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.

“A Competition” is a sad, lonely tale. It’s told by a teenage boy who comes home to his tiny apartment and broken family from a high-school class camping and hiking trip—apparently “Gadna,” a week of pre-army training. There’s no mother; his father lies helpless in bed, connected to a respirator. The boy’s emotional father’s physical paralysis are relieved only by the grandmother, who is the only active agent in the family.

It’s the time of the Seoul Olympics, which the boy glances at from time to time on television, without comprehending why young people like him would want to exert themselves so. One of the other neighborhood kids gets hit by a rock and dies. The boy-narrator lives in a world that seems to him entirely dead—he removes anything vital, be it his class overnight or the Olympics, from the range of the reality he lives in.

Berdugo helps us enter into the alienated mind of his main character by using language that straddles three registers—formal Hebrew, teenage Hebrew, and the peculiar stilted language that emerges from his protagonist’s crippled mind. It’s a delicate balance that keeps the reader on his toes—nearly every paragraph contains a phrase that is just slightly off, a bit inconsistent with the language that preceded and followed it.

Ofri has sensed the exceptionality of the language, and clearly wished to provide English-language readers with a sense of the story’s syntactic strangeness. To my mind, however, he lost his way—the English is far odder than the Hebrew is, and the careful linguistic balancing act that the author plays is lost. Berdugo’s language is surprising; Ofri’s is too often simply stilted.

But the story is still worth reading, both to make an acquaintance with its protagonist, and to make an acquaintance with the author, one of the more interesting literary voices of Israel’s peripheral Mizrahi (Sephardi, Oriental) community. If you can read both languages, make the comparison for yourself. You will probably feel the urge to mark it up. Whether that’s an improvement—well, that’s a good question.