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The best possible place to translate 'Mazzel Tov'

In September 2018, Jane Hedley-Prole worked on her translation of Margot Vanderstraeten's 'Mazzel Tov' at the Antwerp Translator's House. She reports enthusiastically about the important link between the book she was translating and the location of her temporary workspace.

Past and present

Neighbourhood impressions
Neighbourhood impressions

It was a gusty day and top hats were blowing off all around me. The hat of the little boy on the bike in front of me was whipped from his head and went bowling along the pavement. As he scurried after it I saw that under it he wore a yarmulke. It was September, the Jewish community was celebrating Sukkot, men clutched branches of palm, myrtle and willow as they strode about the streets. I was spending a month in the Translator’s House, in the heart of the Orthodox Jewish neighbourhood, to work on my translation of Mazzel Tov by Margot Vanderstraeten.

It would be hard to imagine a better place. Or more haunting, on occasion. Like the time, one evening, when I was reading Will, a novel by Jeroen Olyslaegers, set in wartime Antwerp. Full of local references, it describes Jews being rounded up by Nazis and Belgian police in the Oostenstraat – the very same street where the Translator’s House stands. As I read I suddenly heard the sound of chanting. It was coming from downstairs, from my Jewish neighbours, as they prepared to celebrate Shabbat. A moment when the link between past and present seemed very real.

Meeting Margot

While in Antwerp, I visited Buren 2018, a joint exhibition by Margot and Dan Zollmann, an Orthodox Jewish photographer, at Kazerne Dossin in Mechelen, featuring extracts from ‘Mazel Tov’ and photos of the Hasidic community. Queen Mathilde had been so impressed by the book (dubbing it one of the most important she’d read in her life) that she asked for a special private viewing of the exhibition.

Delicious treats at Hoffy's
Delicious treats at Hoffy's

I heard the story about the Queen at a talk Margot gave to a book club in Mortsel. I’d allowed myself plenty of time to get there – who knew that such a tiny place had three stations? My mistake was to get out at Mortsel, instead of the wonderfully named ‘Mortsel Oude God’. It was a hot, sleepy afternoon, no one in sight to ask directions from. Eventually I came across an old man clipping his hedge: the kind of old man who takes his time and speaks an impenetrable dialect. But I did find the library just in time…  Mortsel were lucky to snare Margot, who’s been deluged with speaking engagements since ‘Mazel Tov’ went meteoric. Shortly afterwards she would set off on a tour of Poland to promote the book there, but she kindly made time to meet up with me just beforehand, taking me to Hoffy’s, Antwerp’s most famous Jewish restaurant, where we were hospitably received by Moshe Hoffy, one of its proprietors.

Rakia and kummel bread

For much of my stay I just worked  – a rare chance to ditch the day job and focus on this assignment. In the intervals I’d hang out in the kitchen with my flatmate, Aneta Dantcheva, who’d come to Antwerp loaded with Bulgarian delicacies: apples from a village orchard, fiery little peppers, miniature onions, garlic, rosemary and a bottle of rakia, which she generously shared. From her I learnt a lot about the Bulgarian press, wine-making and national superstitions. But mostly I spent my leisure hours roaming the city, on foot and by bike, stopping off for lunch at Beni’s Falafel, or to buy a loaf of kummel bread from the famous Jewish baker Kleinblatt, and soaking up the sights of the last shtetl in Europe.

Oct 4th, 2018