Blue Has No South: Interview with Alex Epstein

As a continuation of yesterday‘s post: today an interview with Alex Epstein, author of Blue Has No South, conducted by A’Dora Phillips.

A’DORA: Is Hebrew your mother tongue?

ALEX: I was born in the Soviet Union and immigrated to Israel with my family when I was eight, without knowing a word in Hebrew. So, I don’t really have a mother tongue—in order to write in Hebrew I had during the years, in a way, to forget my Russian.  I guess that Hebrew “adopted” me—I write in Hebrew, I “live” in Hebrew, I dream in Hebrew, but since it’s not my first language, it’s more an adoptive tongue than a mother tongue.

Your stories are wonderfully complex—in their wide range of reference, their tone, their blend of genres and mix of registers.  I imagine that for both you as writer and Becka as translator this must have raised even more concern than usual about what might be lost in translation?

This is exactly why I am so grateful for the opportunity to have worked with Becka: she always tried to find the best solution possible to keep the “lost in translation” effect to a minimum. She is a poet, and consequently has a sharp eye for the single word, for the meaning of a single word in a very short prose piece.

It was important to me and to Becka to try to maintain the same poetics that my stories have in Hebrew: for example, the relationship between the story and the margins surrounding it, the white page.

Can you say a little about your involvement in the translation process?

I read all the translations, and provided some comments during the process. But the most important thing to say here is that eventually I was just a reader, and writers are not the best readers of their work, of course: the final decision is always made by the translator. On a few occasions Becka asked me to make alterations to the original, so that the story would work in English in the same way it does in Hebrew.

Becka mentioned that the English version of Blue Has No South is not an exact representation of the original.  Why did you make the decision not to include some stories and to add others?

We decided to make the book a better representation of my short work, and so a few of the longer stories were left out and replaced by newer short-short ones. But even with these changes, more than one hundred stories appear in both the Hebrew and English versions of the text, so ultimately they are very much alike.

Beyond the changes you made to the collection, how does the English translation of Blue Has No South “feel” to you?  Some writers, for instance, say they have no relationship to their work when it appears in another language and others say that it gives them a fresh perspective on their writing.  Any thoughts about this?

I do feel that it’s definitely my book, and part of what makes it feel that way is the process, seeing one version of the translation of a single story, and then seeing a new version, and yet again: that is exactly how I write, draft after draft after draft, so the shortest story can take months to write (and now, to translate).

Do you live full-time in Israel?  And, big question—one that ultimately may not be answerable—how would you characterize the current climate of Hebrew-language literature?

I do live in Israel, in Tel Aviv. Israeli contemporary literature is very hard to characterize—one thing that’s obvious, though, is that we have a lot of exciting voices, in different styles, exploring different themes. As everywhere, in the last years we have seen a shift from the short form towards the novel. But it seems that I am going in the opposite direction.

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