Translation as Transhumance

Mireille Gansel

Illustration by Cody Cobb


Whenever a letter arrived from Budapest, my father would become engrossed in reading it. The entire household held its breath and a reverent silence reigned. Sitting in the big armchair, he was suddenly far away. Then, with a ritual solemnity, he would announce: 'Tonight, I am going to translate for you.' No one failed to be present. And no one dared to be late. I recall listening to the silences while my father cast around for the right word, or a sentence construction, sometimes stopping short and correcting himself. Mysterious gaps, slender bridges between seconds. The little girl loved hearing the words that spoke about her, and better still, hearing them spoken by this father who was sparing with his compliments. One evening in particular stands out in my memory: when for the first time I experienced viscerally, without yet realising its import, what 'translate' would come to mean for me. It all happened with the utmost simplicity, as it often does when something is important. To my delight, the section of the letter my father was reading was about me. He initially translated a word used by his brother or one of his sisters: 'beloved,' stumbled over the next word and repeated this—actually rather ordinary—adjective once, stumbled again and repeated it a second time. That was what triggered something in me. I dared to interrupt him . . . and I asked: 'But in Hungarian, is it the same word?' He replied evasively: 'It means the same thing!' Undeterred, I insisted: 'But what are the words in Hungarian?' Then, one by one, he uttered, almost with embarrassment, or at least with reticence as if there were something immodest about it, the four magic words that I have never forgotten: drágám, kedvesem, aranyoskám, édesem. Fascinated and relentless, I pestered him, begging him to 'translate' for me what 'each one' 'meant.' Drágám my darling, kedvesem my beloved, and those other two words whose sensual literalness would be unforgettable: aranyoskám my little golden girl, édesem my sweet. That evening I discovered that words, like trees, had roots whose magic my father had revealed to me: arany gold, édes sweet. Suddenly, the blueprint of French ignited before this rainbow of sensations, each enriched by a lovingly enveloping possessive.

Those four words opened up another world. A language to be born within my own tongue. And the conviction that no word that speaks of what is human is untranslatable.


To the ukase banning the Hungarian language my father had added a condition: 'If you want to communicate with the family, you'll just have to learn German.'

'But do you know German?' Father's reply was poignant: 'I know eight words, the ones the teacher reserved for the Jewish students in the class, the only ones that were instilled in me: "du bist ein Stück Fleisch mit zwei Augen."' And he added: 'I hate German.' Many years later, the little girl would understand that in the silent waters of a shared suffering and a shared rebellion this hatred formed a twofold refusal: of German, the language of the persecutors and those who humiliate, and of Hebrew, the language of his being-Jewish, persecuted and humiliated. From his childhood in Balassagyarmat he also harboured a lifelong rejection of any double-talk. Of any betrayal of the Word. In the language of the prophets: the Hebrew of his pious mother Deborah, from a long line that had come from Moravia, and the Hebrew of the prayers of his father Nathan, from a long line that had come from Galicia. Countries from the fringes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, created as a result of the partition of Poland in 1772, and then wiped off the world map in 1918. The melting-pot of all the languages of the peoples it comprised: Polish, Ruthenian, German, and Yiddish. Countries of wretchedness and violent persecutions, where the poorest Jews drew on the mystic roots of an intense piety: Hassidism, hassidhessed, urging goodness and fervour of the heart. And so it was with grandfather Nathan. He lived the sacred scriptures in the humble gestures which the Sabbath gave their full meaning. He was a compositor in a small printing works, and every Saturday, dressed in his threadbare but dignified black suit, he went around the hospitals of Budapest on foot, sat at the bedsides of the sick who had no visitors, talked with them and then took from his pocket one of the sweets he had brought especially. On Friday evenings, on leaving the synagogue, he never allowed a solitary fellow worshipper to go off alone into the night, but invited them to his large family table.

These memories were told to me by my old Aunt Szerenke in that German of which Aharon Appelfeld wrote: 'It was not the language of the Germans but that of my mother [ . . . ] In her mouth the words had a pure resonance, as if she were speaking them inside an exotic bell-jar [ . . . ] The words of the languages around us seeped into us without our knowing it. The four languages flowed together into one, rich in nuances, contrasting, satirical, full of humour. In this language, there was a lot of room for feelings, for the subtlety of emotions, for the imagination and for memory.'

That German of Imre Kertész from Budapest, of Appelfeld from Czernowicz, of Tibor from Prague, the family's last patriarch. When I hear their voices, when they speak to me, in Berlin, or from Jerusalem or Haifa, it is Aunt Szerenke's voice I hear. And that entire little circle of survivors. One language. From a world that is no more.

That German, criss-crossed by exiles and carried down through the generations, from country to country, as one carries a violin. Whose vibratos have preserved the accents and intonations, the words and expressions, of adopted countries and dialects.

That German, a language without a land and without borders. An inner language. If I were to remember only one word, it would be innig—profound, intense, fervent.

That German learned partly at school in the days of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and partly a cross-border language within the family. This was particularly true for Aunt Szerenke who had not gone to school, but as the eldest of nine siblings had absorbed the language that was her parents' private language, that of Nathan, born in Hungary, and Deborah-Charlotte, born in Slovakia. German, the language of their marriage. Hebrew, the language of their prayers. Aunt Szerenke was the well of memory. She spoke in half-words. But between the words, the silence of her smile expressed the essential. Most of all, her boundless understanding of people's lives. As soon as she learned that I had chosen to study German at the lycée, she wrote me a letter. On paper like a sheet of sky. Light as a wing. My first letter from 'over there' for which I had no need of a translator. In her handwriting that danced between the lines, the rhythm of her words written out loud uninterrupted by any punctuation. She nominated me her 'secretary': 'even if I'm not very good at writing, I know that you understand the words that are in my heart.' The supreme honour of the heart, now authorised to receive and keep secrets, like that little desk also called a secretary, but also to transcribe those words from a language that we would share forever. 'Being a secretary,' the first appointment and first designation of what would become paths of 'translation.' And so I launched straight into a German that went far beyond the classroom walls and the stages of the school curriculum. Was not this language of the soul, the defiance of so many confinements, so many frontiers, by its essence the language of poetry? It resonated with me at once and I recognised it from the outset when, leafing through my textbook, an edition still printed in Gothic script, I came across poems in German for the first time. They were lines by Goethe:

Kennst du das Land, wo die Zitronen blühn,
Im dunkeln Laub die Gold-Orangen glühn

Do you know the land where lemon-trees grow,
In their leafy shade golden oranges glow

I experienced the same thrill as when in the leafy shade of the little garden of Mandula Street, Aunt Szerenke, drawing from the timeless well, would tell stories, endless stories in her German peppered with Hungarian, Yiddish, and Slovak. The same enchantment as when on summer nights with my elderly uncle Istvan, snuggled in blankets under the huge trees of Margaret Island (Margit Sziget), we listened to Schubert's Lieder ascending to the stars.

translated from the French by Ros Schwartz

Extract from Traduire comme Transhumer, Rennes: Calligrammes, 2012.
Copyright © Mireille Gansel, 2012
English translation © Ros Schwartz, 2015