Language is not the barrier

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The cultural market of Hungary is artist- rather than market-focused, which makes the export of artistic products particularly difficult. Experts say that while German-speaking markets are among the most popular targets for cultural export, there is no tried and true path to follow when artists or managers aim to extend their audience beyond the country’s borders.  

Classical music is definitely the most in demand export product of the Hungarian cultural market, but more or less anything that involves music, dance or theater has considerable appeal in German-speaking countries. The missing link, in most cases, is conscious and targeted management and a broader environment to support these efforts.

“Hungary is a major player when it comes to independent arts, and still there are no standardized channels to export artistic products abroad,” says György Szabó, former head of the Trafó House of Contemporary Arts. “It is really difficult to follow the trends since there is no centralized or formalized way of moving productions or products to international markets” he adds.

Market-driven commerce does exists, but the only way to get a real overview is to attend catalyzer events, like the Duna Part (the name translates as Danube bank) art fair organized by Trafó a few years ago. Some 120-130 international managers, who came to Budapest in search of Hungarian artistic productions with export potential, attended the expo. “Regularity would be a key factor for events like this,” insists Szabó, “so it is a shame that after two successful events, Duna Part was not organized this year.” The former director was removed from the institution’s board after 13 years this January by Budapest mayor István Tarlós, in a much-debated decision, and Trafó’s new CEO took office only in the beginning of September, so the cultural center missed various tenders and skipped numerous events due to uncertainty over its leadership.

“Cultural life in Hungary is very static, defensive and artist-focused,” Szabó opines. “It tends to completely ignore cultural management as a profession, in particular because the role of the managers is to get things moving, whereas in Hungary, it often proves more important for decision-makers to protect their positions than to support this natural dynamism.”

Another unique characteristic to Hungarian art export is its direction. While common sense would suggest that the domestic market is the “school”, and export is a possibility that opens up to those who do well, in Hungary it is often the other way around. It is not uncommon that the home audience only notices a Hungarian artists after eventually picking up on the echoes of their international success. Examples of this phenomenon range from DJs like Yonderboi through dance or theater companies to the extremes of Imre Kertész, a writer and holocaust survivor, who was virtually unknown in Hungary (apart from within a very narrow intellectual audience), until he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002.

While translation is often a major challenge, literature still remains one of the most frequently exported forms of art, especially to German-speaking countries. This bond may be based on physical proximity as well as common roots in cultural tradition, especially as in the 19th century, during the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, German was one of the official languages of Hungary. Moreover, literature tends to have better-established channels for export than anything else on the cultural market in the form of renowned international book fairs, and long-standing working relationships between Hungarian publishers and international agencies.

“There are no common trends or tendencies, it is completely up to an author whether his or her work can be successful outside Hungary,” says Tímea Tegyi, PR director of Magvető, one of Hungary’s most renowned publishing houses. “Selling the rights of a specific book is one thing, but becoming successful in terms of copies sold is another,” she explains. Although Magvető often represents its authors on foreign markets, when it comes to actual translations and publishing, it is always in cooperation with an international agency and a local publisher. “The circle of internationally published and internationally successful Hungarian authors might not be closed, but it is really difficult to sell Hungarian authors to a foreign audience, even in Germany,” the director says, adding that there are a few authors who grew really popular with German readers over recent decades. Péter Esterházy, Péter Nádas, László Krasznahorkai and Magda Szabó are among the most successful Hungarian authors in the German-speaking world, with Nobel Laureate Kertész, who lives and works in Berlin, representing a whole different league.

While it usually takes a lot of time for authors to become mature enough to speak to an international audience, there are examples of younger writers successfully breaking through. György Dragomán (born in Tirgu Mures, Romania in 1973) is one of the few. His 2005 novel The White King was translated into 28 languages and, as Tegyi reveals, its Hungarian success followed the great reviews it received and sales figures it achieved on the German market. Although this direction is not nearly as typical for books as for other works of art, such cases still exist.

“There is no such thing as a Hungarian writer writing specifically for an international audience,” Tegyi says, “but there are authors whose subject and style is global enough to become relevant to readers outside Hungary.” And the German book market can often serve as a trampoline for authors to make it even further, towards pan-European or even global success.

Zsolt Balla

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