Tuesday, May 8, 2012

translating german letters

A few weeks ago R announced that he'd volunteered my services. Oh yeah?!  I had no idea which services he meant, but I like to be consulted. We discussed this aspect of my character for a while.
Equally stubborn, R came back to the issue at hand.
He works in the administrative offices at a cemetery. That day an elderly woman had come in to arrange burial of her son's ashes. He'd died in Germany. She was Romanian, married to a British man with whom she'd moved to Canada. He was now dead. Her son had died too. She was bereft. She wept. She'd received a letter which she couldn't understand because it was in German. R had assured the people at the funeral home that I would translate it.
Once upon a time I studied German. I read Goethe, Eichendorff, Kleist, Zweig, and Böll in the original--but that was more than a few years ago. I have family in Austria, but when have I last been to visit? I understand German grammar. I can use a dictionary. But my German isn't fluent or current. I'm more comfortable with Grimm's fairy tales than a newspaper article.
Nor had R had seen this letter. He didn't know if it was typed or handwritten. If typed, it could be an official document with those architectural German words that require the linguistic equivalent of a calculator to understand. If handwritten, I might not be able to decipher the writing. Was the letter one or five pages long? How had the man died? What if it was a suicide note? Me, too, I have a heart for elderly women whose only remaining relative dies in a foreign country, but I would never have agreed to translate a document without knowing the details.
R was astounded that I wasn't even curious. When I told a couple of friends, they couldn't believe it either. Nobody understood my resistance. But hey, I've had other German letter experiences which have left me wary.
The first happened where I work in a hospital. It must have been one of those rare days when I remembered to wear my name tag. A Jewish patient commented that my name was German and asked if I spoke German. I said a little. He told his family who later approached me. Their father had received a letter from Germany. I agreed to tell them what it said. The next day they brought it. I began to translate out loud as I read. This was a letter offering their father restitution for having worked in a labour camp in the 1940s. The sum was pitiable given what he'd lost. The family was outraged. I don't blame them. But within moments, having no one else at whom they could rant, they began to accuse me. I spoke the disgusting language of these disgusting people who had committed this crime. By association, that made me disgusting. Big scene in the hospital hallway. Kill the messenger. Leave no witnesses.
The next time I was asked to translate a German letter was when a medical secretary where I work called to say that her doctor had received a letter. It was a page long, handwritten, with no return address. Signature illegible. I agreed to stop by the office when I was at work.
I'd learned not to read out loud until I'd perused the whole letter. The writing was loopy and not always easy to follow. I gathered that the doctor had spent a weekend with a woman. She remembered various parts of his anatomy fondly--aesthetics and use. The soundtrack for their romps was Neil Diamond. She claimed she missed the doctor and thought of him often while listening to Neil Diamond. The description of how she consoled herself was graphic. I never learned this kind of vocabulary, but I got the gist of it. Fingers and verbs and yearning.
The doctor had a clinic that day and was rushing in and out of the examining room, patients in tow. He's a good guy. He's married. I didn't want to embarrass him. I asked if he'd been to a conference in Munich. Not for a while. I said this woman missed him. But there's a whole page, he insisted. She must have said more than that. Hm... yeah... do you like Neil Diamond? If that gave him a clue, he didn't show it.
Does that explain my reluctance to translate this cemetery letter? But okay, I agreed.
The letter was two pages, typewritten, on official letterhead from graveyard facilities in a German municipality. It was the bill for the man's cremation. Quite simply a bill. But in German. The date of the letter, the date of the cremation, the date that payment was due was repeated several times. The name of the municipality and the facilities were repeated. With each recurrence, the act was described with different words: commit the remains to fire, render the body to ashes, cremate, incinerate--as if several different events had happened. The bill was itemized, though there was only one item on the list. One body cremated.
Translating was easy. I reproduced the two pages, miming the original format.    
Last week a car pulled up before the cemetery offices. R was asked to come outside. The Romanian woman stepped out to give him a bottle of wine for me.
Nice. So maybe I will translate a letter again.

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