Pierre Pe’er Friedmann and the challenges of bringing Czech writing to readers in Israel

Pe’er Friedmann is currently the only active literary translator from Czech into Hebrew. It was his enthusiasm for Karel Čapek, the best-loved Czech writer of the 1920s and 30s, that first brought him from Tel Aviv to Prague eight years ago, and he has been here ever since. In the Czech Republic there is a lively interest in contemporary Israeli writing and at the same time Pe’er has been battling to encourage Israeli publishers to take more interest in Czech literature. He spoke to David Vaughan.

Pierre Pe’er Friedmann, photo: Valerie Rosa HetzendorfováPierre Pe’er Friedmann, photo: Valerie Rosa Hetzendorfová Pupils at the Lauder Jewish School in Prague are lucky to have Pe’er Friedmann – or Pierre, as most people know him here – as one of their teachers. His enthusiasm for literature and for the art of translating between languages and cultures is infectious. Pe’er’s interest in Czech literature is broad, from the pre-war humanism of Karel Čapek to Jáchym Topol, the novelist who has probably done more than any other to enrich the Czech literary language of our own time. When I met Pe’er, I began by asking him about the seeds of his interest in things Czech.

“I really liked Czech literature when I was young and during my studies at Tel Aviv University I decided that I wanted to write my thesis on Karel Čapek.”

So that means that people in Israel read Czech literature…

“They read some Czech literature. They read Čapek, they read Kundera, and there are some authors that were translated into Hebrew. Those authors are popular, but to say that Czech literature is being read in Israel is a bit of an overstatement and to say that it is being translated into Hebrew is an overstatement as well.”

And you are interested in Karel Čapek. Internationally he is well known, but he is not quite a household name. What was it that appealed to you about him? He’s always been an author on the boundary between fiction and drama, and journalism.

“In Israel he is known solely as a writer who wrote prose. I was the first person to translate something different by him. I translated Kritika slov – The Criticism of Words – and that was first time that something more journalistic by Čapek was translated.”

What is it about?

“The Criticism of Words is a very small book about the way we misuse language in order to prove our point instead of saying what we mean… if that makes sense.”

It does make sense and it seems to be very relevant to our own time as well.

“True, true. I think that every politician and journalist should read The Criticism of Words. Maybe we should all read it to know how we are being manipulated by language.”

Is Čapek what made you want to learn the Czech language?

“I read Čapek in translation. I read the little that was available in Hebrew and then I decided that I wanted to write my thesis on him. I realised that it might be appropriate to know a few words in the Czech language, so I enrolled on a Czech course at Tel Aviv University.”

That must mean that Czech is taught at the university, which is good news.

“It’s actually bad news. Czech was taught at Tel Aviv University. I think that for the past eight years it isn’t taught any more. I was one of the only students there and definitely one of the last students who took this course.”

That’s very sad, also because of the historical links between this country and Israel.

“That’s true. I think that many Israelis know about the help that the young state of Israel got from the Czechoslovak state, but other than those aeroplanes I don’t think many Israelis know much about these relations, which were also interrupted in the 60s and 70s.”

Up until fairly recently it would have been quite common to meet people in Israel who spoke Czech.

Pierre Pe’er Friedmann, photo: archive of Pierre Pe’er FriedmannPierre Pe’er Friedmann, photo: archive of Pierre Pe’er Friedmann “I don’t know how common it is. It’s actually a very small community of Czechoslovak immigrants to Israel. Ruth Bondy, the first lady of Czech literature in Israel, claimed that is the reason why there are no more translators of Czech literature into Hebrew and why it isn’t being taught at the university, because there is no one to pressure anyone to make it happen.“

So, you learned Czech and for the last eight years you’ve been living in the Czech Republic.

“I got a scholarship from the Czech Ministry of Education thanks to Čapek and my thesis. Then I got it two more times and I’ve been here ever since.”

What have you been doing while you’ve been here?

“I translate Czech literature into Hebrew and I also teach Hebrew at the Lauder School in Prague.”

That’s the Jewish secondary school…

“It’s actually the only Jewish school in the Czech Republic. We have everything from Kindergarten up to high school.”

And I know that you’ve done some pretty interesting projects with your students. For example, you’ve been translating poetry with them from Hebrew into Czech.

“The high school students have to choose two seminars about Judaism every year, because we are a Jewish school. Three years ago, I had one seminar about Hebrew literature, which became a seminar about Hebrew poetry. I offered them some themes they could write about, and one option was to pick three or four poems and translate them into Czech – which they did magnificently. And then my boss came up with the idea of making a little book out of it.”

And that actually happened. We have the book here in front of us.

“We have the book. It then became a year-long workshop about translation, about Hebrew, about literature and about what we have to take into consideration when we translate poetry. Now we have a book with about a hundred pages, an illustrated book of Hebrew poetry in Czech.”

On several occasions recently I’ve been told that there are certain similarities between the Slavonic languages and Hebrew. What are the specifics of translating from Hebrew into Czech?

“There are similarities. There is a professor in Israel whose thesis is that modern Hebrew is actually a Slavic language. It kind of makes sense, because modern Hebrew was reinvented or resurrected in this part of the world. But to say that there is really a connection between Czech and Hebrew is overstating it. They are really very different languages and I think a translator’s work from Czech to Hebrew and vice-versa is quite difficult.”

To come back to your own work as a translator, you’ve talked about Karel Čapek. I know you have also translated several books by a writer who in many ways could not be more different from Karel Čapek – the contemporary novelist Jáchym Topol.

“Jáchym Topol was a really difficult author to translate, because Hebrew doesn’t have the same register of the spoken or informal language. Basically, I had to invent this register. There are other problems, because one sentence can have Czech, Russian and Belarusian, which for the Czech reader makes sense. You can understand something from these sentences. But I cannot put Russian or Belarusian into my Hebrew translation and it doesn’t work to use slang words from Yiddish or from Arabic…”

… because that would put the book into a completely different context.

“Exactly.”

Jáchym Topol, photo: Vojtěch Havlík/Czech RadioJáchym Topol, photo: Vojtěch Havlík/Czech Radio In the second of Jáchym Topol’s books that you’ve translated, Chladnou zemí – in the published English translation it’s called The Devil’s Workshop – you have a theme that is directly connected with the Holocaust, with the Terezín Ghetto and the horrors of what happened in Belarus during the war. Was that the reason why you chose to translate the book?

“I didn’t even choose to translate it, though I’m glad that I had the chance. The book actually didn’t come out in Israel and probably will not come out. The publishing house lost the publishing rights after waiting for eight years with it, because, as they put it, ‘it’s never a good enough time to publish this book.’ It’s a magnificent novel, I think, in which Topol really examines the roots of evil. It takes place in today’s Terezín and today’s Belarus, and it really saddens me that the Hebrew reader won’t be able to read it.”

Another writer you have translated is Ladislav Fuks. I think he is one of the great post-war Czech writers, but he isn’t as well known internationally as he should be. His classic is a book called Spalovač mrtvol – The Cremator in English – which is about a man who works in a crematorium. It’s a wonderfully and horribly grotesque book, in which he gets drawn into doing more and more dreadful things, ultimately killing his entire family.

“After the first time I read this book – because I read it a number of times – I realised that it has to be published in Hebrew. I had a meeting with the biggest publisher in Israel, Zmora-Bitan, I brought them the entire English translation and told them, ‘Just read it and you will want to publish it.’ Two or three weeks after that they called me and told me, ‘Yes, we want it translated.’ Ladislav Fuks in that book is extraordinary, because you don’t feel that you are reading a book about the Holocaust, you don’t feel that you are reading about the Second World War, even though the book is indeed about that. It’s so rich and there are so many tricks that Fuks uses there to manipulate the reader. You grow so fond of this horrible character that you don’t realise, right until the end, what exactly is going on.”

In the Czech Republic I think that there is quite a lot of interest in Israel and Israeli literature. If a book by an Israeli writer comes out people will be interested and there is quite a readership here. Have you been part of that process of getting people interested in contemporary Israeli writers?

“Not so much. I do the opposite direction, but you are right. It is amazing to me how popular Israeli literature is in the Czech Republic. There are at least six translators that I know about who translate from Hebrew into Czech and they work non-stop. They translate back-to-back and they always know what the next translation will be. But it does not work the other way. I am currently the only living translator of Czech literature into Hebrew and I have nothing on my table.”

Who are the Israeli writers who Czech readers are particularly interested in?

“I think that the big names are popular here, as they are almost all over the world: Amos Oz, David Grossman, A. B. Yehoshua. It’s interesting though that there are younger authors, not so well known worldwide, that are being translated into Czech. We just had Ayelet Gundar-Goshen here. The Czech reader has a really good impression of contemporary Israeli literature, whereas the Israeli reader doesn’t know anything about contemporary Czech literature.”

As an Israeli living in Prague and speaking Czech, do you feel at home here? Do you encounter prejudice – anti-Semitism or other peculiar reactions when you say where you’re from?

“The most peculiar reaction is that people are too fond of Israel and have virtually no criticism of things that should be criticised! I don’t think that there is anti-Semitism in the Czech Republic, and as an Israeli it actually surprised me. I remember almost a decade ago, when I’d just started with the Czech language, I went to Brno for a summer school of the Czech language. It was the first time I’d met so many people from all over the world in one place. And I remember being really surprised that they were all nice to me and no one was prejudiced, because in Israel you are practically being taught that they all want to kill us! I am exaggerating, of course.”

You mean all the Central Europeans?

“All the world is against us. Everyone’s against us. That’s the Israeli ethos! [laughs]. But it’s not like that.”

There is quite a lot of overt anti-Islamic sentiment in this country – paradoxically, given that there are virtually no Muslims in the Czech Republic. Does that shock you as well?

“It really does. I think that the average Czech person never stood next to a man who stood next to a Muslim. The amount of hatred – or fear, rather than hatred – in the Czech Republic really does amaze me.”

Fear of the unknown?

“Fear of the other.”

In a way that is what literature is about – and especially translating literature: overcoming the fear of the other.

“True. I think that translators tend to be more understanding for the other in general. I know many other translators who feel the same. Once you get involved in one culture you almost naturally start to be open to more cultures or many other cultures as well.”