Ottilie Mulzet on how her adoptive heritage lead her to a life of and in translation.
Learning a language is a kind of practice, as anyone who’s ever learned one will tell you. It has its own drills, milestones, peaks, and valleys. Its own rituals, such as repeating phrases aloud three times so they will register in your ears, the choreography embedded into the interface of tongue and palate. The reverberations echo in your skull—even if forgotten five minutes later, a residue remains. One ploughs through printed dictionaries and delights in their idiosyncrasies, which are missing from the online versions. There are “found poems” in certain dictionary entries. There’s pleasure in the way the language lives on your tongue, in your throat, each language residing there differently.
As someone who, as an adoptee, had to perform identity, I am continually fascinated by the ways identity shifts within, and in between, languages.
Growing up, I felt bereft of narrative. English was the language I spoke; Canada’s bilingual policy meant I had cursory French lessons in school, and I heard smatterings of Yiddish from older adoptive relatives (I always wanted to hear more). The notions of “motherland” and “mother tongue” are not anything I relate to. If anything, it was the English words I read that suckled me—but these words weren’t my mother. There were two mothers, one flesh-and-blood and present, the other absent, a vague image. One was Catholic, the other Jewish; one pregnant out of wedlock, the other married. The enforced secrecy of my birth mother’s identity enshrouded her in a taboo from which I recoiled, as from some amorphous void. That void had made me, but it could also swallow me up. I had been “rescued” from it, and what could be more ungrateful or unwise than to go rushing back to the disaster from which you’d just been rescued?
When adoptees choose to search, it is so that their shadowy parents might be granted real-life outlines. If this never happens, the parents remain amorphous, taking up undue space in one’s mind, eternal shape-shifters.
My birth mother must have felt that confronting me, the resurrected ghost, would threaten the life she’d made for herself. When I finally gathered up the courage to search for and contact her (keeping a promise I’d made to myself when I was five), she refused to meet me. She cited, through her friend or lover, “emotional difficulty,” “an inability to open up the past.” After issuing these statements, she again fell silent, and maintained that stance until her death some sixteen years later.
I’ve often tried to imagine what it could have been like for her, giving birth to a baby only her friends knew about (surely her Hungarian immigrant parents did not), most likely under twilight, and then returning to her rented flat. Her breasts filled up with milk; she went back for an injection to dry them up. Then, a couple of months later, she showed up to sign the relinquishment papers, a lawyer at her side.
The void, instead of filling up with people, began to fill up with sounds: that of the Hungarian language, which I encountered in person for the first time in the late eighties. The nonidentifying information I had received from the governmental agency had read:
Your mother’s background was Hungarian.
This was presented to me as if it were the only information I would ever need to know about her. It also stated: “Both her parents had died three years previously in an automobile accident.” I cranked reel after reel of old newspaper microfiche before realizing there had been no accident: she wanted her parents out of the way, and neither the social worker who initially interviewed her nor the one who sent me the nonidentifying information almost three decades later suspected her intervention. As for Hungary itself, this land located somewhere on the other side of the then-extant Iron Curtain, I knew nothing of it.
No one ever told me, for the first five years or so of my life, why or how I’d turned up where I was—they must have assumed I wouldn’t have the language for it. When I was finally told, I was relieved; it explained a vague but persistently murky feeling, floating just below consciousness, of wrenching displacement (from what, I didn’t know). I was special, I was told, a “chosen child”; details, though, were never forthcoming, and so I remained skeptical. Narrative, especially the narrative of one’s coming into the world, should be rich with detail. At the very least, it requires a few concrete facts to make it feel real. Such details can help one feel at least partially grounded in everyday existence, to this earth. Ultimately, as I was later to find out, the link between my adoptive parents and my birth mother was fleeting, facilitated through an intermediary, fueled by crisis demanding speedy resolution on both sides.
Because I knew something that I did not know, and yet because I did not know that there was something I knew, I developed, from a fairly early age, a strong sense of the differentiated codes by which the world is dominated. The family I had been adopted into was a subset of one of these codes, I realized. In order to survive, I had to assimilate quickly, even as I longed for the old codes, which I had never known. My first conscious memory dates back to when I was two years old. I’m looking out at the world through a white net. The window of my bedroom seems to point to a world outside. The webbing of the white net fractures the visible world into a mosaic of ill-fitting parts.
I have gone about like a magpie picking up crumbs wherever I can find them. There are a few scraps, a few random images of my mother. It’s shortly after my birth; she’s at a party or some gathering, sitting in a rocking chair, gazing out of the window, silent. Another fragment: she insists to the social worker that the baby will not be given to a Catholic family (the faith she was raised in). When told this is government policy, she says she’d rather convert to Unitarianism. “She came with her overnight bag”—to the meeting at the agency, shortly before I was born—“and seemed very alone.” I hold on fiercely to these scraps, not easily acquired when all records are permanently sealed. More than a few people have told me it’s high time I stopped being so curious about my birth mother. My adoptive mother firmly believed that, after the adoption was finalized, every single record and scrap of paper pertaining to it had been burned.
The award-winning translator Susan Bernofsky, in a recent online lecture about working on Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, said, “Translation is always a sort of storytelling, it’s a way of giving an account of something you’ve read in another language, and now you’re doing all the voices as you sit around the campfire.” The orality suggested in this definition goes back to the very root of storytelling. I relate to the idea of how the story I am conveying as a translator must physically pass through me: it enters my ears, my skull, my brain, my dreams, and leaves my body again as I generate the text in English.
Perhaps the narratives I translate are something more like a transfusion, something like an IV unit attached to my brain, the steady drip of Hungarian words, something I was, I am, connected to.
I’m stopping up that void, flooding it with narrative. And yet these words often contain their own trauma, their own brokenness, their own fractures in narrative. Strangely enough, speaking this brokenness—the brokenness of the world—through the writers I translate, feels vaguely redemptive.
And perhaps this fragmentation—this bricolage in place of a “self”—is, in its own way, useful to me as a translator. There are many places for something to leak in. The poet Szilárd Borbély, whose work I have translated since the early millennium and who was a cherished friend, often used the image of a fissure or a crevice in his work. When I was working on his Final Matters: Selected Poems, 2004–2010, one of my editors commented on this to me. I came to feel that for Borbély the image of the fissure was a slight interstice where redemption, whatever that might be, some possibility of future grace, might glance in. Similarly, I’ve come to see that the cracks in my own narrative, comprised as it is of pieced-together, ill-fitting fragments, are places where the world can slip in through language, and I can join it there. For that, I am grateful.
Read Ottilie Mulzet’s translation of “The Puppet Theater,” by György Dragomán, in our Winter 2020 issue.
Ottilie Mulzet is a Hungarian translator of poetry and prose, as well as a literary critic. She has worked as the English-language editor of the internet journal of the Hungarian Cultural Centre in Prague, and her translations appear regularly at Hungarian Literature Online.