A Short Story Translation: Nurit Kotler’s “Next to the Traffic Signal, Under the Streetlight”

Haim Watzman My translation of Nurit Kotler’s short story, “Next to the Traffic Signal, Under the Streetlight,” has just been posted on the Zeek website, after appearing in the Summer 2010 issue. Set in Paris, the story tells of an unscheduled and unlooked-for encounter between a nervous Israeli expatriate and an elderly Jewish man. Good … Read more

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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Rachel and Mt. Nevo–A Translation

Haim Watzman

    <em>Mt. Nevo, photo by Argenberg</em>
Mt. Nevo, photo by Argenberg
I’m reading Rachel’s collected poems straight through for the first time. And being a translator (but not, I should emphasize, a poet), I can’t resist the temptation to try my hand at an English version of one. This is an ongoing project that I’ll be updating as I polish and improve it.

I told Rachel’s story in my book A Crack in the Earth. I noted there how Mt. Nevo was a central image in Rachel’s lyrics—and a central image for her readers as well. Nevo is the mountain from which Moses looked out over the Land of Israel, which he would never enter. In Rachel’s poetry, it’s the place from which the speaker looks out on an alternative life, the life longed or hoped for. The poetess stands in the wilderness and looks to the Promised Land.

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Harms and the Man–“Necessary Stories” Column from The Jerusalem Report

Haim Watzman

    <em>Such fifid language,” Dr. Tchernikovsky observed.</em>
Such fifid language,” Dr. Tchernikovsky observed.

“I haf seen dis before,” the psychiatrist sighed, “und I know its name. ILSS – Inter-Literary Stress Syntrome.”

I’d sought out Dr. Tchernikovsky after a nearly sleepless week of a recurring nightmare in which I’d reverted to my army days. Except that instead of being dressed in my IDF fatigues, I had on a scratchy bronze helmet and a cuirass a size too big for me. Something heavy, large, and uncomfortable was strapped to my left arm, and my right hand gripped something long and hard.

Yes, that’s what I thought, too, but when, in the morning, I pieced together the other details of this nocturnal horror show it didn’t seem to fit the standard Freudian typology. It was very dark, I was thirsty and horribly cramped, and the meager air smelt of timber mixed with flatulence.

“Inter-Literary Stress Syndrome?” I asked. “This deathly panic and paranoia, the self-loathing that segues into macho elation and bloodlust? Are you sure a rugby-playing dybbuk hasn’t possessed my body?”

Dr. Tchernikovsky placed his elbow on the armrest of his overstuffed chair and stroked his soup-strainer mustache, staring hard at me, as I lay stiffly on his analyst’s couch.

“I haf encountered some rugby-playing tybbuks in my time,” he said after a long pause, “und dey haf more sense dan dat.”

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In Praise of Hegemony: Mizrahi Culture in Israel

Haim Watzman

Is the cultural freedom of marginal and minority groups violated by the promotion of a standard central culture by a state or society? In contemporary sociology and cultural theory, “central” and “standard”—more often called “hegemonic”—are dirty words. Such scholarship, veering from the descriptive into the prescriptive, seeks to rescue the lost and oppressed voices of marginal groups and to defend them against the dictatorship of the official, mainstream culture.

     Erez Biton and the Andalusian Orchestra
Erez Biton and the Andalusian Orchestra
I encounter this view frequently in scholarly works that I translate. Right now I’m pondering it as I work on the introduction to a book on the poetry of Israel’s Mizrahim—that is, of Israeli Jews whose origins lie in the Arab world—by Yochai Oppenheimer, a poet and writer about poetry.

Indisputably, when Mizrahi Jews arrived in Israel in the great wave of immigration in the 1950s, they encountered a central Zionist culture that believed itself to represent the only viable future for the Jewish people. That culture rejected Jewish religious tradition, and drew considerable inspiration from modern Europe. It viewed the Orient, and its Jews in particular, as a backward and primitive place. Therefore, its leaders and doers were not, for the most part, interested in fostering or respecting the native culture of the new immigrants. Instead, it sought to assimilate the Arab Jews and make them into Hebrew-speaking moderns.

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Arab Poetry for Jews: Sasson Somekh

Haim Watzman “If we had soldiers read the poetry their enemies write, we could prevent war,” declared Haim Gouri , an old poet and an old soldier, at Jerusalem’s literary café Tmol Shilshom last night. Sasson Somekh, whose new memoir was the subject of the evening, smiled. While he was polite enough not to contradict … Read more

The Hermit of Oliphant — Dvora Baron

Haim Watzman

From Nextbook:

In “The Thorny Path,” the first story I ever read by Dvora Baron, a paralyzed woman lies propped up in bed before the display window of her husband’s photography studio in their Eastern European village. I read the story in 1981, two years after I moved to Israel. My Hebrew was weak, and I struggled with the early-twentieth-century prose of novelists like Micha Yosef Berdischevsky, Uri Nisan Gnessin, Yosef Haim Brenner, and Shmuel Yosef Agnon. At the time, none of them left a particular impression, except Baron, who conjured a protagonist, trapped in bed, looking out on a world she cannot join. It made for a haunting image.

Mousha’s paralysis has doomed her to experience the circle—as she calls the small radius of her sight—as if it were one of Nahum’s photos. The story takes place during the summer:

The doors in the houses of the “circle” have been opened, and the daily activities . . . have been moved out to the doorsteps. In the tavern across the street, the proprietress, Lipsha, chopped sorrel leaves on the kitchen steps . . . and Heniah Levin, dark and delicate, peeked from time to time at the fabric store, where her handsome husband, the city boy, worked.

A quarter of a century ago, I did not know that Mousha’s creator observed the world in much the same way. The only woman to be accepted into the canon of early-twentieth-century Hebrew literature and a central figure in the modern Hebrew literary renaissance and the literary life of Tel Aviv, Baron spent her last thirty-three years as a recluse. Until her death in 1956, she observed life from the window of her tiny apartment on Oliphant Street, around the corner from then-fading (now café-lined) Shenkin Street.

Read the rest on Nextbook

Read “The Thorny Path” on Nextbook

More links:

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Iton 77 at 31 Gets C+

Haim Watzman

Back in the 1980s, when I was still a relatively new reader of Hebrew, I picked up an anthology of short stories that had been published in Iton 77, a literary magazine that had commenced publication a year before my arrival in 1978. The journal had a good reputation and this book, I assumed, would help acquaint me with a spectrum of the writing talents of contemporary Israel.

I was sorely disappointed by what I read. While there were three or four gems, most of the stories seemed to me bland, self-consciously literary, and short of plot and character development. Nearly all were ponderously serious; few displayed any sense of humor.

But I was well aware then that I was a novice in my new language and suspected—indeed hoped—that I was missing something.

I’ve perused Iton 77 every so often since then, and picked up the latest issue to read on my recent trip to the U.S. The magazine is now Israel’s most venerable literary forum, but I’m sorry to say that, when it comes to prose, it hasn’t changed much. And it’s not my Hebrew.

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Is It Easier to Get Published in Hebrew?

Israeli book editors are less likely than their American counterparts to demand major manuscript changes of an author. For better or worse-and it’s both-that has been clear to me for a long time. And it was confirmed by four emerging novelists who spoke Wednesday night at Jerusalem’s Tmol Shilshom literary café in the framework of Jerusalem’s International Writers Festival.

As both a writer and an editor, I have mixed feelings about this. Like all writers, I get annoyed when an editor tells me that parts of my pieces are unnecessary or uninteresting and that other things are, in his or her opinion, missing. It’s no surprise that many authors reach out to self publishing companies to publish their own work to avoid the criticism of editors. Like all editors, I almost always see faults in manuscripts that come my way and believe that if my clients will take my advice, the works will be better. I had very productive and pleasant experiences with the editors of my two books, and I think the manuscripts were improved by their suggestions. But from the stories I hear, my experience is not necessarily typical.

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