Translation Update: ‘Hungarian Literature Has Been in Bloom of Late’

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‘There is a wealth of historical remembrance taking shape as first-rate literature.’ And writings in Hungarian need to be translated to survive.

At a Christmas market in Budapest’s Vorosmarty Square. Image – iStockphoto: Klára Zolcsák

Many of the great literature traditions of the world are seated in some of the “smallest” languages, meaning tongues spoken today by relatively small populations in-country. Robust writings in such settings need translation to avoid fading away in the inexorable march of English, the lingua franca. Examples of this include Danish, Italian, modern Greek, and, today’s focus: Hungarian.—Porter Anderson

By Erin L. Cox | @erinlcox

‘All Great Art Travels Well’
On Friday (December 9), Publishing Hungary, an organization dedicated to the translation and publication of Hungarian literature abroad, hosted an event titled “Hungarian Literature in Focus” at New York City’s Bartok Hall in the Consulate General of Hungary.

The event, part of the annual New Literature from Europe Festival, served as an opportunity for US publishers to discover Hungarian writers while learning more about translation funding in Hungary. It also served as the launch for the novel The Dispossessed by Szilárd Borbély, out from HarperCollins last month.

“There are often zero degrees of separation between our countries’ cultural legacies,” says the event’s host, Ferenc Kumin, Hungary’s consul general in New York.

“Foreign literature can be a tougher nut to crack for US audiences, but all great art travels well. And Hungarian literature has truly been in bloom of late.”

Ferenc Kumin

Although the 2008 global economic recession hit the book sector hard, Hungary’s publishing industry has slowly increased in sales for the last several years, with 2015 seeing 3.24-percent growth from 2014, according to the Hungarian Book Publishers and Booksellers Association. Educational publishing and books for children and young adults are the leading categories for those sales.

Interestingly, translations of foreign books into Hungarian—often English-language bestsellers—make up 50 percent of books published in the country, according to Zsuzsanna Szabo, who heads up Publishing Hungary.

Zsuzsanna Szabo

With only 10 million readers and 3,000 publishing houses, Szabo says that in order for Hungary’s publishing industry to grow, it has to look to export literature to an expanding list of international markets.

Of markets in which Hungarian publishers have had the most success, Germany tops the list. Szabo attributes that success of Hungarian literature in Germany to a better understanding of the Hungarian culture and its language, which is notably difficult.  To encourage translation abroad, Publishing Hungary offers publishers funding opportunities and can connect publishers to translators.

‘Not Afraid to Dissent’

Although the export of Hungarian writers beyond Central Europe has been somewhat slow, Hungarian literature has had notable success on the international stage with the 2002 Nobel Prize for Literature win by writer Imre Kertész, author of Sorstalanság (Fatelessness, 2004, Vintage International)Kertész’ Nobel was the first for the country and caused some controversy, as Kertész lived in Germany at the time and was outspoken on Hungarian politics. Still, the honor helped shine a light on the country’s writers.

More recently in 2015, László Krasznahorkai won the 2015 Man Booker International Prize for his body of work, including such novels as Satantango (New Directions), Seiobo There Below (New Directions), and the upcoming literary diary and photo essay, The Manhattan Project.

Marina Warner, chair of the judges for the Man Booker International, said of Krasznahorkai in an interview with The Guardian, that he was “a visionary writer of extraordinary intensity and vocal range who captures the texture of present-day existence in scenes that are terrifying, strange, appallingly comic, and often shatteringly beautiful.”

With these honors, there’s been more interest in both these writers and a new generation of Hungarian writers, particularly in light of current political events and key moments in Hungarian history. There’s been a relaunch of The Hungarian Quarterly, originally established in 1936 as a journal devoted to highlighting Hungarian writers presenting new work previously not available in English.

The new edition of the journal offers excerpts from works by Krasznahorkai and György Dragomán, whose 2008 novel The White King was reviewed favorably in both The Washington Post and The New York Times. A film adaptation of the book is to be released in January in the UK .

“There is a wealth of historical remembrance taking shape as first-rate literature,” says Gergely Romsics, who directs the Hungarian Cultural Institute. “The experience of oppression and exclusion, the ever present threat of violence are primeval human experiences that frighten and captivate all of us. This is great raw material for historically specific, almost educational but also deeply personal and universally comprehensible fiction.

“There’s also the strength of Central European authors in becoming part of trans-national discourses on relevant issues of the day. Our writers are often public figures and are not afraid to either dissent or formulate radical opinions.

“This, I believe, contributes to the continued relevance of the figure of the Central European intellectual on the global scene.”

About the Author

Erin L. Cox

Erin L. Cox is the Business Development Director for Publishing Perspectives and a Senior Associate at Rob Weisbach Creative Management, where she represents writers and handles publicity and advertising clients.

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