Rhyme and reason

For close to 30 years the enchanting work of iconic children's author Dr. Seuss, has been a staple of Israeli childhood, thanks to translator Lea Naor.

cat in hat seuss 88 (photo credit: )
cat in hat seuss 88
(photo credit: )
For close to 30 years the enchanting work of iconic American children's author and illustrator Theodor Seuss Geisel (1904-1991), better known as Dr. Seuss, has been a staple of Israeli childhood, thanks to translator Lea Naor. As part of a series of lectures entitled "Encounters with Translators," a packed audience at Mishkenot Sha'ananim was privy last Friday to Naor's insights gleaned from a career she claims to have "stumbled upon by chance," but which became a labor of love. Her Hebrew versions of these classic rhymes successfully invoke Geisel's unique blend of charm and humor. "The first Dr. Seuss work I translated, The Cat in the Hat (1957), was purely for myself," recalled the 72-year-old grandmother, who is also a well-known children's author and songwriter. "At the time I knew very little English and needed to improve for university, so I would sit with my dictionary and translate anything I could get my hands on," she continued. "Years later when a friend in publishing mentioned he'd like to see the Dr. Seuss books translated into Hebrew, I showed him the rendition but he was critical because I'd called it The Mischievous Cat, and hadn't mentioned the hat. "But I maintained, and still do, that the integral part of Dr. Seuss's works are the rhymes and rhythm, and the overall pictures he portrayed. I'd tried, as I would in all my future translations, to remain true to these. "Sometimes details had to be revised for the sake of the translations, but the impression I get from reading Dr. Seuss is that he considered details to be secondary to the ideas and experiences he aimed to convey." Despite her persistence, plans to translate Dr. Seuss were shelved. It was only a couple of years later, when Naor was informed that she'd won a competition for the best translation work, that the wheels of her new career were set in motion. "I didn't even know about the competition," she recalled. "But it turns out my publisher friend had entered me, and ten years after my original Dr. Seuss translation I began translating his works professionally." In the 27 translations that followed, Naor attempted to stay as loyal to the originals as possible. You have to love Dr. Seuss to do justice to his works, she insisted. "I'd deliberate for hours about how and what to change." One example of these changes can be found in her translation of the celebrated Green Eggs and Ham (1960). "It would have been inappropriate to include the word 'ham' in an Israeli publication," Naor explained, "so I changed the title to I'm Not Hungry and I Don't Like It, and the poem focused on this concept, which is the concept that the original storyline was based on in any case. The fact that the food the character didn't want to eat was ham is, in my opinion, almost inconsequential." Although adamant that she has never unnecessarily altered Seuss's works, Naor confessed to changing the ending of one of her translations in a version written for her own children. The Butter Battle Book (1984), a parable of the nuclear arms race taking place between Russia and the US at the time, is the story of two opposing nations, the Yooks and the Gooks, who possess the means to destroy each other, and have a quarrel originating from a dispute over butter. The conflict is left unresolved at the end of the book in an attempt to depict the potential dangers of the arms race. Naor maintained that this ending, a reflection of Geisel's tendency in later life to convey his ideological concerns through his works, "is a good thing because it encourages children to think." "It just seemed too harsh for my own children," she admitted, "so I wrote an alternate ending." Naor, whose Dr. Seuss translations earned her a place on the prestigious International Board on Books for Young People's honors list for 1984, considers translating to be a creative process which parallels that of writing. "This is particularly true of translating Dr. Seuss, because you have to create your own rhymes," explained the author, who has also translated works by other famous storytellers ranging from Kipling to Roald Dahl. "It's a career that has brought me a great deal of pleasure," she added. "I feel honored to have played a part in continuing Dr. Seuss's legacy."