03. 22. 2017. 19:52

Peter Sherwood's schoolboy translations: Zsigmond Móricz

Peter Sherwood is marking fifty years of translation. In celebration, HLO are publishing his first two translations ever to be published in 1967. They appeared in the school magazine! The first: Zsigmond Móricz.

A note from Sherwood:

This spring I celebrate fifty years of translating from Hungarian into English. I am grateful to the editors of HLO for allowing me to mark this milestone by the republication of my first two translations, which originally appeared in school magazines now quite inaccessible to the public.

Peter Sherwood
February, 2017.







Zsigmond Móricz

The old peasant stopped at the school entrance.  He had already taken off his hat, and to direct attention to his arrival he now began to stamp his feet as if beating the mud off his boots.  There was no mud; it was high summer, a time for work; but as the teacher had done him the honour of asking him up to the school, he was anxious to behave just as his father had taught him: always show respect and humility when meeting gentlemen.

He stamped his feet again, and cleared his throat for good measure.  They'll surely hear him inside.

The teacher was waiting for him and came out.

"Welcome, Mr János, welcome!  Do come in, please!"

He spoke to the old man just as a teacher should when trying to ingratiate himself with a peasant farmer.  He smiled, moved about pleasantly, and was generally very keen to show how welcome a guest the old man was.  János had not seen the house since it had been rebuilt.

"Thank you very much indeed, sir," said the old man, and went in looking rather worried, as if something terrible were waiting for him inside. You can never tell what gentlemen might want.

Like the rest of the schoolhouse, the teacher's room was new.  The old man didn't look around much, but he didn't like their having built such a ruddy palace for a school, or that such a weedy little teacher should have such fine furniture.  It wasn't like that in his day, when the schoolhouse had a thatched roof and the teacher was old and very poor.

"Well, Mr János, do you know why I asked you to come here?"

"You'll be kind enough to tell me, sir, in your own good time," said the old man carefully.

"I asked you to come, Mr János, because I have something very important to say to you."

The seventy year old stared stiffly and gravely at the teacher.  He didn't like the man's tone. When he was young they didn't talk to peasants like that; they said "Hey, you!" and "Not so fast!"... There's something behind it when gentlemen are honey-mouthed.

"Well, Mr János, the fact of the matter is that I want to make a gentleman of your grandson."

Not a muscle, not a nerve moved on the old man's face.  He was waiting.

"Your grandson Johnny has a very good head on his shoulders.  For six years now he has been the pride of the school; he has been the best pupil – the most industrious, the most able... and, well, I have long been trying to get a poorer child a higher education.  At a grammar school.  Do you know, Mr János, what grammar school is?  It's where the children of gentlemen go... Normally it's very expensive, of course, but I've arranged everything so that your Johnny will receive a free place.  He can become anything.  Priest, teacher, banker, judge – whatever he wants.  Do you understand me, Mr János?"

"I hear you, sir, I hear you," said the old man, thinking.

"Well, will you hand him over?"

With these words the teacher made a great mistake.  Now the old man was quite certain that something depended on him; if they wanted something, he had to think it over carefully.

"Well, it's true he's mine," he ventured.

"But of course he's yours."

"He's mine, sir, because his father died of wounds he got in the War.  He was my son, and when he died, I kept an eye on the three children.  Then, seeing as my daughter-in-law died too, all three children got left with me.  I feed them, I keep them, I pay the fines when they can't go to school, because with us living so far away, in the winter they can't go to school if there's no boots for them, and I have to pay the fines."

"Yes, well, that's hardly calamitous.  You have never had to pay a fine for Johnny; in fact, he's always had a new pair of boots at Christmas, hasn't he?"

The old man said nothing.  Now they were about to deprive him of his own.

"Well, that hasn't paid for his keep."

"Oh, let's not haggle," said the teacher.  "This is such a piece of good fortune that he'll never be able to thank us enough.  We're going to give him a grammar school education."

"That's not settled yet," said the old man.

"Not settled?"  The teacher was becoming a little impatient.

"Well... the boy doesn't have the clothes for that kind of place."

"No matter," said the teacher.  "I'll ensure he gets suitable clothes from the gentlemen in the village.  We'll pay his travel expenses, too, and I will personally take him there and arrange everything.  It makes me so happy to know that I'm helping such a gifted boy get to grammar school."

"Well, sir, what makes you think he wants to be a gentleman?"

"That's what he was born to be.  God has been kind enough to grant him exceptional intelligence.  We mustn't allow such a bright spark to be extinguished, must we? Well, it's all settled then."

The old man was silent.  Then he said gravely: "The boy is mine.  He's a very handy boy to have around the farm.  He 's a very useful lad, sir.  He can take care of the horses like a proper little farmer, he can.  He was out ploughing in the spring and d'you know, sir, he handled the plough just as if he'd been born with it in his hand.  And now he doesn't have to go to school anymore, he can work."

"What are you talking about?" said the teacher, beginning to lose his temper. "Aren't you glad your grandson will be a gentleman?"

"Oh yes, sir, I'm glad, very glad indeed, sir. Only, I'd like to know what I'm getting for him."

"What do you mean 'getting for him'?"

"Well, the gentlemen will do all right by the boy.  He's a very fine lad.  Because if I hand him over, the gentlemen will be getting a very good boy...Handing over such a hard-working, useful boy...That's a serious matter, that is."

"What on earth do you mean?"

"Well, sir, I mean the boy is mine. No one can take him away from me, not even the law.  And if you take him away just when he's becoming most useful, what's going to happen to me?"

The teacher listened, absolutely flabbergasted.  But the old man went on.

"Well, sir, I mean so far he hasn't been much use to me.  He was small and he had to go to school.  But now, sir, he's so strong and so useful that my heart would break if they took him away."

"Well!  What is it that you want then?"

"They're taking him away from me...turning him into a gentleman...Who's going to make it up to me...I mean, for losing him?"

And, unshakeable in the conviction that he was right, the old man stared straight ahead, at the teacher, the representative of the gentlemen, who wanted to deprive him of his very own property.

"I won't give him away for free, sir...But if they make it up to me, I won't say no."

Like some barbarian slave-trader selling a child.

"What do you want for him?"

"Get me someone who'll drive the cart instead of him, someone of the same age, who can do his share of the work."

"I'm afraid that's not possible, Mr János," said the teacher despondently.

"Otherwise there's no deal, sir... The gentlemen take our money, our land, even the air we breathe, and now the best of our children, too.  Because we don't want the useless ones either.  You only pick out the very best... Well, if the gentlemen want their tribe to increase, let them pay for it..."

And with this piece of crystal-clear reasoning the teacher was quite unable to cope.

Móricz Zsigmond, A stipendium (1936).  English translation © Peter Sherwood 2017

The first version of this translation appeared in Ulula (the magazine of Manchester Grammar School), issue no. 529, Spring 1967; 24-25.

Tags: prose, Zsigmond Móricz, Peter Sherwood