That was the subject of an intriguing discussion I led yesterday at a session of a course in Hebrew literature in translation taught by my friend Adam Rovner at Denver University. (Adam has a vested interest in Hebrew literature in translation since his wife, Jessica Cohen, is responsible for many of the finest translations of Israeli literature available to the English-speaking public.) In preparation for the class, the students read two texts. The first was Etgar Keret‘s short story “Cocked and Locked,”about an Israeli soldier being mocked by a Palestinian rebel at a guard post. The second was “Wimps,” Chapter Five of Company C, my memoir of my service over nearly two decades in an Israeli infantry unit.
“Wimps,” like Keret’s story, portrays Israeli soldiers facing off against Palestinians in the territories. In the case of my chapter, it’s the height of the First Intifada in 1988. As well as chronicling how my unit coped with the challenges and moral issues presented by the Palestinian uprising, my chapter explores the relationship between army service and masculinity. Continue reading
“Are you a professor?” asked the woman sitting next to me on the plane from Israel to New York. She’d been eyeing my laptop screen on and off for most of the flight, as I did a final polish on my translation of Israel and the Cold War, a punctiliously-researched tome by Joseph Heller of the Hebrew University. Heller’s the professor, I’m the translator. He spent years sifting through the dark corners of archives around the world to gather the material in his book. I get the glory of being thought a historian without having looked at a single document.
Yes, I write my own books, but try buying groceries with that. My family gets fed thanks to books that other people write, people who need my help to present their ideas to the public. Sometimes I translate in the simple sense of the word—that is, recast a Hebrew work in English. But the specific niche I’ve developed over the years is that of translator/editor, or perhaps bilingual book doctor would be a better term. That means I don’t just transfer prose from one language to another but also help the author rewrite the book.
Of course, the substance remains that of the scholar. But substance needs presentation. I feel privileged to have helped bring the work of Israeli scholars before the English-speaking world while making them more reader-friendly books than they would otherwise have been.
While it’s hardly ideal, the pressures are such that I often work on two or three book translations or edits at the same time, alongside my own writing. Right now I’m translating a book on the Mossad by Ronen Bergman of the newspaper Yediot Aharonot, and a book about Eliezer Gruenbaum, a Jewish Communist who became a kapo at Auschwitz, by the historian Tuvia Friling.
On top of that, I’m editing the English version of one of the Israeli publication phenomena of the past year. Yuval Noah Harari’s history of the world, from humankind’s evolution in Africa to the present day, has been a bestseller in Hebrew. It’s based on the survey course he teaches, which has become one of the university’s most popular classes.
Harari’s book covers a lot of ground that I’ve written about in my career as a journalist covering research and science, so as I edit I disagree, debate, and argue points with him. Like most of my clients, Harari appreciates this deep involvement in his work. I am, of course, an amateur scholar, not a real one, so it’s the client who makes the final decisions about the book’s ideas and arguments. But it’s a real pleasure to engage in disputations with my authors.
And, of course, I learn a great deal in the process. Almost enough to be taken for a professor myself.
My Dad and I never watched the Superbowl together. Nor the NBA championships, the World Cup, or the World Series. In my family, the only person who watched sports on television was my grandmother, who never missed an Indians or Browns game. So I grew up with a warped sense of manhood. Watching guys throw balls around was for old ladies. My Dad and I did our small-screen-mediated male bonding on election night.
So I’m happy to report that when this post appears I’ll be on my way from Jerusalem to Denver to spend my first election night with Dad in more than three decades. Tuesday night he and I will be munching pizza and popcorn as we watch the returns come in and tally electoral votes and Senate seats.
Dad, a longtime newspaper reporter, was my first coach in political analysis, as well as in writing. His politics are liberal Democrat; his style is terse, simple, and to the point (he would disapprove of the previous semicolon and these parentheses). So it’s not surprising that I occasionally try my hand at political satire. At its best, it’s a genre that forces readers think about their beliefs in a new way. Furthermore, it can help those of us jaded by the horserace coverage that all too often passes for political journalism to remember that politics is as much a necessary part of our lives as love is, and that it’s important that we get both right.
That’s what I tried to do in my latest “Necessary Stories” piece, published in the current issue of the Jerusalem Report. Called “Persuasion,” it’s a love story in the style of Jane Austen, set in the run-up to the current election.
The Jerusalem Report has given me a platform that few writers enjoy and for which I’m extremely grateful (especially to Eetta Price-Gibson, who offered me the perch during her tenure as editor of the magazine). Once each month I get three pages where I can write whatever I want—memoir, satire, or short story. As I’ve transitioned in recent years from writing journalism and non-fiction into writing fiction, it’s given me a place to experiment with subjects and techniques. Some of my Necessary Stories are funny, some sad, some wistful. By arrangement with the magazine, they are also available in full on my blog, South Jerusalem.
If you like the latest one, you might also sample “Plane Story,” about an encounter with strangers and storytelling on a Delta flight, and “Bananas,” a tale from the immigrant camp that used to occupy the part of Holon where some of my in-laws live. I also recommend “Winter” and “Spring,” the first two installments in a quartet of army stories collectively called Duties of the Heart. “Summer” and “Autumn” are too long for my three pages in the Report and are currently seeking homes elsewhere.
Don’t tell Dad about all those ridiculously long sentences in “Persuasion.” He’d give me a stern lecture on style and we might miss some key returns and projections.