Smadar’s Herzfeld’s novel Trail of Miracles, translated by Aloma Halter, follows Gittel, a Ukrainian, Hasidic, Jewish woman as she makes a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage and discovers the unique gifts she brings to the world. The lyric beauty of Gittel’s voice will mesmerize readers into following her on her Trail of Miracles.
- Smadar, I am curious about people’s reactions to Gittel’s story and her empowering faith? What do you hope Gittel’s journey teaches people?
I think that Gittel’s journey has a lot to teach about patience. And understanding that life is like a ladder, like Jacob’s ladder, it goes up and down at the same time. There’s a layer that is humdrum, that’s sort of descending, and at the same time there’s a layer of spirit and angels, and that’s the layer that’s ascending.
I hope that Gittel’s journey will open people up to this possibility.
- What role does the miraculous play in your own life?
I sometimes also have a very active state of visions through dreams. For example, I have spoken and seen and talked to my grandmother in dreams. This is the grandmother who appears in Trail of Miracles.
Once, long ago, when I was a young child, I must have been around six at the time, I knew that my great-grandfather was going to die that night. He was blind, and he had a long, white beard. A really long beard. And I told my family: “Grandfather is going to die tonight.” As indeed he did. My family was astonished, but I couldn’t explain to them how I knew it – I just knew it.
As for the spiritual plane – I personally believe in the dimension of miracles as opposed to the everyday, logical plane or dimension – and that’s one of the reasons why I’m attracted to Jerusalem, where I feel this presence almost on a daily basis.
- I would love to know more about how Smadar and Aloma worked on translating Trail of Miracles. What process did you use to work together and shape this beautiful book?
Smadar: We had a process – we learned how to work on it. Each of us brought our own material – and together we discussed it and came to a kind of synthesis. Using both intuition and association thrown on the table.
Aloma: On the practical dimension, I would translate a chunk of text, and revise that and go over it a few times, and when it was ready I’d call Smadar. We’re lucky in that we both live in south Jerusalem, so it was easy to meet up. We’d go over that part of the text, discuss it, make changes, and work on it together.
Sometimes I’d mark parts of the text for further reflection because our discussion had made it clear that I needed to come up with a different or a better solution. But it was very exciting working together – very creative.
- Which passage did you find the most difficult to agree on?
Smadar: The hardest passage in the book is when Gittel has the vivid dream that she is standing before the Heavenly court, hearing that they want to claim her husband, to pull him over to death and away from the living, and she’s arguing, pleading, shouting at them that they should let him to live out more years on earth. She’s still a teenager, barely more than a girl herself, yet she has this inner strength.
She’s a newly-wed wife, her husband does not treat her kindly, and yet she pleads for his life, and she gets the death sentence delayed. It is staved off for a score of years.
This is a scene that demands a high level of emotional participation, we didn’t argue over it, but we discussed it extensively.
Aloma: Yes, this is a fascinating scene, and I was intrigued that Gittel should plead so passionately for her husband’s life. After all, he never gave her any pleasure. He was a strange, bony, uncommunicative person. Probably ‘on the spectrum’ as we would say today. He practically rapes her when he makes love to her for the first time – she’s only twelve. He never talks to her, he does nothing to make this homesick girl he has married feel more at home in a strange household, full of strangers, a strange environment that is so far from her own home, he does nothing to ease her loneliness or pain, he shows no affection for her two sons – there’s really no earthly reason why she shouldn’t have said to the Heavenly Court: Take him! And the sooner the better!
The fact of the matter is that for all his kindness and wisdom and conviviality toward her, the Maggid of Mezerich used Gittel, he used her because he knew that she was the only person who could extend the life of his sickly son. So he would live long enough to have children. And when she was old, and she sat thinking about her life and writing things down here and then, she understood that she had been used by the person with whom she had had the closest emotional ties. She understood, and it was painful. This is the pivot of the story, everything depends on it.
- Aloma, what does it take to maintain the lyric beauty of Smadar’s writing while switching languages?
Well, thank you for that!
It was certainly my aim to try to maintain the beauty of Smadar’s writing. Her prose here is very special. Very close to poetry.
I did find it a big challenge to keep the language in English as simple and humble as the Hebrew – which is a language that is better at simplicity than English is. English has many more words than Hebrew, a vast choice, so English is perfect for complexity. But you have to work hard to achieve simplicity in English. And Smadar’s writing in this book is very finely honed, very poetic. She has thought carefully about each sentence, crafted each phrase. I have so much respect for that. There’s nothing superfluous in Smadar’s writing. So I had to work hard at it, but I found it very inspiring and I loved Gittel’s voice, and the way that Smadar had framed the narrative within the frame of her grandmother’s voice.
In general anyway, I think it’s the craft of a translator to erase all signs of herself, of her having been there doing the work of translation. For example not to use showy words, even if they happen to be the mot juste – words which will stick out of the text, sort of head and shoulders above other words, calling attention to the translation rather than to the text. I think a translator has done his or her work well when you don’t know it’s a translation. It’s like being a tracker, and erasing all signs of your own footprints as you follow what you are tracking. The best thing a translator can do is not be there when it’s finished. To be a tracker.
- What does it take to inhabit the “voice” of someone else’s story?
Smadar: The story has two layers of ‘inhabiting the voice of someone else’s story’. There is first of all my layer: inhabiting my grandmother’s voice, and through her, Gittel’s. And then there is Aloma’s layer, where she has to inhabit my voice, the author’s, and Gittel’s voice.
Of course, it’s a novelist’s job to ‘inhabit’ other characters. That’s what we do. But in fact, some of the strongest books have been written when the writer inhabits his or her character, and finally faces themselves. And here I’m thinking about Marguerite Duras’ The Lover, or Truman Capote’s writing.
Aloma: For me inhabiting the voice of someone else’s story is just a variation on what translation is all about anyway. And that’s one of the things I love about translation: the total absorption in someone else’s fiction is like taking a holiday from yourself, you temporarily quit thinking from inside yourself and you think from inside someone else’s mind.
About TRAIL OF MIRACLES
Inspired by the evocative and intimate true story of Gittel, a remarkable woman whose faith led her to make an unthinkable sacrifice.
The daughter of a Torah scholar in eighteenth-century Ukraine, Gittel has always accepted her place in a family steeped in religion. Married at age twelve to a cold and reclusive rabbi, the young bride gives birth to two sons destined to follow their father’s path. Finding very little comfort in family life, Gittel shares her dreams, visions, and a close spiritual understanding with her only confidant: her father-in-law, the Maggid of Mezeritch.
When Gittel loses those close to her one by one, she decides to leave her old life behind, including her sons, to set out on a lonesome and perilous journey to Jerusalem. Will she sacrifice everything in pursuit of the dream of her youth?
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Brandi Megan Granett is an author, Kaplan University professor, and writing coach. She earned her Ph.D. in Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University and her MFA in Fiction from Sarah Lawrence College. Her latest novel, Triple Love Score, was published by Wyatt-Mackenzie in Fall 2016. Morrow published her first novel, My Intended, in 2000. Her short fiction appeared in Pebble Lake Review, Folio, Pleiades, and other literary magazines and is collected in the volume, Cars and Other Things That Get Around. She writes an author interview series for the Huffington Post. When she is not writing or teaching or mothering, you will find her on the archery range.
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