Marking it Up–Sami Berdugo’s “A Competition” in English

Haim Watzman

Every translator’s been there (and I was, just this week). A client says he showed your work to someone else, who proceeded to mark it up with improvements. The client deduces that you gave him a bad translation. Go convince him that there can be two good translations of a single text.

The final product will differ depending on a range of strategic and practical choices that every text forces a translator to make.

“No one can tell [the translator] how Homer affected the Greeks, but there are those who can tell him how Homer affects them,” wrote Matthew Arnold, decrying some of his contemporary translators of the ancient Greek classics. Guernica has published “A Competition,” a short story by Sami Berdugo, giving me the opportunity to say something about how the story (published on-line in Hebrew by Ynet in two parts, here and here) affected me, and how Dan Ofri’s translation affected me, and how those two experiences differed.

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Hebrew As She Is Spoke

Haim Watzman

Is Hebrew the language of the prophets or the language of modern Israel? The question is symbolized by that well-known phenomenon of the new speaker of the language, fresh from her ulpan course, who sets off on a crusade to correct the grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation to the benighted native speakers she encounters on the street.

     <em>Hebrew needs change we can believe in</em>
Hebrew needs change we can believe in
The two stereotypical views of what constitutes proper Hebrew are played out this week on the centerfold of Ha’aretz ’s Hebrew book supplement, Sefarim . In side-by-side reviews of a new book, Israeli, a Beautiful Language by Ghil’ad Zuckerman, Hagai Hitron and Noam Ordan pursue a now-hoary debate about the actual and desirable relationship between the Hebrew language of the Bible and the Sages and the language spoken in Israel today. (I’m reacting here to the two articles, not to the book itself, which I haven’t read.)

According to Ordan, Zuckerman is correct to claim that the language we speak today in Israel is a language distinct from than that of the Hebrew-speakers of the biblical and classical periods. The Zionist revivers of the language, beginning at the end of the 19th century, sought to reinstate a pure Hebrew based on the language of the Bible (not the rabbis!). But, since they were native speakers of Yiddish and Slavic languages, what they actually ended up doing was grafting a Hebrew vocabulary onto the grammar and syntax of their mother tongues. Therefore, Ordan views with favor Zuckerman’s claim that the language spoken in Israel today should not be called “Hebrew” but rather “Israeli.”

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Mahmoud Darwish, Zionist Poet

Haim Watzman

What’s a Zionist to make of Mahmoud Darwish, the Palestinian national poet whose funeral today in Ramallah will be a celebration of both Palestinian nationalism and Palestinian culture?

Darwish was a refugee. His family came from the village of Birwa, near Acre, and fled to Lebanon in the wake of Israel’s War of Independence. They were, however, among the lucky refugees who managed to return to their homeland, if not to their homes, so Darwish grew up as a Palestinian citizen of Israel, where he published his first book of poetry. He later left the country, living as an expatriate until 1995 when, in the wake of the Oslo accords, he settled in Ramallah. He spoke fluent Hebrew and maintained contacts with Israeli writers, among them the poet Yehuda Amichai.

He was a Palestinian patriot and activist, first as a member of Israel’s Communist Party and then as a member of the PLO’s Executive Committee. His criticism of Israel was unstinting, but he also advocated a negotiated peace with the Jewish state.

Eight years ago, the ministry of education included a couple of Darwish’s poems on its list of texts that Israeli high school teachers of literature could teach in class, setting off storms of protest. Was it not a sign of the Jewish state’s bankruptcy, the critics argued, that it was proposing to teach works of an anti-Zionist, an enemy hero, to Israeli children?

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Tel Aviv Ennui: Yael Hedaya’s “Accidents”

Yael Hedaya’s Accidents is an intriguing, maddening novel of contemporary Tel Aviv-intriguing in its astute portrayal of the relationships between its characters, maddening in the shallowness of its vision. During the weeks I spent reading it, I wanted it to end so that I could move into a different, more profound fictional world-but neither could I put it aside until I’d read everyone of its 547 pages.

(I read the novel in the original Hebrew, but has been published in English in a translation by Jessica Cohen. Hedaya was named a finalist for the 2007 Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature for this book; my book, A Crack in the Earth, was a finalist for the 2008 award.)

The time is the 1990s. Yonatan is the middle-aged bestselling author of two novels, but has been melancholy, lost, and unable to write since he lost his wife in an automobile accident. He lives in an apartment in central Tel Aviv with his pre-adolescent daughter, Dana. He meets Shira, whose recent first novel was also a bestseller, and who lives not far from Yonatan and Dana. Shira has been through a number of relationships, most recently with thoughtful, considerate Eitan, but finds herself falling in love with Yonatan, who, truth be said, is not really such a nice guy. The loss of his wife may have given him a good reason to be cold and aloof, but it turns out he’s always been that way. In the end, however, he melts; Shira moves in. Shira is also caring for her ailing father. In the meantime, Dana faces chick cliques at school, and gets through her early teenage years.

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