Romanian-Hungarian literary translations need a boost

“Romanians and Hungarians have plenty of common life experiences, and the literary works inspired by these experiences could be meaningful to all the people living in the region, regardless of their ethnicity. Alas, Romanian-Hungarian literary translations are not programmatic and organized enough,” pointed out Szabolcs Szonda, Transylvanian poet and literary translator in an interview with the maszol.ro news portal. He also emphasized that empathy and an understanding of the culture the literary work belongs to are as important as linguistic skills.

Szabolcs Szonda, who is also director of the Péter Bod County Library in Sepsiszentgyörgy (Sfântu Gheorghe) has translated writings and/or entire volumes of about 30 contemporary Romanian authors to Hungarian. In his interview with maszol.ro, he underlined that even though a fair number of publications are translated from Romanian to Hungarian annually, there is definitely room for more.

There are several Romanian to Hungarian literary translators active in Transylvania, but far less work on translating Hungarian writings and books to Romanian, Szonda said. “Moreover, both Romanian and Hungarian contemporary authors are very productive, and lots of interesting books are being published in both languages. I believe that a more programmatic approach should be applied in the field of literary translations; though we sometimes consult with each other, we do not really see the big picture, meaning that we are not aware of each other’s projects,” emphasized the translator.

To some extent, translations are done at the request of a publisher, but most Transylvanian literary translators are more likely to decide what to work on based on their own preferences, he added.

When asked whether readers in Romania and Hungary might be more interested in Western-European or American literature than in regional works, Szonda said this is not the case.

“In my opinion, readers in this area are keen on getting to know the literature of the neighboring countries. The situation is that the system of subsidies available to publishers for the publication of literary translations is rather narrow, with more financial support for original works than translations,” the specialist explained. For instance, last year the whole scholarship program for literary translators at the Romanian Cultural Institute was put on hold. “True, the world turned upside down last year, and that is probably why certain amounts of money were regrouped; subsidies are always partly influenced by the realities of the present. Furthermore, the publishing of certain works might be prioritized if they somehow gain relevance to the present environment,” Szonda pointed out.

For instance, the Conflux series (published jointly by Pontfix in Sepsiszentgyörgy and Pont Kiadó in Budapest) was focused on works by authors from the Central-European region in several languages, with the same cover design and graphic concept.

“It was an ambitious plan, and even though the level of commitment far exceeded the actual possibilities, the project fell back. Pontfix still exists, but it hasn’t been publishing for a while,” the translator related. “Conflux was an idea that could easily be developed into a literary-translation program to/from both Hungarian and Romanian if some state institutions, whether Hungarian or Romanian, would support it. There are plenty of exciting books in both languages that ought to be translated,” said Szonda.

“Being more organized and programmatic does not mean that translators should be told what to work on or what not to work on; nevertheless, selections could be done, even with a 10-year perspective, of the literary works that are worth translating. If this was the case, new literary translators might emerge; people who might be working quietly, only for their desk drawers, could get a boost by the possibility of becoming part of a larger project,” Szonda explained.

He admitted that there are many more specialists who can translate at a literary level from Hungarian to Romanian than vice versa. “Literary translation is very pragmatic work. Several universities teach the subject, but eventually, it takes lots of interest and enthusiasm to choose this line of work and do it for a long time,” he emphasized. A literary translator has to feel at ease in both cultures. Literary texts are not just simply transposed from one language to the other: literary translation also means a transmission of culture, he added.

In 2020 Szonda translated poems written by Romanian poet Alexandru Muşina (1954-2013). These poems were organized in a volume published with the Hungarian title of Macska-e a cica? (Is the cat a kitten?). Some of the poems were chosen from Muşina’s volume entitled Dactăr nicu & his skyzoid band, parts of them from the volume Regele dimineţii (The king of the morning).

When asked whether he had a personal motivation to translate these poems, Szonda answered affirmatively. “Alexandru Muşina was one of the great thinkers of the generation called “those from the 80s” (optzeciştii in Romanian, the authors who were young adults during Ceauşescu’s dictatorship). Muşina belonged to a group of authors aiming to bring poetry and literature closer to the people. I felt a connection with these texts, and I suspected that they could also interest a larger slice of Hungarian readers,” explained the translator. “The poems in Dactăr nicu are like X-ray images of the “neighborhood of the communist housing blocks” presented with grotesque humor. The garland of poems in Regele dimineţii are different, focused more on life and death and the recent history of the region; the typical black humor is present in these texts too, making the psychological burden of these thoughts more bearable,” Szonda detailed.

The specialist is now working on the translation of a volume of novels written by an author from the eastern Romanian city of Iaşi, Florin Irimia. “He tries to decipher, to summon his own childhood and adolescence; many periods of his life fall before the 1990s. There is a strong personal, family history in the book, but the social environment of the 80s is also depicted. It is an honest book, and as I am almost the same age as the author, I have experienced many of things he writes about,” said the translator. He was of the opinion that several Hungarian readers will be interested in the book; some of the novels had been already published in magazines and were well received.

Szonda also noted that young Hungarian students could be much more easily persuaded to read contemporary Romanian literature if their list of reading to do at home included some texts or even  just parts they could closely relate to.


According to the biographical data published by maszol.ro, Szabolcs Szonda was born in 1974 in Sepsiszentgyörgy. He graduated from the Department of Hungarology at the Faculty of Foreign Languages ​​and Literatures of the University of Bucharest, and that’s where he obtained his doctoral degree. His independent volumes are: Kiegyezés a tükörrel (Compromise with the Mirror; poems, Pont, 1998); Vagyontárgyalás (Property negotiation; poems, Erdélyi Híradó  – FISZ, 2002). His most important translations: Simona Popescu: Xilofon  (Xylophone; Pont, 1998); Ardian-Christian Kuciuk: A hattyú feltalálásának éve (The Year of the Invention of the Swan; Novel, Pont, 2005); Simona Popescu: Vedlések (Shedding; novel, Pont, 2008); Dan Lungu: Tyúkok a mennyben (Hens in Heaven; novel, Pont, 2016); Alexandru Mușina:  Macska-e a cica? (Is the cat a kitten? Lector, 2020). 

Title image: There are plenty of exciting books in both Hungarian and Romanian that ought to be translated,” says Szabolcs Szonda

Source: iroszovetseg.ro. Photo: Bach Máté


Author: Éva Zay