Place: Israel

What’s New in Translation? April 2017

We review three new books available in English, from Hebrew poetry to haunting fairy tales.

milk of dreams

The Milk of Dreams, by Leonora Carrington, tr. by the author, New York Review Books

Reviewed by Beau Lowenstein, Editor-at-Large for Australia

Leonora Carrington grew up listening to folktales told by her Irish nanny in Crookhey Hall. She spent most of her life in Mexico City and became renowned as a Surrealist painter, artist and novelist. Her children recount how they used to sit in a large room on whose walls their mother’s fantastical stories were brought to life. There were deranged creatures and wild forests, and mystical persons standing amid steep, clouded mountains. Carrington’s breath as a storyteller was as broad as her genius for painting and imagery, and the paring of the two resulted in a small notebook she called The Milk of Dreams (New York Review Books, 2017) – perhaps the only surviving relic of that enchanting time where, each day for her children, she opened the door to a realm of fantasy and wonder.

We are introduced to Headless John on the first page, which immediately sets the tone:

The boy had wings instead of ears.

He looked strange.

“Look at my ears,” he said.
The people were afraid.

Her stories, which are often not much more than a few lines in length, give a sense of whimsical creativity; the kind that is not just rare in literature but exceedingly so in children’s stories. Meet George, who enjoys eating walls and eventually grows his head into a house; Don Crecencio the butcher and his goat’s meat roses; and the monster Chavela Ortiz, who has six legs, a golden jewel, pearls, and a portrait of Don Angel Vidrio Gonzalez, the head of the Sanitary Department. There is a freedom in Carrington’s tales that is both outrageous and unpredictable, and yet underlying is the realness of raw experience. These are not watered-down shadows of a story like so much of fantasy writing seen today – they delve into genuine emotions, which are often dark and complex.

And yet Carrington imbeds a wicked humour in her stories, too. In “The Horrible Story of the Little Meats,” an old and ugly woman is nicknamed Lolita by her friends and captures three children, imprisoning them and cutting off their heads. They are saved by a Green Indian who, in his ignorance, reattaches their heads to their hands and feet and buttocks, though, “the children were happy in spite of having their heads stuck on such funny places.”

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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: 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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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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Translation Tuesday: Four Poems by Abraham Sutzkever

Translated from the Yiddish by Maia Evrona

An Acorn Gives Birth to a Tree, the Tree Gives Birth to a Fiddle

 

An acorn gives birth to tree, the tree gives birth to a fiddle

and you give birth to my star, so the night will be true.

You give birth to it far from here, its light belongs to me and to you,

you give birth to it where no leaf fades, nor anyone’s smile.

 

We haven’t been of this world for a score of silences now,

a heroic cosmos will not allow our joint death.

The earthly, the real, is real as earth and valid

and death no longer has any power over our breath.

 

His kingdom does not extend to the green Tree of Life,

what is past has not passed, time is not yet ripe.

Escaped from the clamor, our silence is love,

new images stream from the weeping eye of the soul.

 

The paired twitch of two silences in one

approaches perfection on a rung of its own.

This wonder-without-a-name tells of its deeds,

the language of atoms has a folksong’s simplicity.

*****

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Mythology – Part Two

A brand new episode of our podcast! This time we're heading to Israel and Georgia...

Mythology – Part Two

In part two of our Mythology feature, we dig deeper into the rich and sometimes troubling relationship between legends of old and lives of present. Where do a nation’s myths come from? What does it mean to be both proud and critical of our cultural identity? How can art reconcile or challenge the way we relate to our heritage? We dive into these questions and more through a focus on two Western Asian countries: Israel and Georgia. Yardenne Greenspan, who grew up in Tel Aviv, examines her own difficulties with accepting the state-sanctioned version of history—she talks with fellow Israeli writers about the myths surrounding Israel’s public image. And Daniel Goulden and Rron Karahoda test out J.R.R. Tolkien’s theory as to why certain languages survive and others go extinct, through a celebration of Georgian music and folklore. 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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In Review: Marek Hlasko’s “Killing the Second Dog”

First published in Polish in 1965, Tomasz Mirkowicz's translation of a crime novel set in Tel Aviv delights Asymptote's new editor-at-large

Marek Hlasko’s novel, Killing the Second Dog, is set in Tel Aviv, but it isn’t any Tel Aviv that I know. Not only the years that separate my Israel (I was born there in 1982) from the novel’s newly independent Israel of the early 1950s account for this lack of familiarity. Nor is it the fact that Killing the Second Dog is, essentially, a crime novel. Hlasko’s Tel Aviv is an identity-less city, where a multitude of languages is spoken and a variety of currencies is exchanged. Still overcoming British rule and catering to the many post-war tourists financing its new path, this Israel offers itself up for grabs, trying, in spite of the suffocating heat and the shoddy infrastructure, to constitute as small an interruption as possible.

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