It’s hard to provide an account of the literary connections between any two countries during the 20th and the early 21st century in the restricted space of just a few pages.1This text refers to selected works by Jewish authors born in Czechoslovakia, resident at least for some time or actually living in Palestine or Israel during the 20th and 21st centuries, i.e. works in Czech, German or Hebrew, as well as works translated from Czech into Hebrew, and it also deals with the general issue of translating Czech literature into Hebrew, as well as its status in Israel. Opposing areas of interest which this text does not deal with include in particular what is known as Prague German literature (Franz Kafka), the diary literature of Jews from Czechoslovakia written in various languages in concentration camps and ghettos (Egon Redlich), the memoir literature of Jewish survivors from Czechoslovakia published in various countries and languages (Helga Weissová-Hošková), the first, second and third wave of postwar literature written in Czech and published in Czechoslovakia (Norbert Frýd), contemporary Jewish literature published in the Czech Republic (Benjamin Kuras) and translations of Czech literature into Arabic. It’s all the more challenging in the case of Czech-Israeli links as we move across a constantly reforming terrain in the territorial, national and linguistic sense. Czechoslovakia rose out of the ruins of Austria-Hungary after the First World War, when it was a national conglomerate made up primarily of Czechs, Germans, Ruthenians and Jews. After the Second World War it lost Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia for good, along with the majority of surviving Jews, while the Germans were expelled. Subsequently the Czech Republic emerged, or rather was left from the ruins of Czechoslovakia in 1993. Israel was established on the territory of Palestine, which had been governed until the end of the First World War by the Ottoman Empire and administered by Great Britain until 1948, as a Jewish state with Hebrew (in its modern ’ivrit form) as its official language. Its population was progressively made up of a number of larger and smaller immigrant waves of Jews from all over the world, who spoke various languages.
The existence of cultural and closer literary ties between these two territories, which in several respects were constantly changing, is based primarily on the high rate of Jewish emigration from Czechoslovakia after the First World War (associated with the international Zionist movement), just before and during the Second World War (due to Nazi persecution and the Holocaust) and several years after it, as well as after 1968 (as Jews became increasingly distrustful of Europe as a safe place to live, and particularly as a result of the Communist coup). After the great majority of the Jewish population had departed and the government declared its hostility towards Israel, practically all cultural and thus literary ties ceased after 1950 and only revived following the 1989 revolution in Czechoslovakia and the subsequent restoration of diplomatic ties between the two countries.
As we are dealing with the literary ties between Czechoslovakia or the Czech Republic and Israel from the 1890s to the present, we shall for the most part be speaking about the translation of literary works, not about the emigration of Jewish writers.
Writers from the Czech lands in Palestine and Israel
During the 20th century the oldest well-known literary émigré to what was then Palestine was Miriam Singer. She was born in 1898 to an assimilated Jewish family in a small Czech village. When she was three her father died and her mother moved to Prague with her children. When Miriam, called Irma at home, was sixteen years old she started going to Blau-Weiss, the “Jewish scouts”. On one occasion she came across a man who had such a distinctive Jewish appearance that entranced she followed him and presently came to a neighbourhood where wartime refugees from Galicia were housed. Irma made friends with some children playing in front of the house, and subsequently began visiting them regularly. She told them stories of Jewish heroes that she had just learnt herself. One day a respectable-looking stranger came to sit with them and listen for a while, before he asked Irma: “why don’t you put this down on paper?”
The man was Max Brod, and it was thanks to his efforts that a collection of her stories came out in German entitled The Locked Garden (elsewhere The Locked Book). In her first work Irma was evidently writing very naively about Palestine, but very soon the book had been translated into French and Polish, making her a highly regarded writer when she was just seventeen. From her early childhood, however, she had longed to be a teacher by profession. She completed several courses in Germany and then decided on Aliyah (emigration) to Palestine. Her mother agreed providing the girl travelled under the protection of the Jewish official Samuel Hugo Bergmann (1883 Prague, 1975 Jerusalem), who was about to emigrate himself (he subsequently became the Director of the Jewish National Museum and Chancellor of the Jerusalem University). Irma was enthusiastic and started to learn Hebrew straight away. She studied it, allegedly together with Franz Kafka, at Jiří Mordechai Langer’s, who had just returned from the Rebbe of Belz and who walked around Prague in extravagent Hasidic garb to the consternation of the Jews themselves. However, after a month of intensive study Irma realized that in such a short space of time she would not learn the language to the extent required to teach children born in Palestine, so she wrote to Degania to ask if in the meantime they did not need her as an ordinary manual worker. At the end of 1920 she arrived at this the first ever kibbutz, where from the outset she shared a room with three other women (including the future acclaimed Israeli poet Rachel). Opposite them lived the men, including A. D. Gordon, and while the prominent Zionist ideologist taught them Hebrew, Irma continued to write articles and poems, which she published exclusively in the German-language press. She did not want Degania members to know that she was writing, but when the Davar daily printed one of her poems translated into Hebrew, the secret was out. Meanwhile Irma had improved her language so much that she was finally able to start working as a teacher at a nursery school. Over the next few decades she took part in the education of several generations of children, while continuing to write, now in Hebrew, for this age group. In her book Dan, Jan a čáp (Dan, Jan and the Stork) she dealt in a humane and sophisticated manner and in language that was evidently accessible to young readers with the Second World War. She later also wrote about the Israeli War of Independence. Irma married one of the founders of the legendary kibbutz, Yaakov Berkovic, an agriculturalist who loved books, tranquility and solitude. Towards the end of her life she worked as a seamstress, as she never fully got along with Degania, its Eastern European founders and its collective community, as she was the only member who came from “Western” Europe. She died in 1989 at the age of 91.
Although he was a staunch Zionist, Max Brod (1884 Prague, 1968 Tel Aviv), Irma’s mentor and one of the leading representatives of Prague German literature, only took refuge in Palestine at the age of 55, primarily out of necessity, as he escaped from Czechoslovakia just before it was occupied by the Nazis on 14 March 1939, taking with him a suitcase of manuscripts by the then largely unknown Franz Kafka. In Palestine and subsequently Israel he worked as a dramaturge at the Habima Theatre, as well as a music and theatre critic. He did not hark back to his renown in Czechoslovakia, he did not become significantly involved in the literature of the new state and he did not fit too well into its multicultural society. Brod was survived by Kafka’s work, which he had carefully safeguarded and edited. Then again, Irma’s Hebrew teacher Jiří Mordechai Langer (1894 Prague, 1943 Tel Aviv; brother of the writer and dramatist František Langer) fared far worse in Palestine. He had held a privileged position among Prague Jewish intellectuals as he probably mastered Hebrew better than any of them: when he made his debut in 1929 with the collection Pijutim ve-širej jedidut (Poems and Songs of Friendship), this was the first and for a long time the last collection written in Hebrew in Prague after a long century. He compiled his last collection of poems Meat cori (A Little Balsam) towards the end of his life as he lay in hospital exhausted due to complications from his illegal emigration. It was not until 2014 that both collections were published in Hebrew together with their Czech translation by the Prague publishers P3K, while in Israel itself Langer’s work did not make a significant mark.2Other Jewish authors emigrated from Czechoslovakia to Palestine before and during the Second World War, apart from Singer, Brod and Langer. Journalist, writer and Zionist Hugo Hermann (1888 Moravská Třebová, 1949 Jerusalem) emigrated in 1934 and wrote his memoirs in Palestine – albeit in German. Leo Perutz (1882 Prague, 1957 Bad Ischl), the author of historical novels, who emigrated in 1939 and then lived alternately in Israel and Austria from the late 1940s, continued to write works in German, which took a critical stance towards the nationally defined Jewish state. Felix Weltsch (1884 Prague, 1964 Jerusalem), who together with Max Brod undertook an exploratory trip to Palestine before the war and wrote a book about it Land der Gegensätze. Eindrücke e. Palästinareise (Land of Opposites. Impressions from a Trip to Palestine. Prague 1929), continued to publish in Czech and German after emigrating in 1939. Tuvia Ruebner (1924, Bratislava) emigrated to Palestine in 1941, worked as a teacher in Merhavia Kibbutz and evenings translated German literature into Hebrew and vice versa. From 1953 he started publishing his own poetry in Hebrew, becoming an acclaimed Israeli poet and a professor of comparative literature at the University of Haifa.
Other authors did not emigrate from Czechoslovakia until after the state of Israel was established. The survivor Eva Erbenová (born 1930 in Děčín as Eva Löwidt) moved there with her husband Petr (who was inter alia the last director of the Czechoslovak Makabi youth physical training movement) in 1949 via Paris. Both have been living in Ashkelon ever since. A Czech documentary entitled O zlém snu (A Bad Dream), was made in 2000 on the basis of motifs from her book Vyprávěj mámo, jak to bylo (Tell Us How It Was, Mum), published in the Czech Republic (1994), Israel, Germany and France. In an extended version called Sen (Dream) (Prague 2001) Erbenová describes the events of the First Republic, the Second World War and the Holocaust from a child’s viewpoint. The book also loosely inspired the screenplay of another Czech film Poslední cyklista (The Last Cyclist), premiered in 2014. The most critically acclaimed writer to leave Czechoslovakia for Israel was Viktor Fischl, alias Avigdor Dagan (1912 Hradec Králové, 2006 Jerusalem). After emigrating in 1949 he was Israeli ambassador to several countries and it was not until he had retired as a diplomat that he began to publish again, though even his later work was written in Czech and only translated into Hebrew from German and English translations provided by the author. Another prominent Czechoslovak native who was literarily active in Israel was Ota B. Kraus (1921 Prague, 2000 Netanya). As one of the survivors Kraus published a gripping novel just after the war, depicting the ordeal at Auschwitz Země bez Boha (Land Without God), while his other books are also of great value: Vítr z hor (Mountainwind) and Vepři ve při (Tel Kotzim), which describe the joys and sorrows at an Israeli kibbutz. They evidently first came out in Hebrew to no great acclaim, but then in the early 1990s another survivor saw to their Czech publication, Kraus’s friend Pavel Stránský. For years the author tried to publish his books in English and contributed financially himself towards the publication of the short stories The Dream Merchant and Other Galilean Stories (USA 1991). His final novel Cesta pouští was meant to be his magnum opus, but unfortunately he did not manage to publish the book in English during his lifetime as he had originally intended (it was to be called Desert Years). It eventually came out after his death on the initiative of his widow Dita Kraus at the end of last year in Czech translation by Alice Marxová. The book is a great contribution, thanks in particular to its unique portrayal of a young Zionist growing up before the Second World War in Czechoslovakia.
In February this year I met up in Israel with Dita Kraus, whose life inspired Spanish author Antonio G. Iturbe to write the novel La Bibliotecaria de Auschwitz (The Auschwitz Librarian). She told me how she emigrated with Ota and her young son from Czechoslovakia because of the trouble the Communists were giving them and how after various escapades they settled down at the Giv’at Chaim Kibbutz, only to leave seven years later not entirely in good odour there. “On the one hand they were very pleased to accept new members, particularly young people who had many years of productivity ahead of them, but then on the other hand they gave them the least pleasant work. Ota describes this in one of the chapters of his book Vepři ve při. They didn’t give you what you were able to do: first you had to rub off the rough edges – wash the dishes and clean the latrines, because that is what they themselves had done when they had set up the kibbutz. Now they wanted to do something better themselves, so let the new ones do all that. As a result many members progressively left the kibbutz including a number of Czechoslovaks… When Ota wanted to publish Vítr z hor, the kibbutz was against it, because it came out against the communal education of children. My husband insisted on publishing the book, and when it eventually happened they more or less told us that we could not stay.” After that the Krauses had nothing more to do with any kibbutzim: they moved to Hadassim near Netanya, where Ota found work as an English teacher at a boarding school.3 Jaroslav Balvín: “Najděte si mě na googlu! S Ditou Krausovou o jejím poosvětimském životě” in Salon Práva, 7. 5. 2015″ in Salon Práva, 7.5.2015
Of the remaining Jewish authors who emigrated to Israel after 1968, Erich Kulka (1911 Vsetín, 1995 Jerusalem) co-authored the popular non-fiction work on Auschwitz Továrna na smrt (Death Factory) (Prague 1945) with Ota Kraus (not to be confused with Ota B. Kraus, Ota Kraus is the father of the popular Czech entertainer and actor Jan Kraus and author Ivan Kraus). He left Czechoslovakia in 1968, working as a historian at the Hebrew University and at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem. His son Otto Dov Kulka (1933 Nový Hrozenkov), who emigrated to Israel with his parents, is primarily interested in history and philosophy, which he teaches at Jerusalem University. He has published numerous specialist works and at an advanced age wrote an essayistic book of memoirs on “his” Holocaust entitled Krajiny metropole smrti (Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death). It came out in Hebrew in 2013 and in Czech translation in 2014. The author of the famous Obchod na korze (The Shop on Main Street), Slovak Ladislav Grosman (1921 Humenné, 1981 Tel Aviv), emigrated to Israel in 1968 and worked from 1969 at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv, where he lectured on Slavonic literature and taught creative writing. From 1979 he also lectured on scriptwriting at Tel Aviv University. He wrote the screenplay for the television film Dod David holejch lirot kala (1972, based on the short story Rendez-vous strýce Davida (Uncle David’s Rendez-vous)) and during the 1970s Israeli radio presented several of his fiction works as readings or dramatizations.4In future we may get to know more in retrospect about the literary activities of other Czechoslovak emigrants to Palestine and Israel, as staff at the Bejt Terezín archive in the Giv’at Chaim Ichud Kibbutz attest it includes numerous writings left by survivors in Czech, German and Hebrew. I myself know of a book by Lisa Gidron née Kummermann and Hana Fischlová, recalling the Terezín ghetto. Research will be facilitated by the digitization of the Israeli Memorial archive planned for next year.
Some Czechoslovak authors just emigrated to Palestine or Israel for a short time, or visited the country for a longer period and then wrote about it. Jan Martinec (real name Martin Reach, 1915 Prague, 1995 Prague) lived in Palestine after emigrating clandestinely in 1939, he was then active in the Allied forces and went back to Czechoslovakia after the war. In a series of reports published in magazines he described his experience with Aliyah Bet (illegal emigration) and the British internment camps, as well as later in the memoir section of his novel Bastard (Prague 1968), which is unfortunately relatively uneven in terms of quality.
Controversial author Ladislav Mňačko (1919 Valašské Klobouky, 1994 Bratislava) was not of Jewish origin, but nevertheless took a broad interest in Jewish topics. He published a book of reports from the War of Independence period Izrael, národ v boji (Israel, A Nation in Struggle) (Prague 1949) and in Já, Adolf Eichmann (I, Adolf Eichmann) (Prague 1961) he dealt (unfortunately to a large degree in a tendentious manner) with the trial of one of the greatest war criminals, which took place in Jerusalem and which Mňačko witnessed at first hand. In protest against the Czechoslovak government’s position on the Arab-Israeli conflict he emigrated to Israel for several months in 1967. He then left for Germany where his final book report on Israel came out in German, Die Aggressoren. Von der Schuld und Unschuld der Schwachen (Vienna, Munich, Zurich 1968). Arnošt Lustig (1926 Prague, 2011 Prague) was first sent to Israel as a correspondent by Lidové noviny, Židovský věstník and Zemědělské noviny in 1948, and then again a year later by Czechoslovak Radio. The experience of a reporter involved in the fight for national independence inspired him to write a novel on a love affair overshadowed by war entitled Miláček (Sweetheart) (Prague 1969); he worked on a similar topic many years later in a novella called Na letišti (At the Airport), later renamed Nemáme na vybranou (We Have No Choice) (Prague 2003 and 2007). Lustig also stayed in Israel in 1968-1969, before heading to the USA. Ruth Bondy (1923, Prague) is discussed below in connection with the translation of Czech literature into Hebrew, although she is also noteworthy as an author. Bondy left the country as a very young survivor in 1948, she learnt the language and presently made her mark as a journalist, though she also wrote biographies, popularizing books on Czechoslovak Jews and Czechoslovak literature and memoirs. Her titles have for the most part been published in Hebrew and are normally translated into Czech.
Looking at contemporary Czech literature, the motif of emigration to Israel after 1968 crops up in Irena Dousková’s (1964 Příbram) first work, the epistolary novel Goldstein píše dceři (Goldstein Writes to his Daughter) (Prague 1997). Tomáš Kolský (1978 Prague) made good use of his experiences on his study trip to Israel in his debut work Ruthie a barevnost světa (Ruthie and the Colourfulness of the World) (Prague 2003). The only prose work to date by this author who moved to Israel several years ago has also proved quite successful. He now publishes short journalistic pieces on contemporary Israel in his blog.
Translations of Czech literature into Hebrew
Ruth Bondy, the most prominent and for a long time the only consistently active translator of Czech literature into Hebrew, wrote in her book Víc štěstí než rozumu (More Luck than Sense) (Prague 2003) that in her youth she liked to do crosswords and came back to them forty years later by starting to translate from Czech into Hebrew…5At the same time she belongs to the school of translation that does not try to improve the original or to eliminate repetition. “If an author writes ‘child’ five times in a single paragraph I do not change it. Nor do I write ‘child’ the first time, ‘youngster’ the second time and ‘infant’ the third. If he piles the words up without sorting them out, as Bohumil Hrabal does, for example, I do not cut anything out for the reader’s convenience just because I would write it differently.” By way of example she gives Hrabal’s I Served the King of England. In 1992 the director of Eked publishers told Bondy she liked the English translation of this book and asked her to translate it from Czech into Hebrew. She says that when she read the English version and compared it with the Czech original, she found she had two different books in front of her: whereas the Czech original seemed to flow, off the top of his head without punctuation, in the English the translator had split it up into sentences. She would not have found such a translation acceptable. Likewise she refused when they wanted her to abridge Václav Havel’s typically long sentences for the Israeli reader. When she was translating Švejk in its entirety, she had to deal with the fact that he had already made himself at home in Israel, due both to abridged translations from languages other than Czech and to the theatre adaptation by Max Brod. To make it easier for Israeli audiences to understand, he had decided to move the plot from the Austro-Hungarian to the British army. However, in the case of Švejk Bondy also had to resort to a serious intervention: she translated the German expressions as well as the Czech into Hebrew. Why the comparison? Primarily because of Israel – which is a different world, with different nature and different superstitions. Compared with the Hebrew, Czech sentences are longer and more complex. Hebrew completely lacks diminutives, and the transcription of Czech diacritics in proper names like Baťa and Petřín is problematic – and there are numerous other complications. Moreover, there is no comprehensive Czech-Hebrew dictionary available, so Bondy recalls that when she was translating Čapek’s Zahradníkův rok (Gardener’s Year), she first had to look up the Latin names of Czech plants and only then did she find the Hebrew equivalent from the Latin. She doubted that Čapek’s book would be successful in Israel, particularly because of its quite different climate and because there are few keen gardeners there, but Zahradníkův rok found itself on the bestsellers’ list in 2010.
Bondy believes that works by Czech authors can only get translated into Hebrew in two ways: via English, German or French translations that might be read and recommended by a publisher’s reader, as in the case of Kundera, Hrabal and Havel, or on the recommendation of the translators themselves. Bondy writes that it was thanks to her tips that Viewegh and Ota Pavel were successful, while contrary to her expectations Jan Otčenášek’s Romeo, Julie a tma (Romeo, Juliet and the Darkness) and Jan Jandourek’s Daniel v jámě lvové (Daniel in the Lion’s Den) did not do well.
Bondy says that some seventy works by Czech authors have been translated into Hebrew since the 1930s, including novels, short stories, dramas and essays by such writers as Ivan Klíma, Pavel Kohout, František Langer, Josef Škvorecký and Jan Werich as well as those mentioned above.6Of all the most prominent Czech authors only the greatest poets are missing from the Israeli reader’s general awareness of our literature: when Jaroslav Seifert was awarded the Nobel Prize, the newspapers and magazines published Hebrew translations of his poems from English. Bondy herself did not venture to translate poetry, either Seifert’s or any other. She also says that the number of translations is actually quite astonishing in comparison with the number of books by Israeli authors that are, or rather for a long time were, available in Czech, as translation from Hebrew into Czech only de facto got under way during the 1990s, primarily for political reasons and later due to the lack of high standard translators. She adds that the Czechs’ special humour – subtle, ironic, not cruel, but mixed in with life’s wisdom – is one of the main reasons behind the popularity of Czech literature in Israel, while another reason is our common fate – we are both small nations that have stood on the brink of destruction and have had to defend ourselves against large nations – two nations that have mastered the art of survival.
The increased interest in modern and contemporary Czech literature in Israel after the break-up of the Soviet bloc and the “Velvet Revolution” fell off around the turn of the millennium. “I am actually glad that following Ruth Bondy, Pierre Friedmann, who grew up in Israel, has now started translating,” said Lukáš Přibyl, Director of the Czech Centre in Tel Aviv, early this March. Although he believes that Czech culture in Israel is generally thriving (for example, Czech dance is a thing here), every other field of activity evidently has it easier than literature these days. He himself is taken aback by the number of translations coming out in Israel: “There is a surprisingly large amount of them for such a small country’s market, particularly when you consider just how linguistically diverse it is: there are large Russian, English and French-speaking communities here, and many people are able to read books in their original language…” Eastern European literature is brought out in Israel by several publishers. The Russian-speaking community includes more than a million people, while other generations now prefer to read Russian literature in Hebrew. The Polish-based community is also very large here. “Unfortunately the Czech community was never that large and it is now getting smaller and smaller. Making the grandchildren of emigrants interested in Czech culture is one of our aims at the Czech Centre.” Even if the translation is finished and ready for printing, the publishers hesitate to bring it out. “Perhaps this is actually due to the excess pressure on the market and the fear of presenting an unknown author in a small country. They also hesitate because there has been a change in the law whereby book sale prices are set, so many publishers first want to find out how the market is going to react.” Přibyl knows of several such “dormant” translations from Czech that will remain that way even though the publishers have been contacted with various schemes to support their publication. The difficult road to Israel for Czech literature was also confirmed to me by literary agent Edgar de Bruin from the Pluh agency: “I am working together with the Deborah Harris Literary Agency there, as it is quite difficult to get in direct contact with Israeli publishers. I have tried several times in the past without success. At least thanks to collaboration with this agency Europeana by Patrik Ouředník has been brought out.”
Přibyl believes that the greatest name from Czech literature in Israel is still Švejk, as it is elsewhere in the world. The Czech Centre Director smilingly recalls how some time ago the Tel Aviv National Theatre turned to him with a request for financial assistance for an adaptation of this novel, as the required amount would have covered operations at the Centre for several years. Finally, however, the Czech Centre did support the play, by translating and adapting the Hebrew text for Russian titles. Aware of how popular the First World War Czechoslovak anti-hero was in Russia and how Israel has so many Russians, who are not familiar enough with Hebrew to be able to follow a play in it, Přibyl considered the issue. Eventually, thanks to this support, attendances at the performance evidently doubled. “The poster showed Švejk in a British uniform – khaki shorts and shirt,” Přibyl smiled. “That is a typical idea of a soldier from the First World War around here.”
As we were talking in the Israeli capital during the winter, the Director of the Czech Centre was occupied with a visit being made by the illustrator Jiří Slíva. In addition to presenting an exhibition in a Tel Aviv gallery the graphic artist was also reading a lecture at a conference on Franz Kafka. Incidentally, Slíva has also illustrated several books and translations by Ruth Bondy, which have come out both in Israel and the Czech Republic. Přibyl is currently working on a commemoration of Václav Havel, who he says is the only Czech apart from Masaryk that “everybody” knows in Israel. “Almost every town has a street named after Masaryk. There is even a Kfar Masaryk Kibbutz and lots of cafes bear his name. Havel was the first Eastern European statesman to visit Israel after the fall of the Iron Curtain and he is remembered just like Masaryk. Even as a newly elected President, Havel pointed out the need to reestablish the broken ties of friendship between the two countries in his New Year’s Address, but hitherto there has been nothing that bore his name.” Thanks to the efforts of the Czech Centre and the Czech Embassy in Tel Aviv, one of the smaller streets in Jerusalem with an adjacent park is soon to be named after Havel, while a Václav Havel bench is to appear in Israel from the Bořek Šípek workshop. “Havel and the 25th anniversary of the reestablishment of diplomatic ties are also recalled by numerous films, including Odcházení (Leaving), while the Spitfire Company has presented a production of Antiwords inspired by Havel, and an exhibition of photographs and a commemorative event will take place at the illustrious King David Hotel in Israel.”
I met Pierre Friedmann, who Lukáš Přibyl had told me about in Tel Aviv, this spring in Prague, where he has been a translator for the last five years. His ancestors on his mother’s side were Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust, while his father had a German background, but the translator ascribes his passion for this small Central European language and its literature to a fateful meeting with Karel Čapek. “I started to study world literature and I got to really like Czech works in particular. When I came across Zahradníkův rok in English, it really took me, as Čapek can write so vividly and fascinatingly about everyday things, so I wanted to read it in the original. I was fortunate in that David Hron was teaching at Tel Aviv University. He taught me along with two other students with Czech ancestry. Then I was awarded three grants at Charles University. Originally I wanted to write a thesis on Čapek in the context of Gilles Deleuze’s philosophy, because I believe the Czech writer said everything the French thinker said sixty years later, but eventually I wrote it on Čapek’s conception of truth. This year my first translation of one of his books was brought out by Carmel publishers – Kritika slov (Critique of Words). I presented it at the February book fair in Jerusalem and it had a great response.”
The year before last in Jerusalem Friedmann also presented his translation of Jáchym Topol’s Kloktat dehet (Gargling with Tar). “It was published by Achuzat Bayit. Three or four years ago they called me to say they had bought the rights to the work, but Ruth Bondy, who they asked first, said it was untranslatable. I did not want to translate it. I was happy enough just to be writing about books – I was working as a literary critic – but eventually I agreed and I also translated his last novella Chladnou zemí (The Devil’s Workshop), which is due out this year.” It evidently took Friedmann a year to finish each Topol title. I wondered if he had contacted the author over any “translation teaser”. “For the first book it didn’t even occur to me. When we got together later, Jáchym told me he was grateful I was the only translator who didn’t bother him. That is how I found out that he was used to it, so when I was working on Chladnou zemí, I did send him some questions, but Jáchym nearly always said I could put what I wanted there. He is good that way.” Linguistically, Topol’s books are characterized by slang, which Hebrew uses too, but almost all of it is from Arabic or Yiddish, “which doesn’t work for Topol, ” Friedmann explained. “Very often I have looked at his words and phrases and tried to imagine how my Polish grandmother, who made mistakes in her Hebrew, would have said them. And occasionally I had to think up new words. Ivrit is constantly developing and neologisms often keep organically cropping up, but they have to be based on grammatical rules, make sense and sound good. I’m afraid I didn’t come up with any robots for Topol,” the translator smiled. Kloktat dehet had a good critical response, but evidently hardly anybody but the critics read it. “Jáchym said that was the case in most of the languages it had been translated into,” Friedmann revealed.
And other Czech writers? What about Emil Hakl, for example? “I have offered him to the publishers several times now, but nobody wants him. I don’t know why. Likewise they rejected Balabán, which bothers me even more, because that is really good literature.” Friedmann is expecting a lot from a translation due out this year, Fuks’s Spalovač mrtvol (The Cremator). “I recommended the book to the largest publisher in Israel, Zmora-Bitan. Two reviewers and the editor-in-chief read it in English and all of them were enthusiastic: it is an outstanding novel about the Holocaust, which appeals to the Israelis. I hope it is a bestseller. To mark the publication of the translation, Lukáš Přibyl, Director of the Czech Centre in Tel Aviv, would like to show the film, which has not previously been shown in Israel, at a local cinema and to invite not only myself but also director Juraj Herz to the presentation.” This year the Terezín diaries of Helga Hošková-Weissová and Michal Kraus are also due out in Hebrew translation by Pierre Friedmann. He is currently working on a translation of an extract from Altschulova metoda (Altschul’s Method) by Chaim Cigan. “I hope some publisher shows an interest in the book. I like it. It includes mysticism and absolutely everything else that ought to be in a good book – and what’s more, interestingly, it was written under a pseudonym by a Chief Rabbi.”7Jaroslav Balvín: “Netanjahu? Zůstanu v Česku, říká izraelský překladatel Pierre Friedmann” in Salon Práva, 28. 5. 2015
Ruth Bondy: Víc štěstí než rozumu, Argo, Prague 2003
Ruth Bondy: Potulné kořeny, Nakladatelství Franze Kafky, Prague 2010
Viera Glosíková, Alexej Mikulášek et al. (eds): Literatura s hvězdou Davidovou 1, Votobia, Olomouc 1998
Alexej Mikulášek et al. (eds): Literatura s hvězdou Davidovou 2, Votobia, Prague 2002
Amos Sinai et al. (eds): Rhapsody to Tchelet Lavan in Czechoslovakia, Israel 1996
Wikipedia, Encyclopedia of Post-1945 Czech Literature and other internet sites
Dita Kraus, Lukáš Přibyl, Pierre Friedmann, Edgar de Bruin and Bejt Terezín memorial staff in person.