02. 20. 2008. 10:38

From The Paul Street Boys to the 100 most beautiful Hungarian poems

Corvina Publishing House in Budapest has spent decades in the business of conveying classic and modern Hungarian literature to foreigners. The director of the publishing house talks about the chances of Hungarian books finding their way to an audience outside Hungary.

Corvina Publishing House originally gained its reputation, going well beyond the boundaries of this country, as a publisher specialising in the fine arts. Besides multi-lingual editions of art books (such as Jeno Barcsay's extremely popular Anatomy for the Artist) and publications aimed at tourists visiting this country, the company has made it a mission from the very outset to convey Hungarian literature to foreigners by publishing translations of classic and modern authors. Corvina published Géza Gárdonyi’s all-time favourite, The Waning of the Crescent Moon in German, Ferenc Molnár’s The Paul Street Boys in English, selected poems by Sándor Petofi in German, as well as his epic, John the Valiant in bilingual English–Hungarian and German–Hungarian editions, complete with illustrations.
We asked László Kúnos, director of the publishing house, about the odds they had to reckon with when publishing Hungarian literature in translation.
“Some time around the political transition, the approach to publishing Hungarian books in foreign languages was entirely revised. My point of departure is that the translations need to be published where the readers are – in other words in France, England or Germany rather than in this country. Before ’89 this posed a problem. In the 1990’s, however, Hungarian literature was suddenly discovered by ‘real’ publishing houses and ‘real’ translators, and at long last it began a life of its own on the international scene. If we publish translations of Hungarian works in this country, we simply cannot guarantee that they will find their way to the reader.
Corvina still publishes classics from Mikszáth through Móricz all the way to Krúdy, primarily in English, but these books are sold inside Hungary, to the small market which exists in this country. The circulation relies on foreign-language bookshops, large bookstores and the internet. These publications have to pay for themselves as they are not subsidised.
As far as poetry is concerned, we recently published an anthology entitled The Lost Rider, which is the result of a semi-serious selection project by a group of friends. A few poets and literary scholars, who have known each other since university years, compiled a list of the 100 most beautiful Hungarian poems. We each made our own list, compared the results and assigned scores to each. Finally, we asked George Szirtes, who is an esteemed poet in England as well as an excellent translator, to find the existing English translations of the over 100 poems and to do the translations himself where there were none available. (Corvina also published an anthology of short stories in English, edited by István Bart.)
We have done a translation of Petofi’s John the Valiant, a selection of poems by Sándor Kányádi, a German book of poems by Sándor Petofi, a book of selected poems by Attila József translated by John Bátki and a volume of Miklós Radnóti which also had an American edition.
Another interesting volume, András Petocz’s book, came about after the poems were translated abroad by Nathaniel Barratt and the poet contacted us. My first piece of advice is always ‘try and find an American publisher.’ However, this is not that simple.
It is my conviction that valuable works that emerge almost by accident should not be left lying around in people’s desk drawers. Therefore we decided to start a series which, according to plan, will include translations of the highest quality poetry. As there are no subsidies available to us, this is a series where we don’t pay authors any fees. In fact, none of the participants get anything. We only do a print run of a few hundred, but at the end of the process the book comes into existence. Sales are partly the author’s and partly the publisher’s responsibility, and the books are also available through the Internet. We refuse to let this series be tinted by dilettantism – it only includes truly good poetry by good poets in good translation.
There are many signs to prove that there is a demand for this type of literature. A few years ago, poet Péter Kántor found he had enough poetry in English translation to fill a volume. He could not find a publisher, so he decided to publish his work privately, financing it himself. I disapproved at the time and I still disapprove, because this way the book will go entirely unnoticed.
Because we are talking of a very narrow market, until a few years ago we also did joint editions. Bloodaxe and Corvina jointly printed a book containing partly a selection of poems by Ottó Orbán in translation by George Szirtes and partly of the latter’s English poems about his Hungarian origins, his roots and Hungarian identity.
As a rule, the only way to get Hungarian poetry published is if the publisher is approached by the translator, who has to be a native speaker and a poet of a solid reputation. Only under these conditions will the publisher think of taking on the work. This is why George Szirtes is a great national treasure: he uses his own renown to carry Hungarian poets on his shoulders into the English market. He has effected the publication of translations by Zsuzsa Rakovszky, a collection by Ottó Orbán, selected poems by Ágnes Nemes Nagy, and an anthology of poetry. He is also continually translating prose. Since we are talking of a recognised poet, English publishers find it very important to be able to print his name on the new volumes.”

A list of translated works of Hungarian literature available in Corvina editions:
Elek Benedek–Gyula Illyés: The Tree that Reached the Sky (Az égigéro fa)
Géza Csáth: Opium (Ópium)
Tibor Cseres: Cold Days (Hideg napok)
Géza Gárdonyi: The Slaves of the Huns (A láthatatlan ember)
Árpád Göncz: Mid-Stream (Sodrásban)
Mór Jókai: The Man with the Golden Touch (Aranyember)
Margit Kaffka: Colours and Years (Színek és évek)
Gyula Krúdy: Ladies’ Day (Asszonyságok díja)
Imre Madách: The Tragedy of Man (Az ember tragédiája)
Iván Mándy: Fabulya' s Wives and Other Stories (Válogatott elbeszélések)
Sándor Márai: Memoir of Hungary 1944–1948 (Föld, föld!...)
Kálmán Mikszáth: St. Peter's Umbrella (Szent Péter esernyoje)
Kálmán Mikszáth: The Noszty Boy’s Affair with Mari Tóth (A Noszty fiú esete Tóth Marival)
Ferenc Molnár: The Paul Street Boys (Pál utcai fiúk)
Géza Ottlik: Buda
István Örkény: The Flower Show – The Tot Family (Rózsakiállítás – Tóték)
István Örkény: More One Minute Stories (Újabb egypercesek)
Alaine Polcz: A Wartime Memoir. Hungary 1944-1945 (Asszony a fronton)
Jeno Rejto: The Blonde Hurricane (A szoke ciklon)
Jeno Rejto: Quarantine in the Grand Hotel (Vesztegzár a Grand Hotelban)
Erno Szép: The Smell of Humans (Emberszag)
István Bart (ed.): The Kiss – A re-edition of a selection from the works of the best known 20th-century writers of short prose. The volume offers one short story each from almost thirty authors such as Zsigmond Móricz, Sándor Bródy, Gyula Krúdy, Dezso Kosztolányi, Tibor Déry, István Örkény, Iván Mándy, Ferenc Karinthy, Miklós Mészöly, Endre Fejes, Ferenc Sánta, Erzsébet Galgóczi, István Csurka, Péter Nádas, György Spiró, Lajos Grendel, Mihály Kornis and Péter Esterházy.

Books of poetry published by Corvina:
Dávidházi–Ferencz–Kúnos, eds.: The Lost Rider (a bilingual anthology)
The contents of this volume were selected jointly by Péter Dávidházi, Gyozo Ferencz and László Kúnos, translations were selected or effected by George Szirtes, presenting more than one hundred samples of Hungarian poetry.
Miklós Radnóti: Foamy Sky – Selected Poems (Tajtékos ég – Válogatott versek)
This selection of almost one hundred poems was published as part of Corvina’s bilingual poetry series, based on translations by Zsuzsanna Ozsváth, a native Hungarian speaker, and noted American poet Frederick Turner.
George Szirtes–Clarissa Upchurch: Budapest: Image, Poem, Film
The volume contains poems written in English about the poet’s Hungarian roots and experiences of Budapest, illustrated by his wife, painter Clarissa Upchurch, complete with a CD.
Sándor Kányádi: Selected Poems (Válogatott versek)
Hungarian poet Sándor Kányádi, living in Kolozsvár (Cluj), Romania, selected around forty of his own poems. He worked in co-operation with UK resident Peter Zollmann, translator of poems by Berzsenyi, Arany, Vörösmarty, Babits and other Hungarian poets.
András Petocz: in a row of sunlight
Poems from Petocz’s 2001 volume, translated by Nathaniel Barratt.
Sándor Petofi: John the Valiant (János vitéz)
Books translated by George Szirtes:
Prose and drama
Dezso Kosztolányi: Anna Édes (New Directions, 1991) – Sunday Telegraph Books of the Year and Independent on Sunday Books of the Year
László Krasznahorkai: War and War (New Directions, 2005)
László Krasznahorkai: The Melancholy of Resistance (New Directions (USA), 1999)
Gyula Krúdy: The Adventures of Sindbad (Central European University Press, 1999)
Imre Madách: The Tragedy of Man (Corvina–Püski, 1989)
Sándor Márai: The Rebels (Knopf, 2007)
Sándor Márai: Conversations in Bolzano (Knopf, 2004)
The Colonnade of Teeth: Twentieth-Century Hungarian Poetry (Bloodaxe, 1996)
Ottó Orbán: The Blood of the Walsungs (Bloodaxe, 1993)
Zsuzsa Rakovszky: New Life (Oxford, 1994) – Winner of European Poetry Translation Prize
The Night of Akhenaton: Selected Poems of Ágnes Nemes Nagy (Bloodaxe Books, 2004)

Gabriella Györe