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22 May 2024

Italian books in Hungary
Part Two

Margit Lukácsi, Pázmany Péter Catholic University of Budapest

In the publishing world, choices, sales rankings, a work’s position in them, whether it has been presented at festivals and book fairs, whether it has won prizes and, above all, whether the author is willing to promote the book by participating in presentations and various other events all count a lot. The active presence of the author represents a certain guarantee for the success of the translated book. But it can be just as interesting if the author is invisible and, even if we know that they exist, we are fascinated by the halo of mystery around the person: this is the case with Elena Ferrante, whose books have almost all been translated into Hungarian. The case of Antonio Tabucchi might be the opposite example – a highly esteemed author, perhaps more abroad than at home – whose first novel translated into Hungarian came out in 1980 (Piazza d’Italia), while the translations of his other works were published many years later; among them Sostiene Pereira (1999), Il gioco del rovescio (2002) and Notturno indiano (2003). Tabucchi never became a literary phenomenon in Hungary: he remained a well-known author in the sphere of specialists in Italian studies and a refined public who still reads literary magazines in which many of his short stories and excerpts from novels were published in Hungarian. Also of interest are the fortunes of Andrea Camilleri who enjoys enormous success in Italy and Germany, while in Hungary he is known to few fans despite his seven to eight translated books, his detective stories and a historical novel, Il birraio di Preston.

One could continue the list of translations by mentioning Italian authors who have enjoyed great success in their homeland. Some titles have become true bestsellers in Hungary: Alessandro Baricco (12 titles), Elena Ferrante (10), Niccolò Ammaniti (4), Melania Mazzucco (4), Stefano Benni (3), Paolo Giordano (3), Dacia Maraini (3), Roberto Saviano (3), Silvia Avallone (2), Paolo Cognetti (2), Margaret Mazzantini (2), Donatella Pietrantonio (2). Among the translations in the last two to three years (2021-2023) are Roberto Calasso (Ka), Nicola Lagioia (La città dei vivi), Sandro Veronesi (Il Colibrì) and Giulia Caminito (L’acqua del lago non è mai dolce). Giorgio Pressbburger (8) and Edith Bruck (5) enjoy privileged attention in Hungary due to their Hungarian origins.

In a publishing environment where entertainment books (romance novels, detective stories, historical novels, books about football) are increasingly numerous, translated titles of ‘high literature’ are relatively few. Although anthologies (both prose and poetry) have almost completely disappeared, a few heroic publishing initiatives of the last two decades must be mentioned. Two are from the Noran publishing house in Budapest: an anthology of short stories, ‘Italian Decameron of the 20th century’ (Huszadik századi olasz dekameron, 2005), in the series ‘Modern dekameron’, in which 15 anthologies of short stories from 15 different language areas were published; and the anthology of erotic short stories ‘Erato italiano’ (Olasz erato, 2005). The third, equally courageous initiative, concerns poetry: the poetry anthology Online barokk (‘Baroque online’ 2012), a bilingual collection of two hundred poems by fifty-two poets from the second half of the 20th century, such as Nanni Balestrini, Antonio Porta, Elio Pagliarani, Carlo Villa, Adriano Spatola, Giulia Niccolai, Cesare Viviani, Tomaso Kemeny, etc. These are to be considered ‘heroic initiatives’ because the publication of contemporary Italian poetry is still severely lacking in Hungary. And this is not because there is a lack of translators, on the contrary: translator-poets are there, but their work almost always remains in the shadows or, at best, is hosted by minor publishing houses. Some examples: a collection of poems by Mario Luzi, (‘La cupa fiamma che ricade’, 2008); Laborintus by Edoardo Sanguineti (2008); and a collection of poems by Aldo Palazzeschi, ‘Così mi piace’ (2016).

A number of outstanding achievements should also be mentioned: the aforementioned new translation of Dante‘s Divine Comedy in an annotated edition (2016), an event of great impact in the literary sphere and not only in the field of Italian studies; the translation of the complete works of Umberto Eco; and the completion of the edition of 20th-century classics such as Pirandello, Calvino, Buzzati and Pasolini. These are partly republications in revised editions of already existing translations and partly new translations, as in the case of Pasolini, whose novels (Ragazzi di vita, Una vita violenta, Petrolio) have been translated, as well as his screenplays, poetic works and some non-fiction titles (Empirismo eretico). At the same time, these publishers do not fail to offer other authors of unquestionable literary value, such as the aforementioned Claudio Magris and Antonio Tabucchi, as well as works by Primo LeviSe questo è un uomo and La tregua (2014), and some short stories under the title Angyali pillangó, ‘Angelica farfalla’ (2004) and Sebastiano Vassalli‘s La Chimera (2002). Gaps remain in the translations of works of high literary quality (contemporary classics, essayists, etc.) and much could be done to better promote existing translations to a wider audience.

Finally, the work carried out by all those publishers operating in the school and university sector who publish the works of the great authors of the most distant centuries, from Humanism to Baroque to Romanticism, should not be forgotten. Such editions circulate mainly among scholars and university students, rarely reaching a wider public.

In conclusion, I believe that the picture is not too different from that of European countries that have lived and live in historical-cultural-linguistic contexts similar to Hungary. One thing is certain: the figure of the translator is a key factor, acting a bit like a shrewd merchant, a bit like an educated ambassador. The translator-mediator is a kind of ‘representative’ of the author and their work, today more than ever.