02. 19. 2018. 10:40

Iván Mándy: One Touch

Emerging translators - Anna Bentley

This season we'll be bringing extracts and translator's notes from emerging translators of Hungarian literature. Our first: Iván Mándy's One Touch by Anna Bentley. – They got into position. Big Opie started the game off, the game of One Touch. His brother kicked the ball straight back, towards the right corner. Big Opie was there.


One Touch



They came out of the Falcon bar into the square, big Opie in a soft, grey hat, hands stuffed in his pockets, his upper body swaying, his face as bored and indifferent (a truly shuttered face that one!) as if he had no idea that his brother was coming along behind him. Little Opie, short and broad-shouldered, was chewing on a cork. Wherever he sat down, be it in a bar, a restaurant or a café, he would always manage to ’get hold of’ a cork.

They stopped in the big circle, behind the slide.

’Let’s mark out the pitch’, said Big Opie.

Little Opie leaned into his brother’s arms, and big Opie dragged him along, a square pitch taking shape in the trail of little Opie’s heels. Then they marked out the half-way line.

Big Opie fished a rag ball out of his pocket.

’I’d thank you not to cheat.’

’It’s not something I do’, Little Opie grinned and spat cork.

They got into position. Big Opie started the game off, the game of One Touch. His brother kicked the ball straight back, towards the right corner. Big Opie was there. His brother knocked it into the left corner. Big Opie sent it back from there too. When he did this, he nudged his hat up just a little. His brother moved sometimes closer, sometimes further off. The ball flew from one foot to another, as if it had been touched only once. Then it slipped off the toe of big Opie’s shoe – out to the edge of the pitch.

‘One nil’, said the younger brother.

Big Opie said nothing. He retrieved the ball and they played on.

A shadow fell on the pitch. The thin boy with the worn face was, however, no more than a shadow himself. He turned his head left and right, following the ball.

‘Gives a person a headache, watching you two’, he said all of a sudden.

‘No-one’s saying you have to, Rat.’

It was impossible to tell who had spoken. The two Opies’ faces were expressionless. They took no notice of Rat at all.

He stood there quietly on the edge of the pitch for a while, then he spoke again:

‘Pretty boring, I’d have thought.’

Big Opie flicked the ball into the right corner with careless ease. His brother ran for it too late.

‘One one.’

‘You do this every day?’ asked Rat. No-one replied, but neither did he wait for an answer. A short time later he began again. ‘Of course, if something better were to come along... your kind of thing...’

The ball shot from one corner to the other, from foot to foot, not touching the ground at all. It was as if they had been playing for a long time, a long long time, here on the square next to the slide. Rat squatted down, crumbling the gravelly earth between his fingers.

‘They say you sorted out Coffee Man good and proper... he was a revolting character, I’m just saying.’

From sideways on, big Opie kicked the ball into his face.

‘What are you getting at?’

‘Who talked to you about Coffee Man?’

They were both there next to Rat. They hoisted him to his feet like some kind of sack.

‘There are lots of people who had a bone to pick with Coffee Man. Everyone knows that.’

‘We never had any trouble from him.’

Between the two Opies, Rat’s face was all shrunken. Otherwise he didn’t look afraid, just as he hadn’t been surprised when they had kicked the ball in his face just before.

‘All I said was, it’s got to be boring playing One Touch all the time.’

‘What’s it got to do with you?’

‘You got a better idea?’

‘Might.’ Rat slid out from between the two Opies and stepped backwards towards the slide. ‘ I might know of something.’

Little Opie gave a laugh.

‘You know of something... You?!’

Big Opie kicked at the ball.

‘Is there nothing doing round here anymore? Because, I could, let’s say clear out a shop window, or...’

‘Are you thinking about Coffee Man?’

‘Doesn’t matter what I’m thinking or who I’m thinking about. There’s hardly a pengő to be had around here. And come to that who’s got any money these days?’

Rat reached for the iron bar of the slide and pulled himself up. His feet dangled like a ragdoll’s.

‘Fine Features has always got money. Who gets more foreign stuff than Fine Features?’

‘He’s supposed to be Swedish.’

‘Only his wife, but that’s not important right now.’ Rat let go, landing with a thud. ‘Old man Steiner has messed up Fine Features’ business five times at least.’

‘The one with the laundry?’

‘Yeah, that one.’

Big Opie took off his hat, and turned and turned it in his hands. ‘He was whining on last time about business at the laundry being slow...’

‘Like that’s what he lives off!‘

‘It’s full of foreign stuff, coffee, tea, clothes...’

‘He does have home-grown products too.’

They had a laugh. Then Rat spoke up again.

‘Fine Features doesn’t like it when someone puts a spanner in the works. Old Steiner is decidedly unpleasant.’

Big Opie grabbed Rat, as if he wanted to hang him from the bar.

‘Did Fine Features send you here?’

‘I recommended you two. He listens to me, you know.’

‘Is it urgent?’

‘I’ll tell you tomorrow, same place.’

‘And as far as the other part of it is concerned...’

‘Fine Features doesn’t mind paying. And old Steiner is decidedly unpleasant.’

“It’s a tricky case though...’ Big Opie pushed at his hat. ‘The old man is well known, lots of people go to his laundry.’

‘And this area stinks – said his brother. – They’re always watching it.’

‘Fine Features knows that too.’

‘Where do we get the money?’

‘I’ll tell you that tomorrow too.’

With those words, Rat set off, calling back as he went:

‘Oh yeah, and how’s your old man? Your Grandpa?’

‘His leg’s all swollen up again. He could do with a visit to the spa.’

‘A good spa somewhere... one or two weeks... Not bad!’ Rat laughed aloud, then sped off in a cloud of dust towards Rákóczi út.

Little Opie looked at his brother.

‘We could really send Granddad off to a spa.’

‘He’ll never get better like this!’ Big Opie took up position on the pitch. ‘What was the score?’

‘One one.’



Translator’s Notes by Anna Bentley

This text is the first third of a story set in Budapest about two young brothers, who are offered a lucrative ’job’ by a shadowy figure from the city’s underworld. They act on the hints given them by the gang leader’s child messenger and put a Jewish laundry owner out of the way, only to find out afterwards that they have acted somewhat hastily, and they may not in fact be paid. The crime itself is not described, only the negotiations that come before and after it. Life appears to continue undisturbed despite the murder. The inattentive reader might not even realise it had happened.

This dark story, which is reminiscent of Hemingway’s short story ’The Killers’, consists in large part of dialogue. What narration there is seems objective, describing the actions of the characters and giving the reader little insight into their thoughts and emotions. Reading it feels rather like watching a film. Despite this, the reader is afforded glimpses of the brothers’ softer side when they reminisce about their time in kindergarten and in their evident concern for their ill ’tata’.

The biggest challenge in translating this was getting the tone right. The brothers converse with each other in brief exchanges, the register of which is more elevated than might be expected. Rat, the messenger boy, is wary of them, and careful not to say anything directly, so he speaks obliquely, hinting and probably quoting his boss when he does so, leaving sentences incomplete. The narration is generally calm and objective, and therein lies the shock that the perceptive reader feels when it becomes clear that the boys have beaten old Steiner to death, yet are able to continue their game of ’one touch’ as if nothing has happened.

The narrator does however let down his guard on one occasion, and that is right at the beginning, when he describes the older brother’s face, slotting a phrase into the sentence in brackets that suggests admiration: igazi rolópofa! Literally ’a real shutterface’. A roló is the kind of shutter that wraps around a roller and can be pulled down or wound back up to be out of the way. These are often seen on the windows of residential blocks and houses in Budapest and provide, in the main, protection from summer sun and heat. Big Opie’s face therefore is like a house with the shutters pulled down; inscrutable. The weapon that the boys use to kill Steiner will be his ’rolóhuzó’ the hooked pole that he uses to pull down the shutter on his shop, so I was eager to keep the echo. The word ’shuttered’ is usually used of buildings in English, but I used it here rather than the more usual ’poker face’ to keep the image as close to Mándy’s text as I could.

Pofa is a slang word for mouth or cheek, but can also mean face. It occurs again as part of an off-stage character’s name, Prima Pofa, the shadowy figure who wants Steiner dead. I liked the alliteration in this name, and the fact that it suggests a big step up from ’jópofa’ a slang expression of approbation that can be applied to many things, Prima meaning top quality. I tried to keep the alliteration with the name Fine Features, and convey a sense of mafia-like style and menace. The expression ’rearrange someone’s features’ came to mind as fitting with the smooth, oblique way the boys discuss violence.

A Kávés was more problematic. It is an adjective formed from the Hungarian word for coffee, kávé, and functions as an elliptical noun phrase, being short for kávés ember, ’coffee man’ i.e. someone who makes a living from or whose job is selling coffee. This is the same shorthand we see in the description of Steiner as a mosodás, or the man who runs the laundry, the mosoda. The character’s job stands in place of his name, much like we might say in English, ’the man from the corner shop’, but which English can rarely express as succintly as Hungarian is able to in the absence of a noun like ’baker’ or ’hairdresser’.  I settled for ’Coffee Man’, thinking the length of ’the man who works at the coffee shop’ to be unsuitable for the elliptical style of the dialogue.

A key character is of course the old Jewish owner of the laundry, whose fate is sealed when Fine Features sends his messenger boy, Rat, to indicate to the brothers that he is problematic. To Hungarian readers the name Steiner is obviously Jewish. There is no need for Mándy to add further clues about this. Some English-speaking readers might pick up on this, but I’m not sure whether it would be clear to all. I decided, however, not to add information that Mándy hadn’t provided.

The brothers are called Opra in the original. While I could have kept this, I thought the name too reminiscent of Oprah Winfrey so I changed it to Opie. This also sounds more like a nickname. I am aware that it is an English surname though, so it might be something I would change again in the long run.

Lastly, a word about the title of the story. In Hungarian it is Egyérintő, which literally means ’one toucher’. It is the name of the ball game that the young murderers play repeatedly throughout the story. As Mándy describes this game in detail, there is no need for the title to convey precisely what the game is. Luckily, as it turned out, because I could not find a name in English for a ball game exactly like this one. In Britain, street games including the word ’touch’ typically were of the kind where a ball is thrown against a wall and caught again, rather than passed between players. In America, the rag ball would be called a hackysack and a game using it would have the same name, but using that removes the words ’one touch’ which I felt were key to understanding the game as a metaphor for the way the brothers ’took the ball and ran with it’ when they killed Steiner, not allowing the ’job’ or the ball to fall to the ground, or Fine Features to have second thoughts. I therefore named the game and the story ’One Touch’, though I found out that an earlier translation by Eszter Molnár had used the title ’Ball Game’.





Anna Bentley was born and educated in Britain. She studied English Language and Literature at Edinburgh University, before training to be a secondary school teacher of English at Oxford. During that year she met her Hungarian husband and, consequently, the Hungarian language. After teaching in the north of England, she lived in New York and Kecskemét before moving to Budapest where she has lived since 2000. Her interest in translating Hungarian literature began in 2014, when she could not find an English translation of any of István Fekete’s works to share with family in Britain. In 2017 the British publisher Pushkin Children’s Press accepted her translation of Ervin Lázár’s children’s book Poor Johnny and Arnica due for publication in 2019. She has translated two novellas by Zsuzsa Vathy for the Budapest-based publisher Corvina Press: Here, We Look at the Beauty and The Roof of the Old Family House. She is looking forward to translating her own selection of folk tales from Gyula Illyés’s 77 Hungarian Folk Tales also for Corvina.

In July 2017 she participated in the British Centre for Literary Translation’s Summer School and is currently enrolled on the Literary Translation course at the Balassi Institute in Budapest.