When the pandemic broke out, social media networks were flooded with images of translators working before vs during the pandemic – with no differences between them whatsoever: hunched over their desks, coffee at hand, typing away at their keyboards into the small hours. At first sight, they looked funny. As it would turn out, however, there was much more truth to them than we would have readily granted. New old normality? Is it?
A few years before the pandemic era, I voluntarily gave up teaching in a primary school and went on to work mainly, but not exclusively, as a literary translator. I have never given up teaching entirely, though, and back in May 2020, I was lucky enough to be given an opportunity to work as an on-line English teacher. Another voluntary decision, but a rather opportune one, given the circumstances. No commute, no nine-to-five jobs, no masks needed for working from home – just what the doctor ordered, if you’ll excuse the pun.
I must admit that, when it all started, I could often be seen with a disinfectant in one hand and a cloth in another, frantically moving about, washing and cleaning and scouring surfaces and floors and shoes and whatever came to hand. This had to stop, I decided, otherwise I would completely go out of my mind. And it did, in the hope that I wouldn’t kick the bucket if I ceased doing what was constantly being advised to do. Joking aside, it wasn’t pleasant at all to be locked down, even for a sedentary translator I had somehow become in the meantime. Some of the first Covid 19 victims in Serbia were reported in my town, in which a curfew was immediately imposed. I will never forget, much as I would like to, a single police car patrolling the streets and warning the citizens not to leave their homes, unless they had to. A more striking image is of elderly people being allowed outdoors at specific hours only, when they couldn’t meet other (younger) people and thus potentially infect each other. Discrimination was one of the words that came to mind, unbidden.
Amid news stories about dying children, collapsing buildings, earthquakes, wildfires, migrations unprecedented in recent history, to name just a few, were we to feel grateful, with the virus on our doorsteps, as long as we were safely out of its reach? Was fear so instilled in us that it totally deprived us of our thinking capacities and directed our gaze towards nothing but the virus itself? Instead of taking organised journeys into space – this is the twenty-first century, after all – we were constantly reminded to wash our hands with soap and water (another famous ‘meme’)! Back to basic hygiene!
But what about the hygiene of the mind? The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell… True enough. Two books translated from Serbian into English, three from English into Serbian, hundreds of online classes, and, last but not least, much more time spent with my family, which wouldn’t have been possible, paradoxically enough, had it not been for the virus – that was my way to make a heaven of the hell wreaked upon us.
My residential stay in Larissa, Greece, offered some hope that the so-called old normality would be resumed in the foreseeable future. Crowds of people milling about the streets, idling their time away in the numerous cafés, drinking coffee after coffee – this was enough to, at least for a while, forget about anything virus-related and, still with your mask tucked under your chin and a disinfectant handy, enjoy your whereabouts to the fullest. Even there I spent much of the time indoors – once a translator, always a translator! – finalising another lengthy translation. When the weather (there was a heat wave lasting for a few days) and my commitments permitted, I took the time to stroll around the city, sometimes with a coffee in one hand (not wishing to stand out), and it was on such occasions that I fully realised the effects of the pandemic.
The word μεταφορά (or its derivative?) was written on almost every other lorry I passed by. People were moving house. Were they sick and tired of being (physically and mentally) confined? Did they decide to have done with it and move away into the countryside, back to nature? Another image comes to mind now: that of Mother Nature being revived once man’s harmful impact is greatly reduced as a consequence of travel restrictions and almost all humankind being locked down. It’s fair to say that man has done irreparable damage to nature and is, oh, getting his just deserts. No other species on earth would do anything similar, yes, man is the greatest of all beasts, yes, we are well aware of that. But give us metaphors – that’s what we need, most of all in the original sense of the word. We want to move, we want to be transferred from one place to another, if you will, just not stay in the same place. If there is no movement, there is no life, there is no freedom. There is neither new nor old normality. Nothing is normal then. Everything is askew.
Then again, another ‘meme’ crosses my mind (I have been spending way too much time online lately): an encased disposable mask which we glance at, almost wistfully, as we put on a gas mask and go outside. An image from a not-so-distant future. Let’s brace ourselves for whatever the future brings. Let’s declutter our minds – the place we spend most our time in, come hell or high water. Let’s keep it normal, neither in the old nor new, but in our own way – the way that lets us grow and create, no matter what.