Can the Master of Hebrew Modernism Be Translated?

June 14, 2016 | Dara Horn
About the author: Dara Horn is the author of five novels, most recently Eternal Life.

Reviewing a series of recent English renderings of works by the Nobel prize-winning Hebrew author S. Y. Agnon (1888-1970), Dara Horn recollects her first encounter with his writing in her youth, and the experience of reading it in translation:

All great writers are to some extent untranslatable. But the liabilities of translation are usually limited to the lack of equivalents for a writer’s specific wordplay or tone. Translating Agnon involves much more. Nearly every word is an allusion to thousands of years of words. A typical Agnon story or novel is like a tel, an archaeological mound composed of the remnants of past civilizations, each layer destroyed and rediscovered and given new, often ironic significance. As if that weren’t enough, the stories themselves often have layers within Agnon’s own imagined world, because he often rewrote his stories in different published versions with entirely different meanings. . . .

Reading through this vast and magnificent collection of works, including many newly translated into English, I discovered that the Agnon one experiences in translation—even excellent translations, as these uniformly are—is undeniably a different Agnon than one experiences in Hebrew. Not, thankfully, a worse Agnon, but one with manifestly different strengths. For instance, in Hebrew one is constantly aware of Agnon’s identity as a “Land of Israel” writer. [He lived there from 1908 to 1913 and from 1924 until his death.] His Hebrew reputation is staked almost entirely on creatively reviving ancient elements of the Hebrew language and its Israel-based roots; the fact that the bulk of his work is actually set in Europe seems, at times, almost like a detail. But in translation, without Hebrew’s undertow back to the land of its origin, it becomes blindingly obvious that Agnon is in fact one of the greatest artists of the lost world of East European Jewry.

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