What It's Like to Translate Israel's Most Important Writers

This week at the Tel Aviv airport: How a Czech translator became friends with A.B. Yehoshua ■ The man who is introducing Israeli kids to lacrosse

Magdalena Krizova.
Tomer Appelbaum

Magdalena Krizova, 39, from the Czech Republic; arriving from Prague

Hello, can I ask what you’ll be doing in Israel?

Their father [pointing to the two children] is Israeli. We separated a year ago, but we’re on good terms. He couldn’t come back to Israel, so I came with the children to Grandma and Grandpa, his parents.

How did you meet? Are you from different countries?

It’s funny – we met because we are both translators of literature. I translate from Hebrew to Czech; he translates from Czech to Hebrew. That’s our profession, so it was actually through translation [that we met]. I was invited to Israel to talk about translation at a literary event and he moderated the discussion, and that’s how we met. Afterward, he happened to travel to the Czech Republic to spend a year studying Czech at a university, and the relationship started then.

Is there a demand for Israeli writers in the Czech Republic?

It all depends on official financial support, but still, translations are done.

How did you get involved with Hebrew?

I have some Jewish roots, and that spurred my interest in the language. When I was 15, I began studying Hebrew in Jewish Agency courses. That’s actually where it began, and it was also really cheap. In university I studied a few things – philosophy, ancient Greek – and then I started to study Hebrew and Semitic languages in the Middle East studies department. I also translate into French, but less.

Who, for example, have you translated into Czech?

I’ve translated A.B. Yehoshua, Etgar Keret; my latest was “The Hilltop,” by Asaf Gavron, a novel about settlers. He was just in the Czech Republic to present the book and to participate in a large book fair, where Israel was the guest of honor this year. I’ve also translated Dror Mishani and David Grossman – I edited the translation of his novel “A Horse Walks into a Bar.” Ahh, and Bulli was also there.

Cool! You call A.B. Yehoshua ‘Bulli’ [his nickname]. Did you meet personally when you translated him?

We’re friends. He said, “Call me Bulli.”

What can you tell us about being a translator?

Translation involves a very deep and close reading of the text. When I translate, I think about every sentence, I don’t just get into the story but also into the small details. When I finish a translation, I really know the book by heart. Another translator said something that I really speaks to me: that to translate a book is like falling in love with the author platonically. You spend hours with him, and he usually doesn’t know you exist. When that translator met the writer of a book that she translated, she almost hugged him like an old friend, and he didn’t understand what was happening.

Do you have a similar story about yourself?

Apropos Bulli, I have a nice story. I started translating books with Keret, but then I translated [Yehoshua’s] “The Lover,” and I very much respected Bulli as an author. I had a few questions for him, and when I emailed him, he replied with one sentence: “Send me a phone number.” I sent my number and he called immediately. The first thing he did during the conversation was to ask me whether I liked the book. I found that charming. I’d assumed that such a great writer wouldn’t be interested in what people think of him, especially in the case of a book that was already very famous.

That’s how it is – even great writers are human and need to hear from readers that they like his work, like all of us.

Still, it was a pleasant surprise for me.

Do you write, too?

I write a little, but not for publication. I am not all that creative, but I enjoy the sharing that exists in the work of translation. When I translate, I feel as though I am writing a book, it’s such an intense process, you know. Sometimes it even borders on a feeling of parasitism on the author’s creativity, because when I translate I can actually be creative without writing a word myself.

Maybe it’s symbiosis, not parasitism.

True. And I’ve also had luck with the writers – they’re all sweet.

Jean-Luc Chetner.
Tomer Appelbaum

Jean-Luc Chetner, 22, from Ashkelon; flying to Vancouver

Hello, can I ask where you’re flying to?

Yes. But just a second – I missed the flight. Can you lend me your phone to make a call?

Yes, of course.

Okay. I’m flying to my parents, to Canada. I forgot some documents there that I need to complete my aliyah.

And of course they can’t be faxed – efficient. So, why are you immigrating to Israel?

Because I want to. At first I came via lacrosse: I played for the Israeli team. Last summer, I came with Birthright for four weeks and I played in the European lacrosse championships in Finland. That was the first time I played on the Israel team.

How did you come to be on the team?

I played lacrosse in college, in Baltimore, and my roommate was on the Israeli lacrosse team. He knew I had ties to Israel – my grandfather worked in the Canadian Embassy in Israel as an envoy, and my father was born in Israel. The Israel Lacrosse Association called me, and it worked. We practice two to three times a week. Ashkelon is the main base here, and there are teams in other cities.

Tell us a little about lacrosse.

There is indoor [box] lacrosse and outdoor [field] lacrosse. Indoor lacrosse is the game that American and Canadian indigenous peoples play; it’s like hockey, five on a team plus a goalkeeper. Outdoor lacrosse is more popular internationally – there are 48 national teams, and it’s like soccer: 10 players plus a goalkeeper, and there is also offside. There’s a line in the middle of the field and only a certain number of people are permitted to cross it.

Was the game invented by Native Americans?

It started in North America with the Native Americans, for whom it had religious significance. They call it the “medicine game.” For them to play on a lacrosse team was considered an honor for the player and his tribe. The Europeans saw the game when they settled in America, and began playing it. The best now are Canada and the U.S. At the moment a Native American team called the Iroquois Nationals is ranked third.

That sounds good in terms of the attitude to the natives, or is it actually a type of cultural appropriation?

I’m not a native, but it seems to me that Native Americans want everyone to play. The more people who play, the more their culture spreads.

How did lacrosse come to Israel?

Scott Neiss brought the game to Israel. He’s a lacrosse buff from North America whose dream is to grow the sport in Israel, for Israelis to play and get good at it.

How do you grow a sport?

Many members of the team made aliyah, like me. The goal is to present lacrosse to Israelis, so in the end all the players on the national team will be native-born. I work with the Israel Lacrosse Association and demonstrate the game at schools. The next World Lacrosse Championship will be in Israel, in Netanya, starting July 12. Teams from 48 countries are coming.

How is it that the games weren’t moved to Jerusalem?

It’s beyond me.

Okay, let’s not give anyone ideas. Do you know enough Hebrew to coach?

Lacrosse came to Israel five or six years ago, so most of the guys who arrived here like me already know Hebrew. And if somebody doesn’t understand something, a kid who knows English can translate. But in any case, the words you need to know are, “Yallah,” “run,” “ball,” “like this,” “not like that.”

Does coaching improve your abilities as a player?

It doesn’t hurt. In any case, I like being with the kids, because they get excited. At the beginning, when they don’t know what lacrosse is and you give them the stick, it reminds me of myself when I started to play.

How’s our team?

We won in Finland. Here’s the trophy [shows cell-phone photo]. In 2014, Israel finished seventh, which isn’t bad, and now I’m here.

Wait – are you a lacrosse star? Don’t be modest.

[Being modest anyway] Israel wanted to have a good team, because this year it’s the host, so it also wanted good players to live here.