Of heroes, superheroes and the ICON festival

Tarzan loved Jane, John Carter  loved Dejah Thoris. That was way back in 1912, but their love never died, it lives on in us, in the minds of readers. Since then, Clark Kent loved Lois Lane, Han Solo fell for Princess Leia, Rick Deckard chose to be with Rachael, Strider loved Arwen, and on it goes. Love doesn’t only make this world go around, it makes far away planets and mythical kingdoms go round, too.

Not that there aren’t good sci-fi and fantasy stories that have nothing to do with love-and-marriage, horse-and-carriage. Asimov and numerous others made little or no use of romantic plots. Still, love goes a long way to captivating an audience.

A case in point is the recent short story competition for the Einat award , as part of the ICON festival . Fifty-five stories were submitted, of which 10 made the short-list, and of those, several had romantic themes, to greater or lesser extents. The winner – When Winter Ends ("Besof HaHoref"), by Yoni (f.) Goldstein, was doubtlessly the most romantic of all. Not that this in itself accounts for its winning; the story has a – forgive the pun – winning quality; it's well-crafted, well-written, and quite obviously not written by a teenager. It is a touching story, heart-warming, and, in my opinion, unabashedly romantic.

But let me get back to John Carter. I'm nearly ashamed to say that I only made his acquaintance recently. As a kid, I devoured every Tarzan comic book I could lay my hands on (in Hebrew); maybe John Carter's Martian tales hadn't been translated into Hebrew at the time. I found the entire series (in English, of course) on my mother's bookshelves only a few years ago. So far, I've read only the first one – A princess of Mars, of which we have two copies, two different editions with a different jacket:
John rescuing Dejah from Barsoom Tharks
A more modest visual version of the protagonists

Guys, let me tell you – John Carter puts to shame Jason Bourne and Indiana Jones combined! In 159 pages of tight, old-fashioned English, he packs in adventure after adventure, fights and narrow escapes, acts of cunning, courage and daring. Not to mention falling in love with and rescuing the beautiful and brave Princess of Helium, Dejah Thoris.

Some things change, some don't. Plots have become more sophisticated, violence more graphic, characters less chivalrous. But whether on Earth or in faraway galaxies, love remains. Amen.

When not to rewrite

In recent months I was involved in two projects where I itched to improve the original writing. One was a non-fiction book about the bible and its interpretation; the other was the memoirs of a Jewish man who lived in Poland and Russia during World War II and survived to tell the tale – and what a tale it is!

In the first book, which I shall call BAIT (the Bible As I see It), I was asked to translate a couple of chapters from Hebrew to English, with the intent of sending the sample to a publisher abroad who had expressed an interest.

The second book, which I shall call J's Memoirs, was originally written in Polish, then translated into English and edited (sort of); I was asked to do further editing, mainly with regard to all the "weird" Polish names.

In both cases, I was tempted to do far more than I was asked, and in both cases, the client put a definite damper on me.

Case #1 – BAIT

The writer, an elderly gentleman, came from a religious family, but early on in childhood became disenchanted with the god known as Jehovah and would have nothing further to do with him. Nonetheless, later on in life he found himself drawn to the Bible and read it very carefully, trying to figure out its power over people, and to what extent it should be taken at face value. A huge, ambitious attempt, to be sure; one which he approached with gusto, a critical eye and ear, and considerable imagination.

The two chapters I read and translated were unusual, unorthodox, interesting, and at times funny. But one thing was very clear: the author was not an accomplished writer, and if he wanted to hook a publisher, the two chapters would benefit greatly (in my opinion) from some polishing.

How presumptuous of me!

The client, upon reading my first draft, foamed at the mouth. How dare I put words in his mouth, and add a sentence that wasn't in the Hebrew, and change his words! I was merely a translator, and my job was simply to convert his Hebrew text into correct English – no more, no less. With ill grace he accepted a few changes I proposed on the grounds that the non-Israeli, non-Jewish reader might misunderstand. Any other improvements of his prose were contemptuously thrown out the window. Last I heard, he hadn't found a publisher.

Case#2 – J's Story

The story itself was fascinating, if you ignore the beginning that describes in detail the layout of J's family home, the neighbors, the aunts and uncles, etc. J didn't have to invent any adventures or quirky characters to make his story interesting. His struggle to survive during the war comes through in his short, matter-of-fact sentences. He does not hypothesize or philosophize, he just tells it as it is, or was. Like the author of BAIT, he was not especially good with words, not a born storyteller. It would have been more "fun" for me, more "creative", to add some color to his prose, to make his sentences more elegant or sophisticated. But his widow said a flat "no": she wanted to maintain the authenticity of her husband's voice. I was expected to correct the grammar where necessary, add the absolute minimum of clarification, and make sure the English spelling of Polish names was logical and consistent. We also agreed which names had to be left in their original Polish spelling, e.g. Janusz Korczak, Wladyslaw Gomulka, Grzegorz Dzierzgowski, and others. But, considering that the target audience was mostly the writer's American family, there was no justification for maintaining the Polish spellings of names of Jewish writers such as Sholom Aleichem or David Frishman. Another consideration, of course, was how members of the family currently spell their name; if a branch of the family spells its name Brodecki, say, rather than Brodetsky, so be it.

Moral of the story: Before you embark on heavy editing or rewriting, make sure you know what the client wants and expects, and-- preferably -- why.