A writer’s life in translation

‘The Hilltop’ author Assaf Gavron talks about writing, translating and just a little bit about Natalie Portman

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Assaf Gavron at work (Courtesy Assaf Gavron)
Assaf Gavron at work (Courtesy Assaf Gavron)

A novelist’s work is often a kind of translation, decoding the culture of a person or place into the broader context of a book. And then there is translation work, rendering and adapting someone else’s words into a different language.

Those kinds of projects have occupied novelist Assaf Gavron for much of his career, both as a writer and as a translator of English-language books into Hebrew. Born in Israel to British-born parents, he was raised here, and lives a fully Hebrew-speaking, Israeli existence. But the family vacations spent in Britain, as well as growing up in an English-speaking home — where music and books, television and movies, were almost always in English — made him fully bilingual, and it’s a skill that has come in handy during his career.

An author of five books, including his most recent, The Hilltop, an award-winning novel due to be published in English by Scribner in late October, he has translated some of his own work into English, as well as works of several “masters,” he said, into Hebrew, including Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories and Jonathan Safran Foer’s novels.

On this particular Tuesday, Gavron was thinking more about translation, as he was taking part in the Literary Translation Mini-Conference at Bar-Ilan University, having just completed teaching for the last two semesters at the university’s Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing.

Assaf Gavoin, front and center (photo credit: Moti Kikayon)
Assaf Gavoin, front and center (photo credit: Moti Kikayon)

The translation conference, a kick-off for the university’s MA track dealing with translation from any language into English, included a translation slam led by Gavron at the end of the evening.

Case in point? How does one translate “chavlaz,” an acronym for “chaval al hazman.” Gavron said he’d translated it as “a waste of time,” whereas Times of Israel writer and translator Mitch Ginsburg suggested the more colloquial “fuhgeddaboudit,” as in, “this issue is not worth the time or energy.” Gavron liked that take, and commented that, in retrospect, his choice was a mistake. But those errors are part of the process, he said.

For translators, the point of translation work is the learning curve. Gavron said he chooses texts to translate based on what he can learn from them.

Most recently, Gavron has been working on the Hebrew translation of the screenplay for Natalie Portman’s newest film, based on Amos Oz’s memoir, “A Tale of Love and Darkness.”

“It’s a kind of translation back,” he said of the screenplay, given that Portman first wrote the script in English, and Gavron is now translating it back into Hebrew, as the film will be in Hebrew. He’s working with Oz’s original book, “which is very poetic and very literary,” he said. “Adapting it to the screen can’t be the same, because when you read a book, you have the time to reflect and reread and to think, and when you see it on the screen, you don’t have the time to think.”

(And yes, she’s a pleasure to work with.)

It’s good practice for Gavron, who tends to write about people and places that are less familiar to him, “translating” their characters and personalities, and then layering his own humor onto the situation at hand.

Gavron is translating Natalie Portman's screenplay for Amos Oz's "Tale of Love and Darkness" (Courtesy)
Gavron is translating Natalie Portman’s screenplay for Amos Oz’s “Tale of Love and Darkness” (Courtesy)

Take his latest book, The Hilltop, about life on an Israeli hilltop settlement, and the motley community gathered in one particular, politically controversial community.

For two years, Gavron lived, off and on, in Tekoa Dalet, a Judean hilltop settlement, where he had the opportunity to take the “very clear stereotype of a settler” and balance it with what he saw as a very different reality. All in all, a situation rife with fictional opportunity.

As outposts go, Tekoa Dalet is “lighter,” said Gavron, more moderate than the settlements in Samaria, and that’s what ultimately allowed him to remain there and really get to know the locals.

“It’s more interesting, because it’s more varied. And in the book, I took it even further in terms of variation of the types of settlers,” he said. “I wanted to show the spectrum, the hippies, the Russians, the French, the Americans, the kibbutzniks.”

Dancing during celebrations for a new building at an abandoned military base in Shdema between Har Homa and the settlement of Tekoa in Gush Etzion (photo credit: Gershon Elinson/Flash90)
Dancing during celebrations for a new building at an abandoned military base in Shdema between Har Homa and the settlement of Tekoa in Gush Etzion. (photo credit: Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

It’s been noted by more than one reviewer that Gavron did a good job at keeping himself out of the story, doing his best to present the many layers of ironies.

“I like to pick difficult situations and write about them with humor,” he explained. “The Hilltop is about a political situation, about the Middle Eastern conflict and the very heart of it, whether it’s settlers, the suicide-bombing period, the Intifada… but actually the novels themselves are about the people… people living in those explosive situations. In that way, I do escape this kind of taking a stand.”

He’s had good practice, having written four other books, and in fact, said Gavron, he thinks The Hilltop isn’t the most extreme example of putting himself into very different shoes.

“I had a character that was a Palestinian suicide bomber — Almost Dead, aka CrocAttack! and that’s even further away from my own life. And even when I wrote about Israeli movers [Moving] in America, I’m stepping into someone else’s life,” he explained. “I haven’t yet written something autobiographical, although I think there’s something of me in every character. I can’t say that settlers are more foreign than suicide bombers.”

To research his novel, "Moving," Gavron worked for three months with a NYC moving business owned by Israelis (Courtesy Moishe's Movers)
To research his novel ‘Moving,’ Gavron worked for three months with a NYC moving business owned by Israelis. (photo credit: Courtesy Moishe’s Movers)

For now, Gavron is well into his next book — “sort of a thriller,” he said — set in contemporary Israel, but which goes back for a short period to the British Mandate. He spends a couple of hours writing every morning, between 5-7 a.m., before his young family wakes up and the real day begins. Luckily, he’s also heading to a writing retreat in Vermont, where he’ll spend all day, every day, hashing out a first draft of this next book.

As for translations and screenplays, he’s taking a break for now. Translations are a kind of release from writing, commented Gavron, but he claimed he’s going to get pickier about them. (Although he did say he’d like to translate Jonathan Franzen: “For me, he’s the master.”)

“Writing novels is what I like doing, and what I think I’m good at doing,” he expressed. “And luckily, I get to do that most of the time.”

To read an exclusive Times of Israel excerpt from Almost Dead, one of Gavron’s previous novels, click here.

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