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!