Imre Kertész

Who will publish Hungarian literature?
Tim Wilkinson translates Hungarian writers into English. Despite the quality of their work, and the fact that they are highly respected and widely read internationally, publishers in the English-speaking world have been turning their noses up at them. Esther Kinsky reports.

Tim Wilkinson is a translator from the Hungarian with a very impressive bibliography to his name. Only four years ago he gave up his job in the pharmaceutical industry to devote himself to literary translation. Literature and music had been a passion all his life. Wilkinson has been familiar with Hungary since the sixties and is married to a Hungarian: he soon realized what treasures the literature of this small country has had to offer over the past decades. These treasures, as he rightly believes, merit translation into English, and deserve to be read by a wide audience outside the country of their origin. Some six years ago, it was Imre Kertész' Kaddish For an Unborn Child which made such an impact on him that he undertook it to translate the book in the evenings, after work. It was his first foray into literary territory after a number of translations of academic works. He made contact with Kertész and has been in touch with him since, although none of his translations of Kertész' books have yet been published in Britain or the States. Not even the Nobel prize for Kertész, nor Wilkinson's laudable efforts to expose the appalling quality of the two existing translations of Kertesz' work, published by American University presses, have resulted in a noticeably greater demand for his translations.

Wilkinson, who admits to 'finding English literature boring' and has read hardly any of it in forty years, talks with knowledge and enthusiasm about Central European literature in general, and has been keeping in touch with the prolific Hungarian literary scene for years. 'Particularly in the nineties, maybe also due to the political changes, I kept finding more and more books that were really interesting', he says. 'When I read something I like, that's different, or offers an interesting approach, I'm just curious to see how it would work in English.' He devotes a lot of - unpaid - time to producing lengthy samples of books he likes. 'Hungary has a literary scene, it is easy to get in touch with writers, they all work for the many literary magazines and publishers or at the literary department of the radio. They all know one another', he says. 'So far, I did the translation and then approached the author. Mostly they're comfortable that I understand what they're writing about. Then I usually say, I'll do what I can and try to flog it. I'm not doing it indiscriminately. Most authors, and I'm talking about some eight or ten, have become friends, quite obviously there is a shared wavelength.'

Hungary is a small country with a long literary tradition to which many ethnic minorities and cultures have contributed over the centuries. The wealth and range of literary publications and the sheer number of outstanding writers in contemporary Hungary is astonishing, and Hungarian literature has an enormous appeal in many European countries, as became obvious when Hungarian literature was the focal theme at the Frankfurt bookfair in 1999. In Europe apparently only Britain is immune to its impact. While Kertész, whose 'ability to wring humour out of the most mundane incidents of ordinary life in a way that ... is not entirely out of kilter with British tastes', as Wilkinson points out, has been published to great acclaim in Germany, France, and Sweden, for example, 'several British publishers have walked away from the chance to publish him in the last three to four years because they've got bigger fish to fry', as Wilkinson puts it, Almost all writers on Wilkinson's list of sample translations - ranging in volume from 6000 to 119 000 words - have been widely translated into other languages, some, like Péter Nádas, Péter Esterházy or László Márton have even acquired a degree of literary fame abroad. They quite obviously have a lot to say which is relevant and meaningful not only in their own country. Like so many other translators and admirers of foreign literatures, Wilkinson asks himself the same question again and again: why not in Britain? His numerous efforts to encourage British publishers or editors to develop some interest in contemporary Hungarian writers have been largely unsuccessful. They have resulted, at best, in polite letters of rejection like the one he quotes in his article 'IgNobel Thoughts: On Imre Kertész and His Works in English' (to be published in a forthcoming issue of the Hungarian Quarterly): '... it's certainly not a question of the merit of the work being insufficient, but simply a keen awareness of the difficulties involved in introducing a new European writer to the UK market'. It is a deplorable truth that interest in foreign literatures and cultures - i.e. those which are not part of the anglophone world - reaches a new all time low with every year. Wilkinson remembers that it hasn't always been like this. 'I grew up in the sixties, and back then even us weirdo scientists were reading European literature, and that seems to have gone. I can't understand why, where did that curiosity go?' A question worth asking indeed. 'I have much more in common with my Hungarian writer friends', he continues. 'They all grew up reading European writers. There was a sort of communality which, it strikes me, has gone somehow in Britain. The answer is that it was Thatcher's influence. The values which had to do with a European awareness were already crumbling, and she gave it all a good kick, a lot of things that had been valuable disappeared, what emerged was a loathsome society of greed and parochialism.' If anything, the situation has become worse during the last decade, and even in the literary business most people no longer seem to be aware that by ignoring most of the European literatures they are missing out on something. This makes Wilkinson's commitment and determination all the more admirable.

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