Usona Esperantisto № 2019:1 (jan-feb)
Review: Crusoes in Siberia
For many speakers of English, the name Soros brings to mind George Soros, the American billionaire famous for his investing and philanthropy. For many speakers of Esperanto, the name brings an additional person to mind: Tivadar Soros, a Hungarian lawyer and author made famous by — among other things — his harrowing adventures in the two World Wars.
While Tivadar’s adventures were well-known to some, for years they remained largely unknown to the English-speaking world. That’s because Soros wrote for an international audience using Esperanto, a language that would play a significant role in his family’s life. Son György, for example, would use the language to escape communist Hungary for England. (Later, György — or George — would emigrate to America and become the famous billionaire.) Esperanto can even be found in the family’s name: given the virulently anti-semitic climate in 1930s Europe, Tivadar thought it best to change his surname from Schwartz to Soros, an Esperanto word meaning “will soar.”
And soar he did. Not only did Soros survive his experiences as a prisoner in the First World War, but later — with much guile and a bit of luck — he also managed to save his family from extermination in Nazi-occupied Hungary. The latter story is recounted in Maskerado ĉirkaŭ la morto (UEA, 1965), a book first appearing in English translation as Masquerade: Dancing Around Death in Nazi Hungary (Arcade, 2000). After the Second World War, in part with profits received as a publisher of the Esperanto literary magazine Literatura Mondo, Soros was able to help his family escape to the West.
It was in the June, 1923 issue of that magazine that Soros began serializing the narrative of his escape from a prison camp in World War I. He called it Modernaj Robinzonoj en la Siberia Praarbaro (“Modern Robinsons in the primeval Siberian forest”). In 1999 the collection was republished in book form by publisher Eldonejo Bero, along with historical notes by Humphrey Tonkin (in Esperanto). That edition is no longer available from Esperanto-USA, but as of press time it is still in stock at UEA. In 2011, also thanks to Tonkin, the story finally became available in English translation as Crusoes in Siberia (Mondial).
The title is a reference to the sort of plain, unornamented adventure tales that Soros enjoyed in his youth. In such fictional “Robinsonades” — named after Defoe’s eponymous hero Robinson Crusoe — the protagonist finds himself stranded in a remote wilderness, forced to endure a series of perilous adventures in order to return to civilization. Soros’s story is told in much the same style, but it isn’t fiction.
The story begins in 1914, when the Great War erupted in Europe and a young Tivadar Soros, then a citizen of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, enlisted to fight on behalf of his country. By 1915, he was a prisoner of war. Like many other Hungarian captives, Soros was imprisoned far from the front: the Russians shipped him to a camp near Khabarovsk — over 5,000 miles from Moscow — where he spent five years in captivity.
During that time the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed, leaving Soros a man without a country. And Russia was torn apart by civil war between Bolshevik (Red) and Tsarist (White) armies. The Russian Far East became an especially chaotic place, with White and Red forces struggling for dominance amid incursions by the Imperial Japanese Army and the American Expeditionary Force. Soros and his fellow soldiers found themselves alternately prisoners of the Russians, then the Americans, and finally the Japanese.
In 1920, with White armies in retreat, the victorious Bolsheviks began retaking the prison camps and executing prisoners. Soros and his men decided it was time to risk an escape, and thus began their long journey home through the taiga.
In documenting the adventure, Soros took pains to craft a story that stands on its own. His narrative is largely abstracted from its historical setting, making it accessible to readers without a background in the political intrigues of the period. (All the better for the modern reader, for whom the Great War is now largely forgotten.) Of course, many of the challenges Soros encountered were not unique to that particular conflict. His story deals with elements of the human experience common to every war: fear, pestilence, misery, fleeting joy, and hunger.
Especially hunger. In one chapter we get to share the author’s shock upon meeting Dolfi and Sepi, a pair of Austrians who had managed to survive alone for two years in the forest:
“So, tell us. What was the worst of your adventures?” I once asked in curiosity, during a conversation about the terrors and perils of the taiga.
“When we ate our comrade Hans.”
Dolfi dug Sepi in the ribs.
“Aren’t you ashamed to talk about such things?” Dolfi whispered, but Sepi none the less quietly continued his story.
“At the time there were ten of us living together. To begin with, there were thirty in the group, but death with its healthy appetite consumed the rest. Hunger tore at our guts: we had nothing to put in our bellies. We had eaten the last remains of a horse and we were already chewing desperately on its hooves and hair. The effects of hunger turned Hans crazy. We could hardly send him to the hospital, because there was no hospital to send him to. In fact if anyone got sick in the forest, or got wounded, there was no help for him, and without a doctor he simply closed his eyes and went to sleep forever. So what could we do for our unfortunate comrade? We were hungry too, and so … we ate him. As we ate, we talked of his and our unhappy fate. Later we ate someone else, but he had it coming to him: we punished him because he was guilty. He stole food from our provisions …. But he tasted better than they did. Right, Sepi?”
While one can certainly enjoy (or perhaps endure) such accounts apart from their historical context, modern readers may still have questions. For example, “How did Soros end up all the way over in Siberia?” Or, “What were Japanese and American armies doing in Russia?” And so on. Few such questions are addressed in the narrative; in fact, Soros never even mentions in which army he fought. He adopts a carefully nonpartisan tone, suspending the adventure in a sort of political vacuum. This approach makes sense considering the multinational audience for whom he was writing, at a time when the politics of the conflict were well known to most readers. For those of us a century removed, however, more context is needed.
Thankfully, translator Humphrey Tonkin was given space for a sizeable introduction. (Publisher Mondial deserves special credit for this; English-language publishers tend to be squeamish about allowing translator’s forewords, fearing that readers will reflexively avoid translations that advertise themselves as such.) In effect, Tonkin becomes our guide to the adventure — and even a sort of co-author — lending the story a significance that it would otherwise lack. Tonkin is a master of English prose, and he’s intimately familiar with the history of the period. His detailed maps, footnotes and appendices make him the ideal travel companion.
Tonkin describes Soros’s prose as artless, much like Defoe’s unvarnished narrative in Crusoe. And the text is indeed artless in that sense: it presents its story in an accessible, unpretentious manner. But Soros is certainly not without skill. His narrative captivates with its palpable details, made all the more compelling when we realize that they chronicle actual events:
From one day to the next, the flies and mosquitoes made our life less and less tenable. Every hour of the day and night seemed to have its particular species of fly. In the morning and at night the chief problem was mosquitoes, in the middle of the day enormous flies, and in the afternoon swarms of tiny ones. And their numbers were beyond all measure. Occasionally they attacked us with such fury that, despite our attempts to defend ourselves, they literally filled our mouths and eyes. We had no mosquito nets, and the sheets that we created for ourselves were not very effective; the bites made our heads swell up like pumpkins.
The horses suffered even more than we did. By flailing about with our arms we were able to drive the various blood-sucking flies away from us, but our poor horses were helpless, and their tails simply could not fend off the millions of flies and mosquitoes. The gray horse, for example, turned completely black with flies and dried blood from their bites. Every time we stopped to rest, we built a big fire of green sticks to protect the horses with the smoke.
One translation challenge for Tonkin was the age of the text; like other living languages, Esperanto has evolved noticeably since Soros wrote his story in the 1920s. What’s more, those who’ve read the original may have noticed that Soros’s style is not particularly “English-like” — I suspect it conforms more closely to the rhythms of his native Hungarian. That style fortunately poses no problems in Esperanto; the syntactic and morphological flexibility of the language allow it adapt to a variety of national idioms, and Soros’s original text certainly flows well enough. But if it were translated too literally into a language as idiomatic and unforgiving as English, the result could sound clumsy or wooden.
Faced with such challenges, some translators strive to retain a sense of “difference” in their translations — perhaps by imitating an antiquated style of English to indicate age, or by adopting awkward turns of phrase to retain foreignness. Other translators strive to “domesticate” their translations, making them sound idiomatically native and modern.
Tonkin skillfully treads a middle ground, remaining faithful to the original text while domesticating details that could cause unnecessary distraction. The result is a story as accessible as Soros’s original, with just a hint of foreignness to admit its age and origins. That foreignness is not so great as to necessarily reveal the text as a translation, but it’s enough to maintain the “difference” appropriate to a tale from a different era and culture.
In other words, the English version of the story flows in much the same way as the Esperanto original, leaving a very similar impression. To me, that’s a sign of a successful translation.
As a bonus, the volume includes Tonkin’s translation of a short fable (The Fairest Judgment) that Soros published in Literatura Mondo under the pseudonym Teo Melas.
Soros, Tivadar. Crusoes in Siberia and The Fairest Judgement. Translated from Esperanto and edited by Humphrey Tonkin. With Prefaces by Paul Soros and George Soros. 132 p. Mondial, 2011. ISBN 1595692185. $16.95 (Paperback), $5.35 (Kindle/Google Play).