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Catapulted straight into 'Mazel Tov'

In June Radka Smejkalova spent a few weeks at the Antwerp Translators' House working on the Czech translation of 'Mazel Tov'. An unforgettable experience, she writes in her enthusiastic report.

A different era

When you’re in Prague working on the translation of Mazel Tov, Margot Vanderstraeten’s intriguing autobiographical novel about life in Antwerp’s Jewish community, the reality she describes feels somewhat unreal and remote, of a different era. Until you arrive in Antwerp and take up residence at the Translators’ House, a beautiful house in the middle of the Jewish quarter. It’s like being catapulted straight into the novel!

The pedestrian tunnel underneath the brick railway embankment beside the house at the corner of Oostenstraat and Steenbokstraat is like a portal into another world. The ink-black frock coats and white stockings that populate the book suddenly come to life. Each of the little girls on scooters could be Elzira, many a gentleman with a black hat and serious demeanour her daddy. On the same street as the Translators’ House you will also find one of the city’s most important synagogues and situated at the back of the building is a Jewish school. Famous bakery Kleinblatt, which is mentioned in ‘Mazel Tov’, is a mere ten-minute stroll away. And if you want to let all of your new impressions sink in a bit you can go up to the roof terrace which looks out across the whole of the Jewish neighbourhood and watch the lights in the flats across the tracks go out one by one.

Radka Smejkalova at the Tra
Radka Smejkalova at the Translators' House with her Czech translation of 'The Best We Have' by Griet Op de Beeck

Along the tracks

Every now and then a train passes by. Central Station is just out of sight, but you know it is there and you are reminded of this passage in the book: ‘Why would anyone choose to see one of the most striking symbols of his people’s, his family’s suffering,  pass by day in day out? Choose to hear, even feel its rumble. Sixty-five per cent of the officially registered Jews in Antwerp were put on transport to concentration and extermination camps. Most of them never came back…’ The more you think about it, the more you try to find the answers in Mazel Tov. The author’s voice gets under your skin, the book gets under your skin, the entire neighbourhood gets under your skin forever.

The book all but translated itself. It was as if, impressed by everything around me, the Czech version had to come gushing out.

The weather was lovely in June 2019 when I had the privilege to come and work in Antwerp, so I spent a lot of time sitting and thinking under the pergola on the roof terrace. Writer Margot Vanderstraeten kept me company on one occasion. It was such an inspiring afternoon in the brilliant summer sun! The book all but translated itself. It was as if, impressed by everything around me, the Czech version had to come gushing out. Sentences I would otherwise have agonised over at my small desk in Prague were suddenly ready-formed at my fingertips. I was immersed as it were in the world of the book I was fortunate enough to translate – a truly remarkable work experience and I could not have wished for a better place! Thanks to the dedicated support of Karen Thys, the many cultural and other tips from the enthusiastic team at Flanders Literature and not to forget the company of my lovely housemate, Greek translator Margarita Bonatsou, I can only conclude that my stay at the Translators’ House in Antwerp is already one of my highlights of 2019!

Jul 29th, 2019