The Special Challenges of Translating from Hebrew to English

June 14 2018

Having come to Israel from England as a child, Jessica Cohen has made a career rendering Hebrew literary fiction into English. Her most recent work is a prizewinning translation of David Grossman’s A Horse Walks into a Bar. In an interview with Rachel Scheinerman, she discusses her craft:

I think of Hebrew as a “depth language,” as opposed to English, which is a “breadth language.” What I mean is that although Hebrew’s vocabulary is substantially smaller than that of English, there are many Hebrew words that carry multiple layers of meaning and allusions (historical, cultural, biblical, and so forth). So, while I can often find several English words that have almost the exact same meaning as a particular Hebrew word, it is usually next to impossible to find one that conveys all of that Hebrew word’s associative weight. This necessitates a painful choice to sacrifice some of that richness in favor of precision and clarity. To put it more simply: you can’t have it all.

Hebrew is a language of roots and patterns. Every Hebrew word (except those borrowed from other languages) is formed by inserting a root (usually three consonants) into one of these patterns. As a result of this malleability, it is very easy to make up a word in Hebrew and be sure that readers or listeners will immediately understand what it means. It also allows for very inventive puns and wordplay. English has no equivalent process, so tackling these inventions—which sound very natural and not at all puzzling in Hebrew, even if you’ve never come across them before—makes for a huge challenge in English.

[For example], in A Horse Walks into a Bar, the stand-up comedian [protagonist] lashes out at a woman in [his] audience, saying he can tell she belongs to “ha-kartsiyon ha-elyon.” This is a play on the term ha-alpiyon ha-elyon, which literally means “the top one-thousandth” and is used colloquially to refer to Israel’s wealthiest class. . . . But instead of alpiyon, the comedian uses an invented word (invented by Grossman, that is): kartsiyon, which derives from kartsiyah—literally, “tick,” and metaphorically, a bloodsucker, a leech, an exploiter. An Israeli reader will immediately get the joke and see the layers of contempt implied by this wordplay. Needless to say, it was not possible to make all this work in English!

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More about: Arts & Culture, David Grossman, Hebrew, Translation

No, Israelis and Palestinians Can’t Simply Sit Down and Solve the “Israel-Palestinian Conflict”

Jan. 17 2019

By “zooming out” from the blinkered perspective with which most Westerners see the affairs of the Jewish state, argues Matti Friedman, one can begin to see things the way Israelis do:

Many [in Israel] believe that an agreement signed by a Western-backed Palestinian leader in the West Bank won’t end the conflict, because it will wind up creating not a state but a power vacuum destined to be filled by intra-Muslim chaos, or Iranian proxies, or some combination of both. That’s exactly what has happened . . . in Gaza, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. One of Israel’s nightmares is that the fragile monarchy in Jordan could follow its neighbors . . . into dissolution and into Iran’s orbit, which would mean that if Israel doesn’t hold the West Bank, an Iranian tank will be able to drive directly from Tehran to the outskirts of Tel Aviv. . . .

In the “Israeli-Palestinian” framing, with all other regional components obscured, an Israeli withdrawal in the West Bank seems like a good idea—“like a real-estate deal,” in President Trump’s formulation—if not a moral imperative. And if the regional context were peace, as it was in Northern Ireland, for example, a power vacuum could indeed be filled by calm.

But anyone using a wider lens sees that the actual context here is a complex, multifaceted war, or a set of linked wars, devastating this part of the world. The scope of this conflict is hard to grasp in fragmented news reports but easy to see if you pull out a map and look at Israel’s surroundings, from Libya through Syria and Iraq to Yemen.

The fault lines have little to do with Israel. They run between dictators and the people they’ve been oppressing for generations; between progressives and medievalists; between Sunnis and Shiites; between majority populations and minorities. If [Israel’s] small sub-war were somehow resolved, or even if Israel vanished tonight, the Middle East would remain the same volatile place it is now.

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More about: Hizballah, Iran, Israel & Zionism, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Middle East