Evan Fallenberg is the author of three novels – most recently The Parting Gift (Other Press) – and a translator of Hebrew fiction, plays and films. His work has won or been shortlisted for numerous awards, including an American Library Association Award, the Edmund White Award and the PEN Translation Prize. He teaches at Bar-Ilan University, is faculty co-director of the Vermont College of Fine Arts International MFA in Creative Writing & Literary Translation, and founded Arabesque: An Arts and Residency Center in Old Acre.
On Hanoch Levin: “We badly need to hear what he has to say”
Hanoch Levin is often called Israel’s greatest playwright, whose absurdist style drew acclaim and criticism and was often compared with Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett. During his foreshortened life (1943-1999) he wrote more than 60 plays, many of which became instant classics.
Levin’s work is regularly staged in Israel and has been translated into some two dozen languages to date, including Chinese, Japanese, Ukrainian and Arabic, as well as many European languages. It is claimed that in France and Poland, where he is hugely popular, there is always a Hanoch Levin play on stage somewhere.
In the English-speaking world, however, his work is relatively unknown, even though major figures in the theater world place him in the pantheon of twentieth-century playwrights. David Lan: “Hanoch Levin is the modern world on the stage…we badly need to hear what he has to say.” So it is my great pleasure and privilege to have been commissioned by the Hanoch Levin Institute of Israeli Drama to co-translate, with my friend and colleague Jessica Cohen (winner of the Man Booker International Prize with David Grossman, for A Horse Walks Into a Bar) to translate five of Levin’s plays.
Our work took place on three continents and over the space of more than a year. While we encountered all the problems that translators everywhere deal with daily, as well as those unique to Hebrew, Levin’s texts provided their own distinct challenges.
For one, his language. On occasion his characters speak in poems. His plays take the terse compactness of Hebrew to new levels – not easy to emulate in English, with its rich and precise vocabulary, and coy indirectness. And Levin’s superb mastery of Hebrew, his expertise in mixing the elevated biblical Hebrew of his Orthodox upbringing with the freshest and often most vulgar Hebrew of the street, makes no easy work for translators.
The names Levin gave to his characters often contained hidden meanings sometimes taken from other languages. But at the same time they were funny, ridiculous, onomatopoetic.
Levin’s plays fall into a number of wide categories, like myth, satire, comedy, tragedy, drama, but more often than not they are a combination of more than one – often contradictory – genre. Be serious? Comic? Satirical? All three? Preserving the tone – or, rather, shifting mid-play or mid-sentence – was no small feat.
For me, diving into these plays and others penned by Levin, along with meeting family members and many of the people who acted, produced, lit, costumed, researched and created the music for Levin’s plays, has deepened my appreciation of his work and made me glad that he left so much excellent material behind.
Oberon Books in London is publishing a three-volume anthology containing 15 Levin plays (including our five) this month that will be launched in a special event at the National Theatre. It is my hope that the English-speaking world – theater owners and managers, critics, the public – will soon discover Levin’s genius and clamor for productions around the world. We truly all do need to hear what he has to say.