The Bumper Dwarf February 24, 2009Posted by thymeworks in Selected Tales, Warsaw Tales.
add a comment
by Wojciech Chmielewski
When the lamppost lights come on at dusk in Chłodna Street, her dark cobble-stones shine in all their former dignity. This moment is much enjoyed by the bumper dwarf who guards the gateway to one of the old tenement houses. The city, once, was full of such cast-iron bumper dwarves, two of them on every gate. It was their duty to defend the walls of tenement houses from their destruction by the axles of carts entering the courtyards and loaded with goods. The street once acted as the border of a small ghetto. From the gate of the footbridge built over it, at the command of the Germans, the bumper dwarf had a great view. He saw the city’s many Jews cross this bridge in droves, and once when a bomb hit the tenement house, witnessed his twin brother dwarf perish. Here once was the teeming Jewish quarter of the city. All that remains of it today are the cobble-stones of Chłodna Street and the rail, along which trams, bearing the sign “Nur fur Deutsche” once would rattle. The bumper dwarf remembers well that notice with that sign. But that was once and once … besides, those are other tales when this one is of our times in which the dwarf is witness to a conversation taking place between Yvonna, owner of a haberdashery and Marek. her old flame from primary school. The haberdashery occupies a small establishment which you must enter from the gate. When Yvonna and Marek were in love some time ago, they’d go to the cinema and buy ice-creams, hug in the discos, kiss in the cloakrooms. But that was twenty years ago. Now Marek is a taxi-driver, while Yvonne’s husband, Steven, works on a building site in England. He’s been abroad for more than half a year.
“Are you closing now?” Marek asks Yvonna.
“In fifteen minutes.”
“So what? Let me invite you out.”
“But where to? And why?”
Yvonna, despite her thirty five years and two children, who are presently staying with a nanny, blushes a little.
“I want to show you a new bar, with karaoke, we can do a bit of singing, the food is great: kebabs, barbecue pork neck- only the best, you know.”
“I’m on a diet.”
“A diet- but why?” Marek raises his voice a little, “As far as I see, you haven’t changed one bit. Seeing you again after these ten years…you know what? It’s as if we were back in that school class-room again with all those crazy teachers. Your dancing was the best! Are you still doing it?”
“No. Well, sometimes. At weddings, for instance. But you know how rare those occasions are.”
“In this bar you can even dance, there’s a jukebox, you pick hits. The ones popular at our times.”
“Ha! You know,” Yvonne laughs and begins to draw the anti-burglar blinds in her windows, “I dreamt of you, once. It was a fairytale. During a Russian lesson you stood up and started fighting with a dragon. It had suddenly materialised and was wanting to devour me, I was really scared.”
The lamp posts cast delicate light on the cobble-stones and uneven pavement. Yvonna and Marek leave the shop, Yvonna turns the alarm on and closes the door. They are still talking, but the bumper dwarf hears nothing. For a few of moments he is sound asleep, lulled by the evening music noises of Chłodna Street and his memories. So he does not learn where Yvonne and Marek went, nor what transpired that evening.
Translation: Stefan Bodlewski
The Final Question – Istvan Orkeny February 23, 2009Posted by thymeworks in Budapest Tales, Selected Tales.
There was a horrendous bang on my door, then it split in two and came crashing down. There was a stranger standing on the threshold.
“Rascal, you are about to die!” he screamed at me.
I was just about to put kindling on the stove but hearing this, I straightened up.
“You must have mistaken me for someone else,” I said.
“There’s no mistake,” he yelled again, though he’d forgotten to add rascal. “Your time is up!”
He reached for his back pocket to withdraw his gun, but he did it so slowly, with so much time to spare, you’d think he was stroking the back of a dog. In the meantime I stuffed the kindling in the stove and started a fire, then paced up and down my room, because before he’s shot, a man likes to take account of his life. At this point the stranger’s hand was still only half-way to his pocket; and what came next also happened with such languor you’d think you were watching a film in slow-motion.
Before I proceed, though, I’d like to make something clear. I know what people are like, and so I know that they will place what happened in the worst possible light. Accordingly, I would like to make it quite clear that the shooting took place with the usual expediency. The assassin was not slow; it was my assessment of the situation that was fast. (Fifteen times faster than the national average.) A man quick on the uptake sees more; he will even see things that would just be an indistinct blur in another person’s eye. For instance, while someone yawns, I – provided I’m in top form- will consume a three-course meal. My assassin will probably swear that he finished me off in half a minute; but thanks to my quick wit I was able to attend to various urgent matters.
Right now we’re only at the point where the assassin has finally managed to produce his gun. There’s no need to rush but I’d like to make good use of the time at my disposal What should I do? Hurl myself on the floor? Call for help? Fling something at the assassin’s head? When a shooting drags on like this, it offers the victim no end of possibilities.
While he was finicking with his gun, I dialed my physician who started complaining that the bevel wheel of his car was broken (the bevel wheel is part of the differential gear) and he had a hell of a time finding a new one. Only then did I get to put in a word edgewise.
“I haven’t got much time, Doc. I’m about to be shot. Any suggestions?”
“That depends. Do you want to die or not?”
“I think I’d rather not.”
“In that case, dodge the bullet,” the perspicacious physician advised.
“If only it were that simple,” I said. “A month from now I might suffer a stroke and end up a vegetable. The question is, should I really turn my back on a quick and easy death? Before I can make up my mind, I need to know the state of my health.”
The doctor was very understanding. He itemized my sundry organic ills, then after giving it some thought, he said, “As one human being to another, I advise you to live. But as your doctor, I urge you not to pass up such a good opportunity.”
“Thank you very much.”
“Don’t mention it.”
While I was on the phone, my assassin pointed his gun at me, then slowly, very slowly, pulled the trigger.
The bullet dragged itself across the room as sleepily as a fly in autumn. I waited, then dodged.
“How many bullets left?” I asked.
“Stop jumping around,” my assassin said, “because there are only three bullets in the barrel.”
“In short, there are two left,” I said. “That leaves me plenty of time.”
“You’re a pain in the ass,” my assassin said, chagrinned.
I quickly made a couple more phone calls. I took my leave of my loved ones and acquaintances, then called a writer friend who was thinking of buying a piece of real estate with his hard earned savings. I described the situation to him. From where I stand, I explained, value does not seem stable. Besides, the price of land is sure to go down. He thanked me for the good advice and for thinking of him, even at a time like this. I took my leave of him, too. That’s when the second bullet reached me.
I gave it a whack with Simone de Beauvoir’s Mandarins. The bullet hit the floor with a thud, then rolled under the bookcase. I looked around. A pile of unanswered letters lay on my desk. I sprang into action.
My letters were brief, but courteous. I backed out of exchanging my apartment for one in the 12th district, and gave advice to a young lady who was in love with two men at the same time. I called off a dinner engagement, a reader-writer event, and an invitation to be a godfather. It went without a hitch. But just as I was running out of time because the third bullet was heading in my direction, I found the last of the letters, which I’d been putting off answering for months, in which the League for Animal Rights from the local slaughterhouse had turned to me for advice.
“Please excuse us for inconveniencing you with our measly problems, knowing how busy you are,” it began, “but here at the slaughterhouse, we live ankle deep in blood, with the death-rattle of dying animals assaulting our ears, whereas we would like to remain true to the noble principle of the protection of animals. What do you advise?”
I don’t have time to answer because the bullet, like a bluebottle, is just an arm’s length away. And yet the question they’ve posed is not measly in the least, as they put it; it bears with universal significance, and may possibly be the most important question in the world. A pity that even now, during the last possible moment, I haven’t got a definitive answer. Still, I will see what I can do. Thanks to my quick wits, I still have a couple of seconds left. I might even come up with as many as ten solutions.
Sorry. Too late. You will have to ask somebody else.
Translated by Judith Sollosy.
On Translating Örkény’s One Minute Stories February 14, 2009Posted by thymeworks in From The Translator's Desk, What's New.
If I were asked the most obvious – and therefore the most logical and perceptive – question on translating István Örkény’s One Minute Stories: What are the limitations or difficulties in rendering Örkény’s satiric Hungarian – maybe play with words, local references, linguistic tropes – into the somewhat limited “common sense” of Anglo-Saxon-influenced English, I’d be hard put for an answer. There must be word play, local references, idiomatic expressions and the like, but it’s not the language and not the cultural references that pose the real difficulty in translating the One Minute Stories (though I’m not saying that it didn’t take me years to have Örkény speak in English), it is the stories themselves – in short, not the words, but the text. The stories represent a unique blend of Central-European grotesque that grew out of the need to deal with mid-century Central-European political repression in a manner that would get past the censors, and which always and relentlessly focuses on the individual as a unique being – certainly the most potent answer to totalitarianism, of the communist or any other kind. Örkény’s One Minute Stories represent a unique genre that is based on using as few words as possible to say or suggest as much as possible, and the much that it suggested is the reality behind the seeming reality of the Hungarian experience of the sixties and seventies. Örkény’s strength comes from describing seemingly absurd situations in a pared-down „scientific language” (his expression), and the combination unexpectedly reveals to us the truth behind the seeming, hence the laughter, hence the tears. For lack of space, let’s say that this, in a nutshell, is the real text of every One Minute story, this suddenly discovered truth, this laughter of understanding, this sadness of recognition, this standing things on their head, which in the sixties and seventies became second nature to Hungarians. If – again for lack of space – we decide to call this the subtext, then this is what paused the real challenge to me as István Örkény’s privileged translator. As I never tire of saying when asked how I “managed” to translate a writer like Örkény, the trick is to translate the piece and not the words, the text and not the textual difficulties. After all, a piece is more than the sum of its parts. Get at the heart of the text, and take it from there.