Friday, August 12, 2016

Q&A with Hana Inbar and Robert Manaster

Hana Inbar and Robert Manaster translated the new book And So Is the Bus: Jerusalem Stories, by the writer Yossel Birstein (1920-2003), Hana's late father, from Hebrew to English.

Q: How did the two of you end up translating these stories, and how did you pick the stories to include in the collection?

Hana: Robert and I met in a weekly Torah Study we both attended at a local synagogue in Champaign, Illinois, where Robert lives to this very day, and where I lived between 2000-2013. Robert suggested that we cooperate in translating together a contemporary Israeli poet of my choice.

I chose Ronny Someck for that purpose, and we ended up translating a whole book of his - The Milk Underground, which has lately been published by White Pine Press. While looking for a publisher, Robert sent some poems to various people, including Merrill Leffler at Dryad Press.

As soon as Merrill learned of my relation to Yossel Birstein, he called me and offered to publish a book of Birstein’s stories in English. So Robert and I sat down to translate Birstein’s stories.

I chose for that purpose the Stories Dancing in the Streets of Jerusalem collection, both because it’s my favorite, and because it’s a relatively short collection.

The timeline Merrill set for us, plus the fact that Robert and I couldn’t meet for more than two hours’ work a week, forced us to limit our selection ever further. So we ended up translating only those stories that had to do with the bus (quite similar to the reason Birstein chose to place many of his stories on the bus …).

Robert: After we finished translating poetry by Ronny Someck, an Iraqi-born Israeli, I was in the process of sending out our co-translated poems to individual journals for publication. 

I was also querying presses to see if they were interested in publishing The Milk Underground, which was the book we had translated (eventually it won the Cliff Becker Book Prize in Translation and was published in 2015 by White Pine Press). 

One of the presses I contacted was Dryad Press. While they couldn't publish our poetry manuscript, they noticed that Hana was the daughter of Yossel Birstein. I had put that information in my cover letter. 

Merrill Leffler, the publisher, heard of Yossel and was interested in his stories. He contacted Hana in spring 2011. We then worked on a few of Yossel's short "dream" stories, which he dictated to Hana before he died.

Eventually, in October 2011 Hana asked if I wanted to work on a co-translated collection of his stories. I said sure! 

At first we were thinking of translating his book Stories Dancing in the Streets of Jerusalem, which is a collection of his best Jerusalem stories from weekly stories he wrote for the periodical The City's Voice.

While Margaret Birstein, Hana's mother and Yossel's wife, had translated some of the stories from that book into English, we decided to start afresh with our co-translations and use her translations as a source, if needed and available. 

As we looked at the stories, we realized a lot of the stories involved buses. Soon, we decided to look at only those stories to create more thematic integrity to our co-translated collection. 

Q: Hana, how do you balance your roles as translator and daughter when you­­ translate your father's work?

Hana Inbar
Hana: ­My father was 30 when he moved to Israel. It took him many years to start writing in Hebrew, using his good friend, the famous Israeli playwright Nissim Aloni, as his editor. When he started writing and publishing his short stories he was already using me as his first editor.

I was a frequent visitor in his “kitchen” when almost every one of these stories had been “cooking.” We had long discussions over the best way to verbalize each sentence, and I was an active witness to the many turns each story took before it reached its final version.

Many years later, when Robert and I started translating these stories, some years after my father had passed, I felt like this time my father was a frequent visitor in my “kitchen,” insisting at times that the translation of a certain passage followed route A rather than route B, and vice versa in the case of other passages.

And yes, as his daughter I was suddenly able to track down some very fine, private innuendos he embedded in some of the stories, giving them an extra dimension in my view, which was quite impossible to bring forth in the translation.

Q: What do you see as Yossel Birstein's legacy in Israeli and in Jewish fiction?

Hana: ­During the last 20 years of his life Birstein made a very comfortable living from telling his stories in public, in various forums all over Israel: radio programs, TV shows, private parties, community centers and theater halls. I’m not sure he was the pioneer in that, but more or less at this period of time, storyteller shows became a very popular form of art in Israel.

Yet Birstein’s impact on Israeli and Jewish fiction goes much deeper than that.

Birstein was born and raised in one of those numerous little Polish-Jewish shteitles, which were erased from the face of the earth by the Holocaust, and which were then further degraded by the first and second generations of Jews in the new state of Israel. These militant generations despised the shteitle Jews for walking “like sheep into the slaughter house.”

Birstein, who had lost all his family, friends and neighbors in the Holocaust, kept finding his beloved kinsmen all over the place in Israel: among the establishers of the kibbutz he lived in, among the soldiers who served in the army with him, among his colleagues in the bank, and within the crowds in the streets and buses of Jerusalem.

Birstein told these people’s stories. And somehow, through his stories, his Israeli audience started re-embracing their shteitle heritage, and making peace with it.

Q: Why did he choose to write these very short stories set on buses in Jerusalem, and do you see themes linking the stories?

Hana: ­Birstein lived the first 16 years of his life in a Yiddish-speaking environment. In 1936 he was sent to Australia, and four years later nearly all the Yiddish-speaking population had perished in the Holocaust.

Birstein spent the next 14 years of his life in an English-speaking environment. A long enough time to fall in love and start a family in English, but not long enough for English to replace the Yiddish as his mother language.

Birstein was 30 when he took his family and moved to Israel, where he spent the next 53 years of his life in a Hebrew-speaking environment. Too late for Hebrew to become his mother tongue, however well he spoke it.

So there goes an avid storyteller with no real, heartfelt language to tell his stories in. So what do you do? You tell your stories without a language. You wage war against the words. You use as little of them as possible.

Robert Manaster
And where’s the best place to learn how to do that? In the local bus-lines of Jerusalem. A large city, many bus stops, very short distances between one stop and another. A person who gets into your bus at one point may very well disappear from your life forever on the very next stop. But the urge to tell you his life story is sometimes generations long.

So there, on the bus, people find ways of telling their life stories in just a few words (in just six words, as in the story "Under the Pressure of Time").

The bus is the epitome of a short story. The bus is a means of transportation that takes people from one point to another point.

A story is likewise a means of transportation that takes its readers from one way of seeing things to another way of seeing them.

The author, like the driver, needs to determine which people, objects, events would be allowed to board his bus/story and which of them should remain outside, waiting perhaps for another bus/story to come by.

Once the door is shut, all the inhabitants of the bus/story are at the mercy of the driver/author. He gets to decide which one of them would come forth and have his say, and when, having done so, he/she should retreat to the back of the bus, or step out of it at the next stop.

The driver/author can also bring his bus/story to a sudden halt, causing his passengers to bump against one another, thus pulling them out of their silence. He can also bring his bus/story to a stop next to another bus/story, checking what these stories do to one another.

What makes a short story into both a story and short is a strong, focal end-of-story. Right? Well, there’s nothing like a bus to do this trick. For it comes with a built-in end-of-story device: the stop button.

Robert: Most of these stories show how story integrates into life and how life integrates into story. Sometimes it's more explicit, as in "How a Story Gets Cooking." A lot of other times it's implicit, as in "Blood Connection," where story turns into the primary means of connection in an unexpected way.

Throughout the collection there are wonderful detailed observations and sublime storyteller rhythms (I talk about the latter in "A Comma's Tale: On the Translation" at the end of the book). 

All of the stories bring together diverse characters in non-judgmental ways--in other words, there are neither good nor bad characters. All exist on their own terms. The self-deprecating speaker in these stories, presumably Yossel, is a gentle participant who loves to listen.

Q: What are you working on now?

Robert: Hana and I have been working on translating some other poetry. We recently finished co-translating a batch of poems, which involved a lot of sound and play, by the Israeli poet Ortsion Bartana, who had been recommended for us to translate. We are now coming back to working on co-translating the Israeli playwright Chanoch Levin's ironic, allusive poetry.

Q: Anything else we should know?

Hana: For what it might be worth to you: My main interest for quite many years has been the investigation of the hidden meanings within the Tanach text, those meanings that are totally lost in translation.

Robert: If I had to sum up my experience about reading Yossel's stories, it would be the following:

For Yossel Birstein the art of storytelling is not an art. It's his natural way of breathing. He understands the flesh and bones of story, his voice carries story with empathy and observation.

In these 21 flash-fiction stories involving buses in Jerusalem, Birstein's storytelling sits with me like a good friend and simply eases into the heart of a story.

At the beginning of "Under the Pressure of Time," he writes: "The woman in black sitting next to me in the front seat, right behind the driver of Bus 18, probably didn't imagine that during this ride I will get to hear her voice, learn her name, and that she would tell me of her own free will a long story in just a few words." And in just a few words, here is what Birstein's stories do to me: They draw me into delight.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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