As the man and the woman ascend the slope, the voice of Meir Shalev’s daughter, Zohar, rings out over the loudspeaker. The funeral has already begun, and a large crowd has gathered around the grave. The man stands to the side as the woman circles the crowd, trying to glimpse the grave, the family. She finally gives up and stands under a terebinth tree in bud. She fingers the bark, soft to the touch, faintly warm from the springtime sun. It is her fault for being late.
But this is not a story. The woman was me, neither friend nor family of beloved Israeli writer Meir Shalev, but translator of his last two books, My Wild Garden: Notes from a Writer’s Eden (Schocken Books, 2020) and Don’t Tell Your Brother, published in the original Hebrew a few months ago by the prestigious Am Oved publishing house. Shalev was a prolific writer of both fiction and nonfiction, of children’s books, and of biblical commentaries. Several novels were published in English, most notably 1988’s The Blue Mountain (translated into English in 1991 by Hillel Halkin), My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner (2009), and A Pigeon and a Boy (2006), the latter two both translated by Evan Fallenberg. An affectionate storyteller and commentator par excellence, Shalev wove his stories through with magical realism, biting humor, and a deep knowledge of the Israeli psyche.
I recently completed a translation of his final novel, Don’t Tell Your Brother, which is a characteristically satirical look at the delicate intermesh of family relationships in modern-day Israel and testimony to the complex nature of the shattered Zionist dream. It tells the story of Itamar Diskin, an Israeli-born immigrant to the United States who is conflicted about Israel and all it embodies.
Shalev and I rarely met. He invited me to visit him at his home in the Jezreel Valley after I finished translating My Wild Garden, but by then lockdown had arrived and the meeting never happened. This is not to say that I barely knew him on a personal level. Literary translation involves an intimacy with words, a deep connection to the writer’s soul and his thoughts. I spent months closeted in my home office, or poring over encyclopedias and botanical dictionaries in the Hebrew University library on Mount Scopus, while working on My Wild Garden, usually in the reference section but sometimes in one of the booths on the fourth floor in the humanities section, my back to a dusty window. It was quiet there, and gradually the voice of Meir Shalev, soft and springy as freshly baked bread, began speaking to me.
My initial connection to this particular book was our shared love of nature. I live in the Ella Valley, a rare oasis of forest and fields, my home for more than 20 years. When the opportunity arose to translate this beautifully illustrated book of nonfiction, I was excited. This was right up my alley, or at least my garden, although from the beginning I was aware it would be a challenge. Shalev’s writing is punctilious, steeped in biblical and mythological meaning, bursting with detailed descriptions of the garden he nurtured over the years. I discovered Hebrew words I had never come across before. What is the difference between one variety of fig and another? In Hebrew, the words are meticulous: the verb le’erot, for example, which refers to the act of plucking figs from a tree, is grounded in the word for light, orr, since figs must be picked as early in the day as possible. In spring, parallel to translating the book, I would rise early and circle the gnarled fig tree in my own garden, my head tipped back, my eyes searching for perfectly ripe figs. If I was lucky, I’d beat the birds.
I make it a rule never to read a book before translating it; a few pages are typically enough for me to know if this one is for me. This approach helps to capture and retain the sparkle of a first reading, that edge of excitement as a good book unfolds. As I began translating, My Wild Garden: A Writer’s Eden became my own translator’s Eden. In Hebrew, there’s a phrase for when you really like something: L’oof al zeh—literally, to fly on something. I flew on Shalev’s words and considered them obsessively—not just while sitting at my desk but also while driving to buy groceries, paying attention to the wildflowers growing on the verges, lupines standing tall in a blaze of purple on Route 6, pale pink cyclamen peeping out shyly between crevices in an old stone wall.
I learned that adama, Hebrew for land and soil and also earth, shares its roots with dam, blood in Hebrew, and also Adam, created out of the earth in the first chapter of the Bible. So, I walked barefoot on the adama of my own modest garden (yes, Shalev uses this exact adjective to describe his own garden), checking on the lemons and pomegranates, trailing particles of soil back into the house. In the chapter entitled “Barefoot,” he writes: “[U]sually modern [people are] afraid, abstaining from unmediated contact with the earth not merely out of caution but as another expression of the sterility that has penetrated our lives in all kinds of ways and through all kinds of doors.” Shalev philosophizes gently on this matter, continuing: “I enjoy the feeling of freedom that a bare foot gives its owner. It is no coincidence that manoul, the word for ‘lock’ in Hebrew, and na’al, ‘shoe,’ share the same root, whose meaning is ‘closure’ or ‘imprisonment.’”
Hebrew is a language with roots, physical ones, and the Bible is everywhere. So many words have historical meanings in the Hebrew language, and on my walks in the forest near my home, I’m now intrinsically aware of this. Nature is not just beautiful but bears social and historical consequences as well. My own exploration of the forest near my home now uncovers secrets I never knew existed: the olive and carob trees planted by those who lived here before me; the ancient wine press, its rock flattened by years of rain, harsh sun, and the feet of those who trod here before me; and the rows of prickly pear, planted by Palestinian farmers to discourage intruders, known as sabra in Hebrew, sabaar in Arabic. This shrub, Shalev remarks, “is neither Arab nor Jew, neither a Zionist nor an anti-Zionist […] It is Native-Mexican, brought to Europe by the Spanish at the beginning of the sixteenth century.”
There’s a dark joke among translators that the upside of working on a book by a dead writer is that the writer can’t argue with your translation. Now Meir Shalev is gone, but his words are indelibly printed in my mind—when I walk through the forest, when I water the soil of my garden, and most of all when I circle the fig tree, ever watchful for the birds.
Joanna Chen is a writer and literary translator whose work has been published in Guernica, Asymptote, and Narratively, among others. Her latest full-length translation, The Mulberry Tree, is forthcoming from Shearsman Books in 2024.