Do You Think Differently When You Write in Another Language?

One afternoon, when I was 22, I nervously asked my boss if I could attend a French writing workshop at the Alliance Française each week — during work hours. It was my first job out of college, and I worked as a copy editor at a daily financial newspaper covering the municipal-bond market. I was sure he would say no, but I made my pitch anyway. I mentioned that I had faithfully attended all sorts of classes on municipal bonds to become a more effective editor, and that I read financial newspapers religiously and listened to financial radio while making breakfast. I told him that bond lingo was like learning a language; I had worked hard to learn it. Similarly, it was important to me to keep up my French, and to write poetry in it. He looked at me quizzically.

All these skills, I seem to remember myself saying, were about language, and were therefore related. Poetry and bonds, French and English, it was the same thing.

There was a long silence.

And then, incredibly enough, the copy chief said yes.

He must have been amused that I dared ask. I was the youngest person in the newsroom. French poetry, of course, had nothing to do with what I was editing — stories about bond-fund managers, health-care finance and whatever individual muni bonds were selling well that week (there really was a column called “What’s Selling”). What I remember now, apart from his generosity, was the feeling of complete transformation I experienced when I entered French class. I wasn’t just leaving Wall Street for 60th Street for a few hours in the middle of the day. I became another person while spending two hours a week writing French poetry. I thought differently in French. I spoke differently. And I used entirely separate narrative structures. Each week, when my boss let me go, I was literally leaving both the newsroom and myself — before returning to find myself in my seat at the copy desk.

Since then, I have often heard bilingual writers discuss writing in another language as, in fact, becoming a different human being. Being able to leave yourself for a while is probably also what attracts many writers to translation. Perhaps John Dryden obsessed over Virgil and Saul Bellow devoted time to translating I.B. Singer in the hopes of being transformed into them for a little while — or at the very least, learning from their rhythms. And even though I no longer take French writing workshops, I still love to listen to writers discuss their experiences with language, and especially, moving between languages. I like hearing about the multiple persons in the writer.

But what happens when the languages in question are from cultures that don’t exactly get along? That question was what drew me to the public library in Iowa City recently to hear the Arab-Israeli writer Odeh Bisharat speak. Bisharat writes in both Arabic and Hebrew, and says he “loves them both”; he writes political columns for Haaretz in Hebrew, and is also a longtime contributor to the Arabic press in Israel, writing op-eds for Al-Atikhad. He wrote his first novel, “The Streets of Zatunia,” in Arabic, then translated it into Hebrew with the assistance of Moshe Ron, an emeritus professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

“The Streets of Zatunia” is both political and literary; in it, a relative convinces an Arab schoolteacher in a small Arab-Israeli village to run for office. Throughout the book, Arabic expressions have been transliterated and folded into the Hebrew, and asterisks at the bottom of the page explain the meaning to Hebrew readers.

This year, Bisharat is one of Israel’s two representatives at the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, which has hosted writers from 140 countries, many of whom have gone on to major careers. At the library, I waited for him to say that he is, perhaps, a different person in Arabic and Hebrew. Instead, he phrased it differently: He said he lives in four worlds: fiction, nonfiction, Hebrew and Arabic, and that he is in America in the hopes of entering a fifth world — the land of English.

I was intrigued. In conversation, and on the page, Bisharat is always shifting between two tongues. And in Iowa, maybe three tongues.

Bisharat first learned Hebrew at seven. “When I was 15, I could often be found waiting for the Hebrew newspapers, which came around noon,” he said. “In the ’70s and ’80s, the Internet did not exist and there were only a small number of TV channels. The wide world was in the Hebrew newspapers.”

This time, I didn’t have to ask a boss for permission to leave English for a few hours and walk into the wide world. I asked Bisharat if he would be willing to discuss language, knowing that the line between Arabic and Hebrew is more fraught than the distance from municipal-bond English to poetic French. He readily agreed.

This interview took place in Hebrew, at the upstairs café at Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City, where Bisharat had a macchiato and I had an herbal tea. I translated the interview into English and, after reading a transcript of it and folding in some Arabic, the author sent it back to me in an email. We laughed a lot as we walked through three languages, and three worlds, at once.

Aviya Kushner: It’s very rare to write in both Arabic and Hebrew. Why do you write in two languages? What do you love? How does it expand you?

Odeh Bisharat: One completes the other. I want to speak to Jewish citizens too, and I can’t do that in Arabic. I raise important questions, and I see that for them, too, raising these questions is very fruitful, and it brings us closer in the end.

In Arabic, I write literature, and this is part of me, it helps me express myself. In Hebrew, there is also the aspect of diyun, journalism.

I’m curious about words in Arabic that are not translatable into English. Is there a word or a few words that you think would help Jewish readers understand Arab reality?

These languages are truly neighbors. After the establishment of the state, many Arabs included Hebrew expressions in their language. And the same among Jews who adopted some Arabic phrases, and so the ideas and the curses are heard in both languages, and ring quite well in both Arab and Jewish ears.

Moshe [Moshe Ron, who co-translated “The Streets of Zatunia”] and I insisted that we would preserve certain Arabic expressions, but write them in Hebrew letters. We have an expression — what will the makeup artist do with the angry face? A nice face can still have something else behind it. I feel that Jews really want to know about Arabic language and Arabic culture.

On the first page of your novel, the Hebrew word *metach ***appears twice. In English that word translates as “pressure” or “stress.” Tell me about what this word means in Arabic, and how the connotation is similar to or different from what it is in Hebrew.**

To a large extent, there is the same meaning in both languages. In Arabic, the word is tawatter. The Hebrew and Arabic words both describe a situation in which people are under pressure, and perhaps because Arabs and Jews are under pressure, the words convey the same meaning. In Israel, we are always living under pressure — not just political pressure; life itself. It is the manner of life there.

Do you see any difference between the word *metach ***and** *lachatz, ***another Hebrew word that is also used to convey stress or pressure?**

Mostly, we treat these two words, stress and pressure, to indicate the same meaning. But I think there is a difference here: Lachatz is when you have, for example, to finish something in a short span of time, but the word metach has an element of trembling, of fear — an element of not knowing, of uncertainty, and this uncertainty is, mostly, something very negative. They are afraid that they will miss something.

Maybe our reality here is one of not knowing; we do not know what will happen tomorrow. You go to sleep at night and you don’t know what’s happening.

I loved how you quoted classical Arabic poetry during your talk at the library. How and why do you translate this poetry into Hebrew? Why do you think it’s important to translate centuries-old poetry like this?

Sometimes I write about classical poetry — I quote it. I want the Jewish public to understand it. Unfortunately, the two peoples know each other through conflict and through bloodshed. It’s time to recognize each other through heritage, through poets and writers and thinkers.

But, on the other hand, such poetry is difficult for Arabs too, because the poetry is more than 1,000 years old, and I, as a journalist, need to understand it very well in order to translate it. And so, through my columns, may Arab readers, too, learn about this poetry.

Who is the greatest of such poets, in your view?

The greatest poet is Abu at-Tayyib al-Mutanabbi al-Kindi. He lived in a very stormy era, and he has a wisdom that transcends time. He speaks about the human condition, beyond time and place. When I read his work, I feel he is speaking to me and this is his greatness. I feel that we are drinking coffee together.

I also love Al-Ma’arri, or Abu al-Allah Almari, from Syria. He was a philosopher and he was also quite a brave voice against the religious fanaticism of his day. The fanatic Islamists of today had the head of his statue beheaded three years ago.

You translated your novel from Arabic into Hebrew with the assistance of Moshe Ron. I’m interested in hearing about the experience of translating your *own ***work. What are the dangers? What are the advantages?**

To translate work, you need mastery of both languages. I have a strong command of Hebrew. What is good, in translating your own work, is that you can transmit what you want; someone else might miss some nuance. When I read it a second time, I think that perhaps I meant something else, and I correct myself.

I was very happy that Professor Moshe Ron edited the novel. My conscience was quiet. He suggested that I added certain things, and one suggestion was to add a chapter; he was very impressed that I agreed.

I hope you don’t mind if I end on a family note. Just because it was a favorite expression of my grandfather’s, who lived not far from you in the Galilee, I have to ask you aboutavir tzach, *which appears in your novel, in Hebrew translation. In English, we say “fresh air,” but the meaning of *avir tzachis a little stronger. Pure air, perhaps. Is there such an idea in Arabic too, and what is the phrase in Arabic?

In Arabic it’s hawa naki. So tzach in Arabic is naki, or clean. The expression is very common. I don’t know why — maybe because we have so much dust. On the other hand, in cold countries, houses are generally closed, and people want “fresh” air, which exists in nature.

I also noticed that the word “key”— muftah in Arabic and mafteyach in Hebrew comes from the verb “to open,” while in German the root of the word “key” — schlüssel — comes from the verb “to close.” The first word expresses openness and optimism, while the German word expresses isolation and pessimism. I think words also express certain living conditions.

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