Budapest is dreary under the leafless trees that line the boulevards on this February afternoon. The Hungarian masses, dressed in black, trudge along slate-colored sidewalks littered with cigarette butts.
Looking out over the streets from the Corinthia Hotel, itself a historical landmark that barely survived the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, the city retains only hints of a relatively brief communist past.
The only streak of color is a yellow trolley running back and forth in front of the hotel, shuttling people between the two halves of the city— Buda and Pest — for free. Not that there isn’t a charge for the service, but most people, as with the metro system, don’t bother buying a ticket, since no one is checking.
In the afternoon, I boarded the yellow streak to Nyugati Station to catch a train to Esztergom, a 13th-century capital of Hungary an hour outside of Budapest. I had been invited by a Hungarian interpreter and translator I’d previously met in Japan who now worked for a Japanese company providing car parts for Magyar Suzuki, a major employer for the city of approximately 30,000. The demonym Magyar can mean Hungary, the Hungarian race, language, culture, and even serves as a popular surname.
I arrived at Esztergom Station just a few minutes before the interpreter. “We have Japanese visitors this week from the headquarters in Tokyo so I’m quite busy,” she explained, apologizing for being late. The translator is tall, her nose is big (her word) and her smile is right out of a toothpaste commercial. There is something very appealing about her — her smile is so touching, you find yourself unconsciously smiling back.
As she drives me around Esztergom, she points out sites of interest. “Esztergom was the backdrop for the movie ‘In The Land of Blood and Honey‘ with Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt.” Reportedly, Jolie rented out the entire corner cake shop just so she could eat a piece of cake in private.
We enter a restaurant and the only Japanese person among the diners happens to be her former colleague. “He came to work here many years ago and eventually settled here. He seems very happy in Hungary,” she said as we took a table near the window on the opposite side of the room.
Among deer burgers, goose liver pate, paprika chicken with nokedli dumplings, Mangalica stew (“a cute Hungarian curly haired pig that happens to be delicious,” according to the interpreter) and a bottle of Hungarian wine, she talks about her job as a Japanese-to-Hungarian interpreter and translator. Although she speaks fluent English, neither the Japanese nor the Hungarians she works with do, so she mainly translates directly between their native languages.
“There was a guy transferred here from Japan who brought his whole family,” she tells me. “They integrated very well. The wife took Hungarian classes and the children were enrolled in Hungarian school, although they went to Japanese school on the weekends. They loved Hungary,” she concluded rather wistfully.
It turns out that not all Japanese settle in so well to this diminutive country that has largely resisted immigration (87 percent of the population is said to be Hungarian) and where company employees leave work at 4:30 p.m., something unheard of in Japan. A small but proud nation, Hungary has a spa culture similar to Japan’s onsen culture, with “wellness centers” that provide spa activities such as massages, relaxation spaces, indoor swimming pools, saunas, steam rooms, jacuzzis at 30 degrees Celsius (“nurui [tepid], the Japanese always say”) and hydro facilities for alternating hot and cold ablutions.
Hungarians are duly impressed by Westerners who learn their language, especially if they develop a degree of proficiency. “I have a friend from England — he speaks perfect Hungarian!” the interpreter says. “I love to hear him speak because he speaks so fluently and can even use Hungarian slang.”
Our conversation is frequently interrupted by phone calls she must answer (“It’s the Japanese”). She chatters away in their language about housing, personnel, lunch meetings. Yes, she will get back to them with answers by tomorrow morning. “Yes, yes, of course. Goodbye.”
Finally, at 7 p.m., she stops answering the phone. “They are in Hungary now, they must learn they cannot just ring up at any hour with work-related questions.” The phone keeps ringing but she remains engaged in her conversation with me.
It’s not long before she is relating the most interesting parts of her job. Although she spends many hours at the office translating letters and emails and greeting Japanese guests from the home office, the juicier bits were those that fell outside of mere translation.
“I help the new Japanese transfers to get settled and I do everything I can to make their tenure a little easier. Sometimes I invite them over to my house for dinner, and I take them out for lunch.”
“Then there are the cultural differences,” she says, with that winning smile and a sideways glance.
In Japan, when you go to the medical clinic with your colleagues for the yearly health check, you might be given a white paper cup and sent to the toilet to produce a urine sample. After you’ve filled the cup, you either give it to the lab by putting the cup on a surface set up expressly for this purpose, or some places in Japan still use the old-school method, which requires you to march across the room carrying your cup of amber liquid to the reception desk, parading the goods in front of your colleagues who are all sitting and awaiting their turn to do the same. I know this is true because I’ve had to do it countless times myself.
“In Hungary, the system is the latter, and the Japanese have no problem with this,” she says. “However, there is one difference: The urination cup in Hungary is not a white paper cup but a clear plastic one. Of course, everyone can see the color of your urine, and it is in these circumstances that you realize that not everyone’s urine is the same shade of yellow.”
So when our intrepid interpreter accompanied her new hires for their health checkups, one of them, embarrassed by the idea of using a transparent cup, decided to wrap hers in a white paper tissue. “I just imagined what the Hungarians sitting there were all thinking: That woman must have a very odd color of urine — perhaps purple — since she is so embarrassed she feels she must hide it from everyone!”
Other times, she has to accompany employees to the hospital if they are ill. “One time, my boss insisted I go with him when he had to have a, um, what do you call it where they put the camera up the person’s butt and look around?”
“A colonoscopy?” I ventured.
“Yes, that’s it,” she said and began to chortle. “So there I was, in the examination room!” She was laughing so hard now, she was snorting. “Of course I had to turn around and face the wall so as not to be actually watching the procedure. When the doctor said something to the patient, I had to call over my shoulder. It was quite embarrassing for me really, but I don’t think my boss minded at all.”
All in a day’s work for a Hungarian interpreter and translator.