An Interview with Evan Fallenberg

Marcela Sulak


Evan Fallenberg coordinates the fiction track of the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing, and teaches in the creative writing MFA program at City University of Hong Kong.  He is the author of two award-winning novels, Light Fell (2008) and When We Danced on Water (2011). He has translated novels, plays, libretti, and scripts for television and film and his translations have won a National Jewish Book Award, a PEN Translation Prize, and a Times Literary Supplement Prize for the Translation of Hebrew Literature.

Marcela Sulak directs the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing and teaches poetry and American literature. She is the author of two collections of poetry, Immigrant (2010) and Of All The Things That Don’t Exist, I Love You Best (2008). She has translated three collections of poetry from Habsburg Bohemia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Her Czech translations have been used in animated films and as subtitles in the Czech National Theater.

Evan Fallenberg and Marcela Sulak met at La Bonne Patisserie in Tel Aviv one afternoon in February 2012.

Marcela Sulak: What made you begin doing literary translation? I began in the Czech Republic, and then in other places, as a survival technique, as a way of learning the language and becoming immersed in a new culture. But you already knew Hebrew well by the time you started translating, and were already well integrated into Israeli culture and society.

Evan Fallenberg: I rarely admit it, but I had an early bout with translation when I worked at the Government Press Office in the late 1980s, translating for foreign correspondents. It was torture, because my Hebrew was so limited, but it certainly helped me get my bearings quickly. I didn’t begin translating literature for another dozen years.

MS: What was the first literary work you ever translated?

EF: One of the first novels I translated was Alon Hilu’s Death of a Monk. I was asked to submit a short sample, but as I read the first pages, I understood nothing. Nothing! I felt as if I were encountering a new language with only occasional wisps of comprehension. I sat with a friend to get the gist of what was going on. I met with the author. Then I translated the pages and got the contract.

MS: It was a competition?

EF: Yes. And it turned out to be the most difficult book I would ever do. A good friend called it my doctorate.

MS: What was it about the book that is so difficult? Is it also difficult for native speakers of Hebrew?

EF: The syntax is unique, the punctuation sparse, the vocabulary rich and antiquated and fanciful. Hilu made up words, which I then did as well. His paragraphs were single sentences and could run as long as a page—a characteristic I copied, albeit resorting to semi-colons on four occasions. And since the narrator was speaking in 1899, I limited myself to words that entered the English language only before that date.

MS: That does sound daunting. When you are not working on a text by Hilu, what are the challenges specific to translating from Hebrew into English?

EF: You mean, as opposed to from other languages into English?

MS: Yes.

EF: The fact there are so few verb tenses in Hebrew and so many in English means you have to decipher which tenses to use in English from the context. Also, there are some five times as many words in English as Hebrew, so Hebrew writers often get away with using the same word over and over or in differing forms where an English writer must search for synonyms. And there are certain words, like nirgash or nivhal, that I seem to translate differently every time they appear.

MS: In translating Hebrew, I’m finding tone difficult. In Hebrew, there are no contractions, are there?

EF: No.

MS: So, when I’m translating, I’m not sure when to use contractions in English to signal the informal tone, and when not.

EF: Well, when it comes to tone, my goal is to recreate for the English reader the experience the Hebrew reader had when he/she read the text. If it made the reader cry, or feel moved, or angered, I will do whatever I must to get the English reader to feel that way, too.

MS: Sure, but so much of the reader’s experience is mediated by the character’s strength or position within the world of the story or the poem, and isn’t this position or strength signaled by diction, the kind of vocabulary a character uses, the author’s use of punctuation, the associations certain words in Hebrew have with other words—that kind of thing. How do you recapture that in English?

EF: I use every trick I can, every bit of magic in my arsenal, but even then I may not succeed. Translation is an imperfect art, one that exists because people themselves are imperfect—we cannot speak or read every language in the world. Here’s an example: I translated Ron Leshem’s Beaufort, told in the voice of a twenty-year-old punk from Afula who also happens to be the highly responsible commander of his unit, the last to pull out of Lebanon in 2000. I won a prize for that translation, but still, when I “listen” to the narrator’s voice now, he doesn’t sound like that of the original, not enough, anyway. It’s frustrating, but eventually, after some hand-wringing, I merely shrug and console myself with thinking that this was perhaps as close as one could get. It’s at those times I think the Italians got it right when they said that translators are traitors [traduttore, traditore].

MS: How much contact do you have with the author while you are translating a work? You’ve indicated already that you have contact with some authors before you even begin—like Alon Hilu. And you’ve interviewed and spoken together with others, such as Meir Shalev.

EF: Most authors are interested in having contact with me as I translate, and I enjoy being in touch with them. With the outstanding among them, like Meir Shalev, it’s an opportunity for me to learn as a writer. I suppose the advantage to no authorial intervention is that the translator then has carte blanche. But I enjoy sniffing out the hidden meanings beneath the words, which sometimes only give themselves up to me in conversation with the author.

Now that I’m working in television and film, there’s a lot more interaction with the writers: we corroborate by sitting and discussing every single word. I found this maddeningly time-consuming at first, and slightly insulting—what, you don’t trust my abilities as a translator?! But now I understand that with filmed dialogue, every syllable is significant: meaning, interpretation, rhythm, tone, level…to get that right you need to spend far more time on revising than on writing or translating.

MS: Sounds like poetry. Is this your first film?

EF: First film, yes. But I’ve done television and plays and libretti.

MS: Well, the libretti are poetry.

EF: With these libretti, rhythm was very important. It was all about the rhythm. Lucky for me I didn’t have to make things rhyme.

MS: Are ever concerned that you are misrepresenting the artist you are translating? I wouldn’t think you would be, since faithfulness is your primary goal.

EF: No, I’m very faithful to the original, but sometimes I fear the books might misrepresent me.

MS: I’ve never heard a translator say this before.

EF: I worked on a book once and began to fear that one could misinterpret this book and turn it into an anti-Semitic screed, and I thought, hmm, I’m giving my hand to this and I feel uncomfortable about that.

MS: I’m thinking of Octavio Paz, who said that every act of communication is an act of translation. Sometimes it seems that translation is relatively precise and easy in comparison to other kinds of communication.

EF: People tell me all the time: That book? It can’t be translated. It’s too Israeli. But those are precisely the books I enjoy, the challenge of lifting a massive edifice and plunking it down in some entirely new setting. As a translator, you can’t leave a single word of text unclear to yourself, you have to understand in the deepest sense every word or you’ll never impart its essence to the new audience. Which is why it can be very frustrating that the task of a translator is to remain, essentially, transparent. In fact, most reviewers don’t even mention the translator. Once a reviewer of one of the books I translated wrote that the author’s “sentences deserve to be read aloud.” I wished she’d acknowledged that the sentences she was reading were at least in part mine! But a wise friend in the publishing world had a different take on it: He said that such a line is an “implicit compliment…in that most readers only notice [the translators’] work when they haven’t done it properly.”

MS: Absolutely. What does the translating scene look like among Israeli writers today? Who is getting translated, or what type of work?

EF: Most writing translated today divides into two categories: the canonical writers who will always get translated, and new people who have something sexy and jazzy that other people haven’t yet heard: a young Arab man writing in Hebrew, or a formerly religious lesbian. You know, these different voices that haven’t been heard in Israeli fiction, and people—not just the built-in Jewish audience—are hungry for them. They want to know everything that goes on here. And we’re good at airing our dirty laundry so there’s a lot to read. You can get every kind of impression of Israel you’re looking for. There’s an amazing amount of innovative and excellent writing going on here.

Translation provides access: to literatures and cultures and whole worlds. But where do good translators come from? Many are produced by academic institutions, but for literary translation in particular I think apprenticeship is the best way to learn the trade. You know, where you have a mentor looking over your work and discussing your choices with you. Every sentence is fraught with choices, and learning to make the best ones takes time, patience and good guidance.

MS: One final question. Are there any texts that you refuse to translate?

EF: Oh sure! Poorly written texts are the worst. Sometimes I feel that with a great novel, every Hebrew sentence contains its “true” form in English and it is up to me to find it; with bad writing, however, sentences can lend themselves to a dozen interpretations, all of them unsatisfying. I’m also wary of certain genres, like science fiction or fantasy, which I don’t read and for which I have no great affinity. And, though I shouldn’t admit this to my interlocutor, I stay away from translating poetry. I’ll go to the greatest lengths not to translate poetry, even when it’s embedded in a novel I’m translating. Only poets should translate poetry; when I take my pen to those lovely little lines I feel like I’m butchering them.

MS: I wonder if you feel it is because poetry depends on how something is said as much as what is being said? I used to teach in an MFA program in which everyone—fiction writers as well as poets—was required to take a course in poetry translation, even if they had no other languages. The fiction writers were often skeptical, but in the end they always claimed it was the single most useful course they’d ever taken. I’ve heard it said that translating is the most effective way to “close read” a work of literature.

EF: Agreed. I always recommend that my fiction-writing students take a poetry class. And yes, no one ever knows a text as intimately as a translator—in most cases, not even the editor. A good translator knows he or she can only get the job done correctly by understanding every word, every implication, every reference, every nuance. I have had discussions with my authors about character motivation, about logic, about word choice. An all but infallible litmus test for the quality of the author’s writing can be found in his or her response to those questions: The true professionals have answers for everything because they have grappled with all these issues and more while creating their characters and cobbling together the story; the more amateurish are surprised at my interest and fumble for the answers.

MS: I really like the idea of that litmus test, Evan. Thank you for speaking with me. It has been a pleasure. I hope you don’t get a parking ticket, and I hope it doesn’t rain before I get home on my bike.

Click here to read an excerpt from Evan Fallenberg’s translation of Alon Hilu’s The House of Rajani (Harvill Secker, London, 2010).




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