Jessica Cohen is shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize for her translation of David Grossman’s A Horse Walks Into a Bar.
Words Without Borders (WWB): What drew you to the work of your writer?
Jessica Cohen: My literary translation career was still quite new (I had translated only one book) when I was offered the opportunity to translate David Grossman, and needless to say, I was a little stunned and extremely flattered. He was already one of Israel’s best-known and most highly regarded writers, and his seminal novel See Under: Love had also brought him international recognition. Although I had read some of his fiction, the book that still resonated most with me at that time was The Yellow Wind, a nonfiction book that I had read as an impressionable teenager, which had an enormous influence on my emerging political consciousness and my awareness of what was going on just a few miles away from my Jerusalem home. (The book is a collection of Grossman’s impressions from his travels on the West Bank, and a warning about the unsustainability—morally, as well as in every other way—of the occupation). I knew from everything I had read of his that this was a writer who would always present interesting challenges for a translator, and that the opportunity to work with him would bring both professional and personal rewards, which has certainly turned out to be true.
WWB: What was unique about this translation compared to others you’d done?
Jessica Cohen: Most works I’ve translated have some humorous elements: Israeli writers, much like Israelis in general, often use humor, especially the dark and cynical kind. But A Horse Walks Into a Bar is unique in that humor and jokes are at its very essence, as you can tell from the title. The protagonist is a stand-up comedian, and virtually the entire novel takes place during his performance at a comedy club. This is not to say that it is a funny book—if anything, there is more tragedy than comedy here—but there are a lot of jokes, and of course they had to be funny in the translation. The format itself, with much of the narrative consisting of one man’s onstage monologue, was also a new challenge for me. The translation required me to delve very deeply into this one character’s consciousness, his life story as it unfolds in his performance, and also the way he appears to his audience. There are a lot of physical descriptions, not just of build and features but of body language, voice, gait and mannerisms, many of which have their origin in the character’s childhood experiences, which we slowly learn about in the course of his performance.
WWB: What are you reading now, or which writers from the language and literary tradition you translate do you think readers ought to pay attention to as potential future MBI winners?
Jessica Cohen: I have a miserable track record with award predictions, so I won’t go there. I have just finished reading an incredible, and incredibly heart-breaking, book by Lea Aini, who unfortunately is not yet well known outside of Israel, but I hope she will be. In fact she’s not even a household name in Israel, despite having published over twenty books, several of which have won or been shortlisted for major awards and garnered critical acclaim. Her 2009 fictional autobiography, Rose of Lebanon, was a monumental, haunting work in which she practically created a new idiom to tap into her childhood in Tel Aviv as the daughter of a Holocaust survivor from Saloniki. Aini’s new book (whose Hebrew title is Tish’ali, which means Ask, although I doubt that would be the eventual English title) is much shorter, and deceptively simple. It tells the story of one woman’s daily hardships in contemporary Israel, but in fact presents a searing indictment of Israeli society’s total moral bankruptcy, and tries to understand how—or if—an individual can build a normal life for herself upon such a crumbling foundation. Aini has an idiosyncratic voice that I find almost impossible to convey in English (and that’s not something I say often), but I sincerely hope that she will eventually be translated, if not by me then by another translator.