My Year in Translation

Shelly Oria

I say this with love in my heart: New York City is a woman who doesn’t give a fuck about you. It’s not personal; she doesn’t give a fuck about anyone. Or, to be fair: she’s the type who cares deeply, fiercely, but only after she’s known someone a good long time, and usually after that someone has proven capable of both suffering and thriving without her help. New York City doesn’t like needy people, and in 2003, when I first moved from Tel Aviv to Manhattan, I was very needy.

Shelly Oria

In the months leading up to my move, I would have conversations with people in which I would tell them of my intention to live in New York and pursue an MFA in Creative Writing. Oh, these people would say every time, you write in English too? That question was confusing to me back then and I found it mysterious that so many people repeated it. I’ve been writing since I was ten, I would tell them, and I speak English. They would look at me like they were trying to figure out what was wrong with me, but I remained convinced that it was them, or at least their question, that was wrong.

It turned out they were asking a logical question. It turned out that being fairly fluent in your second language and writing fiction in that language are two, wholly different things. And it turned out that the thing that was wrong with me was fear. I was scared to leave most everyone I knew behind, scared to be new in New York, and mostly scared to take on the challenge of writing fiction in English. I was so scared, that it made me dumb. Because if I’d let myself consider what lay ahead, I’d have been too paralyzed to move. But it would be a while before I realized all that—by then I would be in my MFA program, struggling to keep up. First, I had to move to New York and translate my work from Hebrew to English so I had an application portfolio.

That first year in New York, I felt unqualified for life. Life required you to know how you liked your cappuccino, for instance, and while I did, I didn’t know how I liked my cappuccino in English. Baristas would say words like “skinny” and “half caff” and at the end of their words would be question marks; I would stare at them and want to cry. In Tel Aviv, coffee shops had always been both a source of comfort and a good place to get writing done, but in New York coffee shops were a test I kept failing. And life also required other, bigger accomplishments, of course. Even though I found a job right away, the prospect of signing a lease, getting a phone plan, doing anything that involved monthly payments seemed impossible because I didn’t have something called a “credit history.” Once I learned what that was I tried to convince New York that I did in fact have that thing, I’d always paid rent and bills on time and could prove it, but the proof would come from another country. “Sorry,” New York said and yawned.

Annoyed, I would ask New York what the hell she expected me to do, and she would laugh and say “totally,” because she was talking to someone else. Eventually I learned that if I wanted to stick around I needed to get some people to co-sign things for me. So I did—my aunt in California, my mom’s best friend in Boston. I had a place to live now, and a cell phone. I learned how to order my extra-shot soy cappuccino. New York was unimpressed.

Soon, I started translating my work. At first, translating my work looked a lot like sipping a soy cappuccino and staring at words for long hours and days. The words were already doing what I wanted them to do; I had no idea how to get them to do that same thing in English. And I definitely had no idea how to create the sounds I wanted in a language that sounded so different. But then my family in L.A. came to my rescue once again. This time it was my cousin Claire, a 6th grade English teacher, who offered to help. So I told myself to be a mechanic: take words in language A and write them in language B, worry about the rest later. There was no beauty in it, no spirit, but it was getting done. Another story and another would get translated, then sent to Claire. She would say this comma shouldn’t be here, this hyphen shouldn’t be here, beguiled doesn’t mean what you think it means. She would say crutch and crotch are different. I would make corrections and move to the next story. For a year, I worked as a language mechanic every minute I got—early mornings, late nights. Eventually, I had a portfolio, and I sent it out to MFA programs.

Years later, looking back on that time, I could see that everything I was doing then was translation—that I was translating myself. I was negotiating what needed to change and how if I wanted to be a person, and ultimately a writer, in this new country. The fear I felt when I finally realized what everyone had been asking, when it finally dawned on me that I had to stop using translation as a crutch (or crotch—I would still get confused) and start writing in my second language—that fear was of a different breed. It took over me and I knew it. For a few weeks I thought maybe I needed to quit the program. But eventually I jumped, and started working on the stories that would become my first collection, New York 1, Tel Aviv 0.

There was this moment: I opened my mailbox to find an envelope almost too big to fit it. Hollywood had taught me that was a good sign, and the few thin envelopes I’d received before this big one had taught me the same lesson. And yet, in those few seconds of reaching for it and tearing through the paper, I didn’t let myself feel hopeful. I only felt scared—that old familiar fear. A few seconds later I was crying my relief out and the super walked in and said Miss Shelly, what’s wrong, don’t cry, and I didn’t know how to say Safet, I think maybe New York likes me now.

Shelly Oria was born in Los Angeles and grew up in Israel. Her fiction has appeared in The Paris Review, McSweeney’s, TriQuarterly, and Quarterly West, among other places, and has won a number of awards, including the Indiana Review Fiction Prize. She curates the series Sweet! Actors Reading Writers in the East Village and teaches fiction at Pratt Institute, where she also codirects the Writers’ Forum.