After the great success of my "Lost in Transit" panel at the 2011 Hal-Con, I decided to hold a second edition of the panel and translated another of my short stories, entitled "Half-Life", into Japanese. During the 3rd Hal-Con in Yokohama, Japan, on the 14th and 15th of April 2012, I presented the difficulties we encountered when translating the short story.
You can find some comments concerning the panel in my blog.
Below is the English original of “Half-Life”. The Japanese version will hopefully be available soon on the Hal-Con homepage.
by Regina Glei
The jingling of the bell at the door of “Pete’s Used Goods” sounded like entering a haunted house in an amusement park. The shop’s name was written in faded golden letters in a half-circle over the dirty display window, next to the door.
Jenna’s heart pounded against her ribs: Treasure hunt. Nothing could compare to it and “Pete’s Used Goods” promised to be a treasure trove.
Jenna had just moved into the neighborhood with her husband and her son and daughter on the weekend. She had discovered the shop on her first stroll through the alleys and lanes on Monday morning, while her husband was at work and the kids at school.
A small path through goods piled up to the ceiling led into the dark rear of the shop. Pots and pans made up the bottom, cosmetics and jewelry the middle, some of them covered by makeshift and lopsided glass showcases. Empty frames and ugly drawings and lamps from all ages cluttered the walls and the ceiling.
The shops apparent owner sat behind his cashier’s desk at the back of the shop, hidden between clothes racks. His sight gave Jenna goose bumps. He wasn’t even that old--around fifty, she supposed--but the leathery face under his gray hair was hard and cold. He seemed like a war veteran; the cynical smile around his lips spoke of the horrors he had seen in his life.
Jenna met Pete’s eyes--at least, she presumed he was Pete--and smiled at him, one hunter greeting the other.
The shop smelled stale, stuffy, reeking of mold and mothballs. She decided to never buy clothes here; they would infect her whole wardrobe with their stench, even after three rounds in her washing machine.
Jenna looked around the old, half-used cosmetics and the junk jewelry, searching for hidden treasure. Closer to the clothes, and farther from the entrance, lay a selection of watches.
It was her husband’s birthday soon; a new watch was a good idea, although she had her doubts about finding an adequate watch for her brand name loving Bill here.
Men’s as well as women’s watches lay lined up next to each other, some of them with shabby leather bands. Jenna shuddered as she imagined the greasy, sweaty wrists these watches had once wrapped. What Pete apparently considered to be the better watches lay below one of his self-made glass showcases. One watch with a silvery metal band caught her attention. Yes: A potential treasure.
The watch’s display was a deep, beautiful ocean-blue, silver hands and baroque silver numbers. The watch had a day/month/year display underneath the “12”.
Jenna looked up to ask Pete to show the watch to her and froze. Pete was staring at her. As she answered his gaze, his hard face contorted into a semi-friendly smile.
He got up and approached her. “Can I help you, Ma’am?”
His voice was not what she had expected; it was much higher than she had thought it would be and didn’t suit his hardboiled appearance at all.
“Yes, I’d like to take a look at that watch, please.”
She noticed that it had no price tag on it. None of the pieces under the glass showcases had, the rest was dirt-cheap.
“Oh,” Pete said and the smile around his lips turned wicked.
Pete made no effort to lift the glass showcase from the watches.
“That’s a very special watch, ma’am. I’m not sure you’ll want it.”
“Excuse me?” she said, perplexed. “If you don’t want to sell it, why is it on display?”
“Oh, I do want to sell it, I really do, but it’s my duty to tell you what this watch does, and as soon as I do, you won’t want it anymore.”
She raised a brow at his weird sales pitch.
“The watch doesn’t work?”
“Oh it does...in a quite special way. You see, ma’am, this watch tells you when half of your life is over.”
“What?” Jenna asked, baffled, and stared from Pete to the watch.
“You see the date display here?” he pointed.
It showed the correct day, month and year, twenty-eighth of February 2010.
“You see, after you wear this watch for a while, the day/month/year display changes from the current date to the half-time of your life.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Well, I was born in 1960, so if I became eighty the watch would suddenly show 2000 instead of 2010. If I died tomorrow the watch would show 1985...”
Jenna looked from the watch to Pete.
“I wish I was...it took me a while to figure out what this watch does, but now I know.”
Jenna smiled. “How did you find out?”
“It all started last year. The guy who sold me the watch desperately wanted to be rid of it. I didn’t understand why at the time. I soon sold the watch again; the blue display is very pretty, isn’t it? And two days later, that someone came back into my shop and claimed it didn’t work. It showed 1978. I took the watch back. The next day, the calendar showed 2009 again and another day later someone told me the man who had bought it had died of a heart attack. He was sixty-two and 1978 had been his half-time. It took me three more cases over a few months to understand what this watch does.”
Jenna grinned broadly at him by now.
“I ain’t pullin’ your leg, ma’am, I swear,” Pete said in his high-pitched voice, dead serious. “If you buy that watch and wear it for a day or so, it’ll show you your half-time and I’m not sure if you wanna know. I wouldn’t.”
“Why don’t you want to know, Pete? May I call you Pete?”
“Sure ma’am and why I don’t wanna know...Jeez...do you really wanna know how many years you have left? What if you die in a car accident tomorrow, God forbid. What if the watch shows that your half-time was years ago, what’d you do then? Hell, I don’t wanna know if I die tomorrow. If my half-time were 2000, fine by me, but if it was 1985, no thanks. I admit I’ve been tempted, but after the last guy who wore the watch I don’t wanna know anymore, I tell ya.”
“Why, what about the last guy?”
“A young man from the neighborhood. Known him for years. He had heard about the watch and wanted to have it. I tried to talk him out of it, no chance. He bought it and two days later he shows up in my shop, pale and all, and tells me his half-time was 1998...he was twenty-two. He got all paranoid, returned the watch and I gave him his money back. Two weeks later, ma’am, two weeks later, a truck hit his car and he died. No, ma’am, I don’t wanna wear that watch and I recommend you don’t wear it either, it’s a man’s watch, anyway.”
“I was thinking of it as a present for my husband.”
Jenna stared at him sideways.
“You are pulling my leg, aren’t you?”
“I’m not, ma’am. You have my word. You can check if you want. Samuel Bottock was the last owner and he died at the age of twenty-two in a car accident. And he’s not the only example, he was the fourth. They all died and, every time, the watch showed their half-time.”
“Don’t you find that odd? That none of them had a half-time in the future? That all of them died? Maybe this is a killer watch,” she suggested with a grin.
“You ain’t believin’, ma’am and I don’t hold that against you. It’s a pretty weird story after all. But who knows, maybe you’re right. Maybe this is a killer-watch; one more reason not to give it to your husband...unless you want to get rid of him, of course,” he said, grinning wickedly.
Jenna had to laugh. “No, no, I don’t want him dead. All right, I’ll adhere to your advice, Pete, and will buy some perfume instead.”
“Wise decision, ma’am.”
She rummaged through the used perfume bottles until she found one that she liked. Pete took the bottle and carried it to his cash desk to pack it for her.
“Pete, if that watch is so dangerous, why do you still have it on display?”
“Well, for customers that I like it’s a cool story, ain’t it? And I might sell it to customers that I don’t like...” he grinned his evil grin over his shoulder at her.
Jenna laughed. “I like you, Pete, and thanks for liking me.”
“Oh, don’t make me wanna kill your husband, ma’am.”
Giggling, she paid and he gave her the perfume bottle in a flimsy plastic bag.
Jenna told Bill and her children about the incredible watch and the even more incredible Pete. She shouldn’t have--they all wanted to see the mysterious watch now and the following Saturday, the whole family beleaguered Pete’s shop and gawked at the magic watch. Pete told Jenna’s twelve and fifteen year old son and daughter every detail about the four men who had worn the thing. Her kids stared with glowing eyes at him and Jenna couldn’t stop grinning. Pete was quite something. Bill bought the kids some of the junk--jewelry and toys and Pete looked exceptionally happy.
“We can test the watch on grandpa,” Benny, Jenna’s twelve-year-old son said at the dinner table.
“Benny!” Jenna snapped. He was speaking about Jenna’s father; Bill’s had passed away two years before.
“Why not? He’s already eighty, isn’t he? Come on, let’s buy the watch and test it on him.”
“He’s seventy-six and we’ll do no such silly thing to your grandpa,” Jenna said.
“But wouldn’t you like to prove Pete wrong?” Bill said and Benny’s face lit up like a Christmas tree.
“Bill, I cannot believe you’re condoning this.”
“Oh, come on, honey. The watch is Pete’s sales pitch and it’s a good one, it brought the whole family into his shop. He managed to sell some stuff.” Bill pointed at the accessories and toys he had bought for Benny and Lou, their daughter. “You don’t believe for one second that that yarn is true, do you?”
“What if it is true?”
Bill laughed. “Pete’s really got to you, didn’t he? Man, the guy’s good. I’ll buy that watch and we’ll test it on grandpa, if only to prove Pete wrong. There is no watch like that, showing the half-time of your life, ridiculous.”
Bill insisted on going to Pete’s shop alone to buy the watch. He came back with it and the following weekend they visited grandpa and entertained him with the story of the watch. Grandpa immediately joined Bill’s camp--meaning that he firmly believed the watch’s story was bogus.
Solemnly, grandpa installed the watch around his wrist. Nothing happened. Well, Pete had said it would take a day or two until the watch had adjusted to its new owner.
On the following Monday morning, Jenna got an uneasy phone call from her father.
“Pumpkin,” (she hated it, but he wouldn’t stop calling her pumpkin) “the calendar on the watch has changed...”
Jenna’s heart missed a beat. “And? What does it say?”
Jenna held her breath. The watch was a killer! Grandpa was healthy, in good shape for a seventy-six-year-old. There was no reason that he should die this year.
“Well Dad, you were the one who said that this thing with the watch is bogus. But, nevertheless, take it off, give it back.”
Jenna entered Pete’s shop and waited patiently until an elderly woman had paid for a jersey. Standing there waiting, she stared at the watch that Pete had bought back from them and that lay again under the self-made glass showcase.
“Ma’am, so nice to see you again. What can I do for you?” Pete asked as the woman squeezed past her and left.
“Don’t sell that watch again, Pete, please.”
“Why? What happened?”
“My father died a week ago...”
“Oh my God, ma’am, I’m so sorry! What--”
“Four weeks ago, he fell at the mall, broke his leg, went into the hospital and three weeks later he was dead, water in his lungs, thrombosis, and all that.”
Tears shot to her eyes. She fumbled in her jacket pocket for a tissue.
“Ma’am, I’m so sorry.”
“Bill, my husband, says I’m silly and that it’s all coincidence. But even he has doubt in his eyes when he says that. He only says that to ease the pain of our kids. They’re devastated. They believe that this watch killed grandpa and I...a part of me...believes it too.”
She glowered angrily at the pretty blue watch inside the showcase.
“Ma’am, how could a watch do a thing like that?”
“I don’t know. But this thing is evil. Don’t sell it again, please. Take it out of that display, destroy it. It killed my father!”
She sobbed. Helpless, Pete stood in front of her.
“Yes, ma’am, yes...I’ll do that...right now.”
He stepped to the showcase, lifted it and took the watch.
“Thank you, Pete. Please excuse me.”
“Oh, not a problem, ma’am.”
Jenna turned around and left.
It was Sunday morning and Jenna and Bill lay in bed, still sleeping, as the door opened and Benny sneaked in.
He shook Jenna’s shoulder.
Jenna jerked awake and looked at her son. She had difficulty not to scream. The boy was as white as a bleached wall. Fear in his eyes, ice-cold fear, fear of death. A boy of twelve shouldn’t have such fear in his eyes.
“Heaven’s, Benny, what is it?”
Benny stretched his right arm towards her. The watch dangled around his wrist.
Bill stirred next to her and sat up, heavy with sleep.
“What is it?” he asked.
Jenna stared at the watch around Benny’s wrist. The year read 2004.
“Benny! What happened? Why do you have the watch?” Bill asked.
“I...I broke into Pete’s shop. I swear I didn’t steal anything. I looked for the watch, it wasn’t in the display. I just couldn’t believe that this thing killed grandpa, I just couldn’t...I looked through Pete’s cashier’s desk and found it in a drawer. I only took the watch, nothing else. I just had to know whether the thing killed grandpa...and now...”
The boy’s trembling voice trailed off into silence. Bill climbed half over Jenna and grabbed his son’s wrist.
He saw it too, like Jenna did, the whole time:
“This is...this is ridiculous,” Bill shouted. His voice betrayed him, it was too loud.
“Mom, Dad, I’m scared,” Benny whispered.
“Take it off. Take it off first of all. We’ll throw it away. We’ll destroy it. Bill, get a hammer. Smash this cursed thing. Smash it!”
Shaking, the boy wrestled the watch off his thin arm. Bill took it and Jenna embraced her son and hugged him tight.
“Don’t be afraid, Benny. Fear is the worst enemy. You’ll be alright.”
The boy shivered in her arms.
They all got up and Bill carried the watch into the kitchen on his flat, outstretched palm as if it was a dead cockroach. He put the watch onto the kitchen table and got a hammer from the toolbox under the sink.
“Benny, get Lou, I want her to be here as well. We’ll destroy the damned thing together,” Jenna said.
Benny nodded and ran to get Lou. Bill and Jenna looked worriedly at each other.
“We’ll have to keep a very good eye on him from now on,” Bill said.
“Nothing will kill my son, Bill, nothing. This watch hasn’t taken motherhood into account.”
Bill smiled at that, embraced and kissed her.
Lou and Benny returned to the kitchen.
“What the hell...” Lou muttered, stared at the 2004 on the watch and turned pale.
“Okay. Everyone stand back please,” Bill said solemnly and raised the hammer.
With three well-pointed blows, Bill smashed the watch to pieces. In horrid fascination, the whole family stared at the inner life of the watch. A typical watch, with tiny gear wheels, shattered glass, a dented deep blue display.
Jenna handed Bill a broom and dustpan and Bill cleaned the table of watch parts and threw them into the trash. Then he took the trash out immediately and dumped it in the dumpster in front of the house.
It was no use.
Three weeks later, while stowing sports gear at the behest of his teacher in the utility shed of his school, a balance beam fell on Benny in such an unfortunate way that it bent and broke his neck.
Comments from the author:
This was the second time I saw one of my short stories translated into Japanese and every translation is different, as well as any story is (hopefully) different.
While I found dialogue easier to translate than the prose sections, my Japanese translators had more headache with the dialogue – in what tone does the housewife Jenna speak with the Vietnam veteran Pete in Japanese?
One of the biggest headaches of this translation was the title. For example: the half-life of 137 Caesium is 30.17 years. Half-life is a standard term in describing the rate of decay of a radioactive element. Playing with that term I invented a watch that can tell you the half-life of your life. In Japanese however the term for rate of decay of a nuclear element it “hangenki” with “gen” standing for reduction, there is no kanji for “life” in the term. So to convey the meaning of the title, my Japanese translators added “jinsei no” to “hangenki” to convey the idea of half-life. The play on words in the English original is lost.
I hope you enjoy this little horror story in English, Japanese or both and if you have any comments concerning the story or its translation please let me know.