An Occupational Hazard


One doesn’t normally think of translating and editing as a dangerous profession, but my experience of working in this field for the last fifty years has had a deleterious effect on me, leaving me seriously incapacitated. Reading literature of any kind, and especially if it has been translated into or from any of the language pairs between which I work, becomes a major problem, impeding any pleasure I might otherwise have obtained from reading. I generally do what I can, to the best of my ability, not to read books in translation, and so get a certain satisfaction from reading books in the original.

For example, I decided to buy the Hebrew version of David Grossman’s latest book, ‘A Horse Walks into a Bar,’ the English translation of which has been awarded the prestigious Man Booker International Prize. Almost immediately, however, in the first few paragraphs, I found myself wondering how the translator, Jessica Cohen in this instance, had translated a particular term. The whole book gets off to a rather slow start in which the reader is part of the audience at a stand-up performance, and is drawn into the story of the rather unfunny ‘comedian.’ This gives the reader time and opportunity to think about the way the terms have been translated.

I have never been to a performance of a stand-up comedian myself, though I have seen one or two such events on TV, and have, I suppose, a general idea of how these things work. But that isn’t the point here, as Grossman uses the so-called comedian’s patter and interaction with the audience to display his character, history and psychology. One thought that occurred to me while reading the book was to wonder whether Grossman earns a little extra on the side from writing jokes for stand-up comedians. I’m sure he could do quite well in this field if he put his mind to it. Anyhow, I’m still in the middle of reading the book, so I don’t yet know what the denouement is, if there is one at all. The pace of the narrative is rather slow, there’s little plot or tension, at least to begin with, and it is the language the ‘comedian’ uses which reveals who and what he is.

And there’s the rub. Initially he comes across as a somewhat unpleasant character, someone who picks on individual members of the audience and mocks them for the name they bear, their own or their wife’s physical appearance or their occupation. I guess that’s a standard ploy of stand-up comedians, but it certainly is not one that endears him to this particular reader. The language he uses varies between colloquial modern Hebrew, Yiddish expressions and obscure literary references. At each incident of verbal pyrotechnics my brain stops short and asks ‘how did Jessica Cohen translate this?’ or, worse still, ‘how would I translate this?’

As you can imagine, this does not make for an easy read. On the contrary, it makes the reading experience extremely difficult and troubling, and it is only by dint of a conscious effort that I persuade myself to pick the book up again and read a few more pages. I’ve already made up my mind to buy the English version and compare the two, an exercise which I know in advance will cause me anguish and distress.

From conversations with colleagues in the field, I know that I’m not alone in experiencing what can be called ‘Translator’s Syndrome,’ which is also very much akin to ‘Editor’s Syndrome’ and ‘Proofreader’s Syndrome.’ Are those of us engaged in these professions destined never to enjoy ‘a good read’ or be carried away by the need to find out ‘what happens next,’ as we did in our childhood, before we entered this dangerous field of activity, when we could read a book and thrill to the intensity of the experience?

In conclusion, I feel it is incumbent upon me to issue a warning to anyone contemplating a career in translation (or editing or proofreading). Beware! You are embarking upon a journey that will forever prevent you from enjoying another book! Enter at your peril!