Personal tribute

To translate Meir Shalev was to walk with care, on a path of melody and meaning

The translator of Shalev’s illustrated memoir, ‘My Wild Garden: Notes from a Writer’s Eden,’ on his love of the Hebrew language and of the soil from which it grew

Joanna Chen

Joanna Chen is a British-born writer and literary translator whose full-length literary translations include Agi Mishol’s Less Like a Dove (Shearsman Books, 2016), Yonatan Berg’s Frayed Light (Wesleyan Poetry Series, 2019; a finalist for the Jewish National Book Awards), Meir Shalev’s My Wild Garden: Notes from a Gardener’s Eden (Penguin Random House, 2020) and Hadassa Tal’s But First I Call Your Name (Shearsman Books, 2022). She teaches literary translation at the Helicon School of Poetry and contributes interviews and lyric essays to The Los Angeles Review of Books. More can be found at

Author Meir Shalev speaks at the annual International Writer's Festival in Jerusalem. May 14, 2012. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)
Author Meir Shalev speaks at the annual International Writer's Festival in Jerusalem. May 14, 2012. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

The afternoon Israeli writer Meir Shalev died, I was in the forest near my home in the Ella Valley, picking wild sage and mallow, wandering among the terebinth, olive and fig trees that grow there. Meir Shalev wrote about all these in My Wild Garden: Notes from a Writer’s Eden (2020), an illustrated memoir published by Schocken which I had the honor of translating into English from the original Hebrew.

I learned much while working on this translation, not only about trees and plants indigenous to Israel but also about the roots of the Hebrew language. He wrote with precision and depth; translating him was to walk with care, step by step, on a path of melody and meaning. A master of words, Meir Shalev dug deep into the soil of the language he loved so much, exposing layers of earth embedded with biblical and mythical signification.

The biblical fig tree, for example, gives rise in My Wild Garden to linguistic ruminations: “In Hebrew, by the way, the verb le’erot, ‘to pick fruit from a fig tree,’ comes from the word orr, which means ‘light,’ because the fig tree must be visited at first light. Rising early is important, because back in the days when this lovely verb was invented there were no refrigerators, and at dawn the figs are cool and dewy and much tastier…”

Meir Shalev reminded me that the fig tree lives for a very long time and, as he wisely remarked, “what bland political Hebrew today calls ‘peace and security’ was once the wonderful Hebrew expression: ‘Every man sits under his vine and under his fig tree.’” In fact, we are likely to be sitting under a vine or fig tree planted by someone else and we must acknowledge this.

Meir Shalev nurtured both vine and fig in his own garden in the Jezreel Valley, a short distance from Nahalal, the village of his birth and now his final resting place. He moved back there from Jerusalem at the age of nine and it was here he learned the names of trees and plants the hard way.

As a city boy, he was no match for the local children, who were expected by second grade to identify one hundred and twenty different varieties of flora and fauna. That first year, he came last in the Tree Day competition, despite his mother’s rigorous nature lessons after school. The following year, he told me as I was translating that chapter, he did better.

My Wild Garden: Notes from a Writer’s Eden, by Meir Shalev

He sent me photos from his garden so I could identify the flowers more easily. I spent hours in the Hebrew University Library on Mount Scopus, pouring over encyclopedias and botanic reference books. Today, traveling along Highway Six, I easily recognize bindweed bushes blooming in a blaze of pink on the verges, and purple snapdragon pushed back by the Shoresh interchange on the steep climb to Jerusalem.

Meir Shalev knew that an entire world existed within each seed and none should be wasted. I think of him, stopping his car a few years ago, digging up roots and seeds and carefully replanting them in the Jezreel Valley before they were bulldozed to make room for the highway.

Meir Shalev’s last book, Don’t Tell Your Brother, gives voice to both the beauty and the brutality of life in Israel. I finished translating this novel recently, and its words are indelibly printed in my mind. This book is a sharp swerve away from anything else he wrote, a new direction that today seems ironic. It’s mostly dialogue, telling the story of Itamar Diskin, an exceedingly handsome, extremely short-sighted Israeli who lives in the US and returns every year to spend time with his older brother, Boaz. It’s a story of love and longing not only for friends and family but for Israel, a yearning for better days gone by, the love he continuously held for the woman he loved, and their final moments together.

“And how swift thought is,” he writes with wonderful lyricism. “In the sliver of the second in which my lips rested on her cheek, the memory of our first kiss rose up in me, by that very door, after the tea with lemon and the roasted almonds in that very apartment, and the laugh we laughed because of her roommate’s dead grandfather.”

I think of Meir Shalev’s wild garden now, and my own, drenched by the rain as it sweeps over Israel’s vastness, gloriously green. I wrote him last week, telling him how lovely my garden is and how the cyclamen is still blooming on the low slopes close to home. He didn’t reply, it was too late. Then I remembered his words: “It is enough to go out into this wild garden and to walk through it with open eyes.” He was, of course, referring not only to his own private garden but to the whole world.

Rest in the peace you so desired, Meir Shalev.

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