Hungarian literature has never quite been entirely in or entirely out of fashion among English readers. Since the years before the Second World War, when Hungarian writing first made itself known to English-speaking audiences, up through the present day, when the works of major writers like the Nobel laureate Imre Kertész and the novelist and essayist George Konrad can be easily obtained, Hungarian authors in translation have enjoyed a series of successes d’estime that has never quite crossed over into the ubiquity and global renown of other Central European literatures. No Hungarian author has ever attained the prominence outside his country enjoyed in the 1920s and onward by the Czech writers Jaroslav Hašek, author of the enduring wartime satire The Good Soldier Švejk,and Milan Kundera, the novelist of Eros and totalitarianism, nor the heights achieved by the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz.
Some of this disparity is explicable by the fact that Hungarian literature is linguistically isolated: the roots of the Hungarian language are even today somewhat unclear to philologists, and it has proved much harder to entice potential translators to the study of Magyar than to the study of Slavic or Baltic tongues. And some of it can be explained, too, by the relegation of translation, once a primary project of literary modernism, to the second tier of publishing, to smaller houses with smaller budgets and less advertising power. (It’s worth noting that the single contemporary publishing house dedicated wholly to the translation into English of foreign works both contemporary and classic, Archipelago, has been forced to operate as a nonprofit company in order to survive.)
About the Author
Sam Munson, who reviewed Elizabeth Bishop’s Edgar Allan Poe & the Juke-Box in May 2006, is online editor of COMMENTARY.