Translatable but Debatable – Going to the translators' debate

by Mark L. Levinson

Last week the Israel Translators Association (ITA) held a conference at ZOA House in Tel Aviv.  For the hundreds attending, there were four tracks of lectures; and as usual, it was often hard deciding which to attend.

There were also pre-conference workshops, for an extra fee. I attended Doug Lawrence’s workshop on “Winning New International Clients” and it was both enlightening and entertaining, but I wouldn’t feel right about extensively leaking the content that a presenter like him is accustomed to being paid specially for.  I’ll just mention one odd point that he passed on to us.  He said he’d heard of an agency that prefers to deal with freelancers whose e-mail addresses are in a generic domain, such as gmail, rather than freelancers who have set up domains under their own personal or business names.  The reason is that the agency (no one says it’s typical of all agencies) suspects that someone so interested in self-branding is more likely to steal clients away.

The conference’s plenary led off with Yannets Levi, the author of the Dod Arye (or in English, Uncle Leo) children’s books.  He said that the stories were originally born in improvisation under pressure as he attempted to keep his brother’s children, whom he was babysitting, from wailing miserably for their parents.  Human nature, he said, will impel us to do whatever we can to stop a child from crying.  What amused his brother’s children proved to amuse other children too, and the books have been translated into a number of languages.

For the American market, it was necessary to remove elements that were peculiar to Israel and change the names of the characters to proper American names.  The USA may be a nation of immigrants, but American children want to read about other children who are like themselves, not foreigners in a foreign environment.  In that way they differ from American adults who read Israeli novels in translation and tend to appreciate learning new things about the country through them. 

The South Koreans, unlike the Americans, valued the Israeli aspect of the books.  They feel that, like Israel, they live under constant threat and must keep their hi-tech industry thriving in order to survive.  Their children work into the evening at their studies and sometimes have trouble keeping their eyes open at school, where they are streamed strictly into pragmatic professions that are of economic value to the country.  What they admire in Israel, and what they’re missing in their industries, is the resourceful problem-solving and creativity.  “What’s the secret?” they ask.  How do you drill that creativity into the children?  In order not to miss any elusive magic, they wanted the books kept as Israeli as possible.  They would rather explain what a pita is than conveniently replace it with some local pancake.  They wouldn’t want to change the Israeli children’s names to Korean names.  And  before each story they added an explanatory introduction in order to make sure the children understood.  After each story they included worksheets.  Levi implied that he doubts such a strategy will help if the Koreans still won’t let a kid decide on a whim one day that he wants to study, for example, history for the sake of history.

In Japan on the other hand, said Levi, Israel isn’t so much on the radar.  One big change for the Japanese market was an increase in the number of illustrations, with small illustrations devoted to various specifics.  Japanese is a hard language to start reading, and children need close support from the illustrations in order to understand the words. 

In the Czech Republic, Levi encountered opposition to the title Uncle Leo’s Adventures in the Romanian Steppes.  The book won’t sell with Romania in the title, he was told.  It seems that in the bad old communist days, Czech citizens were scarcely allowed travel anywhere and virtually the only possible holiday destination was Romania, with mediocre diversions that quickly palled.  Eventually the Czech version came out as Uncle Leo’s Adventures in the Steppes of Honduras. 

The idea was to use a geographical absurdity in the title, although Google indicates that Romania, known for its forests, does also have steppes.  Don’t tell the kids.  I’m not sure that even Yannets Levi is aware.  The Hebrew word used in the title was aravot.

Levi’s talk was followed by one from Ifat Israel Kfir called “Collection — Not a Dirty Word.”  She advised translators to be careful when choosing their clients and to be assertive about payment.  Payment in advance is best, especially if the client is new.  All agreements must be in writing, and if trouble is a possibility, conversations should be recorded.  To screen potential corporate clients, translators can use not only Google but also Dun & Bradstreet or the government’s corporate registry.  Individuals can be checked with the population registry, and with the Office of Execution Proceedings (hotsaah lapo’al) regarding any bad debts.  Credit risk insurance is a good idea.  When a client defaults and the authorities must be called in, working through the Office of Execution Proceedings is simpler than going to small claims court.

On the convention’s “Cultural & Literary” track, Alan Clayman undertook to repolish the reputation of Edward Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat translation — or adaptation — as a legitimate landmark in English literary history, a product of its times, and a commendable piece of work.

Jessica Setbon and Shira Leibowitz-Schmidt presented the newly translated book From Sinai to Ethiopia: The Halakhic & Conceptual World of the Ethiopian Jews, by Sharon Shalom, translated by Setbon.  Sharon was the first Ethiopian to become a rabbi, and he is reconciled to the absorption of Ethiopian Jewry into rabbinic Judaism, but he doesn’t want the Ethiopian Jewish traditions lost to history and Setbon quoted some defenses of their legitimacy.  Ethiopian Jews, for example, would bring money to the synagogue on the Sabbath and donate it.  “But it’s forbidden to carry money on the Sabbath!” a rabbinic Jew might protest.  “I’ve seen what happens at your synagogues,” one Ethiopian Jew responded:  “You auction off the privilege of Torah reading, congregants make a big thing out of pledging a lot of money, and then they don’t pay up.  Which is better?”

Shira Leibowitz-Schmidt was the loyal opposition debating against the idea that the Ethiopian Jews’ traditions should be termed halakha, since they can be unrelated, or even run counter, to halakha as we know it.  The question was left open.  It would be easier if Hebrew had capital letters; then there could be the Halakha and somebody else’s halakha.

Among the other talks was “Marketing in the Age of Facebook,” by Tatiana Kaplun.  She mentioned that Facebook is a good tool for differentiating yourself from other translators, and she said that one advantage of Facebook ads is that they can be targeted for the sake of efficiency.

The next day’s plenary opened with “Translation and Ideology — Hebrew Literature and the American Reader,” by Dr. Omri Asscher.  He said that Hebrew literature ranks sixth among foreign-language literature translated for the American market (after Latin American countries and before China).  There was a boom starting with S.Y. Agnon’s 1966 Nobel Prize and fueled by American Jews who, reportedly, buy one book out of every four sold in the USA. 

On through the 1970s and 1980s, where Dr. Asscher concentrated his research, American Jewish identity was bound up considerably with Israel.  Accordingly, he discovered, when Hebrew novels were translated there was some softening or outright deletion of passages that might disturb an American Jewish reader — passages depicting Israeli aggressiveness against Arabs, or bigotry against Jews or by Jews, or contempt by Israelis for Jews of the Diaspora.  He displayed a number of examples.

He noted, too, that David Shahar’s novel His Majesty’s Agent contains a character named Abie Driezel who appears to be an obvious and scurrilous caricature of Elie Wiesel, and that in Dalya Bilu’s translation not only are the character’s misdeeds redacted somewhat but his name is changed to reduce the resemblance.

Dr. Asscher had consulted the authors, translators, and publishers, and in general he found that the authors were unaware, or had forgotten, that the translations were tweaked.  The translators themselves denied changing anything.  The responsibility could lie with the editors, but after all these years the trail is cold.  Maybe people simply don’t remember.

Next, Doug Lawrence was back with “Compelling communications:  Translating the benefits and value of your services into your client’s language.”  He outlined his major point in terms of three Ds:  decide, describe, deliver.

Decide which clients you’re targeting.  Individuals or companies?  Or agencies?  Particular kinds of projects?  A particular location?  Find the contact people.

Describe your service in the terms of the benefits that matter to the client.

Deliver the message through the channels that will provide the right visibility.  But besides talking about the benefits, talk with the customer about tangential matters too.  Find out as much as you can about the contact person’s work environment.  Who else is there?  What are the relationships?

Find out what the customer likes about you in particular, and advertise that.  Don’t simply advertise quality.  Quality is taken for granted.

Lawrence is a discursive speaker, and I find that I’ve jotted down a remark of his that isn’t quite on topic.  He says that when you ask translators whether they enjoy their work, they tend to say yes.  But when you ask them whether they’d want their children be professional translators, they tend to say no.

Dr. Michal Schuster and Tamar Berenblum spoke about “The effect of language accessibility of legal proceedings on the criminal proceeding and results.”  Obviously enough, when a criminal defendant needs a translator, the quality of the translator is a big factor.  And if the defendant is buffaloed into waiving translation — as in one case that the speakers discussed — an unintentional confession can be extracted.  Theoretically a suspect in Israel does have the right to a translator both at interrogations and in court (but not in prison). 

In two respects, Israel is behind some other countries:  Israeli courts don’t take advantage of technology that allows translators to work remotely (which would increase flexibility) and Israel does not record statements in foreign languages.  When someone speaks in a foreign language, Israel preserves only the translation; and the translators are not always professionals.  In fact, the courtroom transcript omits all references to matters of translation, even if they involve disagreements.

A court translator has a problem because it is necessary to establish a relationship of trust with all sides — defendant, defense attorney, and prosecutor. 

The closing speaker was Amos Oz, and although he could have got away with simply being Amos Oz and saying whatever came to mind, he spoke about translation.  Oz says that as a child he absorbed the sounds of different languages but he spoke only Hebrew because his parents were afraid that competence in a European language would tempt him to go to Europe where he would not be safe.  He likened the attempt to find equivalents between languages to the challenge of transcribing a violin concerto to the piano.  It can be done reasonably, but not by trying to make the piano sound like a violin. 

With the disclaimer that the quotations were from memory, Oz discussed some of the cleverer solutions for difficult phrases.  The heroine of My Michael (Oz remarked that today he wouldn’t dare write a whole novel from a woman’s point of view, but back then he was young and fearless) repeatedly says in Hebrew “אני מונחת,” which is an unusual thing to say but comprehensible to readers.  Oz is gratified that his translator, Nicholas de Lange, came up with “I am set aside.”

He also liked the translation of “דומים ודומים הימים ואני לעצמי דומה”:  “There is a sameness in the days. There is a sameness in me.”

For describing a coordination of movement “כאיש ואשה אוהבים” he was very pleased with the preposition in “Like a man and a woman at love.”

In the Oz novel Touch the Water, Touch the Wind, a mathematician famous for his work on mathematical infinities is doing a shift of menial work on a kibbutz, as all kibbutz members must, and someone says “הנה הגאון מוילנה בתפקיד הצדיק הכפרי,” a pair of references that wouldn’t work in English without impossibly burdensome explanations.  De Lange came up with “the Lord of the Infinite playing the Good Samaritan.”

It was at the very start of his career, before any of his work was translated, that Oz happened upon Nicholas de Lange.  Oz was a visiting fellow at Oxford and de Lange was a scholar in the field of religion.  De Lange knew ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, but he didn’t know modern Hebrew.  Nonetheless, when he found out that Oz was working on a story set in Crusader times (“Crusade,” published in due course as part of Unto Death) he asked to see it and then translated it at his own initiative.  Oz was impressed enough to work with de Lange on correcting de Lange’s misunderstandings, and the rest is history.

Oz was among the writers whose translations underwent political editing as discovered by Omri Asscher, but his novel A Tale of Love and Darkness, also translated by de Lange, also had some passages dropped simply because they were too complicated.  Oz himself agreed, at least in some cases, that omitting them was wise.

Further on the matter of politics, Oz defended his well-known political outspokenness by claiming that as a writer he had the useful skill of putting himself in someone else’s place and thereby had insights to contribute regarding political questions. 

A novelist sees a stranger and thinks, “If I were that person, what would I think?  What would I eat, wear, secretly hope for?  What would I be a shamed of?”  Such an effort isn’t self-effacement on the novelist’s part, it’s curiosity, and curiosity is a virtue.  It facilitates empathy for people we’d stay far away from in real life, like Raskolnikov, although it doesn’t excuse them. 

In addition, Oz noted that often when he writes on politics, he writes on the basis of language.  For example, he was among the first to protest the term “liberated” in reference to the West Bank and Gaza.  You can’t liberate land, Oz explains.  Only people can be liberated, and that isn’t what happened.

The pen is mightier than the sword, but sometimes even the pen has to rest.  There were other engrossing lectures that I came away from without notes.  There’s no substitute for attending the conference, and I recommend it.

Next month, back to considering difficult words and phrases one by one.  Suggestions are welcome at  An index of previous words and phrase is here.  Comments regarding these conference notes are welcome below.