Language: Hebrew

Translating Humor: Jessica Cohen Gets Jokes to Land in Second Language

“If it bends, it’s funny; if it breaks, it isn’t.”

In his latest novel, the Israeli author David Grossman sets himself a near impossible task—to write a tale of tragedy set at a comedy club, all in the course of single stand-up set. As Gary Shteyngart warns in The New York Times Book Review, it’s a work that “only a true master—a Lenny Bruce, a Franz Kafka—could dream of replicating. Don’t try this at home, folks. I know I won’t.” A Horse Walks into a Bar, translated by Jessica Cohen and just longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, is a 194-page tour de force and, again citing Shteyngart, “there is nothing extraneous, not one comma, not one word, not one drop of comic’s sweat . . . Its technical proficiency is astounding.” Of course he’s referring here to the English-language edition, not to the original Hebrew, which makes this is in large part a compliment to Jessica Cohen, who somehow gets the jokes into English. This despite the translator’s three greatest obstacles: puns, idioms, and foreign context. Even the setting of the novel, Netanya—an apparently dumpy Israeli city—is the butt of countless jokes. Won’t the American reader, unfamiliar with the place or references, yawn through this all? Not this American reader, who read the novel in a single sitting, laughing and crying, at first in turns and, by the end, simultaneously. Figuring out how Cohen managed to “[turn] the performance into fluent, America-style patter, bad-a-bing bad-a-boom,” as Ken Kalfus writes for The Washington Post, is precisely why I’m talking to her now.

Here’s a quick run-down of the plot: Dov Greenstein (stage name: Dovaleh G) is an aging comedian with a tragic past. In one night of stand-up—to which he invites an old friend, Avishai Lazar, a witness to the defining event of this tragic past—Dov takes the crowd on something of a haunted hay ride. He cracks them up, taunts them, taunts (and hits) himself, bores them, entertains them again, loses their respect, and sheds his dignity openly, meanwhile sharply critiquing his native country and opening up important discussions about historical atrocities (his mother was a Holocaust survivor) and personal grief. The tale’s central event, recounted between barbs, potshots, and one-liners, takes place at a junior Israeli Army camp, when Dovaleh was 14—but that’s all I’ll say.

Todd (T): Here you have a book set in Netanya, a city that no American—and maybe no Israeli?—has ever heard of, and, as in most stand-up sets, the comedian breaks the ice by slamming the host city. Again and again. How did you approach this dilemma? Did you find yourself having to add context here and there, to let foreign readers in on the joke?

Jessica (J): Every translator knows she will run into something maddening in the course of a translation—a colloquialism with no equivalent in English, a culturally-specific term that can’t be neatly translated, etc. But I don’t usually expect to hit this brick wall in the very first sentence of a book, and that’s what happened with A Horse Walks into a Bar. The novel begins with the protagonist, a stand-up comedian named Dovaleh G, yelling from offstage (translated literally): “Good evening, good evening, good evening Ceasariyaaaah!!!” So right off the bat we have the set-up for a joke (which, as you mentioned, is always a challenge to translate), a city that most readers will never have heard of, and to make it worse, this is a line of dialogue, which means there’s little room for explication or “stealth glossing” (to borrow a term coined by Susan Bernofsky). Two paragraphs later, the joke unfolds: “Oh, wait a minute… this isn’t Caesarea, is it?” Dovaleh G then spends several lines building up (and hamming up) the realization that he is in fact not in Caesarea but in Netanya. At this point, if I’d just left things as is, most readers would probably have figured out that there is some sort of dichotomy here: Caesarea is not like Netanya; the speaker is disappointed with his actual location. But that’s not enough to make it funny, and so I needed to somehow get across the conflicting images of these two cities, which every Israeli reader is familiar with. I decided the only way was to add a touch of characterization at the beginning, which is why the final English translation reads: “Good evening! Good evening! Good evening to the majestic city of Ceasariyaaaah!” (the addition is underlined). My hope is that not only does this give an indication of what type of city Caesarea is (an exclusive seaside town populated by the rich and famous) but also gets across some of Dovaleh’s hallmark cynicism.

As for Netanya, it is the butt of many jokes in this book, and not completely without reason. It’s not a “dump” in the traditional sense—Netanya sits on the coast of the Mediterranean, only 20 miles north of Tel Aviv, and has some beautiful beaches. But that’s probably the best thing it has going for it. Roughly a third of its 200,000 residents are immigrants, many of whom are unemployed, and it has a long-standing association with organized crime, which is the main basis for the book’s Netanya-related jokes. I remember Grossman mentioning that among the many letters he received from readers after the book came out, quite a few were from Netanya residents who were outraged at his perpetuation of the stereotypes about their city! But back to the translation: once I had done what I could to establish the general schema of Caesarea vs. Netanya, I had to trust that the nuances of Netanya’s image would come through in the other jokes and put-downs that Dovaleh strews throughout his performance.

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My 2016 by Lori Feathers

By happenstance a number of the books that I’ve read most recently explore the theme of redemption.

I’m a fiction judge for this year’s Best Translated Book Award, which means evaluating the English translations of dozens of novels and story collections by writers representing many countries and languages, a thrilling assignment and one that richly sustained my 2016 reading. By happenstance a number of the books that I’ve read most recently explore the theme of redemption—fertile ground for authors to delve into a character’s sense of moral self, the tangle of thoughts and motivations that enable her to marginalize wrongs or justify culpability. The gifted authors of these books deserve our admiration for creating character-driven narratives that artfully articulate humankind’s innate hopefulness that past wrongs can be rectified and personal guilt, absolved.

Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s Reputations (translated by Anne McLean) places readers in the fictional world of Javier Mallarino, a renowned Columbian political cartoonist. Mallarino prides himself in exposing his country’s corruption and political scandals through his daily newspaper cartoon. He possesses the unwavering conviction that his drawings are vitally important for delivering potent truths, “like a stinger dipped in honey.” Years after one of his caricatures destroys the life of a prominent politician Mallarino becomes acquainted with the man’s alleged victim, and their discussions cause him to question the infallibility of his prior condemnation and the consequences of his influence. In an effort to rectify what might have been defamation Mallarino decides to go public with his doubts about the politician’s guilt, an act that will cause the media to turn on him, humiliating him in much the same way that his cartoons humiliated countless others in the past. Reputations is a fascinating study of a man whose entire sense of self-worth is his reputation—the very thing that he must sacrifice in order to redeem himself. READ MORE…

My 2016 by Lindsay Semel

I’ve found solidarity with characters who, like pebbles in the path of an avalanche, find themselves getting caught up in it.

This year, as I watched wide-eyed and drop-jawed the deeds and choices of my fellow humans, I read books that probe the alarming sensation of impotence in the face of inertia. I’ve found solidarity with characters who, like pebbles in the path of an avalanche, find themselves not stopping or redirecting the object in motion, but getting caught up in it.

I opened the year with a copy of S. Yizhar’s Khirbet Khizeh, lent to me by the writer, activist, and academic, David Shulman, who penned its illuminating afterward. Yizhar’s slim novella, originally published in Hebrew in 1949 with no English translation until 2008, narrates the exile of Palestinian villagers during 1948-9—the time Israel celebrates as the birth of its statehood and Palestine laments as its nakba or catastrophe. The narrator is one of the young Israeli soldiers sent to relocate mostly children and the elderly from the village destined to be resettled by Jews. His extremely complex voice captures the haunting cruelty of the task at hand without forsaking responsibility for his complicity—a complicity assured as much by official narrative as by official order. The novella is an important one in Israel’s national memory and happens to be good. Its intimate and colorful narrative voice, rich with Biblical references, shies away from none of the narrator’s labyrinthine conflict. And it’s never been more relevant. As I was reading the novel, I was living in West Jerusalem and visiting Palestine every weekend, bearing witness to the inheritance of the nakba. Over tea in their large, carpeted tent, the inhabitants of one village (clinging to the rocky hillside with nothing but the conviction that it belonged there) described their 4 am wake-up call by Israeli soldiers with stun grenades. Their offence? Asking for the soldiers to give back the generator they’d stolen. And whether you’re the one throwing the stun grenades, the one protecting your kids from them, or the one horrified by it all, the grenades still get thrown. READ MORE…

Translator’s Profile: Jeffrey Green

Our editor-in-chief talks with Jeffrey Green, the translator of Nir Baram's Good People

First of all, congratulations on the very fine translation, which I can recommend to Asymptote‘s readers without the slightest reservation. I was quite impressed by the deftness of your rendering; I found the book ‘unputdownable,’ riveted as I was by your skillful reconstruction in English of Nir Baram’s adman, and the meteoric ascent of his career in 1930s Germany. In fact, other than the odd German word or two every page, the writing didn’t seem to bear any trace of translation, for me at least, as I found it working perfectly well in English, both in terms of the story’s sitcom-like pacing and the sharp, precise English. I’m curious to know how much was lost in translation?

I’m grateful for your compliments, and I’m also very grateful to the editors at Text Publishing in Australia, who went over the manuscript with meticulous care and fine literary judgment. I always had the feeling that they were working with me (and Nir), not against me, with the aim of producing the most readable book possible. I’m glad you think that we succeeded.

With regard to this translation, I benefited from Nir’s input. Translators into English are fortunate, in that the authors they translate usually known the language, so they can correct misunderstandings, notice sentences that one has skipped, etc. Of course, this has a downside as well, because some writers (even Nir on occasion) think they know English better than their translator. Also, the writer always has the feeling that something has been lost, his voice, in the transition into another language. It must be somewhat distressing to hear one’s voice differently from the way one imagined it. On the other hand, sometimes writers discover things about their work when they see it in translation. But they have to accept loss of control inherent in the process of translation.

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Translation Tuesday: An Excerpt of “Good People” by Nir Baram

Frau Stein had been stabbed in every part of her body. She lay face down, her head cradled in her folded arm.

Good People is a globe spanning, wide-canvass novel that probes the depths of one of history’s darkest hours; its heroes are those members of the educated middle classes who sit behind office desks. With riveting narrative force, based on thorough historical research, this extraordinary novel spans World-War II Europe across time and space, boldly sketching an unflinching portrait of men and women and their times. In the extract presented below, our protagonist, Thomas Heiselberg, a Berlin adman, discovers a Jewish woman violently murdered in his home.

***

That night he returned home into a white cloud of feathers. He heard glass splinters grinding under his shoes. The windowpanes, china bowls, lamps, mirrors—almost nothing was intact after the visit by Hermann and his friends. Even the door hinges had been jimmied off. Wooden cabinets and dressers were smashed with hammers, the gas and electricity lines ripped out. At least a dozen jars of fruit preserves had been hurled against the bathroom wall, and flour mixed with soap powder and blood was strewn all over the sink and lavatory.

Frau Stein had been stabbed in every part of her body. She lay face down, her head cradled in her folded arm. He leaned down and turned her over. When he saw her face, coated with a layer of blood-soaked flour, he realised that after stabbing her they had smothered her in the sink with a mixture of flour and soap powder. She looked like a sad clown in the circus. They hadn’t even let her die with that stern expression of hers, well versed in suffering, that had always aroused people’s respect. He gathered some feathers and covered her face with them.

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Dispatch from Translation Day at Oxford University

There is more wisdom in a poem than a poet herself possesses. Though necessarily incomplete, translation captures some of that expansive heritage.

‘I live half an hour away from Gaza. Two years ago, when we began work, we were at war.’

It’s an overcast day, and soft light floods into the room, filled with students, writers, academics, and publishers. I count translators from at least four languages, but these are only the regular faces I know. Many others have come into Oxford especially for the day, drawn by a rich programme of talks, readings, and workshops. Up front, the Israeli poet Agi Mishol is telling us how she and her translator, Joanna Chen, started collaborating on their recent volume of Mishol’s verse, Less Like A Dove.

‘We were hard at work on a poem when it came. The siren caught us with dictionaries open, and there was nothing we could do. We found ourselves laughing and panicking in the same language.’

Chen, like Mishol, speaks with a poet’s careful precision, and laughs and nods at the memory. They are joined, on the panel, by Adriana Jacobs from the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, and open the session by reading some of the earliest poems Chen translated for the book. The poems are about place and displacement, and their voices, in Hebrew and English, rise and fall in turn. Call and response: a present-day liturgy of sorts.

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Translation Tuesday: Seven Micro Stories by Alex Epstein

"Take a deep breath. Write until the page turns blue."

Hope

In the religion column the robot wrote: human.

Immigrants

It was an old spaceship with no windows (they couldn’t afford a new one). Before takeoff, they painted stars on the ceiling of their child’s bedroom.

A Children’s Story

All the children in the kindergarten had superpowers. One could move clouds (and furniture) through the power of thought. Another could walk on air as high as the tops of trees. A third (her name was Sappho) could stretch her arm up and touch the moon. There was also a child who could replace his stutter with a song.

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An Interview with Translator/Novelist Nael ElToukhy

"In a sense I am trying to secularize Arabic—a holy language for Muslims—through another holy language, Hebrew."

A novelist and translator of Hebrew literature into Arabic, Nael ElToukhy’s passion for Hebrew literature is “rare,” by his own admission, among students of the language in Arab universities. He moves with dexterity between different registers of colloquial and standard Arabic and his speech is often loaded with profanities, at other times with creative coinages. Venturing beyond from the Statist logic that led to the creation of Hebrew departments, ElToukhy interrogates the semitic roots of Arabic and Hebrew, presenting his thoughts on the two languages as a novelist and translator; the challenges that two semitic languages present, the similarities in trilateral roots and the prejudices facing their readers on either side. He has published a collection of stories and 4 novels, the latest of which, The Women of Karantina (2014), is available in translation.

OA: In a series of articles you wrote, you say you first studied Hebrew in university because your marks weren’t good enough to study English. What dictated your direction when you first became a translator?

NT: At first you are in line with what they [the publishers] want, more than what you want. Because you need to justify your existence, to justify the language you use, and in addition to this, being a young man, you don’t usually know what you want, but this comes with time and you become interested in some things more than others.

OA: How did your interests develop?

NT: There are many stages in this; first I was interested in the Israeli left, the radical left who’s against the occupation and is anti-Zionist, and now there has emerged a more interesting topic for me which is Arab Jews or Jews who came from Arab countries, I work on both but now my passion has shifted to the second topic and to themes such as how Arab Jews learned Hebrew and how Hebrew mixes with the Arabic of their grandparents, and then comparing their dialects and accents to Ashkenazi Jews who came from Europe. This gradually became more interesting than the radical Israeli left.

OA: How does this affect your translation process and your choice of texts?

NT: I was translating a chapter from a book which references a poem by an author called Hayim Nahman Bialik, titled “a poem to a bird,” and the text was written by a Moroccan Jew. He recounts that in school they had learned that there is a certain verse which contain the letters ح and ع, two very central letters. This is because Arab Jews, at least the first generations, used to pronounce the ح and ع, whereas the Ashkenazi pronounce the ح as a خ (kh) and the ع they almost don’t pronounce.

This became very important in Israeli society because if one pronounces the ع they are immediately recognizable as a Jew who came from an Arab country. Now these nuances have become blurred. In the text by this Moroccan Jew, he references a word which means ‘small chick’ and which contains both letters. The author says because the teacher was Ashkenazi, they did not learn the other pronunciation and learnt to say both letters the Ashkenazi way. When translating into Arabic, the obvious translation does not contain either letter so I had to be creative to find an equivalent which did. Eventually I was able to get both letters. So sometimes in translation you play around with language to be able to bring out this difference in translation.

As far as my choice of text, right now I am working on a novel by Almog Behar, a Jewish author of Iraqi origin. The protagonists are also of Iraqi or Moroccan origin. The author and the characters are both devout and there is a chapter which concerns Jewish temples, and specifically Eastern Jewish temples (meaning those which came from Arab countries). In these temples, they emphasize pronunciation, meaning what is the correct pronunciation and what is not, similar to pronunciation with regards to Quranic recitation.

So it is very important because, as opposed to Christianity, Judaism and Islam still speak their liturgical languages. In one chapter, the rabbi explains what letters today in Israel are mispronounced and which are not. This applies to many letters in modern Hebrew today which are pronounced differently because the Ashkenazi accent changes the Hebrew equivalents of a hard ط to a ’t’ and the ص becomes as a German Z. So this chapter brings up examples of words which if mispronounced become confused with other words. This is hell for a translator because you are trying to find Arabic equivalents which have the same letters the Rabbi mentions and there is a possibility that they will be confused with other Arabic terms which contain the same letters. It takes a lot of effort but what helps is the similarity between Arabic and Hebrew. The word “rabbi” also presented a challenge: the rabbi is a central figure in the novel. The word for that in Arabic حاخام (hakham) does not sound pleasant and when you make it plural it becomes حاخامات (hakhamat) and that doesn’t sound good either, not to mention the word has a certain political association. The Israeli equivalent to Al-Azhar, I made into حاخامية (hakhameya) and it still didn’t sound good, so I brought it back to its origin which is “hakeem” meaning wise man, from the word حكمة (hekma) or wisdom, as a Hakham is a wise man, and phonetically it makes sense, so Hakhameya became Beit El Hekma (house of wisdom), and Hakham became Hakeem.

I explained this in the introduction but with repeated use, the reader should understand that ‘wise man’, in a completely Jewish religious context, is a rabbi. I also kept using the word معبد (ma’bad) for temple and then decided on the word كنيس (Kanees), which shares the same root with the knesset. This word was used in the early 20th century by Arab intellectuals. The other one معبد (Ma’bad) might mean a Buddhist temple or anything else but كنيس (Kanees) is specific. Finally the word Jerusalem is Yerushalayim, at first I put it as اورشليم (Orshaleem), as it is a word which exists in Arabic as well.

The writer when he saw the draft said, why not القدس (Al-Quds)? But I wanted to get rid of these associations in the Arab reader’s mind and portray a Jewish, not Arab, Jerusalem. So the compromise was that in religious contexts, when it is mentioned it is now Yerushalayim, whereas in secular or everyday usage it became al-Quds.

There is a section where the protagonist goes to East Jerusalem and takes a stroll; over there it is all Quds, but when it’s a prayer, it’s Yerushalayim. Yahweh was a problem at first because in the middle centuries Jews used to translate Yahweh into “Allah” and it was no issue. But I chose to make it Yahweh. I wanted to remind the reader of the Jewish context, even though the author at one point translated the word into Allah, which was the one instance where I kept it. 

OA: You assume a particularly active reader?

NT: Yes. I am interested in a pre-Quranic Arabic particularly. The simplistic Arab imagination says that pre-Quranic history of Arabic is the Mu’allaqat, but I go further and interrogate the memory of the root language that gave rise to Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, etc. So when I say I want to remember Arabic in this state, I am also secularizing it by separating its history from the Quran. And in a sense I am trying to secularize Arabic—a holy language for Muslims—through another holy language, Hebrew. So this is the reader’s role for me; I am not trying to point them necessarily in a particular direction, but I use common trilateral roots and make it smooth enough that the reader will read it and not notice but if the same reader pays attention they will catch it.

OA: What does a secularization of Arabic hold for the attentive reader?

NT: At the very least, Arabic becomes an ordinary language and it will evolve. Whether it’s the classical of Quraysh or spoken dialects. I am in love with the Arabic language, and I see it as a very rich language, even in the context of Semitic languages, not as a bias but simply because it has been used as the lingua franca of a very large region, meaning it has been enriched and gave way to many variants. This linguistic variation is important, because as opposed to a standard Quranic language, it was an ordinary language where creativity is possible. For the same reason, I have an interest in Arabic colloquials.

There is a common idea that Arabic cannot express certain things, which I find absurd. The association with the Quran discourages people from being creative with language but if one has enough creativity, the language has the capacity. I would like the reader to remember this creativity and think of the Arabic language with regards to its respective historical development and not as a language which has been given to us divinely.

OA: In your own writing and in translation, how do you navigate the problematics of using the standard versus the colloquial?

NT: I use it whenever appropriate, for example there is a chapter set in red light district chapter in a Hebrew text, I used colloquial for this throughout. In Almog Behar’s book, almost all of it is in Modern Standard Arabic. For this text I felt that using dialect would’ve taken away from its language and given attention to my writing more than the talmudic, sacred atmosphere in the original. In my own writing, I use classical for narration and colloquial for dialect.

OA: In your novel The Women of Karantina, recreating Alexandria hinged almost entirely on language. The fictional Karantina and other aspects of the novel present a very different view of the city. Why did you strive to present this remapping of Alexandria?

NT: I wanted to set it in Alexandria and counter the image of the cosmopolitan city that most people have. Most of us were born after the Europeans left, so we never saw this cosmopolitan Alexandria. I wanted to present a different city: the dirty Alexandria with its prostitution, drugs and crime. In fact, I barely really talk about Alexandria: there is no space. The protagonists go and start the fictional Karantina as a separate neighbourhood and so it ends up not being the real Alexandria, rather an imagined one. The only place that has the most ties to Alexandria is the dialect. It was the most entertaining aspect of writing as my ear is very sensitive to dialects and changes in language. It takes place in the western part of Alexandria, off the coast and away from the sea, so the strongest connection is the language. I would even say the novel could have taken place in Cairo had it not been for the dialect.

OA: Articulating identity through language informs your translation and writing in a profound manner. How do you expect others to surmount translation challenges with regards to your own writing?

NT: Yes, I think of language as the cornerstone of identity. I am more interested in language more than identity; there is a huge debate in Israel when it comes to eastern Jews for example when it comes to language and so hebrew has also influenced and come into this. There is also huge variation in Alexandrian dialect that I sought to present.

Keeping this in mind, there are some compromises that a translator- and more importantly an author- must keep in mind. You write and then you see how it is rendered in translation, not the other way around. I would not keep the untranslatability of any phrase or word in mind as I write. You must have enough wisdom to know what cannot be translated. There is an unspoken agreement between yourself and your native reader that you are presenting her with riddles, and hidden information that is inaccessible to a foreign reader. I did not even think that my novel would be translated, but despite this, I think it is a successful translation and what is important is that the ‘soul’ of the text is transmitted, which I believe to be between tragedy and comedy, between reality and cartoonish absurdism. It moves between parodical academic rhetoric and completely absurdist passages. What is important is that this is transmitted to a foreign reader: that they are able to make this distinction between these two registers in writing. But whether a foreign reader can understand that this is in Alexandrian or Cairene- you give up this idea and make peace with it.

 

OA: Are there any complications to translating Israeli writing and publishing given the discourse around normalization in Egypt and the Arab world?

NT: It is easy to publish the translated book but difficult to pay royalties to an Israeli institution, as this is seen as a form of normalization. Fortunately, younger writers give it up to circumvent the politics. There was an anthology of anti-war poetry, dealing with Gaza and all the authors were receptive. Almog Behar as well, had the royalties to the book in Arabic, so these issues were avoided. It is usually better for me to talk to an individual (an author) rather than an institution. This does not always circumvent politics; the first book I translated from Hebrew was Idith Zertal’s Israel’s Holocaust and the Politics of Nationhood.

A book about death in Israel, inspired by Benedict Anderson’s ‘Imagined Communities’. Anderson says death is used to create identity, and the author explores this idea from the 1920s until Yitzhak Rabin’s death, as well as issues relating to the holocaust, such as how the survivors were portrayed and collective memory. I worked on it independently without solicitation and I spent 8 years translating it. At the time I did not know anyone in Israel. When I did meet someone in Israel, I asked for the author’s email and I emailed her and told her that I really liked her book and was almost finished translating it but that there would be an issue with paying royalties. She refused to waive them and said she was also concerned the book might be ‘read wrongly in Egypt’, fearing it would be read in a propagandistic way. I published it anyway, as uncomfortable as I was with it, because I did not like that I did it without her involvement but I had worked on it for 8 years. Although it received little recognition in Egypt, perhaps as divine punishment.

OA: How would you describe an emerging translator’s access- especially in the context of Hebrew- to publishing in Egypt?

For Hebrew, there is a gap between students studying Hebrew and cultural production. For a middle-class student in an Egyptian university, there is a separation of studying the language and literary or cultural circles. My exposure to this came from my interest in writing. The professors, for instance, have no interest in literary translation. There are some who are excellent at what they do, specifically in the field of linguistics, but they have no connection to culture, and they would never publish in a cultural journal, only an academic one. In some way, I feel a certain pressure- not as a novelist who also translates from Hebrew- but because I am truly passionate about the language, and that is a rare thing to find.

*****

Translation Tuesday: “The Princess” by Alit Karp

As she baked the cake, she thought about what she would say when she'd present it to the Princess.

By the time Nils Holgersson turned forty-eight, he already lived very far north, in Jokkmokk, the capital of Swedish Lapland, which could only with the utmost pretension be called a capital city, since it was no more than a small, remote village upon which, as Tacitus wrote, the sun never shone in the winter and never set in the summer. He worked as a custodian at the only local high school, which had three classes for each grade and a dormitory so that students who lived as far as 100, 200 or even 1000 kilometers away would have a place to stay. The school menu was standard for Sweden: mashed potatoes with butter and strips of bacon on Mondays, fried fish and potatoes on Tuesdays, pea soup and pancakes with jelly on Wednesdays, tuna salad on a roll on Thursdays, and noodles with ground beef on Fridays, which was the children’s favorite. He knew all this from his wife, Maria, who was the cook in the school where he worked as the custodian.

No children had been born to them. They accepted this as their lot in life and did not ask questions, neither of the doctors nor of their own parents, who were still alive when children remained a possibility. Sometimes Nils would amuse himself with the notion that if he had a son, he would teach him how to hold a hammer, how to drive in screws, and how to chop down trees. Most of the time, however, he did not torture himself with such pointless musings.

He rarely spent time with Maria during work. She would be in the kitchen and he’d be in the schoolyard, which was generally covered in ice, or else he’d be in the classrooms or the bathrooms. They didn’t think it was appropriate to consort as a couple just because they were lucky enough to share a workplace. If by chance they passed each other in the hallway, they would mumble feeble greetings and continue on their way. In the evenings, when they met at their home adjacent to the schoolyard, they did not engage in long conversations: Hi. Hi, do you want to eat? Yes, thanks. Beer? Yes, please. Can you turn up the volume on the television? Thanks. They would doze on and off until midnight, each in an armchair, and then go to sleep in their bed, which was neither particularly big nor particularly small, but in any case no act of love had been committed there in quite some time.

One particular morning Maria burst into the school storeroom which served as Nils’ office and said to him breathlessly, “Did you hear? Princess Victoria is getting married in two months and her wedding procession will pass through all of Stockholm. We have to be there. She’ll be so disappointed if we don’t go. And I want to bring her a present, something that will remind her of that day in the forest, you remember, right?” READ MORE…

Asymptote Podcast: Home

In this month's podcast, how home is—and isn't—always where the heart is

In this episode, we look at the concept of home; how we shape it and how it shapes us. Yardenne Greenspan takes a look at literature of trauma, bringing us work by two Israeli authors Yonatan Berg and Ron Dahan, who recount the horrors they have seen (and have been a part of) in their country, as well as Yehiel De-Nur better known by his pen name, Ka-Tzetnik 135633, a Holocaust survivor who in bitter detail recounts his time in Auschwitz. What unites these authors is their experience with LSD. Flashbacks to their traumatic experiences directly inform upon their writing and present the reader with a complex portrait of trauma. Daniel Goulden brings us a report from the Brooklyn Book Fair with recordings of Jonathan Lethem, Vivian Gornick, John Leguizamo, Cecily Wong, and Chinelo Okparanta discussing their respective homes and how that informs upon their work.  READ MORE…

Translation Tuesday: Poems by Ronny Someck

"In his painted eyes you can see a whole herd, / the prey in his dream’s forever-forest."

Bloody Mary 

                   

And poetry is a gun moll

in the back seat of an American car.

Her eyes pressed like triggers, her pistol hair firing blond

bullets down her neck.

Let’s say her name is Mary, Bloody Mary,

words squeeze out of her mouth like the juicy guts of a tomato

whose face was knifed just beforehand

on the salad plate.

She knows that grammar is the police force of language—

her earring transmitter

detects the siren at a distance.

The steering wheel will shift the car from question mark

to period

when she’ll open the door

and stand on the curb as a metaphor for the word

prostitute.

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Live from the NYPL: Tel Aviv and Tehran Noir

Honoring noir writing—and living—in two notoriously conflicted cities

It was a full house at the New York Public Library on Wednesday night, and I learned just how similar Iranians and Israelis are.

Rick Moody moderated a panel event for Live at NYPL, launching two new books from Akashic’s Noir Series: Tel Aviv Noir and Tehran Noir. Akashic Books’ Noir series includes over sixty anthologies of noir stories set in cities around the world. The panel guests included Tel Aviv Noir editors Assaf Gavron and Etgar Keret, Tehran Noir editor Salar Abdoh and Tehran Noir contributor Gina Nahai. Sitting in the audience, listening intently, I felt complicit.

I had translated eleven out of the fourteen stories in Tel Aviv Noir (two others were written originally in English, a third was translated from Spanish). I felt that where the book succeeded or failed, I shared some of the responsibility. I also felt simultaneously in and out of place: I’ve lived in Tel Aviv most of my life, but have never been to Tehran, though when I see pictures of its mountains I get that belly ache of longing.

These two facts are connected: as an Israeli Jew, much of that world is closed to me. READ MORE…

Hebrew Poetry from Ron Dahan’s Collection “Youth”

Dahan's portrayals of war and daily life in Israel are stirring: precise yet deftly ambiguous, casual yet anguished

A soda machine burns outside a grocery store

and all the Pepsi and the Coke (diet, too) and the Sprite

Explode in all directions like grenades.

The village of Markabe is burnt and bombed like in a war movie.

And like in a war movie

there’s the guy who carries a heavy jerrycan on his back

and the guy with the cigarette between his teeth

and the guy called Nir

and the guy who’s going to die and doesn’t know it so he allows himself to reminisce about that time when

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