Translator

Dawna Kemper Click to read more...

Dawna Kemper’s stories have appeared in Colorado Review, The Florida Review, Quarterly West, Santa Monica Review, The Idaho Review and The Kenyon Review.  Her stories have also been nominated for Pushcarts and listed as “Notable” in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2009.  Her new work is forthcoming in Zyzzyva.  For five years she served as editorial assistant at The Santa Monica Review.  She has completed a collection of stories and is working on a novel.

In the ninth summer of the conflict, I was hired as a translator for a foreign officer. My wife was furious. For days, she refused to speak to me other than mumbling That man is the devil even though she’d never met him. I walked behind her as she mumbled. I reminded her our lives were rubble, and in spite of her warnings, I took the job.

I talked my younger brother into a job as our driver. His wife was no happier, but they had a baby on the way. I was relieved to see my brother occupied in legitimate work.

As it turned out, the foreign officer rarely spoke. The skin of his face was constantly peeling. In the open jeep I watched it flutter like torn parchment over his reddened skin. I suggested we stop for water. “No. Keep moving.” He said this to me. I relayed this to my brother. My brother, clearly exhausted and parched, said something back that I didn’t dare translate. The officer didn’t ask.

The foreign officer has a scar like a crescent slicing the back of his skull, as if someone at some time wanted to peer inside. The officer has a metal plate beneath his scalp. Sometimes, the metal gleams through his skin.

On a stretch of dusty road, after turns that took us nowhere, we stopped to ask directions from a shepherd. My brother claimed to know him which surprised me. He got out and walked through the goats and sheep. They talked for a long time. The animals milled about alongside the road, making their animal noises. From the back of the jeep, I watched the officer’s profile. He stared, unblinking through his sunglasses. “What are they saying?” “Nothing.” “They can’t be saying nothing.” I listened more closely. “He’s asking after the man’s father.” “They’re talking too long. Tell him get back in the jeep.” I yelled at my brother to hurry up. My brother told me to fuck off. He and the shepherd kept talking. Now and then they both looked over at the officer. The shepherd turned and pointed in one direction, then another. He leaned in to whisper. They embraced, and my brother palmed him money that the shepherd slipped into a pocket before walking back into the field, followed by the animals. Where my brother got the money, I had no idea. When he finally got back in the jeep, he had no time to open his mouth before the officer fired and blew open his skull. The officer pushed him out onto the dirt. He lay twitching; blood pooled around his head. I screamed and tried climbing out the back seat when the officer moved behind the wheel, put the jeep into gear, and drove us off.

*
Later that day, I became the driver. When we arrived at the next village, it was quiet. The officer doesn’t like this kind of quiet. In front of a butcher shop little boys were squatting, shooting marbles in the dust. The officer told me to stop. I got out and went around to greet the boys. There were five of them, and a scrawny dog with three legs. The dog sniffed at my trousers. There was blood on them. The officer stood up in the jeep and looked down at us. From his attaché he removed a paper sack. He plunged his meaty hand inside and out came a wad of colorful wrapped candies. He held the sweaty fist of candy over the boys, waiting to drop it into their hands. The boys didn’t move. The tallest boy glared at me. I looked away. Eventually, the officer dropped the candy back into the sack. The sack rattled. He turned it upside down and shook it. Colorful candies rained down onto the dust. The dog hobbled over to inspect them. “Ask them where their fathers are.” I felt sick. A patch of skin on his left cheek flaked off in the hot wind. He opened his mouth to repeat the command but I’d already turned to the children and translated. The smallest boy replied before the tallest, the one who hated me, could clamp his hand over the little one’s mouth. “Well?” the officer asked. I looked at the boys, clutching onto each other. I looked at the pale animal carcasses hung up in the shop window. “Away,” I said. “Gone to look for work in the north.” The officer scrutinized me. I looked again at the boys. I wondered if the fathers were watching from their hiding places. I wondered if they were armed.

The officer stepped down from the jeep. His hand gripped the neck of the boy who’d spoken up; the others scattered. He put his pistol to the child’s temple.

The child shook. “Be calm…” I begged him.

“What did you say?”

“I’m telling him to be still!” I was shaking like the child.

“Why doesn’t his father come out? Ask him.”

When finally I could speak, I warned the child not to repeat what he’d said. I enunciated as if it were a question. I advised him to lie. I made promises I couldn’t keep.

The child’s eyes were enormous. A damp spot spread over the front of his shorts; urine trickled down his leg into his sandal.

The mother arrived, shouting, unafraid of the gun. The officer pushed the boy down into the candies.

“The men in this village are pussies. Tell her that.”

The woman resembled my sister. She looked at me. Hard. She gathered up the child and before she left, she made a gesture I understood as the transmission of a curse.

I climbed back into the jeep, still shaking. I drove the foreign officer away. That night the village was obliterated by bombs dropped from the foreign officer’s planes. And me, I survive. I’m a channel between two worlds. I spend my hours driving from village to village, searching for the enemy who looks exactly like me.

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Discussion

3 Responses to Translator

  1. Beth Wellford says:

    The power of this story derives from its tragedy as well as the vibrant language in the narrative. The author makes effective both of these forces by resisting over-dramatization or over-statement. This method allows lines such as “The foreign officer has a scar like a crescent slicing the back of his skull, as if someone wanted to peer inside” to show as deliberately as the scar itself. These images are grotesque and yet described with a delicacy that provides insight into the narrator. Observations such as “the child’s eyes were enormous” suggest that the translator does not see the child in the ruthless way of his officer; however, he must act the part. In this manner, Kemper’s language mirrors that of the translator’s: with restrained words both speakers must convey an image that cannot entirely be made explicit.

  2. Cassie McGinty says:

    Dawna Kemper uses precise, controlled sentences that move the plot swiftly toward each confrontation. Intermixed within these powerful declarative sentences are vivid descriptions of the foreign officer whose physical body mirrors the sparse setting of the story. Kemper emphasizes the limitations of language in the face of brutality, of action. Language fails to protect from action, as does the translator protagonist. The author effectively utilizes dialogue in order to emphasize the failure of language and of people.

  3. Pingback: “Translator” by Dawna Kemper | Flash Anthology

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