.

Of translation, Berlind once stated, “the greatest challenge is to make as good an English-American poem of it as I can, at the same time staying as close to the original as possible.” A challenge indeed.

Berlind started translating from French and German, but was quickly drawn to Hungarian. He rather stumbled into it after being introduced to Hungarian poetry by a friend of his, the English poet Ted Hughes, who recommended that he try translating poetry by Ágnes Nemes Nagy. Though, like Hughes, he did not have a thorough grasp on the Hungarian language, he enlisted the help of a Hungarian neighbor who gave him literal translations.

The choice turned out to be fortuitous: Ágnes Nemes Nagy herself came to the States while he was translating, and her poetry made a splash. As a result, Berlind and his then-wife were invited to Hungary, where the feeling of translation leading to political intrigue was captivating. Of the experience in Budapest, he stated in an interview in Translation Review, “It wasn’t exactly a paparazzi bit, but guys would come in and shoot [pictures of] us. And when I gave a reading, it was reported. I felt more important [in Hungary] than I’d ever felt [in the United States].” Many of the poets he translated were political writers who wrote against communism, and ended up being kept from writing by order of the government.

As such, his work in translating Hungarian poetry was of special importance to get the literature out to the rest of the world, even if it couldn’t be publicized in the home country. “Translation—both into and out of Hungarian—is of major importance in Hungary. The language is isolated; it has no close relative in Europe; and it is spoken by only about ten and a half million people in Hungary, and perhaps another million abroad. Yet it has produced more important poets in proportion to its population, I’d guess, than any other culture. The desire to make its literature known in major languages has resulted in major efforts to recruit foreign poets to its cause, probably more English-speaking poets than others.”

After finishing his education at Princeton and Johns Hopkins Universities, Berlind taught at Colgate University for 34 years, and founded their visiting writers series. Following his retirement, he and his family regularly traveled to Hungary, where Berlind continued his work with Hungarian poets. He is survived by his wife, children, and grandchildren.

Berlind was also a longtime member of The American Literary Translators Association (ALTA). When asked about the most discouraging thing about translation, his answer was the lack of recognition of the craft. However, organizations like ALTA give hope: “I’m a member of the American Literary Translators Association. All of us are literary translators, and those of us who translate poetry are, for the most part, poets. So, the annual conference that I have been going to for about twenty years is an important event in my life because these are people who speak the same language as I do.”

Berlind’s family has asked that contributions in his memory may be made to the American Cancer Society.

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2 Responses to In Memoriam: Bruce P. Berlind, Poet and Translator of Hungarian Poetry

  1. Marguerite Feitlowitz says:

    I had the privilege of studying with Bruce as an undergraduate at Colgate. I was in the second class of women (they admitted us 50 at a time, for the first few years) and Bruce was one of our biggest champions. He taught a range of poetry courses (I think I took them all!), but even more important he had a small coterie of student poets and invited us to his house for monthly evenings when we would read our poems and have them commented on by the group. Bruce served us red wine out of a big, straw-colored jug (Portuguese, I think), and I had probably never before felt so sophisticated. He had a beautiful house in the center of Hamilton village–white on the outside, large windows, with warm rugs and fireplaces, deep leather sofas and a baby grand piano (his then-wife played, as I recall). All very tranquil and contemplative, but not at all monkish–there were of course many books and paintings, and every piece of furniture (though we preferred to sit on the rug) was made for comfort.

    Bruce treated us like the adults we had not yet become. He took us seriously, made us take ourselves seriously, he could be tough, but was unfailingly courtly. He had a wonderfully rich and extensive vocabulary! And a beautiful speaking voice.

    Bruce spoke of translation with an effervescence that seemed new–I’d remembered his affect as more considered, and he didn’t shy away from irony. But his love for translation had not a jot of irony in it–it was unalloyed, unbridled and contagious.

    Bruce and I stayed in touch after I graduated–though not so steadily during the years I lived abroad. In fact, we were re-united after not seeing each other for nearly fifteen years years, at an ALTA conference, and it actually brought tears to both our eyes. That I’d become a translator made him truly happy. We always made sure to spend time together at the conferences we both attended, and that gave me a lovely sense of continuity. His nimbus of white hair just got more fabulous as he got older!

    May he rest in peace. He was a true and generous teacher, for whose presence in my life at a crucial time I’ll always be grateful. Marguerite Feitlowitz

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