Translator's Note: Curriculum Vitae
BY PETER COLE
Yoel Hoffmann's newest book, Curriculum Vitae, like most of his previous writing, engineers odd combinations of creatures and cultures while negotiating precipitous shifts of syntax, mode, and mood. All of these are deployed—on, as it were, a parallel plane of existence—in a hymn to what curiously comes to resemble life itself. Hoffmann's shimmering fiction takes shape as a series of kaleidoscopic fragments, and while a story line always lurks, the essential propulsion derives from association of sense and sound. The original Hebrew is published with full vocalization (something reserved in a literary context for verse), and ample white space surrounds the blocks of prose. In short, his work might best be characterized as fiction for lovers of poetry and poetry for lovers of fiction.
Hoffmann's language seems to have tunneled its way into Israel from afar, and often it feels as though it were being heard through non-native ears. Born in Transylvania, Yoel Hoffmann came to Palestine at the age of one with his Austrian-Jewish parents who were fleeing the Nazis. His prose is laced with German, Hungarian, and other foreign lexical items, and that mix is further complicated by the author's deep and lifelong engagement with Japanese culture. In addition to nine volumes of fiction (six have been translated into English), Hoffmann has also published an anthology of Japanese death poems and a now-classic collection called The Sound of the One Hand, which contains answers to the traditional Zen koans.
Translating Hoffmann is much like reading him: it creates in one precisely the sort of attention required to enter the work. Perhaps that's why his prose feels so magical. In any event, finding a way to let that magic inform the translation—so that it determines, like the contours of his characters' thoughts, the effects and figures of the English—is, with Hoffmann, the primary problem. It is also the primary pleasure.—PC