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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Diesendorf, Margaret (1912–1993)

by Judith Beveridge

This article was published online in 2020

Margaret Diesendorf (1912–1993), poet, teacher, editor, and translator, was born Margaretha Amalia Gisela, on 15 May 1912 in Vienna, daughter of Stefan Máté, tailor, and his wife Amalia Magdalena, née Maiwald. In her youth Margaretha was academically gifted, learning Hungarian, French, Latin, and English. She read widely in philosophy, philology, psychology, and educational theory, and had a particular interest in English and Austrian literature. At the University of Vienna (1930–38), she was awarded a PhD (1935) for her thesis ‘The Literary Language of Expressionism.’ This was followed by a master’s degree in education. At the time of the Anschluss (March 1938) she was in France doing postdoctoral work. She returned briefly to Vienna before fleeing across the Swiss border to avoid the Nazi regime, fearing that her linguistic skills could make her vulnerable to being co-opted by the Nazis.

In Switzerland, Máté stayed with friends of Walter Diesendorf, a Jewish engineer and admirer, with whom she had been close since her student days. She followed him to Sydney in May 1939, where he had found work as an electrical engineer. Employed briefly (1939) at Sydney Church of England Girls’ Grammar School, Moss Vale, she taught French and German. On 22 December at the district registrar’s office, Woollahra, she married Walter. Living at Rose Bay, she taught French at Ascham School, Edgecliff, and at the Convent of the Sacred Heart (Kincoppal), Rose Bay. She was naturalised in 1944. 

From the late 1940s to the 1960s Diesendorf was involved in a number of social and education campaigns, including establishing a chair in Australian literature at the University of Sydney, and campaigning for increased research into poliomyelitis, an area in which she believed Australia was lagging behind other countries. Recognising the dangers of the indiscriminate use of radiation, she also succeeded in stopping the use of X-ray machines in shoe shops. An accomplished linguist, she translated the work of the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke into English. On a trip to Europe in 1960, she met the French poet Luis Dautheuil whose works she had also translated into English. This meeting led to their translating poetry between English and French, including Rosemary Dobson’s L’Enfant Au Cacatoès (Child with a Cockatoo), published in Paris in 1967. A bilingual double issue of Poetry Magazine, published in 1964, contained twenty-four poems by sixteen Australian poets translated into French by Diesendorf and Dautheuil.

With her friend Grace Perry, the founder of South Head Press, Diesendorf collaborated on the journal Poetry Australia from 1964, serving as associate editor (1967–81). She continued to publish translations in English, French, and German, including the 1987 German-English volume, Der Körper Der Altar (The Body the Altar), a selection of seventy-two poems by Perry. As guest editor (1980) of the American magazine Creative Moment, she translated Australian poetry into French. In the mid-1960s she worked for the Australian Broadcasting Commission translating interviews with contemporary French writers such as Louis Aragon and Alain Robbe-Grillet for the program Today’s Writing. She corresponded with many authors including Robert Graves, A. D. Hope, Gwen Harwood, D. J. Enright, and Judith Wright.

It was not until the early 1960s that Diesendorf began to focus on her own poetry. In 1972 and 1973 she received the Pacific Books Publishers best poems awards. A pamphlet of her poems, Towards the Sun, was published in 1975. She won first prize in the Borestone Mountain Poetry award (California) in 1974 and 1976 for ‘Light’ and ‘The Hero,’ respectively. After her husband’s death in 1975, she increased her creative output, her poems appearing in newspapers and journals in both Australia and the United States of America. Two collections eventuated: Light (1981), and a decade later, Holding the Golden Apple (1991). ‘Spanning two cultures …’ she especially ‘brought to her art, European cultural and literary traditions, the musicality and humour of her native Vienna, and the aesthetics of a classicist and philosopher’ (Munro 1993, 4).

In her poetry Diesendorf explored love, music, and art. Vitality, generosity, warmth, and social reform characterised her life. In 1991 she moved to Canberra to be nearer her family. There she became part of the city’s literary circles. Survived by her two sons, she died at Aranda on 22 April 1993 and was buried in Gungahlin cemetery.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Academy Library, University of New South Wales, Canberra. MSS 228, Margaret Diesendorf manuscript collection
  • Diesendorf, John. ‘Light.’ In Strauss to Matilda: Viennese in Australia, 1938–1988, edited by Karl Bittman, 24–34. Leichhardt, NSW: Wenkart Foundation, 1988
  • Munro, Patricia. ‘A Life of Love and Vitality.’ Canberra Times, 24 April 1993, 4
  • National Archives of Australia. A367, C54572
  • Wilde, William H., Joy Hooton, and Barry Andrews, eds. Oxford Companion to Australian Literature. Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1994

Additional Resources

Citation details

Judith Beveridge, 'Diesendorf, Margaret (1912–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/diesendorf-margaret-29670/text36654, published online 2020, accessed online 29 October 2020.

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