Peter Zollman: Scientist who worked on the Channel Tunnel and translated into English the verse of his native Hungary


When the two ends of the Channel Tunnel met in 1990, the moment was marked by a shaking of hands between a construction worker from France and one from England, followed by a mutual crossing of hundreds of workers. The man who enabled that meeting to take place through the production of special laser guidance equipment was Peter Zollman, a Hungarian refugee from the 1956 revolution, who was only 25 when he arrived in England with a degree in electrical engineering and who went on to win three Queen's Awards for technological innovation and export in the industry.

That meeting between the two halves of the tunnel is symbolic of much of Zollman's life, in that he was a polymath whose work encompassed both science and art; and that art, in turn, brought together the literatures of Hungary and England. His early and late life joined too, since he spent the best part of it in forms of electronic and laser engineering and the last entirely in the service of Hungarian literature, winning praise and prizes for both endeavours. He was quiet and modest about his achievements, and intensely serious about his work.

Peter Zollman was born in Budapest in 1931, the son of a successful small businessman. His parents were secular Jews who converted to Roman Catholicism in 1937 but, as with all such conversions, it did little to protect the family, which was herded into the ghetto seven years later. While his father was deported but survived, Zollman himself was saved by a Swiss protective passport. After the communist takeover following the war, his father's pre-war success counted against him. Zollman's personal ambition was to become a stage director, but he was designated a class alien and, barred from his preferred area of study at university, was steered into engineering. Once qualified, he had to work in industry because his university appointment as a lecturer in electromagnetic theory was disallowed by the Communist Party. In 1956, he took an active part in the Hungarian revolution through his trade union, and eventually joined the flood of refugees across the Austrian border.

On arriving in England he was soon employed at Imperial College as a research assistant to the Nobel prize-winning inventor of the hologram, Dennis Gabor. There he devised a novel collimator for use in cathode ray tubes, which became the subject of his PhD, but he left the university because of its hierarchies, internal politics and the persistent pressure to publish.

Aged 25 he started work as technical director, first in a machinery factory, then for De La Rue, before setting up his own company, Zed Instruments in 1973, at the start of the three-day week. This is where he carried out work on lasers for tunnels that informed not only the Channel Tunnel but also the Cern Large Hadron Collider. The three Queen's Awards followed, the third on his retirement in 1990.

At that point Zollman dropped engineering and returned to his first love, Hungarian literature, love of which had been encouraged by his time in the Hungarian pre-communist scout movement where some of his deepest and longest friendships were formed. He set to work as a translator with a devotion and intensity that dwarfs those of most. He was already extremely well read in English literature, but his first task was to accustom himself to working from the inside with English verse, no simple task, but as he went on, his ear for poetry in his second language improved until he could hear both Hungarian and English texts with equal facility. The twin tunnels of the two literatures were to meet in him through sheer application.

As a translator of poetry he strongly believed in sustaining the form, and following rhyme and metrical patterns, according to Hungarian practice. At a time when most anglophone translators were taking care to distinguish form from content, regarding form as a kind of untranslatable decoration, this will have seemed a utopian task, and harder still for someone whose ear was trained in Hungarian, since the subtleties of register and reference of the original were bound to carry an almost oppressive wealth of meaning.

Despite this, he was remarkably productive and became highly celebrated. He won a major prize in the Stephen Spender poetry translation competition in 2007, was twice shortlisted for the Weidenfeld prize, and had his translations read and performed at the Edinburgh International Festival and in an English National Opera production of Bluebeard's Castle. His translation of the Hungarian ballad "The Bards of Wales" by the great 19th-century poet Janos Arany was set to music by Welsh composer Karl Jenkins, and in his last year Zollman was awarded the Knight's Cross medal by the Hungarian government.

He translated across historical periods, published many books and is represented in many anthologies. Speaking at least six languages, he was knowledgeable about not only science and the arts but also about philosophy and international relations. His death is a great loss to Hungarian literature in translation. He was also a committed family man, and is survived by his wife, Denise, and his daughters, Catherine and Ann.


Peter Zollman, scientist and translator: born Budapest 14 June 1931; married 1961 Denise (two daughters); died Bristol 3 December 2013.

Life and Style
A teenager boy wakes up.
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Critics say Kipling showed loathing for India's primitive villagers in The Jungle Book
filmChristopher Walken, Bill Murray, Scarlett Johanssen Idris Elba, Andy Serkis, Benedict Cumberbatch, Cate Blanchett and Christian Bale
Life and Style
food + drink
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
Playing to win: for Tanith Carey, pictured with Lily, right, and Clio, even simple games had to have an educational purpose
lifeTanith Carey explains what made her take her foot off the gas
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Duncan Campbell's hour-long film 'It for Others'
Turner Prize 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hadley in a scene from ‘Soul Boys Of The Western World’
musicSpandau Ballet are back together - on stage and screen
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Ed Stoppard as Brian Epstein, Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black and Elliott Cowan as George Martin in 'Cilla'
tvCilla review: A poignant ending to mini-series
Life and Style
Bearing up: Sebastian Flyte with his teddy Aloysius in Brideshead Revisited
lifePhilippa Perry explains why a third of students take a bear to uni
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Alan Sugar appearing in a shot from Apprentice which was used in a Cassette Boy mashup
artsA judge will rule if pieces are funny enough to be classed as parodies
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Trust Accountant - Kent

NEGOTIABLE: Austen Lloyd: TRUST ACCOUNTANT - KENTIf you are a Chartered Accou...

Geography Teacher

£85 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: randstad education are curre...

Teaching Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Group: You must:- Speak English as a first lang...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£17000 - £18000 per annum: Randstad Education Group: If you are a committed Te...

Day In a Page

Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?
Royal Ballet star dubbed 'Charlize Theron in pointe shoes' takes on Manon

Homegrown ballerina is on the rise

Royal Ballet star Melissa Hamilton is about to tackle the role of Manon
Education, eduction, education? Our growing fascination with what really goes on in school

Education, education, education

TV documentaries filmed in classrooms are now a genre in their own right
It’s reasonable to negotiate with the likes of Isis, so why don’t we do it and save lives?

It’s perfectly reasonable to negotiate with villains like Isis

So why don’t we do it and save some lives?
This man just ran a marathon in under 2 hours 3 minutes. Is a 2-hour race in sight?

Is a sub-2-hour race now within sight?

Dennis Kimetto breaks marathon record
We shall not be moved, say Stratford's single parents fighting eviction

Inside the E15 'occupation'

We shall not be moved, say Stratford single parents
Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Air strikes alone will fail to stop Isis

Talks between all touched by the crisis in Syria and Iraq can achieve as much as the Tornadoes, says Patrick Cockburn
Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

Nadhim Zahawi: From a refugee on welfare to the heart of No 10

The Tory MP speaks for the first time about the devastating effect of his father's bankruptcy
Witches: A history of misogyny

Witches: A history of misogyny

The sexist abuse that haunts modern life is nothing new: women have been 'trolled' in art for 500 years
Shona Rhimes interview: Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Meet the most powerful woman in US television

Writer and producer of shows like Grey's Anatomy, Shonda Rhimes now has her own evening of primetime TV – but she’s taking it in her stride
'Before They Pass Away': Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Endangered communities photographed 'like Kate Moss'

Jimmy Nelson travelled the world to photograph 35 threatened tribes in an unashamedly glamorous style