Found in Translation – From Belfast* to Bánffy via Berlitz and Budapest
Updated: Dec 25, 2021
What would make a lad from provincial Northern Ireland latch onto a largely forgotten writer-politician-idealist Hungarian nobleman-turned pauper - and translate his works?
Photo: Thomas Sneddon stands in the grounds of the Bánffy-kastély (Bánffy stately home ) in the village known today as Bonțida, north-east of Cluj-Napoca, Romania.
One day around Christmas in 2010, Thomas Sneddon was browsing the book shelves in Budapest looking for Hungarian literature in English. But there didn't seem to be so much available, and what he found was, in his words, “a bit grim and pessimistic”.
Yet, at some point, he picked up a volume by a certain Miklós Bánffy, a Transylvanian nobleman born into a wealthy, ethnic Hungarian family in the city of Kolozsvár (now Cluj-Napoca, Romania) at the very end of 1873.
It was part of the writer's “Trilogy” and constituted “a quite lush, romantic account of love affairs and balls, hunts and castles in Transylvania, and I remember finding it very engaging”, he told Perspectives Budapest.
Sneddon bought the whole trilogy, in Hungarian, soon after.
“For years it was my distant goal in learning Hungarian - one day I’ll read the whole thing in Hungarian,” he says. And he didn't forget.
Sneddon had studied French at Exeter University, England, for his first degree, but wanted out of the UK in 2008. He ended up in Salzburg, teaching English at the Berlitz school.
“I climbed mountains. I didn't actually yodel, but I enjoyed it, had a good time!” he smiles, recalling the period. But after a year, Salzburg, with its “quaintness, slightly saccharine, … Hills-are-alive stuff,” soon lost its appeal, and it was time to move on, at first to Vienna.
Yet Sneddon hankered after “more grit” - albeit relatively safe grit.
“I wasn't looking to go off and live somewhere genuinely dangerous. I like to be within a Ryanair flight from home!” he jokes.
Just over the horizon, Hungary fitted the bill. “Hungary struck me as an interesting place, and the language was another draw. I'd learned French, and German … I was kind of curious to see what it would be like to really start from zero … and something appealed about Hungary. Finland would have done the same, but just with worse weather!” he says.
But during his initial sojourn in Budapest – and his 'encounter' with Bánffy - Sneddon increasingly began to ponder life and his part in it.
“Working with Berlitz was an easy way of making a bit of money. I quite enjoyed being in a classroom with people, ... I was kind of satisfied that way and reading and exploring the cafes. But for a long time I had this kind of thing: What am I doing? Where's my career? Where am I heading?”
Family concerns in 2013 caused a return to his native Northern Ireland, where he stumbled upon the news that Queen's University, Belfast, offered an MA in translation.
He admits to initial scepticism: after all, studying “translation” seemed somewhat nebulous, at least compared to a specific foreign language. But after some hesitation, he took the plunge and, traversing the course, Sneddon became a convert.
“There's the intangible elements of a text, especially if you're translating literature... there is the feeling, what does this text say to me? There are all sorts of ways to go wrong in translation,” he argues.
Armed with his new MA, and even before returning to Budapest, he began to tackle the love of his linguistic life - reading Bánffy's Trilogy in the original Hungarian.
“It was slow going, I was practically translating it in my head sentence by sentence as I went, and disagreeing with an English translation which I was reading alongside it for reference. In the end I decided that since I was formulating this translation as I was reading, I might as well write the thing down. I didn’t necessarily expect to finish the whole book, never mind the trilogy, when I started, but it was just so much fun that it became a sort of hobby, and I was hooked until I finished the whole thing” he recalls.
Sneddon returned to Hungary in 2017, did another stint of teaching with Berlitz, but has since kept body and soul together largely by translating – a profession he finds tantalisingly wide ranging and challenging. For variety, he spends one day a week teaching translation at Budapest's Elte university.
While his Trilogy translation remains unpublished, his fascination with Bánffy has led to the publication of some of the count's shorter works, namely The Remarkable Mrs Anderson and The Monkey and other stories, two pocket-size books published in English this summer which shed more light on this largely forgotten character and the vicissitudes he and his environs endured during his life.
(His estate, located in Romania after WW1, was nationalised by the communists after WW2 and he died in penury in Budapest in 1950.)
“There's a collection of little stories at the back of The Monkey and other stories that are more after-dinner anecdotes from a century ago. They are often things that he heard as a boy, about his aunt who lived through the 1848 revolution, and these little things that happened to them … there's a kind of geniality with him,” he drifts wistfully, before adding:
“To sit down with Bánffy was never a chore, you always feel like you're in the presence of a good story-teller, and someone who has an inherent kindliness that I find endearing.”
* Thomas Sneddon, in truth, hails from Newtonards, County Down, about 20 km east of the Northern Ireland capital – kindly ingnore this journalistic - geographical licence, but readers will appreciate Belfast scans better in this headline :)
For reviews of The Monkey and other stories and The Remarkable Mrs Anderson, see the Budapest Business Journal Dec 02 edition - online at:
(If this link fails to work, got to https://bbj.hu/ and search for Thomas Sneddon.)