Translation as Transhumance

Mireille Gansel

Illustration by Cody Cobb


Whenever a letter arrived from Budapest, Father would become engrossed in reading it. The entire household held its breath and a reverent silence reigned. Sitting there in the big armchair, he was suddenly far away. Then, with ritual solemnity, he would announce: ‘Tonight, I am going to translate for you.’ No one ever failed to be there or dared to be late. I recall listening to the silences while Father struggled to find the right word or sentence construction, sometimes stopping short and correcting himself. Mysterious gaps, tenuous bridges. The little girl loved hearing the words that spoke about her, and better still, hearing them uttered by this father who was so 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 significance, what ‘translation’ would come to mean for me. It all happened with the utmost simplicity, as is often the case 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 as ‘beloved’, stumbled over the next word and repeated this – actually rather ordinary – adjective once, stumbled again and then repeated it a second time. That triggered something in me. I dared to interrupt him. I asked: ‘But in Hungarian, is it the same word?’ He replied evasively: ‘It means the same thing!’ Undeterred, I pressed him: ‘But what are the words in Hungarian?’ Then, one by one, he enumerated, almost with embarrassment, or at least with a certain reticence, as though there were something immodest about it, the four magic words which I have never forgotten: drágám, kedvesem, aranyoskám, édesem. Fascinated, I pestered him, begging him to translate for me what each word meant. Drágám my darling, kedvesem my beloved; and two other words whose sensual literalness I would never forget: 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; each of these terms enriched by a lovingly enveloping possessive. All of a sudden, the blue-print of my native French glowed from within.

Those four words opened up another world, another language that would one day be born within my own language – and the conviction that no word that speaks of what is human is untranslatable.


Father had added a further damper to the ukase banning the Hungarian language: ‘If you wish to communicate with the family, you will simply have to learn German.’

‘But do you know German?’ Father’s reply was chilling: ‘I know eight words, the ones the teacher reserved for the Jewish students in the class – the only ones he dinned into me: ‘du bist ein Stück Fleisch mit zwei Augen’’ (You are a piece of meat with two eyes). Then he said: ‘I hate German.’ Many years later, the little girl would understand that in the dark waters of a shared suffering and a shared rebellion, this hatred developed into a dual rejection: of German, the language of the persecutors and those who humiliate, and of Hebrew, the language of his Jewish-self, his persecuted and humiliated self. From his childhood in Balassagyarmat he harboured a lifelong rejection of any doublespeak. Of any betrayal of the Word. Of the language of the Prophets: the Hebrew of his pious mother Deborah, from a long line that came originally from Moravia, and the Hebrew prayer of his father Nathan, from a long line that came from Galicia. Countries on the very margins of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, created at the moment of the partition of Poland in 1772, then wiped from the world map in 1918. The crossroads of the languages spoken by all the peoples it comprised: Polish, Ruthenian, German, Yiddish. Places of wretchedness and violent persecutions where the poorest Jews drew on the mystical roots of an intense piety: Hasidism, hassid — hessed, goodness and fervour of the heart. And so it was with Grandfather Nathan, a typesetter in a small printing works, who brought to life the sacred texts in the humble gestures to which the Sabbath gave their full meaning. Every Saturday, dressed in his threadbare but respectable black suit, he would do the rounds of all the hospitals in Budapest on foot, sit at the bedsides of the sick who had no visitors, talk with them, and then take a sweet from his pocket and give it to them. On leaving the synagogue on a Friday evening, he would never let a solitary fellow worshipper go off alone into the night, but always invited him to join his large family around the table.

These memories were recounted to me by my old Aunt Szerenke, in the German of which Aharon Appelfeld once wrote: ‘It was not the language of the Germans but that of my mother . . . In her mouth the words had a pure sound, 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 space for feelings, for the subtlety of emotions, for imagination and for memory.’

This is the German of Imre Kertész from Budapest; of Aharon Appelfeld from Czernowicz; of Tibor, the family’s last patriarch, from Prague. When I hear their voices, when they speak to me, whether in Berlin, Jerusalem, or Haifa, I hear Aunt Szerenke’s voice and that entire little circle of survivors, all speaking the same language, from a world that is no more.

This is the German that has been punctuated by exiles and passed down through the generations, from country to country, like a violin whose vibratos have retained the accents and intonations, the words and the expressions, of adopted countries and ways of speaking.

This is the German that has no land or borders. An interior language. If I were to hold on to just one word, it would be innig — profound, intense, fervent.

This is the German partly learned at school in the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and partly a cross-border language within the family. This was especially true of Aunt Szerenke, who had not gone to school but who, as the eldest of nine siblings, absorbed the private language of her parents: Nathan, born in Hungary, and Deborah-Charlotte, born in Slovakia. German was the language of their marriage; Hebrew, the language of their prayers. Aunt Szerenke was a well of memory. She left certain things unspoken, but between the words the silence of her smile expressed the essential, her infinite 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, as light as a wing. My first letter from ‘over there’ for which I had no need of a translator. Her handwriting danced between the lines, echoing the rhythm of her words that had been composed out loud and were uninterrupted by any punctuation. She nominated me her ‘secretary’: ‘Even if I don’t know how to write them very well, I know you understand the words that are in my heart.’ The ultimate honour, straight from the heart. I was now authorised to receive and keep secrets, just as the little writing desk received them, as well as to transcribe words from a language that we would always share. I became a secretary; it was my first job and the first step on the different paths that would lead me to translation. This was how I discovered a German that went far beyond the classroom walls and the school curriculum. Was not this language of the soul, which had defied so many prisons, so many frontiers, by its very essence the language of poetry? It resonated with me from the beginning, something that I recognised when, leafing through my textbook, an edition still printed in Gothic script, I first came across a poem in German, some 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 bloom,
the golden oranges glow amid the dark leaves

I experienced the same enchantment as when, in the leafy shade of the little garden of the house on Mandula Street, Aunt Szerenke, drawing from that age-old well, would tell me endless stories in her idiosyncratic German peppered with Hungarian, Yiddish and Slovak. The same enchantment as when on summer nights with my elderly Uncle István, snuggled in blankets under the huge trees of Margaret Island, we listened to Schubert’s Lieder ascending to the stars.

translated from the French by Ros Schwartz

Translation Copyright © 2017 Ros Schwartz. Published in November 2017 by Les Fugitives.