Translation is a tricky business. Translators must deftly balance their duty to the original text with the need to create a translation that stands on its own. They have to honor the wishes of the author while trusting their own talents and knowledge for what works and what doesn’t.
“When you translate, it’s an act of ventriloquism,” says American-born Evan Fallenberg, an English-language writer and Hebrew-to-English translator who lives in Israel. “You’re having to, in a strange way, occupy the voice of another writer.”
A translated novel is “going to be something else,” says Jessica Cohen, who translated into English the critically acclaimed novel “To the End of the Land,” by Israeli author David Grossman. “It’s going to be its own thing.”
Grossman recognized, she said, “that what’s most important in a translation is that it conveys the right emotions or experience or responses. He’s not so much concerned about the literal translation of each word,” unlike some of the younger writers with whom Cohen has worked. “They want to try and make it exactly like the Hebrew, but in English, and, you know, that’s not possible.”
Fallenberg doesn't feel comfortable writing Hebrew fiction, despite his fluency in the language. “When I try to express myself in Hebrew, the syntax is still too close to English,” Fallenberg says. Cohen and Fallenberg both stress the initiative and personal license that translators need to take when translating a work from Hebrew to English.
“I think that my evolution as a translator [taught me that] I have to make it my own thing,” Cohen says. “And often that means veering away from the original language…as long as you’re preserving the intention and the general meaning.” When translating Grossman, Cohen said, she tries to maintain the rhythm of the writing, the cadence of his sentences. “It’s about hearing the Hebrew coming in one ear and having it come out the other in English somehow in the same way.”
Still, even translated Hebrew literature can be a window into a different culture and a view of life in the Jewish state: “To the End of the Land” delves into Israel’s history and its turbulent and often-fractious present. To retain the uniquely Israeli feel of the novel, even when the characters aren’t conversing in Hebrew, Cohen left some un-translated words sprinkled throughout “To the End of the Land.” They include “finjan,” an Arabic word for coffee pot commonly used in Israel. Cohen also resists resorting to footnotes to explain certain Israeli things that might be unclear to foreign readers. “You want to be immersed in the world,” she says, and constantly jumping between the text and footnotes would interrupt the process of immersion, inhibiting the readers’ absorption of Israeli culture.
“One of the big problems with translation is you’re moving something from one culture to another, but you need to preserve something of the original culture, or it’s just going to sound like some story that took place in Poughkeepsie,” Fallenberg says. “You have to signal to the reader all the time [that] I want this thing to read like it’s been written well in English, but it’s still got to preserve something of the exotic of the original.”