Interview with Josh Calvo.

Last year I posted about The Untranslated, one of the best blogs in existence; the latest post there is over 16,000 words long, and I promise you it’s well worth the read. It’s full title is “Interview with Josh Calvo: On S. Yizhar’s Days of Ziklag, Albert Suissa’s Aqud, Volter Kilpi’s Alastalon salissa, unjustly untranslated Hebrew and Arabic literary works, and on the present state of Anglophone literature”; Calvo is “a writer of fiction, translator from Hebrew and Arabic, obsessive reader and language-learner, shameless bibliophile addict, and PhD student in Comparative Literature at Princeton University.” I’ll provide a few paragraphs more or less at random and hope they whet your appetite enough to follow the link and read more:

Translating Swissa’s novel [Aqud (The Bound)] of course necessitates deeply attending to the stylistic and literary affinities he shares with other modernists, as it does knowing the historic context inside and out. But more important than either of these, for me at least, is the *essentially literary* demand that the translator make the text work as beautifully in English as it does in the original — and this might mean occasionally sticking strictly to the style and idiosyncrasy of the Hebrew, and occasionally doing the opposite, taking whatever literary license seems necessary in context. Ultimately this means that I cannot advocate for any all-encompassing “approach” or “theory” for my translation beyond what I (subjectively, I admit) deem to be its literary merits in Hebrew and my own ability (or lack thereof) to create similar literary merit from English. (I will also admit to being suspicious of such theories in any case, and I know I would be unable to commit to any of them from sentence to sentence.) I am reminded of what Swissa himself told me when I started working on the translation: “make your own Aqud,” he said, which I thought and still think is exactly right. […]

Here I am thinking of Uri Nissan Gnessin (1879-1913), who more or less invented a form of writing (we now call it “stream-of-consciousness”) in a “dead” language some years before his coreligionist Marcel Proust would do some of the same in a very alive language. Gnessin’s novellas are brilliant in all the ways we want literature to be, and unlike some of the other big names in pre-State literature, would in the right hands translate unstiffly if not beautifully: turn to the many well-rendered versions of Mr. Aforementioned Proust for an example (and for another example closer to Gnessin’s home: the symbolist-modernist novels of Andrey Bely or, earlier, Dostoyevsky). […]

On translation from Arabic:

First and foremost, I implore any of those dedicated literary laborers in English publishing (US, UK, et al) who may be reading these words to burn a name deep into their hearts and brains, and that name is Salim Barakat. Salim Barakat is, in my not so humble opinion, the beginning and end of what must urgently and immediately see translation to English from Arabic. Not the least because he, too, expands our understanding of what Arabic literature is and can be (ethnically, he is Kurdish, and often his subjects are the ordinary Kurds of the Syrian Jazira-region; at the level of linguistic style, too, his is not the reigning mode of engagement/iltizām literature once so widespread in Nasserist Egypt and the Baathist Syrian State he was born into and came of age in) – but because his books, all nearly-fifty of them, cover the widest imaginative terrain of any living writer I know of, in any language.

I like the fact that to Frederic Jameson’s “always historicize!”, he responds “meh,” and I like this: “these languages suffering under the very real burden of globalized English have the gift of what much of English has lost: a blessed sense of specificity, of the danger that drives us to cherish what we would otherwise take as a given.” And here’s one last snippet:

My last name is of Ladino origin; I pray to my God in Hebrew; my curse words are invariably Arabic; and in all the places I have traveled just this year alone, I have had the recourse to navigate through or make use of any number of languages, some of which I know quite well after much effort spent relearning them, others self-taught but steady (French, Swedish), and others still completely foreign (Tamazight, Kurdish). But all that I really have is English.


  1. “some of the new [Hebrew] fiction by Ethiopian immigrants” – this was an exciting but frustrating interview.

    “two novels set in fictional fantasy worlds with centaur-like cryptozoological creatures of his own invention” – an amazing interview.

  2. Yes, frustrating, as is the entire blog!

  3. Yes, interesting subject matter, but I too was frustrated by the bombastic, overwrought writing style of the kid being interviewed. Why does everyone formally trained in creative writing have to write in the same unbearably precious way?

    I also disagree with his characterization of Kanafani. I challenge anyone to read Kanafani’s Men in the Sun and to miss, as he does, its incredible literary qualities because of its politics.

  4. bombastic, overwrought writing style

    I didn’t find it bombastic although it was certainly “enthusiastic”. The guy is a translator. You know, someone who sits in front of a keyboard all day working on what someone else has written. Perhaps this interview gave him the rare opportunity to hold forth on things he is passionate about.

  5. Perhaps this interview gave him the rare opportunity to hold forth on things he is passionate about.

    Yes, that’s how I felt, and I love it when people express their enthusiasm about books.

  6. Everybody knows that Yizhar is a great writer and his novel Days of Ziklag is the best Hebrew novel, compared by one critic to Proust. However it’s very difficult to read. I stopped after a few pages and never tried again, because it was beyond me. The excellent poet Nathan Zach estimated that no more that 150 people read Days of Ziklag through.

  7. Hebrew Wikipedia: “David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s Prime Minister at the time of the book’s publication, appreciated S. Yizhar, but took the trouble to let him know that his lengthy book is hard to read, and that he’d only managed to reach page 180.”

    I myself haven’t tried to read it. That entire era of Israeli literature leaves me cold.

    S. Yizhar, born Yizhar Smilansky, exemplifies a fairly common way of generating pen names in Israeli Hebrew (first name of pen name is the initial of the original surname, surname of pen name is the original first name). Does that practice exist elsewhere?

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