Colonel Borcan’s Umbrella
Two weeks before he died, Colonel Borcan took me with him to a bald mountaintop to survey the Dobrini Forest. He asked that I keep my eyes open, chiefly to watch the rowan bushes along the road, to see if the waxwings had arrived. It was the middle of autumn, and the thickets buzzed with unfamiliar sounds.
This aside, the forest ranger’s surveys usually kept to a pattern: each morning, he went to the bear reserve and surveyed the stock, and then, returning home, he trudged along whichever mountain ridge he fancied, and, while breathing in the reserve’s narcotic peace, the sound of the brooks flowing at the bottom of the valleys, he composed a report from his observations. But now he followed the mountain guards’ markings along an untrodden path, heading straight to a secret look-out. Allegedly the waxwings had turned up, and in their tracks would be the woodland’s winterly fever which, Lord knows why, was called the Tunguska Cough in the Sinistra District.
At the peak, Colonel Borcan waited inside a resting place made of rocks and lined with moss. He dropped his leather hail-proof ranger’s umbrella in the grass nearby, undid his smock, and set about making himself comfortable. He took off his hat as well and weighted it down with a few rocks speckled with lichen. Then, with earlobes twitching, head bare, and hair waving in the wind, he stared for hours through binoculars to the eastern border.
This crag which just peeked out from the pine groves formed part of the Pop Ivan mountain ridge, and in the distance it was possible to see the other side of the border, to the rolling blue ranges of Ruthenia. Beyond the last ridge, dark smoke was already rising, perhaps from as far away as the flat lands in the distance, and a purple curtain covered a large part of the sky in the east, as if night was falling. As the sun rose, the colors in the distance faded, and when the valleys filled up with opulent afternoon light, the forest ranger put away his binoculars and put on his cap, signaling that the watch had come to an end.
I never found out if he caught sight of what he was looking for on the other side of the slopes, or if the waxwings and the Tunguska Cough approaching from shrub to shrub signified something else, or, why exactly he brought me, the simple fruit harvester and a newcomer, with him that day to the Ukrainian border.
Having arrived at the valley’s bottom on our way home, he asked if I had seen the waxwings. When I answered that, yes, I think I glimpsed two or three, he said he would start organizing the vaccines.
We were near the barracks when he again set his umbrella down in the grass – he was the only ranger who tramped through the sodden forests all winter and all summer with an umbrella tucked under his arm –, and took out the binoculars once more from their case. In the faded autumn meadow across the stream there walked the stranger named Red Rooster. Feet barely touching the ground, he arrogantly stepped into the pasture which separated the forest from the mowed field, his red hair and beard aflame in front of the black pines. Colonel Borcan followed him with the binoculars until he disappeared among a grove of yellow flashing birch trees. Then, in a low voice, almost confidentially, he said,
“Tell me Andrej, did anyone by any chance, leave a small box with you recently?” Then, when he saw that I was just dumbly staring at him, as if I hadn’t understood the question, he added, “I mean, I am counting on a little something. Let’s say a fresh caught fish.”
Although the question was strange – and stranger still was how disheartened he was when I answered that no, no one had left any sort of package-– I surely would have forgotten about it. However, not too long after, the stranger named Red Rooster called on me at the fruit storehouse In his hand, he swung a damp bag, and at the bottom of the bag, in a little bit of water, gleamed a fish, all of which would have been the ranger’s due. But by then, Colonel Borcan was no longer living.
Adam Bodor’s Sinistra Körzet, published in 1992, is ostensibly about a man, Andrej, who moves to a settlement somewhere along the border of Transylvania and Ukraine in search his son, who he had given up for adoption years earlier. However, the novel received critical acclaim not for its plot-driven storyline, but for the contrary: the lyrical prose is seemingly unconcerned with chronology or strict logic; instead, it is winding, vague, at times grotesque, but, above all, beautiful. The novel explores life under a totalitarian state, while emphasizing the strength of nature: throughout the book, the trees, rivers, and mountains are given more description than the characters, whose actions and motives are often left unexplained, treated as after-thoughts.
This excerpt was quite difficult to translate. It’s from the very beginning of the novel, when Andrej goes on a short reconnaissance mission with the settlement’s leader, Colonel Borcan, shortly after arriving to the area. It’s full of long, descriptive sentences which paint a beautiful, if at times vague, picture of the Sinistra District’s landscape. Capturing Adam Bodor’s style in English is very tough, in particular because English is not as accepting as Hungarian of long strings of modifiers or sentences with multiple clauses. (Major congratulations are due here to Paul Ochváry, whose full translation of the novel was published in 2013.) [P1] In addition, the lexicon was a challenge in several areas, as it was difficult to find a good English equivalent to a Hungarian word without in some way changing how the work would be interpreted.
For example, although idegen is a fairly basic word in Hungarian, it can be used in a wider variety of situations than English equivalents: it’s often translated as unfamiliar, strange, alien, unusual, or foreign. In this excerpt alone, Bodor uses the word idegen to refer to sounds in the forest, “a cserjés idegen hangoktól zsibongott,” both Andrej and the Red Rooster, “az egyszerű erdei gyümölcs-gyűjtögető idegen” and “a vörös kakasnak nevezett idegen” respectively, and the place where Red Rooster’s rubber boots were made, “idegen gyártmánú gumicsizma.”
When translating these phrases, I had to ask why each thing/person is idegen and to whom? I ended up using a different English word for each case. First, the idegen hangok became “unfamiliar sounds.” I didn’t think the sounds were idegen to the forest itself—meaning never-before-heard, as if, say, a noisy new animal species had been introduced—which meant by default, they weren’t idegen to Colonal Borcan either, given that he went on daily hikes in the forest. Thus, I decided that the sounds were really just idegen to Andrej. Unfamiliar was the best fit for that, since other options, like strange or alien, would have overemphasized an inherent oddness in the sounds.
It makes sense that the sounds are unfamiliar to Andrej, because he himself is an idegen fruit harvester. What exactly does that mean? He’s not a total stranger: he’s been living in the area for at least some time, and he knows some of the residents. Nor is he any more weird or unusual than the other residents. He is foreign to the area in the sense that he wasn’t born there, but many of Sinistra’s residents are from somewhere else, so it’s not worth emphasizing in Andrej’s case. Thus, I decided Andrej was idegen because he is relatively, yet not completely, new to the area. I went with “newcomer” to get this point across.
The same can’t be said for the Red Rooster, who is mysterious (his name is unknown, and he showed up to the Sinistra seemingly out of the blue), a clear outsider (note his fiery red hair), and a bit odd (he crops up at random places in the forest without a clear agenda, sometime carrying a fish in a bag). Bearing this in mind, I went with “stranger” to describe his idegen-ness, which I think adequately highlights both his unfamiliarity and odd nature.
Finally, for Red Rooster’s boots, I used the word “foreign,” which further emphasizes Red Rooster’s otherness, and makes more sense than other options, such unusual or strange—they’re just rubber boots, after all.Bodor’s writing is also full of long, descriptive phrases. The difficulty in translating these parts isn’t so much word-choice as it is making the phrases sound natural in English. Here’s a few examples: “jégesőkre való, bőrből készült hegyivadász-ernyője,” which I translated as “leather, hail-proof ranger umbrella;” “egy sereg sárgán villogó nyírfalevél között,” which became, “among a grove of yellow flashing birch trees;” “messzire világító berkenyeszínű haja,” or “rowan-colored hair, which caught light from afar,” and “ősz közepén, csipkebogyóérés idejen, a korai fagyokkal egyszerre érkezett” which became, “He arrived suddenly in the middle of fall, along with the early freeze, around the time that the rose-hip berries were ripening.” These phrases all contain one or two more modifiers than English normally deems necessary, and as a result, easily come across as unnatural, or too wordy. Although I tried to translate word-for-word, I played with the word order and phrasing in English to try to smooth them out. So, in the first example, I moved the word leather to the front of the phrase, and in the third, I made light-catching description of the hair a separate clause, rather than another adjective. Still, I have some reservations about these long phrases, and I think in some places an argument could be made to step away from the word-for-word translation and instead use fewer words to get the same point across: perhaps the umbrella could be described as hearty or durable, and the hair described as gleaming or shinning.