The Wall Street Journal reports on an Israeli novel about the liquidation of a Palestinian village during the Nakba, which was published 65 years ago and has been translated into English for the first time. My friends Adina Hoffman and Peter Cole had a major hand in commissioning and editing the translation.
In 1949, the publication of a short novel “Khirbet Khizeh,” about the forceful evacuation of a Palestinian village by Israeli soldiers, created a stir in the newly established state of Israel. Now, 65 years later, the controversial Hebrew classic by S. Yizhar is taking on a new life in English.
On Tuesday, Farrar, Straus and Giroux published a new edition of the book’s first English translation, by Nicholas de Lange and Yaacob Dweck. Commissioned several years ago by a small Jerusalem-based nonprofit press, Ibis Editions, the translation gained a wider audience with a U.K. edition from Granta in 2011. Now, FSG hopes the book catches on in the U.S.
The story follows an Israeli soldier in the war of 1948, whose company has been ordered to remove the Palestinian villagers from the fictional town of Khirbet Khizeh. Dense and lyrical, with long passages on the beauty of the landscape, the book describes the soldiers’ systematic rounding up of villagers—mostly women, children, and the very old. Recounted years later by a narrator with an uneasy conscience, it begins, “True, it all happened a long time ago, but it has haunted me ever since.”
The novella has a history of controversy in Israel. Published just months after the country’s founding, and in the wake of World War II, the book struck a chord, particularly with its descriptions of soldiers forcing villagers into exile. “Khirbet Khizeh” became a best-seller in Israel and, during the late 1970s, debate flared over whether a television adaptation should be broadcast.
“It’s one of the great short novels in modern Hebrew literature. And everyone thinks it’s wonderful as a piece of writing. But it’s deeply disturbing,” said the co-translator Mr. de Lange, a professor emeritus of Hebrew and Jewish studies at Cambridge University. “The Israelis are portrayed really like Nazis.”
Peter Cole and his wife, Adina Hoffman, who co-edited the Ibis English translation,
had been looking since the late ’90s for a translator for “Khirbet Khizeh.” “Several translators over the years wanted to try their hand at it. We always told them to do a page,” Mr. Cole wrote in an email from Jerusalem. “But nothing came remotely close to satisfying us.”
Part of the problem was the novella’s challenging prose. “Yizhar is a high stylist, whose Hebrew runs the gamut from soldiers’ slang to biblically inflected description,” Mr. Cole explained. In addition to conveying a sensibility that ranges from highly refined to slangy, as well as lines rich with literary allusion, aspiring translators faced the job of preserving the slightly antiquated 1940s-era language.
Eventually, the couple reached out to Mr. de Lange, who worked with his former student, Mr. Dweck, now an assistant professor at Princeton University, to complete the translation. “Nothing has happened in the some sixty-five years since its publication that is not somehow accounted for or foreseen in the book,” Mr. Cole wrote.
Unless I can twist Adina’s and Peter’s arm to myself a free copy from them, I’m definitely buying this.