Lost in adaptation

HBO's version of Israel's 'B'Tipul' doesn't speak to US audiences.

In Treatment 1 88 224 (photo credit: Courtesy)
In Treatment 1 88 224
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A few years ago as Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko prepared to read a few English translations of his own verse in a crowded hall on an American university campus, he reminded listeners of the fragile task of rendering poetry from one language to another. He compared the finished product to a woman: "If it is beautiful, it is not faithful," he said, "and if it is faithful, it is most certainly not beautiful." The inflected, but flexible Russian language is known for being especially challenging to translate into English without sounding contrived. And while the difficulties of translating a popular television series may pale in comparison, adaptors of a recent Israeli series about talk-therapy, faced a similar predicament. The HBO adaptation In Treatment, currently airing in the US five nights a week, follows the quiet drama that unfolds between patient and therapist, and is largely faithful, and rarely beautiful. It makes those who have had the pleasure of seeing the original acutely aware that, in its journey across the Atlantic, something has gone mysteriously askew. On the surface, little has changed. The storylines of all five patients - a doctor in love with the therapist, a pilot on leave from the air force after a deadly accident, a young gymnast suspected of attempting suicide and a couple whose marriage is unraveling - closely mimic their Israeli counterparts in B'tipul, sometimes down to the hairdo. But the result reads like a pale rendition, a vulgar translation of what one Israeli newspaper called the "closest to thing to literature to be found nowadays on television." The series opens midstream with Laura (originally Na'ama), a seductive, young doctor who after a year of therapy finds herself on the brink of marriage. Towards the end of her session she announces that she is in love with her therapist, and we are thrust into the midst of an erotic transference of a woman who inhabits a world where boundaries are hard to recognize. In the original, that world bears a striking resemblance to the world outside the office, where boundaries are set up and broken down with the very same, insistent hammer. This, and the therapist's own fear of losing control, may explain the intensity with which he tries to prevent Na'ama (played by Ayelet Zurer) from using the bathroom in his house when the office toilet gets clogged up. He is trying desperately to create some boundaries, where few exist otherwise. While political borders are fought over tooth and nail, Israelis tend to ignore personal space, and privacy is a foreign word. Strangers are treated like intimate lovers. Love and aggression are easily confused. And in the therapist's office, coffee is just as quickly offered as it is spat out in disgust. But those very same gestures appear out of place in the office of a suburban American home, where HBO has transplanted them, and where the notion of serving coffee to one's patients, or in turn offering an espresso machine as a gift to one's therapist (as the macho air force pilot does in his second session), seem like transgressions in and of themselves. What is introduced in that first episode on Israeli television, is more than just a personal narrative. We are made witness to the complicated boundaries that every therapist and patient must ultimately negotiate. It is the job of a skilled therapist to help a patient understand their own behavior as not simply a consequence of culture - as he might wish to see it - but as the result of personal experience and human relationships that mold an individual. It is his job to point out that while Yadin Yerushalmi (played by Lior Ashkenazi), a macho Air Force pilot who claims to be free of guilt and sleep like a baby after a bomb he drops kills a number of kids in Ramallah, is the stereotype of the hard-edged Israeli, he is also an individual who brings his own history to the table. "Built in, in my body, there is a separation," Yadin says after returning to the ravaged site of the incident. "I stand there and don't feel anything." While his emotional numbness and insistence on being "the best" and in control, reflect the culture he has grown up in, which rewards and cultivates these qualities, he is also the product of a father who killed his own father in the ghetto, and who was incapable of mourning the death of his wife. It is the therapist's job to focus on the latter, the individual history of a patient. But it is the former, the specificities of culture, that get lost in translation and that stand as glaring obstacles to a successful adaptation. The air-force pilot is one of Israel's most recognizable archetypes, and the conflicts he must bear, or try to ignore as Yadin does in the show, are aired daily in discussions across the country. Though the war in Iraq, makes a comparison somewhat feasible, the American character remains unpersuasive. BY TRANSLATING the series almost word for word, gesture for gesture, the producers of the HBO made a serious miscalculation. "People are people are people," co-executive producer Noa Tishby told the New York Times. But every episode is a testament to the opposite. In the Israeli version, the process, which Freud famously likens to archeology - the uncovering of meaning hidden beneath an "expanse of ruins" - is revealed to us Israeli style, with authenticity and intimacy, as much fruits of the land as the prickly cactus. Though failed marriage, erotic transference, suicide and the like, may be universal themes, the characters who tell them are not. Everything from the way the patients speak and move, to the way they enact their resistance, sometimes with utmost humor, is authentically Israeli. What the adaptation lacks is its own authenticity, its own set of American characters, with their own language and sensibility. The Sabra, that classic image of the desert born Jew who stands in contrast to his former, pasty, Eastern European model, reveals itself in all the patients through and through. On the surface they are rough and stubbornly resist being analyzed, but when their skin is peeled, they are soft and fluid. With few props and little make-up, the intimacy in the room is so palpable, it's easy to forget at times that you are watching a fictional television show. You can imagine yourself sitting across from the ruffled, somewhat fragile but soothing Reuven Dagan (played by Assi Dayan) as he helps us untangle the confusing web of feelings that cause us to often behave unwittingly in the world, to our own dismay. The birds in the background remind us that this is life, not some sectioned off, stuffy room in a non-descript suburb. Israelis recognize themselves in the characters on the screen. And what unfolds is not only the internal life of a few patients, but something internal to the country itself. It was this and more that captivated audiences for nine weeks straight in 2005 when the show first aired. It increased the number of Israelis in therapy, and also the fees. And patients were heard across the country bemoaning the fact their therapist wasn't as good as Dr. Dagan. But critics haven't failed to notice that most of the show's authenticity and nuance were lost as it migrated west. "The writing itself rings false to an almost bizarre degree, with the result that the world created in the show simply isn't credible," wrote Nancy Franklin in a recent New Yorker review. The show appears to take place in "a bubble," she writes, "not in the United States, or anywhere else in particular." The characters move and act like puppets with no life of their own, in part because they have been given no chance to create themselves. They are mere copies of something that can't be copied. To really translate the Israeli television show, producers of the American version would have done better to be less faithful. They should have borrowed the blueprint, but used their own colors to color in-between the lines, then surely the picture would appear more beautiful.