Petőfi Cultural Agency: Shining the Spotlight on Hungarian Literature

In Budapest

Dániel Levente Pál

Like all avid readers, I’m happy wandering around any bookshop in the world, even if I can’t read the language in which the books are written. But when I visit my local bookshop, I’m increasingly frustrated by not being able to read Hungarian while knowing there’s probably literary gold between them thar covers. If I do find an interesting-looking Hungarian book translated into English, my problem is that I have no idea how well it captures the essence.

When I discovered the existence of the Petőfi Cultural Agency (PKÜ), which, among other things, promotes Hungarian literature in translation, my eyes lit up behind the smeared lenses of my reading glasses.

PKÜ was launched in 2020. As well as showcasing Hungarian literature overseas, it promotes work written in Hungarian in this country and builds bilateral relations between literary communities on different continents.

The agency organizes an international writers’ residency program, publishes two magazines dedicated to literature in translation, and co-organizes the PesText international literary festival. The man it is named for is worthy indeed.

“Sándor Petőfi was one of the greatest poets not only of Hungarian literature but of world literature. He’s the only Hungarian to be mentioned by the incredibly erudite Argentinian Jorge Luis Borges, and the only Hungarian to be included in Harold Bloom’s infamous ‘The Western Canon,’” says Dániel Levente Pál, the PKÜ’s director responsible for literary affairs.

“There is much debate about what is Petőfi’s ‘secret?’ In one word, its adaptability. He was a true chameleon! When he was in a wine bar, he wrote the best wine poetry of the age. When he was in love, he wrote wonderful love poems. When he was feeling low, he wrote death poems. When the revolution broke out, he was at the forefront as a poet. He could write about anything. He could be touchingly intimate and engagingly personal. And we’re talking about a life’s work of thousands of pages produced in just 26 years. He’s an incredible literary figure,” Pál enthuses.

“The Continental Literary Magazine,” published by PKÜ, is dedicated to translated literature. With a circulation of 4,000 issues, its primary aim is to introduce Hungarian and Central European literature to a global English readership and create a platform for writers from this region to get into the mainstream North American literary scene.

American Influence

The only European literary magazine available in Barnes & Noble stores in the United States, “The Continental” is also available in the United Kingdom and can be ordered online.

In its third issue, “The Continental” explores aspects of faith. Apart from work by award-winning Hungarian writers such as the Pécs-born Viktor Horváth, the magazine includes an interview by American author and political activist Marianne Williamson.

PKÜ also actively represents Hungarian literature at prestigious events such as the Cairo, Delhi, Bologna, London, and Leipzig Book Fairs.

In Cairo, Hungary was officially represented at an Arabic language fair for the first time. More than 20 books translated into Arabic were promoted, and six authors were present in person. Delhi also saw the Indian debut of a Hungarian stand. Here the PKÜ presented Hungarian authors Judit Berg (author of the Rumini children’s books) and Péter Szűcs (novelist and travel writer) to the most important Indian publishers.

At this April’s London fair, the spotlight was on women. Contemporary Hungarian women’s poetry anthology “Shelter under the Sun” and Krisztina Tóth’s book “Barcode” were presented in two separate events. The translator, Peter Sherwood, was awarded the prestigious English PEN translation grant for “Barcode” last year.

In May, PKÜ presented five translated books to German readers in Leipzig and 3 to a Czech audience in Prague. It also began working as a member of the Central and East European Book Market to develop even closer links in our region.

As PKÜ’s director responsible for literary affairs, a significant part of Pál’s role is organizing projects with the organization’s partners worldwide. He’s also committed to “finding the right audience for the right book [...] the average reader gets lost in the confusion of abundance. It’s our job to create the right rendezvous,” he explains.

Strong Writing Generation

Fortunately, Pál is part of a generation of strong writers. “Wonderful and popular books are published every year, and authors speak with confidence about themselves and their work at home and abroad.”

At the moment, according to Pál, crime fiction (mainly by women) and storytelling prose are particularly popular with Hungarian readers and foreign publishers.

“Every year, exciting new Hungarian crime fiction appears,” Pál told me. “Storytelling prose seems to be the fiction response to the popularity of work dealing with transgenerational trauma.”

Looking to the future, Pál is confident that Hungarian literature will continue to go from strength to strength.

“Authors and publishers are full of good ideas and good books. Our role is to continue to promote these at home, in schools and cultural centers, and abroad in bookshops, cafés, galleries and book fairs. Alongside our program of activities, we offer well-targeted translation grants and calls for submissions,” he notes.

After I explained to Pál that I wasn’t sure where to start with Hungarian literature, he recommended contemporary authors András Visky, Andrea Tompa and György Spiró. From the recent past, he suggested Magda Szabó, Imre Kertész and Sándor Márai.

“These are master storytellers, and there’s a humanity in all of their books,” he said.

You can subscribe to “The Continental” magazine at continentalmagazine.com. You can find Hungarian books translated into English at (among others) Atlantisz Book Island, Massolit Books & Café, Bestsellers, Famulus, and Bookstation, a small and homely bookstore in District XIII offering new and second-hand books in English, German, French, Italian and so on.

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of May 19, 2023.

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