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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Read more at Jewish Review of Books

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

What Egypt’s Withdrawal from the “Arab NATO” Signifies for U.S. Strategy

A few weeks ago, Egypt quietly announced its withdrawal from the Middle East Strategic Alliance (MESA), a coalition—which also includes Jordan, the Gulf states, and the U.S.—founded at President Trump’s urging to serve as an “Arab NATO” that could work to contain Iran. Jonathan Ariel notes three major factors that most likely contributed to Egyptian President Sisi’s abandonment of MESA: his distrust of Donald Trump (and concern that Trump might lose the 2020 election) and of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman; Cairo’s perception that Iran does not pose a major threat to its security; and the current situation in Gaza:

Gaza . . . is ruled by Hamas, defined by its covenant as “one of the wings of the Muslim Brotherhood in Palestine.” Sisi has ruthlessly persecuted the Brotherhood in Egypt. [But] Egypt, despite its dependence on Saudi largesse, has continued to maintain its ties with Qatar, which is under Saudi blockade over its unwillingness to toe the Saudi line regarding Iran. . . . Qatar is also supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood, . . . and of course Hamas.

[Qatar’s ruler] Sheikh Tamim is one of the key “go-to guys” when the situation in Gaza gets out of hand. Qatar has provided the cash that keeps Hamas solvent, and therefore at least somewhat restrained. . . . In return, Hamas listens to Qatar, which does not want it to help the Islamic State-affiliated factions involved in an armed insurrection against Egyptian forces in northern Sinai. Egypt’s military is having a hard enough time coping with the insurgency as it is. The last thing it needs is for Hamas to be given a green light to cooperate with Islamic State forces in Sinai. . . .

Over the past decade, ever since Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power, Israel has also been gradually placing more and more chips in its still covert but growing alliance with Saudi Arabia. Egypt’s decision to pull out of MESA should give it cause to reconsider. Without Egypt, MESA has zero viability unless it is to include either U.S. forces or Israeli ones. [But] one’s chances of winning the lottery seem infinitely higher than those of MESA’s including the IDF. . . . Given that Egypt, the Arab world’s biggest and militarily most powerful state and its traditional leader, has clearly indicated its lack of confidence in the Saudi leadership, Israel should urgently reexamine its strategy in this regard.

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Read more at BESA Center

More about: Egypt, Gaza Strip, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, U.S. Foreign policy