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A Horse Walks into a Bar interview

A Horse Walks into a Bar interview

David Grossman tells us he tried to play it cool when he discovered A Horse Walks into a Bar made the longlist, whilst Jessica Cohen describes how translation allows her to express the two languages she lives in.

This is part of our series of Man Booker International Prize 2017 longlist interviews.

David Grossman, author of A Horse Walks into a Bar

What has it been like to be longlisted? 

I tried to play it cool. That lasted for five seconds.

Can you give us a taste of your longlisted novel A Horse Walks into a Bar

A middle-aged stand-up comic is doing his act in a rundown club in a small provincial town in Israel. An audience that has come expecting an evening of amusement instead sees a comedian falling apart on stage; an act of disintegration. Watching him is another middle-aged man, a retired judge, who knew him as a child and whom the comic has asked to attend. Towards the end of his act the comic starts to tell the story of one of the defining moments in his life, one in which the judge, as a boy, was closely involved, exposing a wound he has been living with for years.

Is there an author from Israel you think should be translated into English? 

A Prayer After Midnight by Yaniv Iczkovits.


Jessica Cohen, translator of A Horse Walks into a Bar

What has it been like to be longlisted? 

I was excited to see this book longlisted for the award, and I’m very pleased that both David’s and my own work stood out among such a crowded selection of fantastic books this year. Since the Man Booker ‘brand’ is so well known and heavily publicised, I have received a lot of congratulations from friends and family all over the world who saw the news. It’s especially meaningful to me that this award does not simply mention the translator as an afterthought (which is the case with most literary awards) but gives equal billing to the translator, and it has been gratifying to receive so many congratulations and crossed fingers from my translator friends and colleagues. We translators tend to feel under-appreciated and we are also, in my experience, a supportive and mutually encouraging bunch, so it’s always exciting when a literary translator’s work is recognised.

What did you like most about translating A Horse Walks into a Bar?

My favorite thing to translate is usually dialogue, since that is where I get to truly embody a character and channel his or her persona through my own voice. It’s a bit like acting without having to get up on a stage in front of people, which is something I could never do. I also find that it’s more permissible, and in fact often essential, to take liberties with a character’s speech than it might be with narrative, where there is a greater responsibility to replicate the author’s own style. The bulk of A Horse Walks into a Bar consists of a stand-up comedy routine performed by the protagonist, and so this translation gave me the opportunity to translate a lot of dialogue—or, in this case, monologue. Grossman created an incredibly vivid, idiosyncratic character for this book, and I really enjoyed writing his English-speaking doppelganger.

You have said ‘[m]y identity is composed of multiple cultures in two languages.’ Could you tell us more about this? 

I was born to South African parents in England, where I spent my early childhood, moved to Israel at the age of seven, and lived there until I finished university, with a year-long stint in California at age fourteen. I have lived in the United States (in four different cities) for the past two decades. Having grown up speaking and reading English at home, and Hebrew almost everywhere else, I always felt that my bilingualism was not just about the languages I could speak: it was the foundation of my identity. Translation allows me to express the two languages I live in – and which live in me – through my vocation, and to attempt to bridge them in some way. That bridge, though, is an ongoing and likely never-ending construction project.