DIASPORA Q&A SERIES: JOANNA CHEN

Image © Heidi Levine

Image © Heidi Levine

What place do you consider home and where are you based now?

Home is where the people I love are, and that’s Israel right now, where I live with my partner and three children. But it will always be Yorkshire, too, where I was born in the UK, because I have so many memories. I’ve been living in the Ella Valley of Israel for many years and am immersed in Israeli and Palestinian culture, too. Yesterday, I visited a Palestinian friend in Jericho and we talked about Mahmoud Darwish’s magnificent contribution to poetry in Arabic.

Tell us a little about your cultural influences.

I studied English Literature and communications for my BA and also completed an MA at the Shaindy Rudoff Creative Writing Program at Bar Ilan University, which is where I first encountered literary translation. I’m so grateful to the program for introducing me to this.

I read a lot of poetry in Hebrew and English. I love all kinds of music and I enjoy fiction. I was raised on A. A. Milne and Robert Browning. Today, I particularly love Wendell Berry, Jane Hirshfield and Mary Oliver, among others. Jane Hirshfield, by the way, has an amazing essay on translation in Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, entitled “The World is Large and Full of Noises”. I often go back to this essay when I’m translating.  I also read a lot of W S Merwin’s translations

What language(s) do you translate from?

Hebrew to English.

What do you love most about being a literary translator?

I love the opportunity to get into another writer’s head, to examine the layers of meaning that lie beneath the words I’m translating. The Hebrew language is multi-layered and many of the words have their own biblical, cultural and social connotations waiting to be discovered through translation, waiting to be laid open for others to understand and enjoy. The writer Cynthia Ozick said that “translation can serve as a lens into the underground life of another culture,” and I want to be that lens.

I enjoy the interaction with the author I’m translating, the dialogue both internal (as I’m translating) and discussions with the author. I’ve been lucky enough to work with living authors so far, although I am told by colleagues that there’s some merit to working with a dead author who cannot argue with your choice of words or interpretation. I’ve been working with Israeli poet Agi Mishol for a couple of years now and we regularly meet at her house, where dogs and cats wander around and where chickens regularly interrupt our work together. It’s a relationship I value highly.

How does working as a translator affect your own writing?

As a poet and essayist, I find that working on other people’s writing is an enriching experience. It’s a whole different perspective on the act of writing. The words are already there on the page, facing you. The trick is taking these words apart and then putting them together, like a puzzle. Sometimes it’s like chewing on words when you’re used to swallowing them whole.

What is your daily routine like?

I live out in the Ella Valley, a beautiful part of the country surrounded by a forest. I get up very early and do an hour of yoga, and this is when I do a lot of thinking. Some of my best thoughts on translation come when I’m upside down. Otherwise I take walks in the forest near my house; being out in the open helps me to crystallize ideas for my own writing. After that, I drink a big cup of coffee and the work day begins. I have a workroom but rarely use it, preferring to sit at the kitchen table or outside. My lap top is my office.  When translating poetry, I like to print out the drafts of poems I’m working on and lay them on the kitchen table. I befriend them, I glance at them as I move around the house. I interact with them until they’re ready to go out into the world.

I work from home at least four days a week, and travel to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem on the other days for meetings or to work in cafes. I love working in cafes! Translating can be a lonely profession and sitting in a café with all the bustle around me created by people I don’t know is amazing. And it means I can’t just wander off to check the washing machine or do the dishes!

Image © Heidi Levine

Image © Heidi Levine

How do you maintain and strengthen your working relationship with authors and publishers?

Right now, most of my work is done through The Deborah Harris Agency, based in Jerusalem. I’m also contacted directly by authors seeking to translate their writing into English.

Is there an active translation community where you are based?

Although there’s no organised group in Israel that I know of, I’m in touch with translators around the country and we often compare notes or bounce ideas off each other. We also pass work on to each other. TA Diaspora is a great way of interacting globally. Like ELTNA, TA Diaspora connects up translators all over the world.  It’s also indispensable as a way of staying up-to-date. We’ve done a few virtual readings on Google Hangout at ELTNA and these have been wonderful.

Do you attend translation events abroad?

I went to the Bread Loaf Translators’ Conference in Vermont earlier this year and found it invaluable. Networking is part of the job.

How is the literary translator regarded in Israel? Are there organisations there working to improve translators’ status, rights and visibility?

The Israeli Translators’ Association does its best to protect the rights of translators and to improve their status but it’s tough going, I think. The rates for work vary and often the pay is much too low.

What do you do to keep your mother tongue active and evolving?

I read a lot, which I think is essential for any writer.  I’m always on the lookout for new things in poetry and non-fiction. I write a column, The View from Here, for The Los Angeles Review of Books. I may live outside of an English-speaking country but I certainly don’t want to bob around in my own little bubble all day, so keeping up to speed is important to me. When I visit the UK I make a point of heading for book stores to see what people are reading.  And I play word games on my iPhone, which is a wonderful form of procrastination.

What are you working on at the moment?

Right now, I’m translating a prize-winning novel by Hagai Linik, through The Deborah Harris Agency. It’s a beautiful, dark book and a challenging piece of work.  I’m also translating the poetry of Yonatan Berg, who recently appeared on Transatlantic Poetry, together with the US poet, Jericho Brown.

What improvement would you like to see in the world of literary translation?

Recognition for the translator! So often literary works are cited without crediting the translator.

www.joannachen.com

The View From Here (my column in The Los Angeles Review of Books)

@joannachen1

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