A new Hungarian literary success: György Dragomán

He seems to be the new literary star on the horizon. His name and his life encompass the whole ethnic patchwork of the region. A "dragoman" was an interpreter and official guide in the Ottoman Empire who had to be proficient in Arabic, Turkish, and Persian. The word is actually of Arabic origin (tarjuman). It was adopted by the Turks in the form of "tercüman" and from there entered several Slavic languages. It even spread to Romanian and Hungarian (tîlmáci and tolmács). Apparently, Franjo Tudjman's ancestors, judging from his name, were most likely dragomans. György Dragomán was born in Romania (1973) but the family moved to Hungary when he was fifteen years old. Apparently, the move wasn't easy. He was a Hungarian, yet an outsider. He finished high school in Budapest and was accepted as an English major at ELTE (Eötvös Lóránt Tudományegyetem). That in Hungary meant that his knowledge of English had to be quite proficient even before entering university. He is also speaks Romanian and German quite well.

Dragomán up to now has written two novels. In 2002 A pusztítás könyve (Genesis Undone) received a prestigious Hungarian literary prize for a first novel. Three years later A fehér király (The White King) appeared; by now it has been translated into practically all the major languages of the world. The fame his novel achieved I think surprised even Dragomán. It all started with translating a chapter of the book and sending it to The Paris Review. The chapter, which could stand on its own as a short story, was published in the fall of 2006. And from there on it seemed to be easy. Houghton Mifflin was interested and published the whole book, in the United Kingdom Doubleday picked it up, in Germany Suhrkamp, in France Gallinard. In addition it appeared in Spanish, Italian, Dutch, Hebrew, Finnish, Swedish, Slovak, Croatian, Serbian, Polish, Portuguese, and Romanian. I may add that our "dragoman/interpreter" also translates from English to Hungarian.

I saw an interview with György Dragomán this morning on Napkelte and found him an unusual character. He talks a mile a minute and his work methods also seem to be out of the ordinary. He apparently stares at an empty wall and that way pictures appear in his imagination that help in his writing. He seems to be able to store these pictures in his mind for future use. If anyone is interested in the interview, here is the link: http://tinyurl.com/979no8 I also recommend Dragomán's official website: http://gyorgydragoman.com where one can read about him and his work in several languages including English, German, Polish, Romanian, Slovak and Dutch. Dragomán also has links to dozens of favorable reviews in different languages. The White King is still in print and widely available.


  1. This reminds me of a real ‘dragoman’ and equally fascinating character, that of Vámbéry Ármin – I’m (slowly) working my way through his book ‘A Török Faj’. You still see references to Vámbéry turn up in arguments over the origins of Hungarian – whether Ural-Altaic or, the more widely held belief, Finno-Ugric. There was one such attempt to reignite the issue in the Hungarian media at the beginning of December. Anyway, I don’t know if any of Vámbéry’s works are available in translation, but his life alone is an astonishing story: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%81rmin_V%C3%A1mb%C3%A9ry

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