09. 22. 2017. 14:09

Peter Sherwood's schoolboy translations: Ferenc Herczeg

In 2017, Peter Sherwood is marking fifty years of translation. In March, HLO was pleased to be able to publish one of the very first translations Peter ever published, in a school magazine in 1967. We are now delighted to bring you the second, The Frogs by Ferenc Herczeg.


Ferenc Herczeg


The beautiful woman was ill.  She was standing beneath the striped awning of the hotel veranda, gazing somewhat disconsolately at the narrow path stretching away along the coast.  Her husband sat in a rocking chair idly watching the darkening billows of smoke left behind by the Genoa express.  From the direction of the Zirio came gay music: a military band had just begun to play "O Pierrette" in honour of the distinguished visitors.

"Oh, if I were a man," said Olga suddenly, "I'd smack that lord right across the face."
An Englishman in a white pith helmet was sitting on one of the benches along the pathway, reading a newspaper.
"But dearest ... how can you say such a thing?"
"He isn't even a real lord.  He's a tailor or something from Colchester," she went on. "The waiters made him a lord... He read somewhere that English gentlemen have sang-froid and read The Times..."
The man looked anxiously at his wife.  "Dearest, you're agitated again.  What's the matter?"
"Everything I see is the matter! This whole country is the matter!  Always blue, blue skies, sickening lukewarm air, the smell of lemons, and "O Pierrette"  – what a tepid lemonade of a world this is!  Lemon trees and palm trees everywhere ... I'd like to see a decent acacia or plum tree ... When we get home I'm going to have every single palm thrown out of the house..."
"But the sea!  Look at the sea! – it's magnificent!"
"Leave me alone with your sea! You call this a sea?  Why, it can't even ebb and flow properly ... even our Danube is better ... And then these people!  Here comes that Italian captain..."
"You could at least say good morning ..."
"Good Morning! ¬– the dirty old ..." 
"But Olga ... doesn't it ... remind you of something?"
She gave a nervous laugh.
"What would you have me do? ... He doesn't understand anyway.  Look how happily he's grinning – the silly fool! Wearing his gold uniform buttoned up to the neck and the thermometer practically bursting ... and he singes his hair and tints his moustache! In the mornings he puts on his Stüssi hunting gear and goes up to the bay trees to shoot nightingales and skylarks ...
I told him that the gentlemen in our country go shooting, too, up in the Carpathians.  They shoot bears, I told him..."
"But there are surely others here..."
"Oh yes.  Those with the Légion d'honneur in their buttonhole. They all cheat at cards."
"How do you know that?"
"My French maid says so. She knows everything. Look – there's that Russian prince.  The stupid peasant's wearing a white top hat!"
"What's he done to you?"
"Russian princes are the world's most repugnant breed.  They're always embracing my maid ..."
Her husband threw away his cigarette disconsolately.
"What odd observations you make!  Olga my dear, you're ... really rather rude ..."
Olga turned towards her husband. Her eyes filled with tears.  She began to sob convulsively.
"What's the matter, dearest?  Are you unwell?"
All Olga's suppressed bitterness suddenly came pouring out. Her sobbing intensified.
"Let's go home!" she blurted out at last.
Her husband led her indoors, sat her down, and gently stroked her smooth, white hands.  He was upset.
"Darling," she said, sobbing quietly, "it's summer and we're still here in this horrid foreign country.  How I'd love to be in the Banat ... The garden must be so beautiful just now, with the chestnuts beginning to flower, and the apricot trees and the plum trees ... And really, I'm not ill, my voice is just a bit hoarse, that's all.  But if we stay here much longer, I really will be.  You'll see, soon that wind will come again, that horrible limy wind from the mountains ..."
She twined her arms coaxingly round his neck.
"We're going home, aren't we?"
"Well, if that's what you really want ... I'll have a word with the doctor about it."
"Don't!  He's a quack! He spends the summers coughing in Berlin and in winter he comes here to cough.  He's here because he has only one lung left – and he wants to cure me!  But I'm not ill, really I'm not ... even my voice is better.  I ... I can sing ..."
She tried to sing and her weak little voice sounded like a cracked silver bell.  The man's brow clouded over.
"All right.  We'll go home."

They set off the following morning.  The doctor advised them to take it gently and break the journey often.  The man tried every possible ruse to delay them in this city or that, but his wife hurried them on with the feverish impatience of a spoilt child.  
"Genoa!  I hate this place – it's like the skeleton of some giant creature rotting away on the coast.  And that stifling smell of tar ... Oh, let's get out of here!"
They reached Milan.  Olga announced that she didn't wish to see anything, least of all the Duomo.
"A church, is it?  But people don't go there to pray, they go to stare!  And there isn't anything to stare at – it might as well be cut out of white cardboard ... I want to go to Venice."
In Venice it was the smell of the canals that bothered her.  The deathly silence depressed her and frightened her a little.
"What are we doing here?  I can see plenty of layabouts and pigeons and market women without wasting my time visiting St Mark's or the Rialto. Why are we here?"
They arrived in Vienna. Olga locked herself in her room and refused to go out.
"I hate the Viennese.  The cab-drivers behave as if they were gentlemen and all the gentlemen behave like cab-drivers.  And this eternal din is driving me mad ..."
By the evening they reached Budapest.  The next morning Olga was fully dressed and ready to go even before her husband was up.  
"Get a move on! The train leaves in an hour ..."
He no longer protested. Some of his wife's restlessness had rubbed off on him, and now he too longed to be home.
The express chugged swiftly across the Great Hungarian Plain.
Olga dozed all day huddled in a corner seat, and occasionally started up at the sound of the signal bell when the train stopped at a station.  Whenever this happened she would look up at her husband and smile wanly.
By the time darkness fell they were well into the plain of the Banat.
Heavy-limbed Serb peasants in sackcloth stood by the dirty railway stations, staring at the passing train.  Straggling little hovels, half-covered in thatch, made up their poverty-stricken hamlets.  Along the winding roads full of potholes their rickety carts were dragged by skinny, exhausted horses.  And in the boggy plains the subsoil water putrefied in long, rectangular streaks ...
The man thought of the exotic beauty of the regal Riviera and wondered why fate had been so unkind to his own little country.

They arrived at a small station.  It was now completely dark, and a light summer drizzle began to patter very softly against the windows.  From the reeds nearby came the croaking of thousands and thousands of frogs, the sound fusing into one melancholy rumble that could be heard many, many miles away.
Olga awoke with a start from her doze and looked about her rather confusedly for a moment.  Then, as she slowly became aware of the untuneful music filtering through the windows, a beautiful smile lit up her face.  Her eyes filled with tears of joy and turning towards her husband she said softly:
"We're home! Do you hear them?  The frogs ..."



Herczeg Ferenc, A békák (1892).  English translation © Peter Sherwood 2017The first version of this translation appeared in New Writing, a magazine published by the Manchester Grammar School in Spring, 1967; 7-9.


PETER SHERWOOD taught at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies (now part of University College London) until 2007. From 2008 until his retirement in 2014 he was László Birinyi, Sr., Distinguished Professor of Hungarian Language and Culture in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He received the Pro Cultura Hungarica prize of the Hungarian Republic in 2001, the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Hungarian Republic in 2007, the János Lotz medal of the International Association for Hungarian Studies in 2011, and the László Országh Prize of the Hungarian Society for the Study of English in 2016. His translations from Hungarian include Miklós Vámos's The Book of Fathers, Noémi Szécsi's The Finno-Ugrian Vampire, and a number of essays by Béla Hamvas, including The Philosophy of Wine. His translations of Antal Szerb's selected essays on European literature recently appeared from Legenda in Cambridge in February, 2017.