Bad Translation

Yesterday, you could swear she was saying “Help!  Help!” so you couldn’t sleep at all, pacing, your mind focused on the porn film, chained to the one instant the young blonde woman turns to the camera, on hands and knees, the instant you paused repeatedly, locked on her lips, straining for the key to her expression but finding nothing—pustoy, you recall, the Russian word for vacant. Or does it mean bored?

Today, you watched it again using Google Translate and now you think she is saying “Work! Work!”, right as she turns to the camera, and the hairy naked man behind her answers, grunting a word whose meaning depends entirely on the placement of the accented syllable, maybe “Yes!” or maybe “Silence!”. The video does not get you off, it gets inside you.

It’s been thirty-six hours since you’ve slept, which is how this all started. You shouldn’t wander the dark web with your defenses already breached, shouldn’t dip your toes into cryptocurrency—these things summon demons. You’re the target demographic: divorced, chemically depressed, underemployed, just one small success (a daughter, distant) to keep you above life’s waterline. Hours of internet gambling and loitering and clicking through brought the file they dangled in front of you, the one you downloaded. You don’t speak Russian well, just two semesters worth; its heavy consonants and bloated vowels strike your ears as repeat violations, like brutes kicking down the door of proper language. You don’t trust your translation—gift sounds like trap.

You’ve frozen frames, sifted the setting for clues: concaved motel bed, dated floor lamp, cracked mirror hung on the wall behind—typical backdrop for homemade porn, or amateur abduction. The lighting is uneven. The cameraman’s warped reflection haunts the glass.

You think maybe you should call the authorities. You wonder what would happen if you did. Maybe some father’s daughter is saved from further harm. Maybe you make the news, and your own daughter learns of your shameful diversion; your daughter who lives flyover-states away, whose voice has always betrayed her fears despite her words, despite the countless times you’ve asked her what’s wrong and she always says “nothing” like aborted confessions, in that burdened, slam-door-faced way that means “everything”. What you imagine is worse than anything you’ve ever seen; this is what you tell yourself after she hangs up, when you wonder why you watch it at all.

You watch it again. You listen for the blonde woman’s voice saying “Work!”; you pause the video again when she turns to the camera. She’s not vacant at all, not bored. You were wrong, you were misguided, concentrating on her mouth when it’s really in the eyes. Those tired, hopeless eyes. You see it now, the resignation. She’s someone’s distant daughter.

Even if you speak the language, any language, you’ll never understand.


Joe KapitanJoe Kapitan writes fiction and creative nonfiction from a pine grove south of Cleveland. Recent work has appeared in Pithead Chapel, X-R-A-Y, New World Writing and DIAGRAM. He is the author of a short story collection, CAVES OF THE RUST BELT.