‘Nothing is Found or Lost in Translation’

‘Nothing is Found or Lost in Translation’ Jessica Cohen, Booker-winning translator

There is the mother tongue. There is the other tongue. And there is that bridge that takes each important story ever told from one to the other, journeying it beyond geography, culture and time—the bridge that is the translator. Jessica Cohen is a British-Israeli-American translator, whose achievements include sharing the Man Booker International Prize for translating David Grossman's novel, A Horse Walks Into a Bar.

Cohen has translated a number of Hebrew language books into English, including those by some important authors as Nir Baram, David Grossman, Amir Gutfreund [he], Yael Hedaya [he], Ronit Matalon, Rutu Modan, Dorit Rabinyan, Tom Segev and Nava Semel. She opens the door to the fascinating and challenging world of translation.

When did you start romancing languages?
I started off translating non-literary material (legal, educational, personal documents, etc.) and built up a freelance translation business that I ran for many years. I began to translate Hebrew literature just for fun – every time I read some new Israeli book that I liked and was not yet available in English, I had the urge to translate it so that non-Hebrew-speaking friends could read it. 

I was in graduate school at the time, at Indiana University, where I met Breon Mitchell, a superb translator of German literature, who encouraged me to turn my literary translation hobby into something more serious, and became my first mentor. He helped me polish some of the translations I’d produced, and I then contacted the literary agent Deborah Harris, who represents some of Israel’s finest writers. She liked the samples I showed her, and gave me my first book to translate (a novel by Ronit Matalon, one of Israel’s most brilliant and original writers, who sadly died recently at a very young age). After that first book, I was asked to translate David Grossman’s collection of novellas, Her Body Knows. For a beginning translator, that was a phenomenal opportunity that in some ways set my career on its future course. I have since translated four other books by Grossman (and there are, hopefully, more to come), as well as works by many other great Israeli writers. I continued to translate commercial material for many years, mostly because of financial necessities (commercial translation rates are significantly higher than what a literary translator can generally earn), but also because I liked having different kinds of projects going on at the same time. That changed after my daughter was born, nine years ago, when I had less time and mental space for my work, and so I decided to wind down my commercial translation business and concentrate on literature.

Take me through some of your most interesting experiences while translating literary works. Who are the authors whose writings are most fun to work on?
Every book is a new creature, with a new style to embody, new words to look up, and new areas of human knowledge to learn about. So the work is always interesting and often fun. But for me, one of the most interesting and rewarding aspects of being a translator is the interaction with authors. 

Translators like to joke about whether it’s better to work with dead authors or living ones (some swear they prefer the former) but on the rare occasions when I’ve translated works by authors no longer living, I felt that there was a whole dimension missing, a vital piece of the puzzle that I did not have access to. In some cases, my communication with an author is limited to corresponding about the text, asking specific questions, and perhaps discussing editorial decisions, but even in that limited scope I find that it’s invaluable to be able to contact an author and hear her perspective or even just her explanations of very specific textual issues. 

And in many cases, my relationship with an author I translate has evolved into a real friendship, where there is a sense of true collaboration. Just recently I was asked by a writer whose work I have translated to read a draft of his new novel, and I was able to give feedback and have a glimpse into the work long before it lands on my desk to translate. He even consulted me on possible titles and character names. Of course this is also a complicated situation to be in, and I sometimes had the feeling I was overstepping the boundaries of my job, and that my perspective as the future translator of the book was necessarily clouding my ability to give the input he needed.

Undoubtedly one of the more interesting experiences I’ve had while translating a book was traveling to Straelen, a small town in northeastern Germany, where a group of translators working on David Grossman’s A Horse Walks into a Bar met with the author for several days to discuss the translation. That was an invaluable (and very rare) opportunity to work closely with the author, to be able to ask him all our questions about the text as they arose, and to hear directly from him about the ideas behind the book, the things he wanted to emphasize, and how he felt the characters’ voices should sound. Even just hearing David read the book out loud (in Hebrew) was illuminating, affording an intimacy with the original text that is difficult to get just by passively reading it, no matter how many times. 

“I would like to put to rest the idea that anything is “lost” or “found” in a translation. I increasingly think of a translation as a new piece of writing (although of course it is, by definition, derivative).”

With so many nuances and much that is said between the lines, how do you make sure a story is found and not lost in translation?
I would like to put to rest the idea that anything is “lost” or “found” in a translation. I increasingly think of a translation as a new piece of writing (although of course it is, by definition, derivative) authored by the translator. And if that is the case, then it makes as much sense to evaluate a translation in terms of what is “lost” or “found” as it would for a work originally written in English. To be sure, there are always elements of the original text (a word, an idiom, a proper noun) that cannot be translated in a way that conveys all the layers of meaning and the cultural connotations found in the original concept. But I think that the greatest sense of “loss” in these cases is in the translator’s own mind, because only she (and perhaps the very few people who are able and willing to compare the original to the translation) is truly aware of what had to be sacrificed in the process of translation. If the translator has done her job well, then she creates an English-language work that replicates, to the greatest possible extent, the reading experience that a reader in the original language might have had. It should provoke the same emotions, it should entertain or upset or educate or provoke the reader in the same way as the original did. And these responses are elicited less by specific words and more by their cumulative weight – the tone of voice, the intonation, the mood of a text. 

Can you take me through your creative process?
I always read the entire book before I agree to translate it. Some of my colleagues prefer not to read at all before they start to translate (their position being that this reproduces the reader’s experience as they go along), but I like to know what I’m getting into, and I don’t usually agree to translate a book unless I like it (or ideally, love it) or at least feel some affinity with it. Once I begin translating, I produce a very rough first draft, working quickly through the entire text without lingering too much on decisions or pondering ambiguities, leaving lots of question marks and brackets for things I need to work on in subsequent drafts.

I think of this first draft as my raw material – like a lump of clay – which I then go through for a second time, paying far greater attention to word choices, elements that may need to be adapted or glossed (or in some heartbreaking cases, dropped) in the translation. During this stage I rarely look at the original work, and it is by far the longest and most creative part of the process. My third draft is more of a polishing stage – I go through everything again, refining and making sure I haven’t strayed too far from the original, and this is also when I send the author my questions. In some cases I do send questions earlier on in the process, as I go along, but I find that in many cases I find the answers I needed at a later stage, as things become clearer and my understanding of the work coheres, and so I prefer to hold off on specific textual questions until I’m certain I cannot figure them out myself. (I also very much dislike showing my translations to anyone – including the author – until I feel that it is close-to-perfect.) For my final draft, I print out the translation (or sometimes transfer it to my Kindle) and I read the whole text out loud. It’s always amazing to me how many improvements I make at this stage. Speaking the text out loud draws your ear to the way it sounds, which allows me to catch inharmonic elements, as well as little errors, typos, and the occasional clunkiness or simple mistake that needs to be corrected.

What is the greatest challenge of the art of translation? 
It is definitely complex, although I haven’t yet decided if it’s an art or a craft. Recently I’ve been thinking that it’s somewhere in between. Or rather, that one must have both the artistic impulse and vision, and the craft to pull it off. This, of course, is true of any sort of creative writing, and translation is writing. The greatest challenge varies with each book. On the whole, what I try to do is assimilate the voices I hear in the book (of both narration and characters) and channel their English-speaking counterparts. This may be complicated by experimental or non-standard use of language or form, by a reliance on culturally-specific concepts or references that are unfamiliar to the English reader, by characters or settings that don’t have a precise equivalent in the target culture, and so forth. These are just a few of the obstacles that might appear in a particular book, and the solutions are also specific to each book.

“I like to think of Hebrew as a 'depth language,' as opposed to English, which is a 'breadth language.'”

In what ways is Hebrew a unique language, is it sometimes difficult to translate into English?
I like to think of Hebrew as a “depth language,” as opposed to English, which is a “breadth language.” What I mean is that although the Hebrew 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). And so while I can often find several English words that have almost the exact same meaning as a particular Hebrew word, it is often next-to-impossible to find one that conveys all of that Hebrew word’s associative weight. This often 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. 

Another difficulty I often encounter stems from Hebrew’s morphology. It is a language of roots and patterns: there are a finite number of patterns (referred to in Hebrew as “buildings”), each of which has a specific semantic function, and 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, it is very easy to make up a word in Hebrew and be sure that readers or listeners will immediately understand what it means. This makes Hebrew an incredibly supple and malleable language, and it is one reason for the immensely rich and fast-growing slang vocabulary you hear Israelis use. But English has no equivalent process, and 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.

On a related issue, Hebrew has a remarkable tolerance for extreme changes in register in a text—often within the same sentence. A young, contemporary character might, for example, use a biblical allusion in her speech without it seeming strange at all to a Hebrew reader, whereas in English it would obviously draw attention to itself and seem peculiar.

“When I won the Man Booker International Prize, and I wanted to remind Israelis that, although there is much to celebrate about Israel’s literary and cultural output, there is a great deal about Israel that should invoke shame, not pride.”

Your views on translation vis-a-vis interpretation. 
Put quite simply, translation is interpretation. In the same way that every reader of a book brings her own history, biography, emotions, values, tastes, political opinions, cultural upbringing, and even her mood at a given time of reading, translators also bring all these elements into their reading of a book. And translators are, first and foremost, readers of the text. We read it closely and we read it multiple times, but everything that an individual translator brings from her own background and psyche into her reading experience will affect her interpretation of the text, and therefore her rendition of it in translation.

It has been very generous of you to donate half of your Man Booker Prize winnings to B'Tselem. What inspired the act?
Although I have not lived in Israel for over twenty years, I spent my formative years there, I travel there often, my closest friends and many relatives live there, and I feel deeply connected to the country. I have watched in horror and despair as very large parts of Israeli society have grown increasingly indifferent to the daily injustices committed in their name and with their taxes. It is rare for a translator to have a public platform of the kind I was awarded when I won the Man Booker International Prize, and I wanted to take advantage of it to remind Israelis that, although there is much to celebrate about Israel’s literary and cultural output, there is a great deal about Israel that should invoke shame, not pride. 

I was accused by some Israelis of spoiling what should have been a happy occasion, and in some sense, that was exactly my goal. I think those of us who are deeply disturbed by Israel’s moral erosion and the apathy towards it, are obliged to take every opportunity they can to call attention to it. B’Tselem has been doggedly reporting human rights abuses committed by Israel in Palestine for over thirty years, it is managed and staffed by dedicated people for whom I have great respect, and especially given the Israeli government’s blatant efforts to discredit it and other human rights organizations, I felt it was important to support B’Tselem’s work, both symbolically and financially.

Text Soumya Mukerji