How an Acclaimed U.S. Author Became a 'Pitch-perfect' Hebrew Translator

Alona Ferber
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Alona Ferber

Todd Hasak-Lowy had just finished reading “Motti” by Israel novelist Asaf Schurr when he emailed the book’s publisher to find out whether there were plans to bring out the novel in English. He hadn’t intended to offer his services as a translator. After all, the published writer and then-professor of Hebrew literature had never translated a work of fiction. It’s just that he felt an affinity with the writing. And he really, really liked the book, which tells the story of one man’s existential choices and fantasies − and his dog, Leika.

A few hours later, he recalls, Schurr phoned him. What ensued was friendship with Schurr, and the Detroit native’s first translation job, for which he won the triennial Risa Domb/Porjes Translation Prize in 2013. Hasak-Lowy became the translator “almost against his will, because I insisted,” says Schurr.

Hasak-Lowy picked up the award, first established in 1998, in London earlier this month, just ahead of the start of Jewish Book Week. Evan Fallenberg’s translation of Yair Lapid’s “Memories After My Death: The Story of Joseph ‘Tommy’ Lapid” and Nicholas de Lange’s translation of Amos Oz’s “Scenes from Village Life” were also highly commended.

Hasak-Lowy’s translation was “in near-perfect pitch,” said Cambridge professor Yaron Peleg, one of the judges. “His sensitivity to the subtle nuances of contemporary Hebrew idiom, coupled with his own formidable talents as a fiction writer, serves Schurr’s novel to English readers in all of its fresh and original crispness.”

In fact, the 44-year-old also wound up writing his own fiction kind of by accident, and very much thanks to Hebrew literature.

Starting out in his professional life, a decision to be an academic specializing in Israel led him from history to comparative literature. And discovering Hebrew writers who affected him − Yaakov Shabtai was one key influence − led him to pen his first short stories, some of which made it into his first book “The Task of this Translator,” published in 2005.

Discovering these writers made him realize, he explains over Skype from his home in Evanston, Illinois, that fiction was not just a way to gain insight into Israeli history and society, it was compelling all on its own. “It made me want to understand fiction in a different way,” he says.

Eventually, having submitted papers for tenure at the University of Florida, and with a book on history, nationalism and realism in Hebrew fiction under his belt, Hasak-Lowy chose writing fiction over tenure-track.

Back then, when he was reading Hebrew it was slowly, he says, but now he is fluent. Married to an Israeli-American, and with in-laws in Israel, Hasak-Lowy feels connected to Israel beyond his past study of Hebrew literature. Over the years he has come to feel like an insider, he says. “More than I ever thought I would, I inhabit two different worlds.”

His many visits to the country included a post-high school year-long stint on a kibbutz − he grew up in the youth labor Zionist movement Habonim Dror − and his 2007-2008 academic fellowship. It was at this time, living in Tel Aviv, that he came across Schurr’s book. The city is close to his heart, he says, and he even has a map of it on his office wall. “My wife and I joke that we don’t visit Israel, we visit Tel Aviv,” he says.

Hasak-Lowy only takes on translation jobs that he “deeply cares about” and to date has translated three Hebrew novels. He dedicates most of his time to writing and teaching literature and creative writing at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Rather unusually, he writes fiction for both adults and young people.

Following his short story collection and his 2008 novel “Captives,” he went on to pen a children’s book, “33 minutes,” which tells the story of a seventh grader who will be beaten up by his ex-best friend in 33 minutes. His adult books have been translated into Hebrew; a Hebrew translation of “33 minutes” is also in the works.

“33 minutes” is divided into different moments in time, and the limitation imposed by such structures helps him write, he says. His next book, his first young adult novel due out in 2015, is about that moment when you find out that supposedly infallible people in your life are fallible. The story is told entirely in lists, over a four-day period.

His books do not focus on Jewish-American life, although Jewish themes and characters make an appearance. In his upcoming book, for example, the protagonist’s mother is undergoing a process of becoming more religious. Like all American Jews, he says, he and his wife are trying to work out what Jewish identity they have that is meaningful.

“I don’t keep kosher, but we’re members of a synagogue, our kids had Bat Mitzvahs, we light Shabbat candles not every week but sometimes, and my daughter goes to religious school,” he says. He also doesn’t check his email over Shabbat. “It started as a mental health thing, but the timing wasn’t a coincidence.”

While the influence of Hebrew literature on his work is clearer to him, if there is an influence on his translation it is not very conscious, he says, but in any case, the translation isn’t really about him. “There’s almost an irony that I’ve got attention and money for this translation because one of the things that I feel is inherent to the translation process is that it’s not egoless, but it’s not about you − you’re doing it to make the book available.”

Todd Hasak-LowyCredit:

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