Thursday, December 23, 2010

Bilinguals have it tough

Being bilingual has its downsides. I'll read a great book, look to share it with a world of readers and find that the book is, unsurprisingly, not offered in English. Unfortunately, one of the better books I've read in the last six months falls into this category. Though the author has actually been translated into English, I have only read his most recent novel from 2008 (and am currently reading a collection of short stories from several years ago). The author in question is Israeli author Amir Gutfreund, the not-yet-translated-into-English books in question are When Heroes Fly and The Shoreline Mansions.

Though When Heroes Fly is not a perfect book (way too long, random ending takes the book in a completely different direction, though I ultimately didn't mind too much), it's a winner. The book does what many modern Israeli novels try to do - show the development of the relatively young country alongside that of its characters. The children are conveniently born at such an age that they are meaningful ages for each of Israel's (many) wars - children for the victorious Six Days War, teens during the pain of the Yom Kippur War, and serving as soldiers in the 1982 Lebanon War. This puts them in the right place at the right time for many of Israel's major events, finally having them disenchanted or struggling adults in the more modern era.

Though I can easily find fault with the book (others have liked it a lot less than I), it's the kind of book that should be translated into English. Some good books can survive in their own languages just fine, but ones that do a good job of painting a portrait of their culture and nation deserve (to an extent...) the opportunity to spread that word. It's true that Israel is surprisingly well represented in the Anglo reading world, but it's disappointing that I have to wonder how long it will take Gutfreund's wonderful book to reach the Anglo-centric world. Our Holocaust is still in print (also - surprisingly) and seems to have been well received in the U.S. This makes me hope that the 667-paged heft of When Heroes Fly will reach readers soon.

In the meantime, I've started The Shoreline Mansions - and also stopped (for those wondering, this is the short story collection I mentioned a few days ago). Why would I set aside one of the best short story collections I've read in a long time? For the simple reason that I don't want it to end. I have stopped just about halfway, at the start of a story that has already caught my attention (and keeps nagging me back to the book). I was convinced that I needed to read more Gutfreund after loving When Heroes Fly - now five stories into this collection, I want to ensure that I have further Gutfreund before I continue. Our Holocaust seems like a good next destination.

And, thankfully, one I can discuss with you all.

A treat from me to you: a translation of the opening of "Clocks", one of the short stories from The Shoreline Mansions. Gutfreund writes most of these stories from the side, having first person narrations telling the reader about the main characters. I admire his writing style and am impressed by how engaging it is. And the fact that the following story is not about the grandfather's death. So, for your reading pleasure, a small taste of this author's writing.
Grandpa died. A man turns into memories.

In one moment, everything that would have been possible in a normal coming week will no longer be. From now until forever, the threads of our memories will escort us, one end at the moment of Grandpa's death and the other going with us, wherever we go. Grandpa will belong to us. With the years (they will come), the threads of our memories will get tangled, will tear, will rip. The memories we'll compare with each other in twenty years won't even resemble Grandpa.

Our mother doesn't cry. She sits on her chair in solemn clothes, gazing at the row of mourners.

The well-worn phrases - 

"We liked him."
"Who would have believed?"
"He will be missed."


  1. This is the first time I've seen anyone claim a downside to being bilingual! I have nothing but envy for anyone who is! The whole issue of translated books is so interesting though - of course, some languages can be translated more easily than others, but when it comes to word play and puns and words that are untranslatable - well, we perforce miss out. It is a very sad thing for us who cannot therefore enjoy the full impact of such works.

  2. I know what you mean about not being able to recommend a good foreign-language book to a broader group of readers! The positive side for me, in writing a blog about Russian-language books, is that I can offer my impressions of certain works and trends in contemporary Russian fiction. That helps create a context for the (relatively few) books that make it into translation. And some books I write about do eventually get translated into English.

    I also understand the urge to set aside a good book because you don't want it to end.

  3. Great thoughtful post :)
    I hadn't really thought about that aspect of being able to read in another language, but I can see how it must be frustrating when you find something great that is not readily available to others...

    I was interested to see your assessment of Israeli literature, and how it tends to adhere to the context of the state's seminal events. One of the books that I have heard alot of wonderful things about lately is Grossman's
    To the End of the Land...are you familiar with that one? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

  4. Rhapsodyinbooks: We're still only bi-lingual, not multi-lingual. In cases like these, I envy those who speak multiple languages fluently...

    Lisa: Your blog is unique (and wonderful) in that sense. You make an excellent point about creating a context for the books that do get translated, because even the smallest mention can create an interest (and lead to more exposure).

    TheBookGirl: I wrote about To the End of the Land a few months ago ( It's a special, difficult book that many may not like but I found to be quite incredible.

  5. I'm a bit late on this thread but only discovered it today. I really agree, I am a native French and German speaker blogging in English and find it very frustrating that so many books I like are not translated. I occasionally don't even read new publications because I think, who is going to want to read a review? German is particularly bad as they tranlsate loads from other countries (Israel as well) and I can easily get translations but then...Not available in English. Before blogging I wasn't even aware of how little is really translated into English. Maybe I should do it like Liza and not care.
    Thanks for your post.

  6. I have ONE friend who can follow me into the 3 main languages I read in. I cannot follow him into French and Spanish and Greek and ... so for him *I* am the clumsy reader with not enough languages ;D


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