in background is large concrete apartment block; in foreground is bright orange and white exterior of paint store lit up by afternoon sun

Rough Hands, Tender Souls

Late in the process of translating a novel, in trying to work out the best way of expressing in English a metaphorical turn of phrase by the narrator, I asked the author earnestly:

Regarding the sandpapery hands, are the mosquito and hornet the tender souls in this image?

And the author responded:

nobody but us would ever make any sense of this question 😂😂😂😂😂

That exchange, and the contrast, make me think about how I’ve been handling the novel itself throughout the translation process. Manhandling its tender soul. From the first moment of picking up the closed box of the novel (unexpectedly heavy for its size) and shaking it — first gently, then more vigorously — to get a sense of how many parts it has, how tightly or loosely connected they are, what they’re made of.

Then opening the box, thrusting a hand in, rummaging around, taking hold of characters and situations one by one. Feeling them up, squeezing (gently!), grasping, getting a grip.

I began the first draft in November, then had to put it aside for other obligations, and I described the unease of stopping part way as a feeling that the characters were stuck in a loop, repeating the last action or expressing the last thought I translated them performing or uttering. Or that characters who’d been introduced but not been seen for a while were chilling out in a waiting room in some corner of my skull, listing through back issues of magazines, or biding their time backstage in a greenroom sipping coffee, trying not to touch their face (not to mess up their pancake make-up, sheesh, COVID-19 wasn’t even a blip on our radar back then), twirling their hair, fidgeting, waiting. “Is my cue ever coming?”

And then what about my tender soul being slapped around by the harsh realities of the novel? (And tickled by the pleasant ones, of course, but I’m cherry-picking for the sake of the metaphor.) I think of my work not as translating words but as depicting in English the images I see and the sensations I feel when reading the original. So there I am wandering around in the imagined spaces of the novel, straining to hear a conversation in a dizzying nightclub, jostling my way through a crowded outdoor market, cautiously opening doors in an abandoned apartment, ducking when the crystal starts flying. Studying the faces of the characters — are they sincere, are they joking, what are they hiding? We translators can be bruised by the things we see and feel in the work we translate, especially those of us who have never known deprivation or seen war first hand.

Just as readers can. If we’ve done our jobs well.

Catherine the Great and the Small
translated by Paula Gordon and Ellen Elias-Bursać
from Katarina, Velika i Mala by Olja Knežević (VBZ, Zagreb).

Coming soon from Istros Books, London.

Read an excerpt of the translation in Trafika Europe 17.

Read an excerpt of the original.

Message to our valued clients, March 2020

Dear Clients,

Here at Plan B, the health and well-being of our clients is a top priority, second only to your satisfaction with the translation and editing services we provide.

We understand you may have concerns about how the global spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 is affecting our work, so we wanted to take a few minutes to give you an update.

Please be assured that the spread of this disease has not affected the global supplies of our raw materials; words, spaces, and punctuation marks remain plentiful. (As I am sure you have noticed, there even appears to be a glut of words in certain quarters.)

Our production facility on the east coast of the United States has not been hampered by the increasingly strict measures imposed at every level of government. Although we have been in business here for almost two decades, we are a small facility and are still agile, nimble, and able to respond quickly to the changing situation.

Therefore, please be reassured that you can count on us to meet your needs for felicitous renditions of fussy foreign phrases and properly parsed and punctuated paragraphs, not to mention clarifications, elucidations, interpretations, polite queries, recastings, refinements, respectful restatements, and even (because we take care to use them only when absolutely necessary) strong suggestions.

Our small staff is at this time healthy. We have made a point to follow the recommendations of the Delaware Division of Public Health and the national Centers for Disease Control for limiting the spread of the disease and reducing the likelihood of contracting the disease ourselves. We (ahem) strongly suggest you do the same.

Another useful repository of information is the Consumer Reports coronavirus FAQ page. For personal health questions, please consult your health provider or your nearest public health department.

Please do, however, feel free to contact us with questions related to the specific services we offer: translation from Bosnian, Croatian, Montenegrin, and Serbian into English and English-language copyediting and proofreading. We ask only that you do so from a safe distance—e-mail preferred.

Thank you for your attention; we wish you all the best in this trying time.

Paula Gordon
Owner, dba Plan B, Wilmington, Delaware

Sarajevo: Writing and Translating a City in Wartime (October 11, 2019, UNC)

For anyone in the Durham – Chapel Hill area with lunchtime free on Friday —

I’ll be appearing with noted literary translator Ellen Elias-Bursac on a panel called Sarajevo: Writing and Translating a City in Wartime, co-sponsored by the Center for Slavic, Eurasian & East European Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill, the Theatrical Translation as Creative Process Festival, and the UNC Department of Dramatic Art.

The event is open to the public, details at the above link. This is part of the Theatrical Translation as Creative Process Festival. A play by Bosnian author Almir Imširević, in Ellen’s translation, will be presented Thursday night.

Ellen and I discovered our “hook” when we were discussing the topic of the panel: She got into theater through translation and I got into translation through theater. I have been a fan and admirer of Ellen’s work for many years, and consider it a privilege to be sitting at the same table.

things I never noticed before #1 (2019-03-04)

These photos go with my post of March 28, 2019, Oops…

Oops, we forgot something…

So, it’s my self-declared last day in the building (the synagogue building that our congregation is selling). I’m alone in the building (that’s not unusual, by the way). I’ve stacked the last few items that need to go to storage by the front door, and I figure I’ll take one more look around. An idiot check, although it’s better when someone other than the idiot herself — someone with fresh eyes — is the one checking.

It’s quiet, calm. The building is at rest, seems to me. I think I’ve actually finished — got us all moved out, at least as much as we intend to move. We’re leaving most of the furnishings and equipment in the building and taking only sacred and ritual items, prayer books, historical property (many boxes of archival material and a few possessions we brought to this building from our previous home when we moved here in the early 1960s), a very small percentage of the books that made up our large library, and all the commemorative, donor and, most important in my opinion, Yahrzeit plaques. These last are name plates of deceased relatives of current members, deceased members, and deceased forebears of deceased members. (At last count there were 850 of these plaques, my grandparents and great aunt among them.)

From the inside, the building looks more abandoned than empty.

I’m really trying to think of what I might have forgotten. I take a bunch of pictures of things I never noticed before. I try to photograph the main sanctuary, but it’s too dark and I don’t feel like flipping the breakers. So I sit in a seat in the center aisle near the back and ponder the bimah, the stage. The walls are bare of sculptures, the wide-open ark is no longer holy because the Torahs have all been taken away. Perhaps most disconcerting is the absence of the pinpoint of light casting a glow above the ark — the eternal light has been taken down and packed carefully in a 54-gallon tub (still shining, of course — a miracle!).

In this quiet, I ask myself: Am I sad? One benefit of working on the move is that what for most congregants would be a sad day — the day we are all moved out of our building of 57 years — is for me a day of intense satisfaction and relief. I did indeed spend a lot of time in this building growing up (we’re almost the same age), but not so much as an adult. I was a teenager, then away at college and doing my own thing during the active and productive years of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. By the time I returned, economics and demographics had changed, and the building seemed to be growing larger and more unweildy as our congregation got smaller and older. So, no, I’m not sad. I’m relieved.

Sitting in the pews, I try to picture the 13-year-old me on the bimah chanting my Haftorah and giving my Bat Mitzvah speech. All I can conjure up is the view from my eyes, seeing only a blur of familiar faces beyond my prayer book on the stand. It’s much easier to call up the image of Rabbi Gewirtz, of blessed memory, wearing a permanent-press black button-down robe over his suit and a boxy, fez-like yarmuke, leading the congregation in responsive readings, davening not so silently during the silent prayers, actively listening and watching from his seat on the bimah. Presiding.

And then I wonder how I’d feel if I ever stopped by after the building is brought back to use by the Baptist congregation buying it. I imagine Pastor Lavina on the stage, music, a full house of worshipers. And I have a vision of how to turn the formerly holy ark, now basically an empty closet center stage, into a beautiful backdrop, with a translucent or stained glass panel across the opening, lit from within. And with that, in my mind, at least, the transformation of “the shul” to “our old building” is complete.

I leave the sanctuary through the side door, the one leading through a back hallway, rarely used, continuing my idiot check. I scan the walls for errant plaques (I’ve found them in the most unexpected places, after I was sure that we had removed them all.) And finally, I glance out the side doors, thinking Here’s something else I never noticed before. Metal fire stairs leading down to an area between the sanctuary wing and the school wing, a kind of no-man’s land of overgrown vines and rhododendrons and concrete blocks…

Wait, what? Concrete blocks? What’s that?

In Hebrew, “Adas Kodesch” (the name of our congregation before a 1957 merger) with letters below, possibly a Hebrew date.


To be continued.

I Was Away

Not in the sense of a VACAtion, but in the sense of an AVOCAtion, in other words, I was still here, but my attention was focused elsewhere.

Specifically, on this place:

In October 2017, the congregation I belong to voted to put our synagogue building up for sale and, against my better judgment, I got involved.

Now, in March 2019, the congregation has moved out (our stuff is in storage and we are operating in a temporary/transitional home while we search for a smaller, more suitable, location), the sale is pending, and I have recovered enough to try to make sense of the past 18 months.

I still don’t know quite where to begin, but at least, with this post, I’ve gotten started.

It’s not that I’m not thinking of you in this holiday season…

I’ve always been a bit out of step. With the calendar. Growing up in a Jewish family, January was never imprinted as the beginning of the annual cycle. Between the Jewish New Year in September (usually), school beginning in September, and my birthday in September, September is the time of new beginnings for me. (I still get a thrill out of pencil boxes and pocket folders.)

For me, December, January, and February are working months—finally a block of time to hunker down without the temptations of long days, nice weather, easy travel, and family visits. Everyone else seems to be occupied with holiday preparations and celebrations and their long Christmas-into-New Year’s vacation, and I can usually count on being left alone.

Which is a funny thing for a freelancer to say. Common sense would indicate that when everyone takes off, the freelancer is at loose ends. But that’s not the case. If deadlines are postponed because of the holidays, they are only postponed to December 26 or January 2—that means someone needs to be working on December 25 and January 1 (or working overtime on December 24 and December 31). That would be me.

And if I have no client deadlines over the holidays, there are self-initiated projects to work on and nascent ideas to explore and develop. Not to mention catching up on business and personal paperwork (or, if you will, administrative matters).

Right around this time of year I start to think about holiday cards. I know! Too late! That’s what I mean about being out of step.

One year I sent “welcome spring” cards. I suppose that if I were a more diligent, entreprenurial, freelancer, I’d be sending my existing and targeted clients some kind of greeting-style, remember-me-I’m-thinking-of-you communication every few months. In that case, sending Christmas-slash-holiday cards would just be part of the routine.

So this could be read as a round-about way of suggesting that freelancers who have trouble timing their holiday mailings get into a routine of quarterly (for instance) client communications.

Or it could be read as—yeah, you’re not the only freelancer who feels a little out of step. With the calendar.

Hanukah menorah in windowsill with five candles and Shamas lit.

Happy holidays! Happy work days!

A gusty post, in every sense of the word

March comes in like a lion, goes out like a lamb. Do any of us really remember at the end of March what the weather was like 30 days before? Same with April showers bring May flowers. Even the groundhog not seeing its shadow in February seems to be based more on wishful thinking — it might be dreary today, but because of today’s lack of sun, winter will end sooner — than on year-over-year observation.

Why do I bring this up? Nor’easter! In contrast to the last few days of February, which were calm and mild, with temperatures getting into the mid to high 50s (F, of course) — today it’s 35 degrees and snowing and the wind is gusting in every direction. I had to put the trashcan and recycling bin in the garage — I heard the crash of the can being blown over and came out to see the 30-gallon plastic recycling bin was on its way down the driveway. My pink plastic Adirondack chair blew across the yard and is now resting upside down among the Joe Pye weed stubs.


My backyard



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Watching the swirling snow, I thought of a day much like this one 15 years ago, when I sat down to write my column for that year’s spring issue of SlavFile, the newsletter of the Slavic Languages Division of the American Translators Association:

2013-spring_Jezik u toku 02

Excerpt of “Jezik u toku,” column in SlavFile vol. 13, no. 2 (Spring 2003), reproduced with permission.

At that time, I was still pretty new to translation and even newer to gardening — like, I’d never done it before. (I didn’t break ground for my first vegetable garden until spring of 2004.)

* * *

Oh, so many thoughts about what to say next! So many analogies, so little time!

* * *

Meanwhile, another big gust of wind, and the chair is now over by the compost bins.

* * *

Where will I find myself after the next big gust?

Note: This is the first time I’m posting the same thing on this blog and my garden blog.

Doing is better than stewing

This is the danger of getting enough sleep — so many thoughts, so little time!

What shall I do today? (Assuming I don’t shelve everything and watch baseball with my mom — Phillies currently losing to the Yankees in spring training.)

I listened to Radiolab while eating breakfast (I’ll admit it, breakfast at 1 pm, because the premise of this post is that I got a good night’s sleep). The first act of today’s episode, Life’s Limit, was about programmed cell death. The interview subject, Leonard Hayflick, in describing how freezing cells stops the multiplication process and unfreezing them resumes the process but does not prolong the life of the cell — that is, the multiplication “counter” does not reset but resumes from where it left off — said, “[That] tells you that cells remember, they have a memory.” Which immediately brought to mind a book by Harry Willson, Cells and Souls Remember (Amador Publishers). And then I had to look up the book and find the audio file of the interview to isolate and record the quote and read a bit more about Leonard Hayflick’s work and get all this down on paper. And that required learning how to do a few things in Total Recorder, a sound editing program.

Now what?

I could continue promoting recent publications on social media. I’ve been putting that off because of work. I need to change my mindset for self-promotion — I need to be relaxed and patient and ready for conversation. I need to allow my curiosity free rein, and this is not conducive to meeting work deadlines. So I have not even updated my LinkedIn profile with my latest publications:

I could continue translating the piece I hope to read at the American Literary Translators Association conference this fall. It’s the opening monolog of Kasandra. Klišeji. [Cassandra. Clichés.], a play by Ljubomir Đurković.

I could work on memorizing and translating the piece I hope to recite at Declamación, the open mic-type event at the ALTA conference (no reading allowed!). Sure, the conference is eight months away, but translating and memorizing (original and translation) is no small task when you’re starting from scratch.

I could open up any number of translations in progress, contact one or more of “my” authors to see what they’re up to and if they have anything new I should read…

Maybe pick up, open, start reading (imagine!) one of the many books I brought home from my trip abroad two summers ago… (or maybe I could actually write a blog post about that trip, as I promised in this short post written on my return).

What about catching up on posts in the ATA Business Practices forum or the Editorial Freelancers Association discussion list? Or starting a conversation about reviewing plays in one of the Facebook literary translators groups I follow? All these are interesting, enjoyable, educational, relationship-building, and time-consuming activities that are important to my professional development.

Volunteer obligations? I hesitate to list them for fear that my colleagues will be emboldened to remind me about what I said I would do and by when. (No links, move along, nothing to see here.)

Catch up on news? I just subscribed to the New York Times — but did I set aside time to read it? (And doesn’t this article from 2008 sound so quaint?)

And I dare not begin to list the business (admin, operation), household (from dishes to deck repair), and personal tasks waiting to be done on my to-do list (or piling up on my desk).

Well, if I can’t prioritize any of the above, I guess I could write something for my blog — that shouldn’t take much time (she says five hours later and yet to hit “publish”)…


Credit goes to Zelda Leah Gatuskin for coining the title phrase. You can see she’s not kidding by taking a gander at what-all she’s up to at Studio Z.

Looking back, thinking ahead

Happy New Year [plus or minus 18 days]! I’ve been thinking of you and meaning to write for [insert as appropriate: days, weeks, months, years]! I’m so sorry I haven’t responded to your [insert as appropriate: birthday card, Christmas card, New Years’ greetings, LinkedIn request] [insert if appropriate: from last year], but I’ve been tied up with [insert as appropriate and documentable: crazy work deadlines, family responsibilities, household renovations, a sick pet, other [explain]].

Yes, I anticipate writing something along these lines to too many of my friends and colleagues come Valentine’s Day. My New Years’ resolution is to be a better correspondent and keep the conversation going. Maybe even on this blog!

I really have been thinking of you and meaning to write. For example, here’s a list of some the posts I had in mind to write over the past year:














(I’m into parentheticals these days.)

But something I did do is get a short story into Asymptote! It’s in the January 2018 issue’s microfiction feature. Read it here:

And make sure to check out the rest of the journal at

Talk to you soon!