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Interview with British-Israeli translator, playwright, and poet Atar Hadari

I am always excited to share author Q&As with you. This time is even more of a pleasure because I took a play-writing class with Atar Hadari 11 years ago and before that I attended some of his classes at Bar Ilan University. So, we go way back. 

Moreover, Atar has generously honored me with two of his poems for two of my own novels. I'm always thrilled when Jewish writers can collaborate and together extend their own works. 

We connected over our love of writing but also over some of our shared background. Atar is a tenth generation Israeli and my family, too, came to Palestine in the 1880s. I've lived in Israel for 20+ years but have not met many people who share this dual background with me. I'd love to meet more if you're out there!

I'm excited about Atar's new book "Lives of the Dead: Collected poems by Hanoch Levin" and there's a really interesting review on Tablet for you to check out.

Atar Hadari’s “Songs from Bialik: Selected Poems of H. N. Bialik” (Syracuse University Press) was a finalist for the American Literary Translators’ Association Award and his debut collection, “Rembrandt’s Bible”, was published by Indigo Dreams in 2013. His Pen Translates award winning “Lives of the Dead: Collected Poems of Hanoch Levin” is just out from Arc Publications. He translates a monthly verse bible column for MOSAIC magazine.

Please welcome Atar Hadari!

GILA GREEN (GG): How did you choose the right English wording for Hanoch Levin's poems?

ATAR HADARI (AH):  I can't speak for other translators, but when I read a Hebrew text that means anything to me, after a while an English voice starts talking in my head with a version of the words in English, most particularly the tone of the words. That's what has to be 'right' and may be a lot trickier than it looks on the surface. I once tried translating a couple of Yehuda Amichai poems and realized that what looked like ever so simple, direct statements in Hebrew, were actually devilishly difficult to pin down in English.

GG: How long does the process take on average?

AH: That depends. I translated a novel of Hazzaz, The Gallows, and found that the hardest work I've ever done. Translating Levin I found fairly easy—I knew what he meant! A long poem takes some revision, but a short poem usually comes in one sitting and should be there, more or less finished, if you've been moved by the thing and felt it fully.GG: Are you not plagued by doubt that you might betray Levin's original intentions?

AH: The original poet is fortunate to have found (usually through no fault of his or her own) an English poet who is capable of translating them at all, let alone well. Bialik had been translated many times when I translated him. Some nitpicked about my translations but I've also found that mine is the only version quoted regularly outside of Israel since I published it. There is no betrayal—just a weighing up of different priorities in choosing a word.

Bialik himself was a great and interventionist translator so I certainly did not take liberties with him that he had not taken with others. Levin was a playwright and satirist; the need to change a word for a laugh would not have been a foreign concept to him.

GG: Why do you think it’s taken so long for his work to be translated?

AH: His plays have been translated several times without commercial success. Jessica Cohen and Evan Fallenberg are working on some new versions now that might succeed where the others have failed. I think his tone is very particular and his references are sometimes very Israeli. A monologue of a son saying kaddish and segueing seamlessly into complaining to his father about what's going on in the family business is not something you can readily transplant into New York English, for instance. My English publisher also remarked that he was rude!

GG: Do you think modern, young Israelis can still grasp his message?AH: I think Levin is still being produced at his home theatre. I don't know how old the audience is. I do know one Israeli actress of 22 who got in touch with me to ask about auditioning for English theatre schools. When I asked her what her audition piece was, she said a monologue by Hanoch Levin.GG: Does it improve your own poetry to translate others' works, or do you worry it stays with you and their style overtakes your own. In other words, is there a fear you might write as Levin and not as yourself after working so hard on a translation?

AH:Translating other people adds to your range. You only keep writing in their style afterward if you don't have one of your own.GG: How do people respond when you say you’re a poet or do you mostly say you’re a translator?AH: It depends on the person. If asked what I do for a living I say I'm a translator. When asked what I translate I say the bible! If they still want to know after that we may get to talking about poetry!GG: Is it possible to separate your Judaism and your poetry?

AH: It is not a question of what's possible but of what's marketable. The only identifiable complaint in the Tablet piece by Jake Marmer was that he would have preferred me to keep the Jewish terms, like mezuzah, in the original.

He lives in Los Angeles where I presume a lot of people know what a mezzuzah is. I live in Yorkshire where nobody knows what a mezzuzah is. I do not wish to limit my readership to Jews. I find this in the work of poets I admire like Sandra Cisneros who peppers her work with Spanish words. I find those words act on me like a ‘keep out’ sign that I would not wish to replicate. She also has the advantage of living in a country that is creeping toward having a Spanish-speaking majority. I do not enjoy such an advantage.

The same applies to using very specific Jewish terms in your own poetry—that dictates where you can publish that poem and who will understand it should they pick up a book with that poem in it.

Some things cannot be translated out of their very Jewish terms, but if you can do so it does help you reach a broader audience. A lot of non-Catholics read Lorca, for instance. They all know what blood and knives and earth are. They will probably know what a rosary is and I know what a novena is, just about. But if he started naming specific saints or whatever it might be, this part of the general audience would get restless.

I aspire to be read by people who are not necessarily Jewish. That means I don't avoid certain subjects, but I consider how necessary a specific reference is to get my point across.

GG: I think many Jewish writers deal with this last issue, not just translators. It's a question I get asked often by other writers: how many Hebrew/Yiddish words should I translate into English before I submit to a general magazine? You're answer provides good food for thought about reach and intended audience. Thank you so much, Atar. I hope many more readers discover your translations and gain access to Israeli writers.

Please check out Atar's work on MOSAIC. You can read a generous portion of his translation here. Connect with him on Linkedin where he posts frequent updates.

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Sunday, 14 July 2024

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