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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!

Read more at Jewish Review of Books

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

America Is Right to Withdraw from the UN Human Rights Council

June 21 2018

Yesterday the U.S. announced its decision to withdraw from the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), which serves primarily as a forum for the worst human-rights abusers to condemn Israel while ignoring the atrocious behavior of tyrants. Anne Bayefsky writes:

Among the 47 UN states calling the shots on the organization’s top human-rights body are such human-rights paragons as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, . . . Qatar, and Venezuela. . . .

There is no doubt that the UN Human Rights Council is a productive tool for anti-Semites. Discrimination against the Jewish state is baked into its procedures . . . as well as its composition. The council reserves one permanent agenda item for every one of its regular sessions solely for condemning Israel. All other 192 UN member states are considered together under a separate item, if they are discussed at all.

The council has adopted more resolutions condemning Israel than any other country on earth, and nothing condemning almost 90 percent of the world’s states. The council has held more emergency special sessions on Israel than on any other country, including Syria—where at least 500,000 have died and up to 12 million have been displaced.

But even beyond the disturbing fact that anti-Semitism thrives at the United Nations under the guise of human rights is that the “human-rights” experts, the nongovernmental organizations and the academic entourage surrounding this whole apparatus, have the council’s back. For months, they have been flooding the airwaves and [the American ambassador to the UN Nikki] Haley and [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo’s email inboxes begging the Trump administration to stay on the council. In a nutshell, they make one basic point: the demonization of Israel, even if undeserved, is peripheral to the common good. Pompeo and Haley have courageously decided to set them straight. Equal rights cannot be built on inequality for Jews and the Jewish state.

Read more at Fox News

More about: Israel & Zionism, U.S. Foreign policy, UNHRC, United Nations