Hot Off the Press: The Latest in Translated Israeli Lit

Summer is seeping away, the nights are getting longer, and the Jewish holidays are upon us as a rough year creeps into the home stretch… What better time to catch up on your reading, with a focus on some recently translated Israeli lit?

In the New York Times, Peter Orner reviews A.B. Yehoshua’s new novel, The Tunnel, translated by Stuart Schoffman, which focuses on a retired engineer dealing with the early stages of a dementia diagnosis. Orner draws a connection between protagonist Zvi’s deteriorating mental faculties and the political stagnation of contemporary Israeli society, and concludes that Yehoshua’s novel offers “great beauty,” rather than answers.

If you’re ready to venture from the established greats of Israeli literature to some exciting new voices, here comes a roundup of my recent translation projects, all available on Amazon and (hopefully) at other online and physical booksellers of your choice.

Avi Friede The Woman in the Reflection is another delightfully unclassifiable novel: a character study, a love story, and, as events gather momentum toward the novel’s conclusion, increasingly a page-turner as well. Friede’s protagonist Baruch is convinced he has been granted a direct line to a higher power, and that his likes and dislikes, and particularly any anger he directs at those around him, shape and determine people’s fate. Friede wisely lets his reader make the final decision on whether his hero is correct in his assumptions… Meanwhile, Baruch engages with two complex women with their own belief systems, defense mechanisms, hopes and fears, providing a satisfying glimpse into the lives of several unique characters as well as a complelling look at current Israeli society.

If you want to travel further afield, into more exotic realms, I can warmly recommend Eti Dayan’s memoir One of Them: My Life Among the Maasai of Kenya. Dayan enjoyed the rare privilege of living among the Massai in Africa for many years as a fellow villager and adopted family member, rather than a visitor or tourist. Her perspective on life among the Maasai, on dealing with cultural differences and on controversial issues such as female circumcision is insightful, candid, honest and very engaging, and the people with whom she interacts come alive as vivid, three-dimensional characters. One of Them provides a sharply written, enlightening and entertaining refuge from the reality currently outside our windows and on our TV screens.

Also in the realm of nonfiction is Ruth Dayan Wolfner’s The Karma Effect, a deep-dive into the topic of divorce from the unique perspective of a divorce lawyer. While Dayan Wolfner offers plenty of valuable legal tips, considerations and strategies to anyone dealing with divorce, her book is equally focused on the emotional aspects of this experience, delving into topics that include infidelity, the impact on kids, abuse of various kinds, second marriages and more. The Karma Effect includes many fascinating anecdotes from Dayan Wolfner’s impressive professional experience, all supporting her main thesis: in divorce, as in many other areas in life, karma’s a bitch, and has a way of ensuring you ultimately get what you give.

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Catch Up on Israeli Lit This Summer: My Recent Translation Projects

As we slip into summer and beach reads beckon, now seems an excellent time to recommend some of my recent literary translation projects, which cover quite a few of the many genres of contemporary Israeli fiction, and offer some good page-turning pleasures regardless of your bookish preferences.

I’ll start with the newest offering: Amos Talshir’s Sudden Lockdown is now available on Amazon. Like many of my favorite books, it doesn’t fit neatly into any genre niche, which is precisely what makes it fresh and unpredictable. This tale of a group of people trapped in a soccer stadium for longer than they ever expected following a global coupe of sorts is a thriller and a love story, an apocalyptic roller-coaster and a character study introducing its readers to a unique, well-rendered cast. It was a pleasure to work on, and it makes me happy that it’s now available to the larger readership it deserves.

If spy novels are your thing, Nathan Ronen’s Where Shadows Meet will deliver the merchandise. Offering another chapter in the daring adventures of Mossad operative Arik Bar Nathan, Shadows also provides an exotic international background focusing on intrigue within the Moroccan royal family, as well as a gritty, knowledgeable behind-the-scenes look at both Israeli politics and the inner workings and conflicts within Israeli intelligence agencies.

In contrast to the contemporary thrills of Ronen, Michal Aharoni Regev’s Doña Gracia’s Gold Pendant delves into the past, specifically sixteenth-century Spain, to present the life story of Doña Gracia Nasi, an extraordinary Jewish entrepreneur and visionary who steps up and takes groundbreaking, unconventional measures to help her people survive the mortal threat posed by the Spanish Inquisition. Aharoni Regev combines meticulous historical detail with the lighter pleasures of familial and romantic intrigue (Gracia’s tumultuous relationship with her sister Brianda is in itself worth the price of admission) to create a highly satisfying package.

In the months to come, keep your eyes open for Uzi Eilam’s forthcoming thriller, Trail of Blood (although titles sometimes change on the way to publication), which offers a rare feature in the field of espionage thrillers—two equally intriguing, complex and fully fleshed protagonists operating on either side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, united by an enduring childhood friendship while also torn apart by the contemporary political realities of the Middle East.

This is just a small selection of my recent literary translation projects. It’s worth exploring all of your favorite book-buying venues for other fine examples of literature in translation, from Israel and elsewhere…

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The Amazoning of Literary Translations

While I was previously aware of Amazon Crossing, Amazon’s literary translation venture, my recent first-hand encounter with it as a reader significantly increased my interest level. I recently read Yuri Machkasov’s exceptional translation from the Russian of Mariam Petrosyan’s unique gem The Gray House, which I whole-heartedly recommend to anyone who loves immersive, obsession-forming, sui generis books—really, to anyone who loves books.

Not surprisingly, Amazon Crossing has quickly become a force to be reckoned with in the field of literary translation, as its parent company has done in so many other areas. Detroit Free Press reports that in 2016, it accounted for 10% of all translations, more than any other publishing house. In 2015, Three Percent’s translation blog reported that the number of AmazonCrossing’s translated titles tripled the number of those published by the next press on the list, Dalkey Archive.

Amazon’s growing monopoly in so many fields tends to evoke strong emotions. The Amazon Crossing program has been criticized for allocating projects by encouraging translators to bid against each other (a sadly prevalent model in the translation world in general). In contrast, in Detroit Free Press, translator Marian Schwartz praises Amazon for its editorial process and quality control, stating, “I’ve never been better edited … They’re absolute sticklers.”

AmazonCrossing’s bestsellers include The Hangman’s Daughter, a historical German-language series by Oliver Pötzsch and The Glassblower Trilogy, by Petra Durst-Benning. The publishing venture’s offerings include a broad variety of source languages and genres. Translations from Hebrew include books by Anat Talshir, Sara Aharoni and Smadar Herzfeld.

Any venture that makes international literature accessible and appealing to American and other English-speaking audiences is definitely a step in the right direction, especially when considering the immense amount of resources still left untapped in terms of worthy foreign-language books that deserve to be translated by qualified, passionate, and often underemployed translators…

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Can’t read it in Hebrew? Watch it on Netflix

Netflix’s recent spate of international offerings includes an adaptation of Israeli author Amir Gutfreund’s Heroes Fly For Her, titled “When Heroes Fly.” The series appears to be rather loosely based on Gutfreund’s book, focusing on a rescue plot that takes up only 50 pages or so in the original 600-plus page epic, which covers decades of Israeli history, from the Six Day War to the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, through the perspectives of a group of childhood friends from Haifa. Character names and descriptions, the details of the rescue plot, the timeline of events and many additional details have also been changed in the adaptation from page to small screen.

Critical reception for the show has been largely positive. Haaretz notes, “It’s not the best Israeli show ever, for sure, but it is one of the most ambitious,” and compares it to the critically lauded and beloved show “Faluda.” The series has an IMDB score of 7.4 and a 100% Audience Score on Rotten Tomatoes. Israeli production company Keshet is already working on a second season, and an American version is also in the works.

Alas, Gutfreud’s Heroes Fly For Her has yet to be translated into English, but some of his other works, including the novels Our Holocaust and The World a Moment Later, both translated by Jessica Cohen, as well as the mystery/thriller Last Bullet Calls It, translated by Yardenne Greenspan and Evan Fallenberg, are available on Amazon and elsewhere.

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Maccabees in Space: Celebrate Star Wars and Hanukkah in one fell swoop

If you’re one of the many breathlessly anticipating the opening of Star Wars: The Force Awakens this Friday, December 18 (I happen to be married to one of them), here’s a little tidbit to tide you over.

Continuing a grand tradition that stretches all the way back to Mel Brooks’ Spaceballs and “May the Schwartz be with you,” traces the sometimes elusive path between Jediism and Judaism, pausing along the way to ponder the similarity between two bands of rebels fighting an evil empire in a time and place far, far away (one of whom is, of course, the Maccabees, whose rebellion against the Seleucid Empire is celebrated every Hanukkah), the linguistic connection between Yoda and Yiddish, and the various parallels (some more tenuous than others) between the concept of the Force and other tenants of the Jedi universe, and the principles of Kabbalah. Enjoy!

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Death of the Author: Israeli writer Amir Gutfreund passes away at age 52

Haaretz and The Times of Israel both pay tribute to Israeli author Amir Gutfreund, who passed away in late November after a battle with cancer, at the age of 52. Gutfreund is best known for his book Our Holocaust, narrated with humor and sensitivity from the perspective of two children of Holocaust survivors. Our Holocaust was translated into English, French and German.

In 2003, Gutfreund was the recipient of the Sapir Prize, Israel’s equivalent of the Man Booker Prize, for his story collection The Shoreline Mansions. Gutfreund donated a significant portion of the 150,000 NIS prize to a nonprofit organization focused on aiding foreign workers in Israel, stating his legacy as a child of Holocaust survivors has granted him “sensitivity to people without rights, defenseless and hopeless.”

Gutfreund was also the screenwriter for the Israeli TV show “Hostages,” purchased by CBS and BBC4, which produced American and British versions of the show.

The Times of Israel also talks to Jessica Cohen, Gutfreund’s translator into English, about her initial reaction to Our Holocaust, which she first encountered while browsing in an Israeli bookstore: “I thought it was incredible. Even ten years ago there was a feeling of what could you possibly read about the Holocaust that hadn’t been written, but his was really, really different.”

Cohen also talks about the unique challenges of translating the book, which include a child’s narrative and multiple voices, and characterizes the writer as opinionated about and invested in the translation, describing a back-and-forth exchange which included hundreds of emails.

Cohen describes Gutfreund as a “genuine, caring man. No matter what he was going through, he wanted to know how we were.”

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I shot the Pharaoh – Passover the Bob Marley way

Here’s something to float in your Matzoh Ball soup – the new Bob Marley Haggadah, a clever effort from Nathan Phillips, of the SS+K ad agency, aided by designer Jessica Stewart (or, as she’s listed on the Bob Marley Passover website, “Jessica Stewart, Shiksa.”)

The Bob Marley Haggadah gives you all the info you need to conduct your Passover Seder, including all essential rituals and the Hebrew prayers transliterated into English, while also indulging in constant irreverent banter and some gratuitous Morrissey bashing, and ending with the full lyrics to R. Kelly’s “I Believe I Can Fly.”

As a wee sampler, here is what Bob Marley Passover has to say about the addition of an orange to the traditional Seder plate:

THE ORANGE, is a modern addition to the seder plate. When women were first becoming rabbis, a lady named Susannah Heschel was traveling in Florida, the Land of Oranges. One night she spoke at a synagogue about the emerging equality of women in Jewish life. After she spoke, a fat annoying man stood up and said in the nasal voice of a dick, “A woman belongs on the bimah as much as an orange belongs on the seder plate!”

Ever since that day, we place an orange on the seder plate, as a big f*ck you to haters everywhere. At Bob Marley Passover, we use a gay orange as a way to remember that absolutely everybody should have a place at the table.

 You can read and download the whole Haggadah here. Happy Pessach, everyone!

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Welcome a new literary equal-opportunity offender

The Canadian Jewish News has a good story about Shani Boianjiu, the new literary phenom whose recent novel, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid (Random House), tracks several young women throughout and in the aftermath of their service in the Israeli Defense Forces. Boianjiu, 25, has already been published in the New Yorker and received the U.S. National Book Foundation’s Top 5 Under 35 Award in 2011. Her book has garnered plenty of critical attention, mostly positive, and has apparently already managed to offend both pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian readers – always a good sign, as the author herself acknowledges in the interview.

Boianjiu is now facing the interesting challenge of creating, in collaboration with a translator, a Hebrew translation for her book, originally written in English:

Some of the charm in the book is the way the English words are used, she said. “You have to find different ways to convey the same type of playfulness.” She said she’s a bit nervous for the Hebrew translation’s release, mostly because she is embarrassed to have her family and friends read it.

I’m also intrigued by the critiques leveled against her for the portrayal of men in her story, described as “almost incidental characters, just there for the women’s pleasure, and many of them die early and violently.” I can see how that might be offensive, since I can’t think of a single literary or artistic work where the women are the incidental providers of male pleasure, conveniently disposed of through early, gory deaths – can you?

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The New Online Dictionaries: More Options, Less Paper Cuts

Ha’aretz – bless its heart – maps the rise of online dictionaries at the expense of their long-suffering paper counterparts. The article focuses on Morfix, an online resource which I personally haven’t used much yet, but which apparently has some useful and nifty features, including stemming, which reduces inflected words to their roots, allowing users to enter any form of a verb or noun and receive a definition; vocalization, spelling corrections and related word suggestions; and links to relevant Wikipedia articles in Hebrew and English for proper nouns.

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Israeli Readers Join the Grey Wave

Reader Mechell first informed us of the impending Hebrew edition of mega-S&M-hit Fifty Shades of Grey a few weeks ago, and now, the inevitable is upon us: Virtual Jerusalem reports that the first Hebrew edition of the first volume in the Grey trilogy has sold out, fueled (if any fuel was necessary) by a major promotional blitz by publisher Yediot Books.

So, apparently, in case you had any doubts, Mommy Porn is just as appealing when read right-to-left as it is when read left-to-right.

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