What someone writes clearly says a lot about a person. And so do the books one chooses to translate. For Israeli books that make it abroad to an English-speaking audience, an important and sometimes overlooked subset of Israeli literary society is the translators themselves.
Himself an accomplished author based in Chicago (his newest book is a young adult novel called Me Being Me is Exactly as Insane as You Being You), as a translator, Todd Hasak-Lowy sees it as his mission to bring excellent and innovative literature to English speakers. Motti by Asaf Schurr (which also includes an afterword by Hasak-Lowy) is a good example. “You could change 30 words of it and you wouldn’t know it’s an Israeli book. It challenges what people think of about Israeliness. That’s a book I want Americans to read because it’s great Hebrew literature, someone who’s a product of that society, but it’s not Amos Oz.”
As an American who never made Israel his permanent home, Hasak-Lowy spent a year in Israel after high school, took some Hebrew in college, and then pinned himself to a seat in the library in graduate school deepening his Hebrew knowledge, before spending some additional time in the country. “When I graduated high school, I knew around 300 Hebrew words from summer camp; when I got to grad school, I was able to crawl through an early [A.B.] Yehoshua novel over 30 months,” and now he’s a sought-after translator who thinks carefully about which projects he seeks to take on.
Haim Watzman is a translator’s name I had long known, staring at me from the inside front page of some of the most formative books I read about Israel when I was younger, including David Grossman’s first two non-fiction books, The Yellow Wind and Sleeping on a Wire. The first in-depth look at the Palestinian experience of being under Israeli military occupation, The Yellow Wind brought the Palestinian narrative to an Israeli – and then to a worldwide – audience; Grossman’s follow-on treatment of Palestinian citizens of Israel was similarly path-breaking.
Watzman and I spoke by Skype, as he and his wife, Ilana, prepared to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary with a trip to the Netherlands. In talking to Watzman about politics, style, culture and translation, there are some technical points I was reminded of. First, English translations of Hebrew books tend to run about 30% longer. The economics of this for publishers can be daunting, so sometimes translators suggest editorial cuts. Second, because of the gendered nature of the language, Hebrew can afford both more passive tense and longer, meandering sentences. As Hebrew writers have become accustomed to using the passive voice that English writers now eschew as being a bad habit, translators have to take on an editing role: fact-checking and at times asking the writer “who” did what, exactly? And as for long, drawn-out sentences, English readers prefer theirs short and breezy.
About The Yellow Wind, Watzman describes it as his “rookie” assignment, which he was fortunate to land. As an undergraduate at Duke University, Watzman had written a thesis on Palestinian citizens of Israel, and as a correspondent for the Chronicle of Higher Education covering Palestinian colleges in the West Bank, he felt it important to bring the Palestinian story abroad. And while he’s careful to insist that these are the author’s works, not his own, today he says he’d do some things differently in the translation. Though he thinks “the translation came out fine – the public loved it; the editors loved it,” he says he “was more deferential then. I’d probably be more demanding of the author today, in terms of needling him for clarifications and suggestions.” Stylistically, he pushed to change Grossman’s present tense to the past, and he chose to keep some Arabic terms in the English translation.
It wasn’t until years later and subsequent translation gigs – including Grossman’s (and other authors’) political petitions published in newspapers – that Grossman finally asked him whether he agrees with the thrust of his political messages. For the most part, Watzman does.
I couldn’t help but be intrigued by the fact that Watzman leans left-liberal while being Orthodox in his religious outlook. (His Twitter profile photo, for example, is a sketch of Grossman working with Watzman, the latter’s kippa dominating the foreground.) Watzman explains that he came to religious observance “gradually,” having been “very taken by Shabbat and the intellectual component, including the debate over texts.” Two things “didn’t work for him,” however: orthodoxy’s attitude towards women, and the tendency within the Orthodox community towards right-wing politics. “I wasn’t going to give up my political principles for religion.” In Jerusalem’s Baka neighborhood, Watzman eventually found a like-minded community called Kehilat Yedidya.
And, while Watzman is committed to liberal democracy and human rights, he is no pacifist. Having tragically lost his son Niot in a military accident four years ago, Watzman tells me how he understands the military to be a necessity. Yet, while “Israel has to be vigilant and defend itself,” the country should be searching for peace through “accommodation and understanding.” He believes that “you can be both a Jewish nationalist and a liberal humanist. Not only is it possible, it is essential.” One could say that reading Israeli books, including new literature as well as the kind of searing non-fiction works that Grossman, Tom Segev and others have produced, captures this dualism perfectly: a nation committed to writing in its own land in its own language, while keeping tough questions in the foreground.
Mira Sucharov is an associate professor of political science at Carleton University. She blogs at Haaretz and the Jewish Daily Forward. A version of this article was originally published on haartez.com.