Literature relationships between Hungary and Estonia

Arvo Valton

Affinity, above all, is being aware of affinity. Generally, the voice of blood starts to appeal if such awareness exists.

A clearer awareness of affinity of Finno-Ugrian nations emerged only at the last century. First assumptions by linguists about affinity of Hungarian and Lappish languages were rather shocking for the most part of the Hungarian society.

The knowledge that one or another Finno-Ugrian nation is not an exceptional relic in this world became one of the pivots of our self-consciousness probably only in this century. Providing actual support – no matter how moderate – to each other has turned into a practice only in the recent times. So far, a smaller nation’s eyes continue to be fixed with hope on a bigger nation. Generous care for one’s weaker sisters still remains a rarity, as well as cognition that supporting smaller ones makes us greater both in our and the world’s opinion.

After the World War I, Hungary was one of the first countries to recognise the Republic of Estonia, though the whim of history was to have them on opposite sides in the battle. One of the first trade agreements of the young Estonian Republic was concluded with Hungary – notwithstanding that, earlier, tangible trade relations were rather modest. One of the reason, indeed, was the awareness of affinity.

It is worth to note that the solidarity of Finno-Ugrian nations is based on the idea of importance of the proximity of languages rather than that of blood or race. This is probably the reason why numerous joint projects in the areas of language, literature, traditional art and education have been paid special attention.

The tradition of congresses of Finno-Ugrian culture was established with the All-Finnish School Congress held in May 1921. The second Congress on Education was held in Tallinn in 1924 and the third one in Budapest in 1928. These were followed by the Congress on Culture in Helsinki in 1931 and the last Congress in Tallinn in 1936. While the first congresses were attended mostly by teachers, later they were joined by scientists, artists and public figures. Beside the Hungarians, Finns and Estonians, many smaller Finno-Ugrian nations were also represented, except those under the Soviet yoke.

At those congresses, not only the issues of culture and education were treated but, to some extent, political matters as well. For example, an attempt was made at the 1936 Congress to focus on the problems of Livonians so as to ensure their survival in the Republic of Latvia.

These contacts produced widespread consciousness of affinity among Finno-Ugrian peoples. In 1924 the foundation “Fenno-Ugria” was established in Estonia. In 1928, publication of the magazine Eesti Hőim (“The Estonian Tribe”) was started and the Finno-Ugrian Committee was founded, headed by Prof. Julius Mark. Since 1931, the festival “Tribal Days” was regularly organised. Mutual tourism was developed; subjects concerning kindred nations were included into school curriculums. Apart from large congresses, numerous meetings took place in professional fields.

The first translations of Hungarian literature into Estonian were made at the end of the last century. The earliest translations, like in the case of many other languages, were made via German.

Since then, Mór Jókai and Sándor Petöfi remained the most popular Hungarian writers in Estonia for a long time.

Direct translations from Hungarian started to appear in the beginning of this century. This was clearly stimulated by intellectual influence of the literary movement “The Young Estonia” who published in 1914 The Hungarian Anthology, compiled and translated by Julius Mark, a prominent linguist. The book included prose of Mór Jókai, Kálmán Mikszáth, István Bársonyi, Viktor Rákosi and Géza Gárdonyi.

The most popular Hungarian book of all times in Estonia seems to be The Boys from Pál Street by Ferenc Molnár, translated by Julius Mark. From 1921 to 1988, the book ran through five editions and the name of its central character, Nemecek, became an appellative.

One of the most productive translators from Hungarian was Ants Murakin (1892–1975) whose contribution consists of almost 30 novels and many plays. A translator and a painter, Murakin learned Hungarian during his war imprisonment in 1914. The impulse for translation was given to him by Béla Vikár who asked him to compare the translation of Kalevipoeg by Aladar Bán with the original text.

As cultural relationships with Hungary tightened, other translators entered the stage. These were Ada Koidu, Albert Kruus, Felix Oinas and many others whose contribution is of different quality and capacity.

In the end of the World War II, translators from Hungarian left for exile like the most other Estonian intellectuals; hence the small number and occasional manner of post-war translations from Hungarian. Bibliographical sources clearly show that this situation lingered for many years.

The sense of affinity, however, was still there and the interest in Hungarian culture remained vivacious, particularly among Estonian students. Research in Finno-Ugrian ethnography and folklore was comparatively unrestricted. As Estonia was now in the Soviet Union, mutual contacts and cultural exchange programmes with north-eastern Finno-Ugrian peoples, previously separated from us by the Iron Curtain, started flourishing.

Though the first post-war translations from Hungarian were made via Russian, direct translations started to appear fairly soon. A well-known Estonian poet Ellen Niit became a productive translator of Petőfi. The Stars of Eger by Géza Gárdonyi, translated by Tiiu Kokla, was published in 1958; the book became very popular among youth and aroused the Estonians’ interest in Hungary.

Another pleasant literature event of the same year was publication of The Umbrella of Saint Peter by Kálmán Mikszáth, translated by a famous children’s writer Aino Pervik. This was followed by a collection of fairy-tales under the title The Miraculous Flute the next year.

The mentor of the new generation of translators became Paula Palmeos, the Assistant Professor of Finno-Ugric languages at the Tartu University. She herself has translated several pieces of Hungarian literature.

A remarkable role in the revival of translation into Estonian was played by Loomingu Raamatukogu (“Art Library”), a literary series established in 1957. This collection, published until now, included much of Hungarian literature as well. The principle of this collection – direct translation only – was violated in very rare cases. Owing to the activity of Lembe Hiedel and Otto Samma, the intellectual leaders of Loomingu Raamatukogu, a strong school of professional fiction translators has been established in Estonia and several important principles of direct translating have become prevalent.

Translation of Hungarian literature in Estonia reached its peak during the “golden sixties”, the period marked with beginning of mental liberation from totalitarian suppression. Community of interests of Estonians and Hungarians was strengthened by the fact that both were confronted by the same enemies – these were Russian imperialism and the stupidity of socialist ideology.

A distinction of the 1960s was that a close eye was kept on each others’ literature; books which produced response among the public were rapidly translated even if they were of minor importance from the viewpoint of “high literature”. Some examples are Rozsdatemető (“The Yard of Scrap-Iron” 1965) by Endre Fejes, Az orvos halála (“The Death of Physician” 1967) by Gyula Fekete, Makra (“Makra” 1977) by Akos Kertészi. Publication was sometimes followed by disputes in Estonian press, a reaction unusual in connection with translated fiction.

The same regards translation of Estonian literature into Hungarian in that period. Works with stronger social impact and with clearly recognisable protest against the regime were preferred for translation.

Naturally, apart from such works, serious pieces of classics were published like Tanár úr kérem (“Please, Mister Teacher”) by Férenc Karinthy and Rokonok (“The Relatives”) by Zsigmond Móriczi. Not to mention, of course, The Human Tragedy by Imre Madáchi, translated by Jaan Kross, and a selection of S. Petöfi’s verse The Ageless Man and his poem Sangar János (“János the Hero”) in translation of Ellen Niit – both published in 1970s.

Since 1960s, a plenty of Hungarian books for children and fairy tales were published in Estonia, mostly in prose rather than in poetry. Among the Hungarian classics, novels of Gyula Krúdy, Miháli Babits and other authors must be mentioned. Still, contemporary Hungarian prose was predominant.

During these decades, a lot of Hungarian plays and dramatisations of classical and modern literature (mostly the latter) were put on Estonian stage. In 1980s, there was a real boom of Hungarian drama at the Estonian theatres. Unfortunately, most of these works were not published and thus are missing in bibliography. Among the authors are Molnár – Testőr (“The Guards Officer”), Játek a kestelyban (“A Game in the Palace”), Spiro – A kert (“The Garden”), Csirkefej (“Rattle-brains”), Örkényi – Cat’s Play, Tótid, Szakonyi – Adashiba (“A Transmission Error”) and many others. For example, Özvegyek (“The Widows”) by Akos Kertész was performed at the Tallinn Drama Theatre altogether over 200 times.

That was a brief overview of literature translated from Hungarian into Estonian. More accurate overview can be found in bibliography.

Reception of Estonian literature in Hungary ought to be treated by a Hungarian, for it would be useless to produce just a listing of works. It happens that some translations are noticed by the public, while other, perhaps more important in the original language, are not. This depends on the historical moment, conditions and ideological undercurrents.

As to my own experience, though my books were translated into several languages, Hungary is among those few countries where I felt I did have response in certain times. I conclude this from the fact that translations, scattered over different magazines, were made by people whom I personally did not know, and from some newspaper articles.

I consider this an indication that Hungarians pay attention to Estonian literature. One cannot conquer alone in the battlefield; in literature, too, influence is produced by a joint effort, notwithstanding how strong personality an author or an Estonian might have.

Hungarians seem to prefer omnibus editions more than Estonians do. Therefore even those Estonian authors who are rarely re-printed in their homeland, are represented in Hungarian language with one or two works. If one goes through the alphabetic list of authors contained in bibliography collections Eesti kirjandus vőőrkeeltes (“Estonian Literature in Foreign Languages”) of 1978 and 1985, one can find that almost each author has something published in Hungarian. Only German and Finnish languages can compete here.

Thus, a collection of fairy tales Az aranyfono lányok (1968) and Napfél és éjfél (1972), both translated by Géza Képes – and already an earlier (1939) edition Urali dálok by Aladar Bán – contained not only Estonian folklore but works of Estonian authors as well. Before the W.W.II, in 1940, a comprehensive collection of poetry Az észt kőlteszet virágai was published and, surprisingly, Eszáki vártan (“In Watch of North”) compiled by Képes during the war. During the Soviet period, after a long mutual pause, a collection of four authors Elörzet was published in 1969. It was followed by Az észt irodalom kistűrke in 1969, A bálvany (“Wooden God”, contemporary Estonian short novels) in 1973, Észt kőltők (1975), Irodalom Észtországban (1976), and a collection of plays Vacsora őt személyre (“Dinner for five”) 1976. It shows that, in a short period, a good layer of Estonian literature was published as if there were a campaign. The translators were mainly Gábor Beréczki and Gyözö Fehérvári, Béla Kálman, Zsuzsa Rab and others. Often the inspirer was Mai Beréczki.

Due to such keen interest in those years, reception of Estonian literature in Hungary was noticeable also in Estonia. In other words, it seemed that Estonian literature was existent for Hungarians. Perhaps it is due to our fiction, too, that an Estonian feels like a relative in Hungary not only in the society of intellectuals.

Just like any other boom, this one faded, too. Later on, only the collection Csillagok orája (“Heyday”, 1980) representing the Estonians among other Soviet republics, and A szélőrlő (“The Wind Grinder”, 1981) – a comprehensive collection of stories, indeed, of Estonian authors only – were published. The last collection was The Estonian Anthology published in 1988.

Works of single authors were published also mainly in these years. As for the quantity and bulk of translations, Estonians are a good deal ahead. Perhaps it is usual that a smaller nation is more keen on translating. At least to my knowledge, there is not a single literature in the world where the balance would be opposite – that is, who would translate more from Estonian than Estonians translate from that language. Perhaps the exceptions are some eastern Finno-Ugric languages; still, because of national suppression, the total bulk of translation is so scanty there that the small figures do not permit analysis.

By now, translating activity on the Hungarian part has almost died out. To my knowledge, the last translated book was Professor Martensi ärasőit (“Departure of Professor Martens”) by Jaan Kross, published in 1989.

As both our countries are now busily plunging back into capitalism, motley tasteless products of American-like mass-culture have swamped bookshelves in both countries.

Still, our affinity has not been forgotten. Joint conferences, including political events, are now held in greater number than ever before.

Mutual economic bonds are becoming reality. Both being post-socialist countries, we have a lot of similar problems to solve.

If fiction survives in this crazy world, mutual translating will no doubt brisk up again. On the Estonian part, anyway, it has not passed off – which is testified by bibliography and by the presence in our bookshops, though in somewhat smaller printing, of books translated from Hungarian into Estonian.


In addition, some statistics (which does not pretend to be precise):


1. During the period from 1940 to 1990 (50 years), 68 belletristic works translated from the Hungarian language were published in Estonian, whereas no folk songs were translated (there were fairy tales, though).

From 1929 to 1989 (during 60 years), 56 books by Estonian authors were published in Hungarian.

Conclusion: Hungary is one of those countries where the balance of mutual translating is not so much to Estonian advantage than with the most of other countries.


2. The estimate numbers of translated books published in Estonia from 1940 to 1990 are as follows:

(i) German 286
(ii) French 237
(iii) English 207
(iv) American 197
(v) Finnish 134
(vi) Swedish 94
(vii) Czech 92
(viii) Polish 82
(ix) Hungarian 68

Spanish and other literatures remain far behind.