Showing posts with label translate this book. Show all posts
Showing posts with label translate this book. Show all posts

Monday, August 13, 2018

WITMonth Day 13 | "The Option" | Translate This Book

I never seem to start with the right book. Author Yael Neeman became a bestselling, household name author in 2011, with the novel We Were the Future that details the lives of children coming of age in a Kibbutz (autobiographic, by all accounts). Yet when a collection of her short stories became available a few years later, that was, for some odd reason, the book that I ended up buying and reading. And liking.

It's hard to review short story collections, particularly when those collections were written in another language and I have little with which to describe them. How can I explain that despite my notoriously terrible memory, the first story (which translates to "Barrenness") has lingered with me for literal years? How can I explain that Neeman's writing has an edge to it that is simultaneously brilliantly sharp, but also delightfully light?

I'll say this, briefly: I didn't love all of the stories in The Option (כתובת אש). There were a few that I skimmed through, because they tired me. But even as some of the stories didn't jive well with my personal style, they were all interesting and Neeman managed to avoid that oh-so-frustrating pitfall that many single-author collections have by creating a series of truly distinct stories. Some of the stories are heartbreaking, some are melancholic, some are whimsically tragic, some are just weird, and some are, yes, forgettable. Overall, though, she creates a truly enjoyable, well-written collection. It makes me want to read We Were the Future as soon as I can get my hands on it, to experience what was supposed to have been my introduction to a talented writer's works. It makes me want to read her latest work, just recently released. I've got what to look forward to.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Translate this book | Amilam by Hila Arazi-Hatav

I've got to say, this one surprised me. I bought it years ago at Hebrew Book Week, I think to complete a 1+1 sort of deal, something purchased in the early days of my WIT awakening. It languished on my shelves until now, and honestly I don't think I ever really processed what the book was supposed to be about. It existed, barely, at the corner of my awareness. But TGBBBOT means that I'm reading a lot more "forgotten" titles from my shelves, and so it came to be that I read Hila Arazi-Hatav's Amilam. And liked it a lot.

This is a novel split into two voices, but they're rather surprising ones at that. The narration begins with Leah, mother of two, whose life feels like it's beginning to fray at the edges. Leah's husband, Yoel, is on a prolonged business trip after months of difficult unemployment, hoping to find redemption at a foreign conference. Leah narrates her troubled thoughts to the husband that isn't there, increasingly exhausted by the strain of her mother's Alzheimer's and a sudden, unexpected pregnancy. Thrown into the mix is her older daughter Noa, the second narrator, who seems to also be slipping off the grid lately. Noa disappears for hours, is distracted at school, and seems disconnected from reality.

But as Noa's narration begins to match her mother's, it becomes clear that Noa is not simply a lazy, delinquent 12-year old, rather she is singularly concerned with keeping her grandmother healthy so that the "cousins" from Paris - twin brothers, one of whom molested Noa several times on their previous visit - have no reason to come. Noa's fear for her grandmother Elsa's health leads her to take on increasingly drastic measures, from having her best friend pretend to be Elsa's long-dead son (Noa's uncle) in order to convince Elsa to take her medication, to grinding up pills and mixing them in with the sugar, to coming up with plans for a "trap" for whichever of the brothers it is that might come into Noa's bedroom at night.

The tone, unsurprisingly, switches fairly drastically between Noa and Leah, though the stakes remain high in both cases. Noa, unlike her mother, is not unraveling quite as much as she is fighting a losing war. Her concerns jump from caring for her grandmother to whether her class will win the soccer game against the other class. She misses her father, vaguely, but seems to have no comprehension of communicating with her parents (and from Leah's end, it becomes clear that Leah and Yoel have little idea how to communicate with Noa). For Leah, as much as things are crumbling, she manages to keep a fairly firm grasp. Yet on the inside, she describes a sense of loss and confusion, abandonment and hopelessness.

The writing style for both narrators is simple, though in different ways. Noa thinks in simple terms, rarely getting too wrapped up in her own thoughts, but often looping back to the same concepts and thoughts. Leah is the opposite, imagining herself talking to her too-absent husband (and though this business trip is fairly short, it seems to represent a wider gap in her marriage that she simply doesn't know how to explain), wrapped up intensely in a widening range of contemplations. Both styles feel very conversational without being simplified. Later in the book, as Noa begins to narrate semi-fictional accounts of Elsa's past to her, Noa also switches to narrating to her grandmother. The shift leads to a slight change in style, accordingly, with the greater complexity suggesting that Noa has absorbed some of how these stories were told to her.

It's difficult for me to say what it is that works so well about Amilam. It's not that this is the most original story, yet it feels fresh. It's not the most original writing technique, yet it ends up working remarkably well. Amilam didn't win any awards and I imagine has largely been forgotten by Israeli readers. Yet I liked it, a lot. Part of it may have to do with the fact that I just recently lost my own grandmother to Alzheimer's and pieces of Leah/Noa's experiences rang too true. Part of it may have to do with the way the book made me feel very strongly for both Leah and Noa; by the end of the book, I just wanted to hug both of them and yell at them "TALK TO EACH OTHER".

This is a novel that takes place over an intense week, but it digs deep into its characters. It's the sort of book that has carved out a little corner in my mind, and I've been turning it over over the past day since I finished reading it. I think it could very well do the same for other readers.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

WITMonth Day 27 | "And the Bride Closed the Door" by Ronit Matalon

It's been a whole, long WITMonth... and I haven't spoken about an Israeli writer yet. Let's talk a bit about Ronit Matalon, shall we? Bit really... only a bit.

See, I first encountered Ronit Matalon with The Sound of Their Steps, which came strongly recommended by a bookseller. I... didn't love it, mostly for the style, but it was undoubtedly good literature. Fast forward a few years, and And the Bride Closed the Door comes out. It is short, crisp, and good. Subtly political. Wholly personal. Emotionally engagimg. Quietly revolutionary. This is a novella that has a little bit of everything to it, in mostly the right amounts (a few jokes about a clearly queer cousin fall very flat) - a bride who abruptly announces that she's not getting married (day of), family trauma, love, obligation, poetry and more.

My favorite part is the balance between personal and political. Unlike The Soumd of Their Steps, in which the politics felt very direct, here they sneak in gently, while tackling similar themes of class and ethnicity. The difference in length also makes a difference, with And the Bride Closed the Door raising more issues than it claims to solve.

I promised a brief review, so here it is: Here is a novella that well deserves a home in English (and other languages). Remember it.

Friday, August 15, 2014

WITMonth Day 15 - Translate these books

It would be strange of me to go through a whole month discussing women writers in translation without also talking about those women writers I don't actually read in translation, but don't read in English either. To be honest, I haven't actually read very many books by Israeli women, a curiosity which I've been trying to understand and explore over the past few months.

I've started to fix that recently, and though this list won't be particularly long (because I have not had the opportunity to truly dig deep), I thought I'd highlight a couple interesting and or particularly translation-worthy books.

The first is the inaugural (and thus far only) title in the "translate this book" tag - Bella Shaier's Children's Mate. This collection of three stories is absolutely brilliantly written, and casts such a fascinating light on different aspects of Israeli and immigrant societies. Feel free to check out my full recommendation for more.

The second is a book I'm not sure I'd define as having liked, but it was very interesting, particularly in the portrait it painted of a younger, less traditional Israel - Kinneret Rosenbloom's Loves' Story (I've seen references to other possible English titles, so please take this with a grain of salt). It's a novel unlike most translated into English - it's not a post-modern musing, nor is it a political piece. This is the sort of book I could easily see translating well, not least because much of its approach and style is very Anglo, while its attitude is purely Israeli (and purely Tel Aviv Israeli at that). I had several issues with it as a novel (and with certain stylistic and thematic choices I could not for the life of me understand the need to include), but it was the sort of book that clung to me and kept me hooked throughout.

Next up is a recent release - Inverted Cry, by Celine Assayag. Inverted Cry is the latest in a long line of Israeli child-of-immigrant stories, always emerging just as that generation is coming into its own adulthood. In this case, we have Assayag's presentation of the poverty of Bat Yam (a city near Tel Aviv) in the 1970s (when she herself would have grown up). The story is loose and messy at times, with certain scenes and incidents happening in ways that don't always make sense, and small inconsistencies that I simply couldn't figure out. But its core is very, very good. There's a lot of sharp social commentary, and an important presentation of underrepresented portions of Israeli society. Assayag doesn't shy away from discussing the actual impact of immigration either, with constant references to the previous life in Egypt, and parallel family in France.

Finally, I'd like to address a few authors whose books I personally did not enjoy very much, but who have achieved great acclaim in Israel without getting translated into English. These include women like Lea Aini, whose novel Lebanon Rose was a little drawn-out for my taste, but was quickly lauded in Israel by almost all critics, or Ronit Matalon's The Sound of our Steps (which deals with themes very similar to those in Inverted Cry, yet predates it by several years) which was recognized as one of the best Israeli books of the decade. We also have authors I have enjoyed (like Gail Hareven), who had one book translated into English (to great acclaim, I should add) and none of her other brilliant works touched.

And then there are hundreds of other Israeli women writers I simply haven't gotten around to. Yes, Hebrew is generally overrepresented in translations relative to the population, but if we're already going to be translating so much out of it, I would love to see more of our brilliant women writers getting the stage as well.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Translate This Book | Children's Mate by Bella Shaier

Background: Children's Mate by Bella Shaier is an Israeli book originally published in 2011 by the New Library. It's comprised of three stories: the eponymous opening novella "Children's Mate", a shorter novella "Galit and Gordon", and finally a short story "Double".

What it's about: The main story is the opening novella, itself a collection of five stories that follow a group of children in a Soviet apartment complex. The stories are fairly independent of each other (with recurring characters, and the shared complex of course), but together form a fascinating and touching portrait of childhood (and particularly Jewish childhood) in the Soviet Union. "Galit and Gordon" tells the story of an Israeli couple across decades, presenting a perspective on class, race, and love. "Double", meanwhile, tackles immigration and position, as well as aging and disability... all in the span of ten pages.

Why it deserves to be translated: Children's Mate is a curiously broad book. It has an interesting story continuity, from the early pages which deal with childhood (indeed, specifically early childhood, with none of our children passing age six), to the middle story which looks at an unlikely and passive couple from early adulthood through to middle age, and finally to an older woman whose struggles make her position almost as precarious as that of a child's. More interesting is the fact that each of these stories centers around a different status of character - children (particularly of Jewish origin) in the Soviet Union, ordinary Israeli adults in Tel Aviv, and Russian new immigrant to Israel who speaks neither the language nor sees particularly well, instead forced to rely on others to get by.

Truth be told, it's the two outside stories that deserve more attention. "Galit and Gordon" is a familiar sort of story about relationships and growth, but with an interesting background about Israeli culture clashes that still doesn't make the story quite enough to justify translation on its own. However, the truly brilliant "Children's Mate" does, and I think that's the sort of story that can belong anywhere.

"Children's Mate" is fascinating for a number of reasons. First and foremost, it does an excellent job of getting in the mind of its child characters, without making those either unnaturally precocious or simplistically unrealistic. The kids sound and think like children their age would, misunderstanding adults and struggling with new realizations just as I remember from my own childhood. Shaier finds a fantastic balance between telling the children's stories and showing us the grown-up world around them, revealing to us painful adult truths through the eyes of those who don't fully understand the consequences yet.

Shaier's particular emphasis on Jewish children is especially revealing - we see a series of small incidents with small Jewish children living in a coldly anti-Semitic Soviet Union, sometimes recognizing incidents as what they are, sometimes misconstruing them as children often do. One of the little girls at some point mulls over the differences between the different Jewish children in the building, noting her luck that unlike a different character, her parents don't speak Yiddish to each other and so her Jewishness isn't apparent to the other children.

Finally, "Double" tells a frank, painful story about a new immigrant in Israel, facing struggles at home with her son-in-law (whose decision to move to Israel essentially forced her out of her home), struggles with learning a new language, struggles with her deteriorating eyesight, and ultimately a fundamental struggle leading a normal life. In ten precise pages, Shaier presents an entire world rarely given much attention - that of the immigrant who has not successfully integrated into Israeli society. This story works best understanding Israeli demands of integration (and a generational expectation when it comes to language and culture), but I think it stands alone as an excellent assessment of immigration struggles, as well as aging.

Translate this book! Children's Mate is a wonderfully written book, spanning topics and generations and issues. It's interesting, intelligent and does not rely too much on a certain cultural understanding, while simultaneously introducing readers to different ideas and worlds. The writing is consistently clear, with a style that adjusts subtly according to the type of story - childlike in "Children's Mate", coolly mature in "Galit and Gordon", and quietly uncertain in "Double". This is an excellent example of Israeli literature, well-deserving of a wider audience and greater appreciation.