Riffle Backstory: Netanya by Dror Burstein, transl. by Todd Hasak-Lowy
I interviewed Todd Hasak-Lowy, translator of Netanya by Dror Burstein, published today by Dalkey Archive Press. Our translator brings us this work from Hebrew, a novel about a man lying on a bench and meditating on the stars.
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I am a writer, teacher, and translator. In addition to my translations, I’ve published a short story collection, a novel, and a children’s book. My first young adult novel will be published in early 2015. I teach creative writing, mainly at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
How did you first discover Dror Burstein’s work?
I had heard a lot about Dror’s writing, and I owned a couple of his books (but hadn’t gotten around to reading them). I had even met him once in Tel Aviv. But I only first started reading him when the Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature approached me to ask if I’d be interested in translating Netanya. I had already translated Asaf Schurr’s Motti for them, but I was some confident (and maybe even hopeful) at the time that I wouldn’t translate again. I wanted to focus on my own work. Nevertheless, I printed out about 30 pages of the .pdf they sent me, planning to read it and compose a polite email to decline their offer. Unfortunately, when I started reading I immediately said to myself, Crap, this is really, really good.
What is the most unusual thing you learned while translating Netanya?
I learned a lot about astronomy and the history of planet earth. It’s an unusual book in that way.
If you could give a young translator one piece of advice, what would it be?
Only agree to translate things you truly love. Otherwise, the work is that and that only. And it’s too slow and requires too much attention and focus to be done solely for a paycheck.
How did you get started translating?
I was in Israel on a fellowship in 2008, and I read Asaf Schurr’s novel Motti. I was truly struck by it and contacted the publisher in order to hear if there were any plans to have it translated into English. But I wasn’t at that stage thinking I might translate it. I was merely thinking I could perhaps put Asaf into contact with my agent in the States, or something along those lines. I wound up meeting Asaf and we became friends. A few months later, he asked me if I’d consider providing a sample translation. They wound up asking me to translate the entire novel. I had just gotten tenure and thought it might be an interesting exercise. I didn’t plan on making it a regular activity, but that seems to be what has happened.
What book are you raving about right now?
I really loved Ben Fountain’s novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. It’s a smart, funny, beautifully written book, which also has a lot to say about the United States in the early 21st century. Other recent favorites: Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station, George Saunders’ Tenth of December, and Padgett Powell’s The Interrogative Mood.
Which literary character are you passionately in love with? Which is your nemesis? Which is your best friend?
I don’t really ever connect to characters in that way. Maybe because I’m a writer. I tend to get attached to the narrators, even or especially the disembodied ones. Actually, the grandfather in Dror’s novel (which is maybe a memoir as well), meaning Dror’s real-life grandfather, he has stuck with me.
Which are the literary giants, be they translators or otherwise, that you look up to and turn to for inspiration?
I’m not sure I turn to literary figures for inspiration. I try to use the world and maybe some belief in the possibilities of my imagination to make it (i.e. the world) come alive for inspiration, if that makes any sense at all. But there are certainly writers I admire deeply. The Israeli writer Yaakov Shabtai was the writer whose work made me feel I needed to write as well. George Saunders is both a remarkable writer and from what I can tell a fine human being, and as a father and a husband I’m trying very hard to have my life as an artist not warp my life as a person. I return to David Foster Wallace’s work on a pretty regular basis. And I admire both Lydia Davis and Haruki Mirakami, in part because I know both of them are translators as well. There are times when I feel like I shouldn’t be translating because it takes away from my own writing. But their examples suggest that this needn’t be true.
Which author or translator do you think is overlooked or underrated?
I think translators are necessarily overlooked, for better or for worse. But as for writers, well, who’s not overlooked? We’re almost all overlooked, to the point that most of us aren’t “rated” at all. I’ve found that you can’t have enough humility as a writer (I could certainly use more), and translating, that is, placing oneself in the service of someone else’s writing, that teaches humility. It’s one of the oddly and perhaps foolishly selfish reasons I translate—it reminds me that sometimes I must work for the sake of someone else’s art.
Finish this sentence: You should check out Netanya because…
It will do things no book you’ve read before has done. It will make you realize just how needlessly obedient most books are to current literary trends and conventions.
Thanks so much for your time!
Dear readers, you should check out Netanya today!
Interview by Gina Rodriguez