Our Translation Notes series invites literary translators to describe the process of bringing a recent book of fiction into English. In this installment, Yardenne Greenspan writes about translating Some Day by Shemi Zarhin (New Vessel Press).
The Flavor of Childhood: On Translating Shemi Zarhin’s Some Day
The characters in Shemi Zarhin’s debut novel, Some Day, live in a world of their own. This world is Tiberias, a city in northern Israel, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. In a small country like Israel, one wouldn’t imagine such a detachment to be possible, and yet Ruchama, Robert and their eldest son, Shlomi, live in a separate universe. They don’t notice when terror attacks shake the land, do not care to understand politics or the reasoning behind war, and have no idea which Israeli singer won the European song contest. When they do know what’s going on, they have their own interpretations. Robert, a lower-class laborer of Iraqi descent, votes for the Labor Party every election simply out of habit, though the party largely represents Ashkenazi Jews from Europe and has never addressed his needs; Ruchama believes victory for the Arabs in the Yom Kippur War would have solved the conflict and Shlomi greets a survivor of Nazi genocide on Holocaust Memorial Day with a cheerful “Happy Holiday!”
While other characters, such as Shlomi’s younger brother, Hilik, and the downstairs neighbor, Vardina, seem to have a stronger grasp of history and reality, they are nevertheless swept into a kind of blindness that swallows the entire city. The weather in Tiberias never matches the rest of the country’s climate; major events taking place in the city don’t even make it to national newspapers. It is forgotten by culture and politics alike. A closed enclave, involved only with itself, shutting itself in and being forcefully shut out of the rest of Israel and the world.
But while they seem to know and care nothing for the rest of the world, the characters of this book are very involved in their own community. Throughout the city, they hear each other’s accents, smell each other’s cooking, know who is celebrating and who’s fallen ill, who’s been having an affair and who is unable to have children. They gossip, but are always there for their neighbors in times of need, having grown up together, aware of each other’s shortcomings, helping each other out and poking each other where it hurts.
Yet even the characters’ involvement within the community is slowly reduced when a physical detachment begins, for which Robert blames himself. Early on in the book, he opens a shutter business and proceeds to block apartment windows shut, keeping the views, sounds and aromas of people’s homes contained within. He later switches to selling air conditioners, which are often installed inside a window frame to save money on construction, further isolating homes. Robert takes a poetry class, where the teacher and other students all believe he is a secret poet, and understand the shutters and AC units he talks about as metaphors. Robert laughs at the assumption, but later, in an inner monologue full of sorrow, demonstrates how the notion may be true:
“What’s become of me? First, I blocked their view with shutters, and now I’ll block it with air conditioners. The scholarly teacher was wrong to make a poet out of me. A poet wouldn’t seal off people’s homes, wouldn’t place them inside of cubes, concealing their childhood landscape. My childhood had hid itself from me. It got up one day and left, taken away from me. And I, vengeful man that I am, bearing a grudge against fate, taking my revenge on the world, encouraging it to hide and push away the landscape of its childhood, to eliminate and ignore.”
And yet, contrary to what one might assume of an entire group of people pushing the outside world away, losing itself within itself, the inhabitants of Zarhin’s Tiberias are not happy. Rather than enjoy their blissful ignorance and live as unwittingly as children, they wallow in their personal sadness. Childhood traumas — such as Ruchama’s exceptional height and the mocking it brought on, and Robert’s familial abandonment at youth — are ever-present. Not only do the characters never get over them, but rather, they languish in them, forcing them to remain an active part of their lives. The characters are thus blinded by their own aches and shortcomings, never seeing what is right in front of them. They wave away others’ troubles, or rather, they are able to see them only through the prism of their own hurt. As Vardina tells Ruchama, “People look at each other and only see themselves.”
Shlomi and Hilik’s difficulties are never fully understood by their parents. The events taking place in their lives, and the reasons for these events, are never truly examined by their parents, who cannot see them for who they are. If their children’s pain recalls a painful memory from their own past, they either apply unhelpful solutions or decide to ignore it, perpetuating the familial trauma. If their children’s pain is unfamiliar to them, they are simply unable to see it.
The only place where there is no hurt — only passion and patience — is in the kitchen. Shlomi and Ruchama put everything they have into the inspiring and inventive dishes they devise together for other people’s events, making them the most sought-after caterers in town, but also letting them, for several hours a week, forget about their sorrows and heartache, about everything that isn’t going as they’d dreamed, about the dreams they cannot even put into words, and immerse themselves fully in the aromas, the textures and the flavors of their creations. Their dishes often bring tears to the eyes of those who eat them, reminding them of a long-lost meal, of the taste of home. For a young Ruchama, baking was a way to escape home: she abandoned her destructive mother and moved to Haifa, where she worked in a bakery. For Shlomi, handling food is a way to feel at home. For his classmates, helping with catering events is a way to make money and experience, if for few hours in their desolate and dangerous childhoods, a sense of camaraderie with other children.
Through recipes, Ruchama is able to make peace with her insensitive, now deceased mother. She adjusts her mother’s traditional recipes to her own taste, bringing them back to life, using them as surprisingly familiar touches for her menus, making them her own, daring to adapt them to her taste.
Through recipes, Shlomi’s own private form of genius is brought to light. His ideas are creative and consoling, exciting and alleviating. Of all the characters, he perhaps suffers most from his family’s penchant towards emotional and experiential isolation. He spends most of his childhood feeling numb. He learns to cook before he learns to read or write, and it is this form of expression that remains most important to him as years go by.
While translating Some Day, I couldn’t help but reflect on my own childhood. Was it a coincidence that I’d also always felt that most of it was lost to me? Was this a personal similarity between myself and the characters of this book, or was feeling that childhood was a thing to get through as quickly as possible, keeping only faded memories of inadequacy, a symptom of growing up in Israel?
It might have to do with how, like Shlomi, I was also detached from the world around me, opening my eyes to history and current events only in my twenties, wanting badly to be part of life, but unable to break the invisible barrier, the one that kept me holed up in my room with a book. It might be a consequence of growing up with such intense and painful national history, with the atrocities of occupation and the horrifying memory of the Holocaust.
As a writer and a translator, I look to books to explain reality, finding comfort and clarity within their pages. Shlomi found it in recipes. I find it in the books I translate, dissecting and interpreting them as I transfer them from one language to the next, noticing the differences in characters’ tone and style, what they say and what they leave unsaid. In translating Some Day, I am able to see Shlomi, Ruchama, Robert and Hilik in full daylight, both criticizing and accepting them as whole, intricate beings. By seeing their limitations and their magic, I get to also see my own.
Shlomi also has a special book. He and his mother collect his creations in it. Earlier recipes are written in his mother’s hand, and as he grows older and learns to read and write, he continues adding them on his own. Years ahead in time, this book of recipes will remind him that he was not always asleep. Not always disconnected. That at some point in time, his eyes were open, his senses were alert, and he could see the world clearly.
Shemi Zarhin is a novelist, film director and screenwriter who has created some of the most critically-acclaimed and award-winning films in contemporary Israeli cinema, including Bonjour Monsieur Shlomi (2003), Aviva My Love (2006), and The World is Funny (2012). His films have been box office hits, have received dozens of prizes in international film festivals and have been shown around the world. Zarhin was born in Tiberias in 1961 and graduated from the film department at Tel Aviv University. He now teaches filmmaking at the Sam Spiegel School in Jerusalem. Some Day is his first novel and was a best-seller in Israel.