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Roundtable discussion and exhibition at the centenary of Nyugat

On 11 December 2008, the Friday Circle convened a roundtable discussion and exhibition celebrating the centenary of literary journal Nyugat (West, 1908-41). Anniversary events in Hungary included a year-long exhibition at the Petőfi Literary Museum, numerous talks, lectures and public events, a Nyugat 100 bus that toured the country for six months with a mobile exhibition, and a number of important archive resources being made available online, from audio recordings of Nyugat authors reading their works, texts and graphics, to personal correspondence.

Our contribution was intended as a reflection on Hungarian literature, culture and translation at Nyugat’s centenary. To this end, we invited speakers and guests to a roundtable discussion at the University College London Wilkins Refectory, to discuss the anniversary and broader questions of Hungary’s contentious relationship to ‘the West’, over coffee and Hungarian patisserie.

Following a welcome from Dr Daniel Abondolo in the chair, Tim Wilkinson, translator (Imre Kertész, Péter Zilahy, a number of academic monographs on history and culture) and essayist, opened the roundtable. Noting that Nyugat was by no means a representative cross-section of Hungarian literature at the time, Tim introduced the notion of the literary canon in order to address its scope and validity. If a major writer such as Dezső Szomory had dropped out of Hungarian literary life, then the construction of the canon should be the subject of critical attention. Tim then presented figures from the Nyugat era and from the past fifteen years, on the number of translations of Hungarian literature published, their authors (living or dead) and translators, observing that no great progress had been made in terms of quantity. Although the ‘free adaptations’ of Mór Jókai’s novels had a contemporary equivalent in popular translations of questionable quality, the translator can today choose from a wide range of excellent authors and works.

Len Rix, translator of Antal Szerb, Magda Szabó, and others, continued with the theme of difficulty in finding and navigating Hungarian literature in translation. He stated his aim as a translator, to acquaint English-speaking readers with Hungarian literature, and then introduced a discussion of the foibles of the publishing industry. Publishers are timid, translators do not receive royalties, and editors might insist on ‘no adverbs’. For Hungarian literature to move from the margins into the mainstream, it needs translations that will catch on, and intelligent marketing expertise. In conclusion, Len rephrased Tim’s observation that the books would then have no difficulty selling themselves.

Dr Zsuzsanna Varga of the Centre for Russian, Central and East European Studies at the University of Glasgow, presented her work in progress: a searchable database of Hungarian Literature in English translation, 1969-2007. The database lists works of fiction, drama, and lyrical poetry, the best known and most widely translated genre of Hungarian literature, and focuses mainly on texts published in the UK and in Hungary. It includes monograph-length translations of Hungarian fiction, individual poets’ volumes, the contents of historical and thematic anthologies of poetry and short fiction, as well as many periodical items. The database included, at the time of Zsuzsa’s presentation, almost 3,500 titles.

Informal discussion broadened out to include Hungary’s view of ‘the West’ as superego, Nyugat as a ‘rainbow coalition’ of writers who didn’t agree on much, translation anthologies, the establishment of an East European film network at Sheffield Hallam University, and a selection of photographs and images from Nyugat.

The accompanying exhibition held in the School of Slavonic and East European Studies Library presented a selection of original journals, first editions and newspapers from the Library’s rich collection. Original and facsimile issues of Nyugat from 1908 to 1939 were on display, together with accompanying notes highlighting the early Secession aesthetic, the breadth of subjects addressed by contributors, and the diverse authors and works discussed in ‘Figyelő’, the reviews section, the austerity and pacifist controversies of First World War issues, as well as personality clashes, and changing editorial styles and staff, such as that imposed by the Second anti-Jewish Law in 1939, towards the end of the journal’s existence. Debates on aesthetics and ethics could be followed in the context of social and political upheavals over the first half of the twentieth century. Visitors could peruse newspapers from the first years of the twentieth century, Nyugat’s peer and rival journals, and a small number of first editions. We highlighted graphics and illustrations throughout, from portrait photographs, caricatures and illustrations, for instance of a ‘modern’ bookshop in England in 1934, to maps, advertisements for shoe cream and personals. The exhibition notes can be viewed or downloaded in pdf format here.

A reception followed at the SSEES Masaryk Senior Common Room.

The co-convenors, Dr Gwen Jones and Eszter Tarsoly, would like to extend warm thanks to all those who took part, in particular SSEES library staff who suggested and organized the exhibition, and Jenny Rasell, for her assistance and enthusiasm on the day.