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(photo credit: Maxim Reider)
Despite the approximately one million native Russian speakers living in the country, few Israelis have bothered to learn the language in which much of the world's great literature is written. But young Israeli intellectual Roee Chen, 27, took the time to study something new.
Though he began as a Hebrew poet and writer, he has morphed into a translator. He has converted into Hebrew pieces by Russian absurdist Daniil Kharms, by refined stylist Ivan Bunin, by Fyodor Dostoevsky and by classical Gulag short story writer Varlam Shalamov. And that's in addition to more than 30 plays.
His latest endeavor is Alexander Pushkin's Little Tragedies, commissioned by Malenky Theater, one of the best local fringe ensembles. The show runs later this week at Gesher's Hangar in Tel Aviv.
Don't you think that translating Pushkin is kind of a hutzpa? For Russians, Pushkin's name is as holy as that of [Avraham] Shlonsky's for Israelis?
Not at all. Translating from ancient Greek would be a hutzpa, because that's a language I don't know. But I do know Russian. I see it as holy work - to bring this wonderful literature closer to people.
What was wrong with Shlonsky's translation of Pushkin, which is regarded as a classic?
Nothing was wrong, his is a great translation, but the times have changed, the Hebrew language has changed. In a way, Shlonsky was a prisoner of his time. The problem is with the Hebrew, not Shlonsky himself; there are things in Shlonsky's piece that have nothing to do with the spirit of Pushkin's poetry.
Also, the existing translation was not really suitable for stage. I looked at the text and saw that there were a few things that I could make more clear, more precise. Once I could only read Pushkin, now I can work with him.
CHEN'S LOVE of the Russian language was born a decade ago. "I grew up partly on Russian literature, and 10 years ago, at 17, I suddenly realized that there were about a million Russians here. I thought I might find Mikhail Lermontov's disillusioned hero, Pechorin, of the 19th century classic A Hero of Our Time, among them."
While he still hasn't found his Pechorin - the times have changed, and people with them - he has encountered many new friends. "It turns out that the Russians are very open; you need only knock on the door. They brought me their books, CDs, movies. Only thanks to them have I reached my current level of the language; it would have been impossible to achieve it alone."
Despite being entrenched in Russian in Israel, Chen does not see himself as "an internal emigrant."
"An emigrant denies his own culture and adopts a new one. I have never denied the Hebrew culture, but the past was what I missed. European culture is consistent; there, you have generations of writers, of fathers and sons, following one another. And here we have a New Jew - an Israeli without any past, because our Diaspora past was seen as humiliating and simply wrong."
But now Chen is back to his native culture.
"As a writer, I have no problem populating Tel Aviv's streets with all kinds of characters. Now I see that they suit it perfectly, and Tel Aviv has become a live being for me, exactly like Petersburg for Russian authors. Even more than that - while almost everything has been written in Russian, here this is a very new world."
Chen, who is also fluent in English and French, says he prefers friends who are bilingual, at minimum. "Learning one more language is like living one more life, these people are more interesting to me."
He is married to a successful Russian graphic and stage designer, Polina Adamova. "I speak Hebrew with my parents, with myself and with my son, but I really want him to carry on the Russian language."
The Little Tragedies, by Pushkin, plays at Gesher's Hangar in Tel Aviv January 17, 18 and 31 at 8:30 p.m. For reservations: (03) 681-3131.
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