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Hungarians on the bookshelf

A tiny little country in the middle of Europe with a language spoken by no more than 15 million people worldwide might have no realistic dreams of ruling the global literary market. Still, the translations of some Hungarian authors have managed to secure fixed spots on international bookshelves. What is the secret of their success?

Surges in the international popularity of Hungarian books, such as that which followed Imre Kertész winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2002, do not happen often enough to help put Hungary’s literature in the spotlight. Meanwhile, the budget supporting translations of Hungarian books into foreign languages has recently become a victim of general state cost cutting. All of which makes the work of Hungarian cultural institutes abroad, not to mention the activities of translators, increasingly important.

“International book publishing cannot be conducted centrally from the top,” Dóra Károlyi, a fellow at the Petőfi Museum of Literature – an institution that, alongside many other tasks, calls tenders for the translation of Hungarian works – told the Budapest Business Journal. Publishing companies consider many aspects when deciding which books to translate and publish, she said, adding that the enthusiasm of translators, often well connected with the publishers, significantly contributes to the success of Hungarian books beyond the borders.

Deep-rooted advantage

The first step, obviously, is to have a book that, although written by a Hungarian, manages to talk to foreigners too. “An internationally successful book has to have a voice that foreign readers are able to take in,” Károlyi said. As such, the similarities and the traditionally strong cultural connections between Hungary and Germany has made German the most popular target language for Hungarian literature.

“Germany might always have its advantage, but we are falling in line as well,” Natália Nagy, a contributor to the Hungarian Cultural Center in London, told the BBJ, referring to the increasing popularity of Hungarian books in the UK. While the monthly literature nights organized by the cultural center contribute to that success, Nagy says the old rule that good products sell themselves is still valid. “Hungarians living in the UK do most for the local popularity of Hungarian books by telling their friends about their literary experiences,” she said.

Readers’ preferences are also weighed by the recommendations of dominant papers. A series of reviews of Antal Szerb’s books published in The Guardian brought extra attention to an author who is anyway traditionally well accepted in the UK, together with other 20th-century writers such as Sándor Márai and Magda Szabó. The latter’s popularity possibly hints at a coming surge on the back of a new movie by director István Szabó adapted from her book “The Door”, and now set to tour European film festivals.

Good together

Such a tie-in sale has often proved to be useful overseas. While the American market is strongly focused on books originally written in English, meaning that the proportion of translations of foreign books is not more than 3%, the work of contemporary writer László Krasznahorkai have become quite popular recently.

His works have always enjoyed huge critical success but the reason they have also remained in popular demand for the past ten years originates mostly in the writer’s long-term cooperation with film director Béla Tarr, who has earned cult status among top New York intellectuals. Most recently, Krasznahorkai was featured in influential papers such as The New Yorker due to the appreciation of Tarr’s movie “The Turin Horse” (A torinói ló). The film, whose script was written by Krasznahorkai, won the Silver Bear, the Jury Grand Prize at the Berlinare Film Festival in 2011.

“It is still hard to predict which books might become hot in such a complex and rich market,” Gergely Romsics, a fellow at the Balassi Institute, the Hungarian Cultural Center in New York, told the BBJ. While intellectuals can be touched by, for example, the festival success of Krasznahorkai’s script or by a New York Times article on Péter Nádas’ 2011 book “The Parallel Stories”, the wider masses are reached only through star bloggers or, more effectively, through television, he said.

The example of German writer Bernhard Schlink’s “The Reader” (Der Vorleser) illustrates the power of the small screen well. Schlink’s work was critical acclaimed in the US when first published, but it became a bestseller only one year later, after television celebrity Oprah Winfrey included it in her influential and trendsetting Book Club.