Jessica Cohen in Conversation with Ricardo Maldonado

Over the past decade, you have worked to bring David’s words into English--two novellas, essays and talks, a novel and now Falling Out of Time—what drew you, initially, as reader and translator, to his work? Did it speak, then, to your own concerns and preoccupations—does it still?

When I was first asked to translate a book by David Grossman, in 2003, I was in the early stages of my literary translation career, and I was so excited and flattered that I probably would have been happy to translate his shopping list! But having come to know David’s work intimately over the past several years, I’ve been moved and amazed by his sensitive portrayals of the conflicting emotions we all experience, and by his ability to create complex, flawed, realistic characters. As an Israeli, I am drawn to the themes and backdrops in many of David’s books, and I appreciate his frank criticisms of Israeli policies (although I find it hard to share his fundamental optimism). But beyond specifically Israeli concerns, I am simply struck by how well he seems to understand the mechanisms of human emotion. The ways his characters respond to each other and to events are interesting precisely because they illustrate the commonalities between people.

Two of the books I’ve translated (one of the novellas comprising Her Body Knows, and the novel To the End of the Land) are written from a female perspective, which is a risky undertaking for a male writer. But Grossman pulls it off remarkably well, and I think his willingness to step fully into the mind and body of a character so different from himself, and to do so naturally and without any condescension, is one of his extraordinary skills. It is also significant that both To the End of the Land and the new book, Falling Out of Time, are centered around the experience of parenting. I think that my experience translating these books, and my ability to truly penetrate the text, were enhanced (although also complicated) by the birth of my own daughter just over four years ago. To the End of the Land depicts the nuances of family life in intricate detail, and shows how intense the parent-child relationship can be. In Falling Out of Time, the loss of a child is explored so achingly that it must affect any reader, but perhaps it resonates particularly with parents.

Were you previously acquainted with the traveled geography of To the End of the Land and Falling Out of Time? Were you able to consult David during the course of your labor?

I grew up mostly in Israel and did a lot of hiking on school and youth movement trips, so I’m familiar with the landscapes depicted in To the End of the Land, which takes place mostly in the Galilee. The protagonists of the book follow the “Israel National Trail” (which traverses Israel from the northern border with Lebanon all the way south), and that was not yet complete when I left Israel, in 1997. The novel has a very vivid sense of place, making the natural surroundings almost a separate character. Ora, the main character, is drawn to the open expanses of the Galilee in her attempt to escape the confinement of her home and her inner world. It was important to me to reproduce the many descriptions of specific landmarks, as well as fauna and flora, to give English-language readers that same sense of place, but I tried not to burden them with too many unfamiliar names. I did consult David on these questions, as well as on many other issues throughout the book. He has always been extremely accessible and patient with my queries. He is in fact known by his translators for being extraordinarily approachable and for taking a keen interest in the translation process, but also being respectful of the translator’s judgment.

One of the interesting challenges of the new book, Falling Out of Time, was that it takes place in a fictional time and place. Although there are landscape descriptions, and the physical terrain plays a key part in some of the scenes, it is a setting created entirely in the author’s imagination. In some ways this gave me more freedom, yet it also made it more difficult to accurately transpose the Hebrew images from the author’s mind into an English equivalent. 

You’ve translated verse and prose throughout your career. Does each genre perform distinct claims on your strategy and craft? And how did you navigate David’s genre fluctuations in Falling Out of Time?

I have translated almost exclusively prose (fiction and non-fiction), and that is definitely where I feel most comfortable. In fact, I was somewhat reluctant to take on the translation of Falling Out of Time. I felt daunted by the prospect of translating poetry, where the weight of each single word is so much greater than it is in a long work of prose. But I benefited from a generous (in fact, non-existent) deadline, which allowed me to approach the translation from several different angles until I found the one that worked, and gave me the freedom to take as much time as I needed to write and rewrite, and rewrite again. I had advice and encouragement from David himself, as well as from his agent, Deborah Harris, and the editor at Knopf, Deborah Garrison, who is herself a poet and a wonderful poetry editor. An early draft was read by my friend Adriana Jacobs, a gifted poet and translator. When I first started working with David, he gave me some very valuable advice, which was to read my translation aloud before doing a final revision. He even recommended going out of my office to a fresh location for this reading. I’ve followed this advice ever since with all my translations, and I found it particularly helpful with Falling Out of Time, where the sound and rhythm of the lines are such a critical part of its effect.

What are you translating now—and whose work should we be reading?

I’ve been translating a lot of short stories and excerpts recently – in part because authors and their agents are struggling to find US publishers willing to publish translations. This is frustrating because there is so much good writing coming out of Israel now, and I’d like these new and original voices to reach English-language readers. But it’s given me an opportunity to translate a broad variety of material, and I’m hopeful that at least some of these writers will get picked up by US publishers. I recently worked with a young Israeli writer named Moshe Sakal on excerpts from his brand-new novel, which will probably be called The Diamond Setter in English (in Hebrew: Ha’Tsoref). It’s a beautiful story, based partly on Sakal’s own family history. The novel’s intertwined narratives span from present-day Tel-Aviv to late twentieth-century Syria and Lebanon. I’ve also done some great short stories by Roy Chen, a talented young playwright, translator (into Hebrew) and writer who has an amazing dexterity with language. His stories, collected in a book called Tel Aviv Tales (Tel Shel Aviv) involve a very original juxtaposition of mundane settings and downtrodden characters alongside fantastical, often sublime occurrences. Yael Ne’eman, whose 2011 novel about her kibbutz upbringing made a big splash in Israel, has a new book of short stories (entitled Ktovet Esh in Hebrew), some of which I’ve translated. I love her sense of humor and her stark, often uncomfortably direct depictions of life in Israel. I’m looking forward to starting work soon on a new novel by Dorit Rabinyan (whose previous two books were very successful in English). Her newest novel, not even out yet in Hebrew, is an engrossing story of a passionate love affair between a young Jewish Israeli woman and a Palestinian man who meet in New York, far removed from the tensions that would make their relationship all but impossible in their homeland.

A handful of books translated from Hebrew have been published in the last year. Especially interesting and enjoyable are Shemi Zarhin’s Some Day, translated by Yardenne Greenspan, and Dror Burstein’s Netanya, translated by Todd Hasak-Lowy. Both are very original novels rendered into English by wonderful translators.

Jessica Cohen is a freelance translator based in Denver. Born in England and raised in Jerusalem, she translates contemporary Israeli fiction, nonfiction and poetry, as well as commercial material from and into Hebrew. Her published translations include David Grossman's award-winning To the End of the Land, as well as critically-acclaimed works by Yael Hedaya, Ronit Matalon, Amir Gutfreund and Tom Segev. This interview was conducted after the publication of her translation of Falling Out of Time.

Issue 14

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