Out of the Blue and Onto the Page: How Translation Rekindled My Passion for Writing


When my mother, born in America to Israeli parents, first met my father in Tel Aviv, she said she knew he was right for her because he was an American living in Israel. As a young woman who grew up in transit—constantly being moved around between the two countries—she recognized in him a kindred spirit: someone who spoke, lived, and loved both ways.

They married and had me, and whether they’d planned it or not, I came to embody this combination of the two of them: an American-Israeli and an Israeli-American. I grew up in Israel, spoke a semi-intelligible mixture of both languages, read books in Hebrew and English, watched movies without subtitles, and sported a funny accent.

I also wrote from a young age. Darkly dramatic poetry in Hebrew as a child, then short stories in English as a young adult. But as I grew older, writing became harder to do. Anxiety and self-doubt took the place of simple pleasure, and I had to psyche myself into creating new things. I still read a lot and dreamed of a career as a writer, but some of the magic was missing. The reading was slow going, doing any kind of artistic work was a struggle, and I looked around for different paths.

Then, out of the blue, I found translation. I say “out of the blue” because even though the notion was always inside of me, a seed of meaning that formed and informed my life, it hadn’t occurred to me to make it my livelihood until a coincidental encounter landed me my first small gig. I then sought out part time work at a translation company while completing my bachelor’s degree in literature and art at Tel Aviv University, working from Hebrew into English and from English into Hebrew. When that company closed, it was simple and natural enough to keep going, self-employed. I translated legal and business materials for newspapers and companies, and experimented with translating short fiction for a workshop I participated in at the University of Haifa and just for kicks. The sensation of bringing a bit of beauty from one language to another was exhilarating: English into Hebrew was fun because it let me share writing I loved (such as short stories by J.D. Salinger and Jonathan Safran Foer) with my Hebrew-speaking friends. Hebrew into English was a new, more foreign world: I could deliver some of my favorite things about Israel outside of the country. One day, I decided, I wanted to translate an Israeli novel into English.Continue Reading

Writing Lessons: E.B. Bartels

In our Writing Lessons series, writers and writing students will discuss lessons learned, epiphanies about craft, and the challenges of studying writing. This week, we hear from E.B. Bartels, a student in the MFA program at Columbia University. You can follow her on Twitter @eb_bartels—Andrew Ladd, Blog Editor

EB Bartels - headshot

Photo: Janna Herman

Usually, when writing, I practice what I call The Withholding Method:

You wake up—time to write. But first you want coffee. STOP. Have you written a sentence yet? Write a sentence, then make coffee. Now you want to drink the coffee? NO! Write a paragraph first. Funny, you’re hungry? You’ll need a page before foraging for a snack. You chose something salty? Too bad. No water until you have two pages. Now you want to take a shower? HA! Maybe after 2,000 words. Go to the bathroom only if you feel good about your work.

Continue Reading

Writing Lessons: Mary Mann

In our Writing Lessons series, writers and writing students will discuss lessons learned, epiphanies about craft, and the challenges of studying writing. This week, we hear from Mary Mann, a student in Columbia University’s nonfiction MFA program. You can follow her on Twitter @mary_e_mann—Andrew Ladd, Blog Editor

MMANN headshotAs I completed the first semester of my nonfiction MFA program, my mom found and read an essay of mine about growing up as a preacher’s daughter, which had been published online. I had thought the essay was funny, but she thought it was sad. “I didn’t realize things had been so hard for you,” she said. “It broke my heart.”

I apologized, then got off the phone and cried. Somehow I hadn’t imagined this problem before. I was not prepared. It was like finding out that my greatest source of pleasure was pulling out people’s toenails. What I loved to do was painful to the people I loved.

Continue Reading

Writing Lessons: Sara Nović

In our Writing Lessons series, writing students—and this month, writing instructors!—will discuss lessons learned, epiphanies about craft, and the challenges of studying and teaching writing. This week, we hear from Sara Nović, a teaching fellow at Columbia University. You can follow her on Twitter @novicsara—Andrew Ladd, Blog Editor

noviccropThere comes a time in all writing courses when a professor must call in the big guns, and raze a path on which our students can travel toward their writerly epiphanies. This summer, the time came when my students handed in drafts of their dramatic scenework, an assemblage of well-meaning but painfully direct dialogues:

“I am sad.”

“Why are you sad?”

“I am sad because I am afraid that my boyfriend doesn’t love me anymore.” And so forth.

The culprit? Overwriting. Aliases: over-explaining; overthinking; overcrowding. Known to kill even the most promising story ideas in cold blood. To combat it, I brought in the biggest guns I knew—Joe Pesci and Marisa Tomei, at their finest in My Cousin Vinny.Continue Reading

Writing Lessons: Rose Waldman

In our Writing Lessons series, writing students will discuss lessons learned, epiphanies about craft, and the challenges of studying writing. This week, we hear from Rose Waldman, a student in the MFA program at Columbia University. —Andrew Ladd, Blog Editor

Trip to Europe 2013 448 - CopyLike many emerging writers, I had become resigned to soulless “Thank you for your submission” rejection letters. But amidst a succession of form rejections, I finally got a personal note. It began with some kind words about the story I’d submitted, and then came the but: “Unfortunately, we felt that the characters needed to be filled in a bit more…”

I analyzed this editor’s words as if they’d come from an oracle’s mouth. Determined to “fill in my characters,” I printed out the story and painstakingly underlined each word, phrase or sentence that appeared to be highlighting the character’s, well… character. I made bulleted lists of each character’s attributes; her/his backstories, hobbies, and idiosyncrasies.

Armed with my lists and my marked-up story, I approached Sheila Heti, with whom I was then taking a class called “What is a character?” She read the editor’s note and glanced at my red-marked story. “Rose,” she said, “I don’t think the editor is interested in more characteristics; I think she just wants the character to feel more honest.”

People sometimes talk about a lightbulb moment, and this was mine.Continue Reading