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
I interviewed Drago Jančar, who wrote the preface to this year’s edition of Best European Fiction Series from Dalkey Archive. Aleksandar Hemon has edited the anthology since 2010.
Drago studied law and has worked as a journalist, an editor in a publishing house, and a freelance writer. He’s been described as “the seismologist of a chaotic history.” He has won several literary prizes, among them Le Prix Européen de Littérature, Strasbourg 2011.
1. What was your contribution to this collection? What was the hardest part? The easiest?
The book has an editor, Aleksandar Hemon; it represents his view of contemporary European short fiction. I only wrote the Preface. It was not a difficult task, I enjoyed reading the book, it was interesting for me. Also, for me as a reader and a writer, it was a powerful experience; a unique view into the part of the European literature we are not familiar with. Hemon chose some well-known writers but I have also encountered many new authors. It was good to get acquainted with writing from the places, especially in the Eastern Europe, which have experienced such profound social changes in the last two decades.
2. How is the 2014 edition of this anthology different from or similar to previous editions?
The concept of “discovering” lesser known authors from different parts of Europe is similar to previous editions. A lot of the stories in the new edition share an interest for everyday human stories, which are by no means marginal. Their narrative intensity brings us closer to individuals, who live on the margins of expansive changes which are taking place in Europe. The crisis we are experiencing at the moment is not just economic; it is also the crisis of ethics. We have to ask ourselves very basic questions: how do we live today in different parts of Europe, what is awaiting us?
3. What is the most unusual piece of writing or information that you came across while reading this anthology?
Nothing is unusual in good literature, nothing ordinary. All the stories are unique and all are extraordinary.
4. If you could give a young writer one piece of advice, what would it be?
5. Which book are you excited about right now?
I am most excited about the book I am working on at the moment.
As far as other people’s books are concerned … I am reading a book of a dear friend Karl-Markus Gauss, entitled Das Erste was ich sah / The First Thing I Saw. It is about discovering the world through a child’s eyes; melancholy writing, which also has some irony.
6. Which are the literary giants that you look up to and turn to for inspiration in your own work?
The list is very long. I like to read Albert Camus, Danilo Kiš, Hermann Broch, Alfred Döblin, Knut Hamsun, William Faulkner over and over again …
7. Finish this sentence: You should read Best European Fiction 2014 because …
… you will come across stories you never knew existed.
Thanks for sharing this backstory with us, Drago! I’m really looking forward to tearing into this new edition. I was lucky enough to discover an incredible Hilary Mantel story through a previous edition, so who knows what I’ll find this time around?
As for you, reader, you better hurry on over to our Riffle World Literature page and see what else you’ve been missing!
Interview by Gina Rodriguez
I interviewed Kazim Ali, a poet, essayist, fiction writer, and the translator of The Oasis of Now, out from BOA Editions on November 5, 2013.
He previously translated Water’s Footfall by Sohrab Sepehri (Omnidawn Press, 2011), and (with Libby Murphy) L’amour by Marguerite Duras (Open Letter Books, 2013).
1. How did you first discover Sohrab Sepehri’s work?
My father had been working in Iran and he brought back several books of poetry by Iranian writers. I was dissatisfied with the translation thought the beauty of the poetry enamored me. It was many more years before I met Jafar Mahallati who worked with me to understand the Farsi so I could make a new translation.
2. What is the most unusual thing you learned while translating this book?
Sepehri is an incredibly complex thinker. He is intimately connected to the natural world and often times his language would be very simple but the thinking so dizzyingly complicated. We would have constant rushes of inspiration and be struck speechless by the beauty of his thought. The whole world is animated in Sepehri’s view. He was hard to keep up with.
3. How does translation inform your work as a poet?
I share a mystical bent with Sepehri. Christopher Nelson, a poet, once described “mystical” to me as “that which moves beyond the senses.” I like this because the mystical poet is one concerned very much with the real and present material world, but he knows there is so much about the world we barely perceive and know with the physical senses. Sepehri was very much my teacher in this—he taught me that inquiry is constant and has its own deep pleasures.
4. I see that both you and Mohammad Jafar Mahallati worked on translating this book. Could you comment on what it’s like for two translators to be working with the same author’s text?
We had a wonderful time. Jafar would read the Farsi out loud to me and then explain it out. I would take notes, ask questions, suggest lines. I would make a rough draft crib of the poem and often times it would be covered with notes. When I revised according to our conversations I would send him the final versions and he would provide small comments. But mostly it happened in person, in conversation.
5. If we were visiting your hometown, what would be the one place we’d have to check out?
You would have to come to my house for a meal. I would prepare a wonderful vegan feast. My partner Marco Wilkinson grows many of the ingredients in our garden and also forages for wild foods. Perhaps I would make a chicken-of-the-woods mushroom and potato stew. Later we could sit in the living room and play a game of chess. I’m not very skilled a player but I enjoy the deep concentration on a limited space that the game requires, much like poetry!
6. Which are the literary giants that you look up to and turn to for inspiration?
Among poets, Mahmoud Darwish, Yannis Ritsos, Agha Shahid Ali, Lucille Clifton, Emily Dickinson, Jorie Graham, Jean Valentine. There are probably other names that should go on that list.
7. Which author or translator do you think is overlooked or underrated?
I have recently completed two new translations myself. One is of a book called When the Night Agrees to Speak to Me by Ananda Devi, a writer from Mauritius. Mauritius is an island off the coast of Africa which was a colonial territory of first the French and then the British. Under the French many people from India were brought to Mauritius to work in the sugarcane plantations. As a result there is a multilingual hybrid culture there of African, Indian, French and English. Devi is of Indian origin and writes in French. She is widely published in French but not as widely translated and published in English. It was a pleasure to work on this project. I began it when I was visiting Pondicherry, one of the French-speaking parts of India, and completed it while in Kerala, in a town on the Arabian Sea.
I’ve also completed a translation of Cristina Peri Rossi’s first book of poetry, Evohe. Peri Rossi is a Uruguayan writer who published many books of poetry and fiction. She has a very simple and elegant style, very direct and musical. It was a pleasure to translate her work and I wish more of it was translated.
8. Finish this sentence: You should check out The Oasis of Now because…
Sepehri is one of the major Iranian poets of the twentieth century. Iranian poetry is just now becoming known in the United States and so this is a great opportunity for American people to learn more about the rich culture and literature of this dynamic and vibrant and ancient civilization!
Thanks for chatting with us, Kazim! I would definitely join for a game of chess (though my skills are nothing to brag about).
You should check out Kazim Ali’s other books, which include several volumes of poetry, including Sky Ward, The Far Mosque, winner of Alice James Books’ New England/New York Award, The Fortieth Day, and the cross-genre text Bright Felon: Autobiography and Cities. His novels include Quinn’s Passage, named one of “The Best Books of 2005” by Chronogram magazine and The Disappearance of Seth; his books of essays include Orange Alert: Essays on Poetry, Art and the Architecture of Silence.
You should visit Kazim Ali’s website to read more.
Interviewed by Gina Rodriguez
Even if you can’t travel there now, you should pick up one of these books!