My Birthday and Dr.Seuss

 I recently passed another milestone in my life: a birthday.  My middle daughter, who is in her first year at California State University, Northridge majoring in microbiology, is also employed by Costco.  This year she decided to give me plane ticket so I could fly to visit my mom in Ohio at the end of March.  It is the second time that she has so gifted me.

Meanwhile, my wife gave me a copy of Dr. Seuss’s books Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham. That might seem an odd thing to give someone of my age.  But I should add some details to the story.

When I was a graduate student at UCLA many years ago, I spent a lot of time at the University Research Library on the north part of the campus.  On one of the upper floors, as I was looking for a commentary on some book of the Bible I stumbled upon a thin blue book that looked both oddly familiar and oddly out of place: Dr. Seuss’ Cat in the Hat.  However, there was something different about this copy: it wasn’t in English.  Instead, it was in Hebrew.

Translating poetry from one language to another is a remarkably difficult task.  Prose can be done easily enough, without significant loss.  That is, your enjoyment of say Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment in a modern English translation is not going to be much different from the enjoyment a native Russian speaker would have in reading it in the language Dostoevsky wrote it.

However, when it comes to poetry, say for instance Dante’s Inferno, which was written in medieval Italian, difficult choices must be made.  Most translations will capture the sense of the poetry, but you’ll read it without the rhythms and rhymes of the original.  Thus, you will lose something in the translation. 

Those translations that attempt to retain the poetic elements of the original—for instance Alexander Pope’s translations of Homer into English—will lose something as well: they will tend to sound artificial and will lose much of the meaning of the original.  The bottom line is simply that poetry doesn’t usually translate well, unless it is a modern poet—say for instance Pablo Naruto’s poems.  They were originally in Spanish, but are like Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass: no rhyming or rhythm, and so translation is not much different than translating prose.  One can enjoy Naruto’s Ode to My Socks in English just as well as in its original Spanish.

Dr. Seuss’ books would seem to be the sort of books that would be nearly impossible to translate; the enjoyment of a Dr. Seuss book depends on their unique rhyme and rhythm; when you think of any of his books, what comes to mind is how easily you can tell something is a Dr. Seuss book; the various parodies of his work that one can stumble upon on the internet make that obvious.

How in the world could something like Dr. Seuss be successfully translated into another language without sacrificing the essential Dr. Seussness of the thing?

Somehow, the translator of Cat in the Hat, Leah Naor, managed to capture the ineffable.  She was born in 1935, was one of the founders of the kibbutz Nahal Oz, and studied literature in Tel Aviv.  She is an award winning songwriter, writer, and screenwriter in Israel having published many stories, poems and plays for children.  Altogether, she has translated thirty-five of Dr. Seuss’ books.

All those years ago as a lowly graduate student, I read through the translation and found myself both utterly amazed and transfixed.  Not only did the Hebrew version tell the same story as the version I knew from my childhood, it managed to do it so that it still sounded and felt like Dr. Seuss.  I quickly made a Xerox copy of the book and for years afterward, as I taught biblical Hebrew to my students, I would pull out the increasingly tattered photocopy and read portions of it.  I also would occasionally regale non-Hebrew students with it, just to illustrate for them the incredible achievement of the translation.

Because even those who didn’t know Hebrew could hear the rhythm and rhyming and could discern that it sounded like “something written by Dr. Seuss.” One other inconsequential but delightful aspect of translating Dr. Seuss into Hebrew is one of those odd little accidents; the Hebrew word for “horse” happens to sound exactly like the name Seuss.  Thus, I like to imagine that children in Israel think these books were written by someone named “Doctor Horse.”

And so, this birthday, my wife managed to find a copy of both Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham in Hebrew.  And so I can retire my old photocopy now.  Having the actual book is much easier to use and has the advantage, too, of being in color.

Together with my plane ticket to go visit my mom, this was really an excellent and very happy birthday.