Bringing new worlds into Hebrew

A look into the world of the people who translate from Finnish, Russian, Norwegian and other languages into Hebrew.

Hebrew books (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Hebrew books
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Translating books into Hebrew requires a special talent, a lot of knowledge and a unique personality. For many people who make their living adapting prose from various languages into modern Hebrew is a labor of love.
Rami Saari translates into Hebrew from many languages, including Turkish, Portuguese, Estonian, Albanian and Modern Greek, yet in our conversation I focused on his choice to translate from Finnish to Hebrew.
“I began to learn Finnish on my own during high school,” he says. “There was a little store in Tel Aviv where you could go and pick up cassettes and learn foreign languages on your own. I even went to work for a year in Kibbutz Ma’barot so I could speak with the Finnish volunteers there. When I eventually got to Finland, I ended up living there for 10 years and felt very comfortable, as I already had basic language skills.”
In contrast, his translations from Portuguese were the result of a friend who asked him if he might take up that language so that the poetry of Fernando Pessoa might be translated into Hebrew following the passing away of his previous translator, Yoram Bronowski, in 2001.
“This friend arranged for me to have a scholarship to study in Portugal,” he explains. “So I sat at their National Library and got into the language, I didn’t take a single class – thanks to this friend I ended up translating not only Pessoa but also fiction from Angola.”
Saari explains that unlike popular languages such as French and English, Hebrew publishing houses are rarely in a position to judge the merits of a book written in Finnish or Albanian.
“They trust me not to bring them a book that has no hope of finding an audience,” he says, “and I am very fortunate because 95% of the time I get to select the books I wish to translate.” Due to the wide range of languages he works in, Saari is in a position to reject books he doesn’t like, a rare situation among translators.
“The Finnish state is glad to finance translations from Finnish,” he says, “but someone has to write to them from that other country and explain why it’s important that this Finnish work be translated, so that’s where the translator comes in.”
When discussing one of his favorite Finnish writers, Mika Waltari, Saari explains that while some books by Waltari were translated into Hebrew in the past, those translations were from German or English into Hebrew.
“I was able to publish two books by Waltari,” he says, “and these were direct translations from Finnish.”
“In A Stranger Comes to the Farm, Waltari writes about Finnish farmers, yet there is a love story between two men and a woman, and that human story could take place in Tel Aviv as well. Just because one place has snow and the other place doesn’t, does not prevent me from delivering this idea, as some things are common all over the world.”
“I translated a masterpiece of Finnish literature,” he says. “It’s a book called Manila Rope by Veijo Meri, a best-selling book for the past 60 years that was translated into 30 languages and was a hit in each market.”
“The story,” Saari says, “is about a Finnish soldier who returns home from the Second World War with a present for his wife, a rope he found on the battlefield and wrapped around his person. The book describes a long train ride in which he and his buddies drink and tell war stories. Now, an Israeli critic wrote about this story the following thing: ‘We Israelis have a war every 10 years, what can the Finns tell us about it?’ My own attitude is different: we are all human beings and we can all find interest in things that happen in another time or another place.”
“I believe that great literature will eventually reach other languages,” he concludes, before returning to a book he’s translating from Turkish about prisoners who tell each other tales locked in a prison below Istanbul, “and it’s a great loss to translate into Hebrew from a language that is not the original one the work was written in.”
THE GENRE Nordic Noir is famous worldwide with noted writers such as Stieg Larsson and Henning Mankell attaining cult status. The opening shot to the recent success of the genre was heard in 1992 when Danish writer Peter Hoeg published Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow. The book dealt with the complex issues of Danish-Greenlandic relations, Inuit terms for snow and ice, and how bodies dumped in the Arctic don’t float, as their stomachs do not fill up with air. Hebrew readers were able to enjoy this unusual book thanks to Dana Caspi, who translated it directly from Danish while still in university.
“I felt a huge responsibility to the readers at that time and really wanted to explain everything,” she says in the Jerusalem coffee shop we spoke in, “even the meaning of Danish street names or pop-culture references. Today I only do it if it’s crucial to the plot.”
Caspi began her studies with a strong interest in Celtic culture, which led to her persuing a degree in Celtic culture and Scandinavian languages in Scotland. “It was interesting because I was able to read how both sides of an encounter, the Vikings and the Celts, described their meeting,” she says.
“During my studies, the Scottish Parliament became a reality and that led to the field of Celtic studies acquiring a charged nationalistic vibe for me. All of a sudden, Celtic issues were used as a political tool,” she explains, “which eventually led to me focusing on Norway and writing about how Swedish and Norwegian literatures described the immigration experience when they came to America.”
Nationalism, however, is not limited to the Celts.
“Former prime minister of Norway Gro Harlem Brundtland said in 1992, ‘It is typically Norwegian to be good,’” she says. “The expression caught on because it captures a very real thing about Norwegian culture. The idea that there can be a good sort of nationalism and, naturally, the good kind is the Norwegian kind. Remember that in Norwegian, when they speak about the world they say: “Down there.” It’s not only a geographical term.”
This is also seen in the two forms of Norwegian used today. The first, Bokmål [Book language] evolved from Danish in the 19th century. The other, Nynorsk [New Norwegian] was developed by Ivar Aasen with the goal of preserving Norwegian dialects.
“He’s a lot like our very own Eliezer Ben-Yehuda,” Caspi explains, “and Norwegians take this idea, that it’s important to keep local dialects alive, very seriously. You can write official letters in both Bokmal and Nynorsk and they have to respond in the language of your choice.”
Caspi, with Ruth Shapira, translates the detective novels written by Jo Nesbø, featuring detective Harry Hole – a surname that gives the character endless grief when he meets English speakers.
As a fan of the series, I confess to Caspi that Hole is a terrible hero, as he usually loses body parts in each book and is unable to prevent the murders of those he loves. I also point out that in almost every Hole story, there is a critique of Norwegian society.
“I think this is partly why the books are successful outside of Norway,” Caspi says. “As for what a terrible hero Hole is, a part of it is the genre. Detectives often have self-destructive qualities. But I also think it’s the Nesbø gift. He is able to plant his characters in the real Oslo. If you walk following his characters in the real world, you’d feel how the books make a lot of sense. He’s also pretty approachable as a writer. If you hang out in Oslo long enough you’ll eventually see him drinking coffee or something.”
“As for the brutality of the books,” she says, “I think it’s because Nesbø corresponds with a Western pop-culture genre. The serial killer fictional character, for example, is more American than Norwegian. Having said that, I can also say that there is a Norwegian literary drive to deal with evil, confront it and explore it. Karl Ove Knausgård, a writer very different from Nesbø whom I also translate into Hebrew, deals with evil in his own life.”
When asked to comment on the challenge of bringing Scandinavian literature to Hebrew readers, she says, “We, too, came here from all sort of places, and in bringing Scandinavian fiction to Israel we are saying that this, too, has room here.”
“I would say that a part of loving Hebrew is to bring more things into it.”