Blue Has No South: Interview with translator Becka Mara McKay

Today and tomorrow we’ll be posting intern A’Dora Phillips’ interviews with Becka Mara McKay and Alex Epstein on Blue Has No South. Read on!—Hilary

Thirty-eight year old Alex Epstein is a well-known writer in Israel. He began publishing his work when in his early twenties and now has three novels and several short-story collections to his name. He was invited to participate in PEN’s 2010 World Voices Festival, attended the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program in 2007, and presently Schusterman Visiting-Artist-in-Residence at the University of Denver. But despite his reputation, only now, with the publication of Blue Has No South, is his work available to English-language readers.

Epstein’s stories in Blue Has No South are short—some as brief as a single line or a paragraph, none more than a handful of pages. But beyond their brevity, it is hard to tidily sum up or summarily to characterize his work, which is both funny and poignant; which draws its references from classical mythology, history, religion, even science fiction; which is sometimes realistic and sometimes more fantastical or allegorical. The potent compression of the pieces make one think of poetry, but in an interview, Epstein maintains that his are stories, fictions, not poems or essays: “I call it fiction because when I write I am always concerned with the combination of narrative, characters and idea… I always try to relate not only to the story I am telling but also to the story that is not written, that exists only on the margins surrounding the page.”

Interview with translator Becka McKay

A’DORA: How did you come across Alex Epstein’s work?

BECKA: I met Alex through his participation the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program—I was in my last semester of coursework for my PhD in comparative literature at Iowa.

Why were you drawn to translate Blue Has No South?

Alex’s voice is a unique mixture of playful and poignant—his stories make the reader think, offering no easy answers. Upon reading a few of the stories in original Hebrew of Blue Has No South I really wanted to know what they would sound like in English. And practically speaking, I was beginning to write my dissertation at the time and I was drawn to the fact that the stories were so short that I could find a way to balance my progress on both projects.

Do you translate solely from Hebrew into English?

I do.

What are the qualities of Hebrew and English, respectively, that presented challenges to you, particularly as regards this work?

Alex’s work presents a challenging mix of registers—a single story can range from an everyday Hebrew to a high, almost Biblical language. Hebrew also expands by about 30 percent when it moves into English—by, for example, using contractions—and it was very important to me to try to preserve the compactness of the language as much as possible—succinctness is clearly an important element of many of these stories. In general I also tried to be true to a “sentence count” rather than (as is often tempting) cutting a very long and tangled sentence in two.

Did you find that you had to privilege one or two qualities of Alex’s work over others as you worked? If so, what did you feel was most important to preserve?

I wanted to preserve Alex’s voice above all else, but that is probably not a satisfactory answer to the question, since his “voice” is composed of different qualities depending on the story. In some stories it could be that the register-mixing makes it a uniquely “Alex Epstein” story, while in another it could be the subject matter, the length, the plot…

What makes Hebrew so much more compact than English?

In part it’s because Hebrew uses prefixes, suffixes, and infixes. For example, the words “the” and “and” are never standalone words—they are always a single letter prefixed to a word. Personal pronouns, such as “you” and “I” are often merely a letter or two attached to the end of a word. The following five-word phrase in English, “everything is because of you,” can be rendered in only two words in Hebrew.

How about the challenges presented by more ephemeral issues involved in the act of translation? For instance, Epstein’s work is steeped in (among other things) Eastern European and Jewish issues of heritage and culture. Are some of the references in his work more generally familiar to the Israeli reader than the American reader?

This, of course, is the key issue: how to translate those things beyond language—cultural references, literary allusions, etc. I find that in Alex’s work, a sense of displacement or unfamiliarity is already part of the original, meaning that the extra-textual references often seem to come (in a good way) out of nowhere, and this seems to work to my advantage in translation. I also feel that when something is very, very well written, no matter how “local” it may seem in the original, it manages to transcend that aspect of itself in translation. I think Alex’s work falls into that category.

I was struck by the punctuation in Blue Has No South. In a number of stories, we see an abundance of punctuation not frequently used in English.  Is punctuation generally used more abundantly and expressively in Hebrew? Or do Alex’s punctuation choices stand out as being uniquely his?

I think that Alex uses punctuation uniquely, and I don’t think of this as Hebrew/English issue as much as an Alex issue.

Can you say a little about your working process during the course of your translation?

Alex and I work pretty closely—he reads my drafts and comments on them and answers my questions. I feel very lucky in that he trusts my judgment and my ear—we’ve never had an argument or a disagreement about a translation that I can remember.

There is obviously a fairly wide variation in the length of the pieces, and I’m wondering if it was harder to translate the shorter pieces than the longer ones, or vice versa?

The English version of Blue Has No South is not an exact representation of the original—Alex chose not to include some stories from the original that he no longer likes or that he felt wouldn’t work in English, and he also included some new stories.

Are there any translators or thoughts about translation that are especially relevant to you as you work—in general as a translator as well as more particularly on Alex’s piece?

I really wish I had some kind of brilliant answer for this question. But in the end I have to take on every story as its own set of problems and challenges, and hope that I can render something that works in English while still being a kind of lens through which the reader can glimpse the original.

I know that you yourself are an author. Can you say a little about how being a writer and being a translator intersect?

As a poet, I find that being able to set aside my own work and use the same tools—for example, making choices, ransacking my own vocabulary, listening for the music in the language—in service of someone else’s work to be a kind of wonderful escape. I also think that being a translator has taught me to be a better reader in general, and that includes being a better reader of my own work.

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