According to her medical record, the translator was suffering from hypochondria. Now she’s even a hippocondric, as her mother-in-law remarked to her son, that is, the translator’s husband, four neat syllables, with the stress falling on the third, when she thought the translator was in the bathroom and out of earshot, but a translator has an ear for everything, especially for the half-swallowed sentences and the words implied in the emphatic upward jump of the eyebrows.
Supercilious is the word, it crossed the translator’s mind, as she stepped out of the bathroom half a beat too early and caught in her husband’s look, beside the habitual let’s-drop-it-mom resignation, a new, yet unseen quality, a parry of the foibles: not now, she’ll hear us. It was not the first occasion when she caught her husband at it. A few weeks earlier when they went on a day’s outing to pick mushrooms with Tamás’s family, she saw all too well with what demonstrative diligence he was gathering dry boughs, voicing his expert opinion on the best place to make a fire for the barbecue, delivering with a puppy’s enthusiasm the peppery milk-caps into Ildikó’s hands. Ildikó, Tamás’s wife, is three years older than the translator, so she bosses her around with the utmost naturalness. She has two children, drives a car with relaxed nerve, is always bursting with high spirits – in one word, she’s a real sport. The translator doesn’t like peppery milk-caps, as a child she used to get sick from them, and she could take down quite accurately the score of Ildikó’s conversation with Tamás that evening while putting the kids to sleep, that this poor Karcsi has a hard enough life by the side of this party pooper, and here the translator’s name follows. Who, instead of mushroom-hunting with the others on the thick carpet of dead leaves lighted up here and there by the oblique sunrays, keeps moseying all day long along the edge of the wood with those myopic eyeglasses and a second-hand botanical atlas, trying to identify bear’s foot, buttercups, black hellebore, water crowfoot and similar never-heard-of weeds, months after flowering, although normally she couldn’t tell dill from daffodil, so hard is she set on collecting first-hand, first-eye and first-nose impressions about the shape, feel, smell of their unarmed stems, leaf petioles, lobed and whorled leaves, and about the taste of their poisonous milky sap, because she happens to be translating some novel whose cranked protagonist flees ever-present but, as it sometimes happens in fiction, perfectly invisible and imperceptible war, and takes refuge in a small hut in the woods somewhere up north where, poring day and night over the ever-more-prostrate basal leaf-stems, the increasingly broken-toothed leaf margins, and decreasing number of ovules in the pistils of the windflowers of the field, he reaches the conclusion that mankind is ripe for extinction. The translator came out of the bathroom, gripping a handful of fallen-out hair. On the threshold the hairs were slightly blown back by the barely perceptible draught originating in her mother-in-law’s word uttered in a histrionic whisper, with an intonation soaring toward the third syllable, only to plummet towards the fourth. The translator, staring vacantly in front of herself as usual, took in this word and the two stares hastily shifted from the sizable knot of hair in her disinfectant-smelling hand, in them two thirds of repulsion, one third guilt-feeling because of the repulsion, and an almost uncountable, but all the more rabid rage because of the guilt-feeling, like a cauldron in which words of all colours, consistency and smell ferment together into fruit mash, no, not that, mash is fermented in barrels, but rather like bits of meat and gristle simmering with the quarters of potatoes and peppers quite alien in consistency and character, a bit more patience children, the potato stew is almost ready. In the spring she started translating a novel, she has known the author for a long time; in the small hours when they were both at their desk, they used to send each other long e-mails with minutiae of folk beliefs connected to the dragon-herb, detailed rules of extinct board games, lengthy quotes from obscure authors. It all began in mid-May with a curt, parenthetical aside inserted into an answer, in the negative, to one of her questions, from which the translator learned that the author had been diagnosed with lung cancer. She despaired, was hopeful, could not sleep and work, and lost even the little appetite she had, so that she gave up the semblance of cooking she did, for better or for worse, on account of her husband, and after one and a half weeks of relentless tension not talked over, her mother-in-law moved in and took matters definitely in hand. When, smelling the fizzling breakfast bacon and eggs, the translator rushed for the first time headlong into the bathroom, bursting in on her husband who was shaving, and who clumsily embraced her from behind and held her head as she dropped to her knees in front of the toilet and with eyes blurred by tears and amid loud, croaking hawks coming up directly from her stomach, was throwing up thin air, she glimpsed a spark of cautious hope in his eyes as he asked, with a wink too big for the occasion and in his usual professorial manner, if he should run down to the pharmacy for a pregnancy test, at which she, with still tearful eyes, made a feeble gesture to push him away, but her husband took this for the opening move of an embrace and pressed the translator’s palm to his chest, with his other hand tore a bit of toilet paper and wiped off the whitish saliva from the corner of her mouth and, smiling indefatigably and with his head turned ever so slightly so as not to be knocked off his feet by the ammonia smell of her breath, gave a smack on her nose, then just in case patted her on the bum and gently ejected her from the bathroom, go lie down a bit, Bugs Bunny, you’ll see you’ll eat ten eggs in a minute like a good girl. Needless to say, the translator didn’t eat one single egg that day or the day after, she kept counting the hairs fallen with each brushing or hairwash, scrutinizing her scaly fingernails, scrubbing her skin for hours, which thus became more gray and flaking every day, palpating under her arm the nodes which she could now recognize with unerring precision even through her pajamas and the terrycloth gown, as one would intuit in the first, sinister beats of an opera overture the crime of passion to come inexorably at the end of the fourth act, or as she would foretell at the beginning of the writer’s meandering sentences the mindfully placed counterweight in the parenthesis opened one and a half pages later, the apparently casually tossed phrase from which all the silencings, all the bureaucratic complicity planted in the language used in the fictional world are revealed, that transfer the forsaken, uncomprehending human being into a rubric of the production plans, next to the pesticide statistics. Shortening her sleeping hours day by day, she repeatedly revised the translated chapters with reddened, burning eyes, because with every rereading she discovered some side-note, some dissonant chord tucked away in a subclause, for the text had known already at the onset of its writing, eight years ago, and at the very beginning of its 15-year gestation, not only the past it narrated, but also the way the body goes about blowing up its time bombs, it had known where the malignant growth is to start, how the old lingo’s old words hatch with the first spring thaw from the betrayals hastily buried under the December snow, how they eclose from their pupa, start swarming and lay their eggs in the new lingo of the new papers and new schools. The translator was not particularly well-known in her trade, having published few volumes so far, but the author insisted that his works should be dispatched by her because he knew that even if it took her years to complete a novel, she would look up every single pivot hinge, pattern of embroidery, or medical diagnosis. Sometimes at half five a.m. she would send, with amusing enthusiasm, a link to some blog on which she found a picture of a wicker rocking chair from the 1920s looking exactly like the one in which the novel’s grandmother, a camp survivor, liked to sit in the sunlit square in front of the parlour window. Now that the author was recovering at home after the second chemo, the translator perched all day long in thick woollen socks and pullover at her desk curtained off from the summerly sun, with hands and feet turned into icicles, and on the rare occasions when she ventured to the grocery around the corner to fetch mineral water, cigarettes and some fruit, she kept to the shadow like a beetle. Her wax-coloured skin recoiled from the sun like the skin of an amphibian, and she felt naked behind her sunshades among the people in bright summer clothes, like one whose eyebrows and lashes had gone the way of all her hair, that is, down the toilet. On the scraps of paper scattered on her desk, synonyms were listed in columns, on which she was trying out, like a piano tuner, the ululant screech like a siren, of the doorbell ringing for the interrogatory in the fourth chapter. Her head, sinuses, even her teeth and gums were throbbing now to the rhythm of the ambulance’s, now to that of bomb sirens, tiny points of light kept pulsating in front of her eyes, she was waiting with the heroine, hiding the wounds of her moth-eaten lapels beneath her worn fur boa, in front of the entrance door, and the moment she hit upon the most gratingly ululating word her skin, holed by the ultraviolet rays bombarding her through the windowpanes, at once sensed the inward suction of the draught caused by the door about to open, although the hand had only just grasped the handle, and she saw her husband with the sharpness of an overexposed photograph as he slams the trunk lid on his suitcase and the carefully wrapped LED TV two weeks later, to drive off to his parents’ after having told her that they need to talk over their future, and that he cannot wait until kingdom come, until his wife, i.e., the translator, would finally realize that she needs to change her lifestyle a wee bit, that is, radically, because he too has got only this one life, Bugs Bunny, and the clock is ticking. But in vain is the clock ticking, Bugs Bunny, that is, the translator doesn’t grab the phone and dial her in-laws’ so that, after amiably greeting her father-in-law who picks up the receiver, and hearing her mother-in-law’s voice from the background, well finally, and don’t you give in this time, in a shaky voice and clearing her throat as always when she is nervous she would tell her husband the long-rehearsed sentences about their perennial, herbaceous endosperm life together, how it lacks a persistent woody stem above ground, is in the winter only alive in their rootstock from which in the spring solitary bright yellow flowers shoot with rotate corolla and colourful sepals, whose sap is poisonous when freshly picked, but innocuous if dried. She acknowledges the situation with the same impassivity with which she does the fact that in the meantime summer has arrived, tempestuous showers wash the windowsill in the afternoons, then the stifling July heat comes back, the season keeps dripping the infusion, all her energy is taken up by calculating the sequence of days spent in dull torpor and with a clearing head, in her mind sentences start out gropingly, following the itinerary of the author’s sentences with sluggish feet, to get stuck sooner or later at a polysemic word whose meanings proliferate like a tumour in that other language, then by the much-awaited second half of the week the buttery, viscous mist lifts from her eyes and the words, so far clacking like a stuck record, bolt out impetuously, on these days she translates up to five-six pages a day, the text laboriously sheds its cocoon and spreads its tiny, raw wings, but tires soon, has to take frequent rests to warm itself up, breathing hard with chapped lips, at times looking exactly like a bunny with its small quivering nose. By the end of the summer the author is through three chemos and one surgery, still laid out in the no man’s land between life and non-being on a sterile hospital bed, whereas the translator is roosting in the disinfectant-smelling apartment that feels cold again, with a blanket on her knees and short of breath, in the posture that her spine would now automatically take up even in her sleep, and with which the novel’s criminal-prisoner-turned-revolutionary drives the once-elegant chaise with the three huddled members of the family destined to be deported, to the collecting point in town, the brick factory that had fulfilled its function to general satisfaction a short while ago. Above them, the swallows preparing for migration are practicing diving.
Erika Mihálycsa is a lecturer in 20th-century British literature at Babes-Bolyai University Cluj, Romania, a Joyce and Beckett scholar. She has translated works by Beckett, Flann O’Brien, Patrick McCabe, William Carlos Williams, Anne Carson, Julian Barnes and others into Hungarian. Her translations of contemporary Hungarian prose and poetry have appeared to date, or are forthcoming, in World Literature Today, The Missing Slate, Trafika Europe, and BxOxDxY Magazine. A regular collaborator to various Hungarian reviews, she is editor, together with Rainer J. Hanshe, of Hyperion, issued by Contra Mundum Press.