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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The Rules of the Tubs: The Novelist as Ethnographer

Haim Watzman

Plastic tubs have rules, Ronit Matalon told us last night at a reading at Tmol Shilshom, Jerusalem’s leading literary café. There’s the tub that’s used to soak the semolina and the tub that’s used for baths and many other tubs, and they are not interchangeable. Her new novel, The Sound of Our Footsteps, is a remembrance of childhood in a mother-led family in shack in a poor Israeli neighborhood fifty years ago. And it’s about a little girl learning the unspoken rules of female existence.

Tamar El-Or, the anthropologist who emceed the evening (and for whom I’ve translated three books), presented Matalon’s book as a piece of ethnography—the kind of material that anthropologists collect when they observe a society or culture. Novelists have much more freedom in how to present their material, El-Or noted, but fundamentally the process of observation and the act of telling are shared by the scholar and the writer. Both seek to understand and relate the rules and stories by which society operates.

The unwritten rules by which a family operates—the division of tasks, whether traditional or not; the use of spaces; the chain of command—all these must be accepted and observed by all parties if the family is to function and provide the security and sustenance that families are to provide. Of course, the rules are always being challenged, and sometimes the attempt to observe the rules in the face of challenges can lead to scenes that seem quite logical from the inside but absurd from the outside.

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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

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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