Interview with Becka Mara McKay

The editors of eXchanges interview translator Becka Mara McKay on her new translation, Laundry, written by Israeli author Suzane Adam and published by Autumn Hill Books.

What drew you to translation? How did you develop an interest in it, and what made you decide to pursue it as a career?

I trace my interest in translation to a very specific instance of what I call “translator’s hubris.” (I suspect that a lot of translators can point to a similar moment that launched them on the road to a career in translation.) Maybe a dozen or so years ago I was at synagogue with my mother during the high holidays, and I was paging through the prayer book, probably out of boredom during the rabbi’s sermon. I came across a poem that had been added to the liturgy, by a medieval Hebrew poet named Eliezer Kallir. I read the poem and the original printed on the opposite page, and I thought, I could translate this! And I could do a better job! The poem had in fact been translated by a very well-known writer and translator, Israel Zangwill, who died in 1926. Kallir, who wrote in the 7th century C.E., was known for his densely allusive verse—notoriously difficult to translate. But I didn’t know any of this. I just knew that the idea of translating poetry from Hebrew to English was suddenly very appealing. In the end, I don’t think my translation of Kallir was very good at all, and it didn’t take me long to move from medieval Hebrew poetry to modern Hebrew poetry. But I had a great time with it.

How did you learn Hebrew? What aspects of the language appeal to you?

I first started learning Hebrew as a child—I attended Hebrew school in the afternoons from first grade until my senior year of high school. But when I became interested in translation—specifically, when I decided I wanted to come to Iowa to do a Translation M.F.A.—I started studying at the university level. I love several things about Hebrew. The language is based on a root system that I find fascinating—most words are generated from three- and four-letter roots. This is one of the reasons that Hebrew is so compact—something that takes three or four words in English often takes just one in Hebrew. I’m also fascinated by the connections between the modern language and its Biblical roots, especially the way those connections shape Hebrew literature. Hebrew is such a strange hybrid of the sacred and the ordinary.

Are there interesting aspects of Israeli literature that you want to emphasize or bring to the rest of the world?

I’m always happy when I can bring a work into English that shows a side of Israel that isn’t “CNN-headline” Israel. And when I translate poetry, I really like to find work that does something interesting and language-based—something that really plays with the linguistic uniqueness of Hebrew. Of course, this is often the toughest stuff to translate, but also perhaps the most enjoyable.

How were you introduced to the book? What made you decide to translate it?

I was actually introduced to the book by another writer I’ve translated—Shimon Adaf. I was in Israel for a semester working with Shimon on the poems I was translating for my M.F.A. thesis, and one night I asked him to recommend a novel, because I had run out of things to read. And I asked him to give me something that hadn’t yet been translated into English, in case I really liked it and thought I might want to translate it. And he handed me Laundry. (Shimon was actually the editor of Suzane’s second and third novels, so he knows her.) And of course I was hooked from the first page. I knew almost instantly that I had to translate it, and I wanted Shimon to put me in touch with Suzane immediately so that I could convince her that I was the right person to for the job. Shimon suggested that I might want to finish reading the book first. And I actually went out of town for a couple of days so that I could finish it in peace.

Clearly something about Laundry spoke to you immediately. What is it in a text that draws you in?

Like any text I’m drawn to—whether in English or Hebrew—Laundry had an irresistible mix of beautifully crafted sentences and a completely entrancing narrative. But to put it simply (perhaps too simply?), good writing is what draws me to a text.

Did your experience living in Israel inform your process in translating Laundry?

It informed the process in that it was probably helpful to be immersed in the language while I worked on the first draft. But I also think it was helpful to be immersed in English when I worked on subsequent revisions, which I mostly did in Iowa.

Did you collaborate with Suzane Adam in producing your translation? If so, to what extent? Did you find that there are advantages to working with a living author?

Suzane answered my questions, which were numerous, and she also read an early draft and had a lot of questions for me. It was at times a very intensive process—and illuminating for both of us, I think. I had never translated fiction before, and Suzane had never been translated, so we stumbled along together some of the time. One of the most interesting discoveries for both of us was that when Suzane found a section where she felt I was struggling with the translation, it always turned out to be a place where she had struggled when she was writing the original—as if her own difficulty with the text had left some kind of imprint that I unconsciously reproduced. And the inverse was also true: The places where I really felt like the book was translating itself were the parts she’d had the easiest time writing.

You say that you had never translated fiction before. How is translating fiction (and prose) different from translating poetry?

Perhaps I’ll get in trouble for saying this, but in my experience, translating fiction just doesn’t require quite the same laborious intensity as translating poetry. The poetry I’ve translated operates on a different level in terms of wordplay and other poetic devices, and that requires something that translating fiction doesn’t. In some ways, this means that translating fiction can be a lot more fun than translating poetry. This was really a revelation to me when I started translating Laundry—I was amazed by how the process seemed to flow compared to the process of translating poetry.

Some of the characters of Laundry speak Hebrew as a foreign language, which is reflected in the way they speak in the text. Would you tell us a little about your experience with translating the languages and linguistic abilities of the characters? Were there other unusual aspects of the Hebrew that you had to find a way to translate?

People always ask me how I captured the mother’s broken Hebrew so well, and I’m a little embarrassed to say that this was one of the easiest aspects of the translation, because it was one of the few places where I simply translated word for word, and in doing so captured the mother’s voice in those moments. It was a bit more difficult to decide what to do about some of the Hungarian words and expressions, especially the mother’s. When Ildiko’s mother is saying oh my God, oh my God in Hungarian, I had to decide to translate the Hungarian even though Suzane didn’t do so in the original. She felt that Israeli readers would have access to the expression in Hungarian, but I couldn’t make the same assumption about readers of the translation. My compromise was to have the mother speak both Hungarian and English, and hope that it sounded natural enough.

There are two voices in the book, a man’s and a woman’s. Did you find you were aware of translating toward gender?

I have been thinking about this a lot since the book came out, because almost everyone who reads it thinks that Ephraim is a woman for the first few pages (or maybe longer—I’m always afraid to ask). Hebrew is a gendered language, so this is not a problem in the original—the reader knows almost immediately that the speaker is male. Logically, removing those gender markers would render the voice ambiguous, right? But there’s something about the combination of Ephraim’s voice and the reader’s preconceptions that apparently adds up to female. I even put a clue about Ephraim’s gender on the very first page, to combat this confusion, but because people aren’t looking for a clue about gender, they don’t see it.  I’ll probably write about this at some point, because many translators into English come up against issues of translating gender, and I think it’s worth discussing on a practical as well as theoretical level.

Can you reveal the clue to us without giving too much of it away?

I don’t think it’s really giving anything away to say that I substituted the words “your wife” for “her” in an effort to get the reader to see that the narrator was the husband of the wife in question.

Do you have any new translation projects?

For my dissertation, I’ve translated a collection of Hebrew poems that all have biblical allusions—about 80 poems by more than 50 different poets. And I’m almost finished translating Blue Has No South—a collection of short-short stories (some might call them prose poems) by the Israeli writer Alex Epstein.

Thank you, Becka, we’re very excited to have your help in launching our new interview series!