Lost in translation?

Translators discuss the difficulty of their job, such as conveying Oscar Wilde's subtleties in Hebrew.

Pascale Amozig-Bukszpan 88 248 (photo credit: Benjamin Rosendahl)
Pascale Amozig-Bukszpan 88 248
(photo credit: Benjamin Rosendahl)
What is in a translation? Volumes have tried to answer this question, each one with a different answer. Can a text be translated without losing its meaning? Does the Bible lose its holiness, Joseph Heller his wit and Gogol his Russian soul (or the "dead souls" of his book of the same title)? Should a translator be close to his source? Or is that a futile task like "neutral news reporting"? Those were only few of the topics discussed at a recent Israel Translators Association conference in Haifa. In the beginning was the word, but soon enough came the translation. I met Pascale Amozig-Bukszpan, the organizer of this year's ITA conference and a translator with more than 25 years of experience, over a cup of coffee in the lobby of the Dan Carmel Hotel. Amozig-Bukszpan normally has a shy smile and speaks with a soft voice. This changes, however, when injustice is done to members of the field. "At last year's Paris Book Fair, one of the largest of its kind in Europe, 39 Israeli authors were invited, in honor of the 60-year-celebration of the State of Israel. However, there was not a single translator. This is especially appalling, considering that Israeli authors live mostly off their translations, not the local Hebrew market. Furthermore, it is due to the translators' skills that people all over Europe, the US and the world know and admire David Grossman, Amos Oz and other Israeli writers." One of the aims of the conference was to put the translators back on the map. It was also a good way for translators to exchange ideas and mingle, something rare in a solitary profession. More than 30 translators from a variety of countries and fields came to talk on topics ranging from the practical ("Technical Trends in the Translation Sector") to the legal (a panel discussion on "The Translator and the Law"), from great literature ("The Translation of Russian Names into Hebrew in Gogol's Dead Souls") to hi-tech (workshop on "Advanced Topics in Software Localization"). The keynote address was given by renowned author and journalist Gadi Taub, who spoke about values in Israeli society. "Humor is the first of the gifts to perish in a foreign tongue" (Virginia Woolf). This quote concluded Dr. Galia Hirsch's lecture on how translation helps distinguish between humor and irony. To which she added: "But irony does not perish." In a presentation filled with numerous examples in Hebrew, English and Spanish, Hirsch also answered the question whether humor researchers have humor. MAYA WEINSTOCK, an MA student in translation at Bar-Ilan University, addressed a similar problem, namely the translation of Russian names into Hebrew in Gogol's Dead Souls. Should the translator keep the sound of the title, the spelling of the title or translate its meaning ("Gregory who went and came")? Translation has two very different schools: One tries to stay close to the source; its focus is the source text which it tries to convey as closely as possible. The eyes of the other school are on the reader in the translated language: What would Gogol have written were his mother tongue Hebrew rather than Russian? So, instead of translating a joke that is not funny in a language other than Russian, these translators invent a new joke, in the target language. The question of approach led to fierce debates during the conference, as during Doron Greenshpan's lecture on ideologically biased travel guides: Should a translator convey the enthusiasm of "liberated territories" or the political objections to the "occupied West Bank"? What is the translator's task: to strengthen the politically charged terms, following its author, or to neutralize them, with consideration to the sentiments of the target audience? Translation, so Greenshpan summed up, by definition cannot stay close to the source. Hence, he argued, the translator is always a censor of sorts. THIS CAN clearly be seen in literary translation. Dr. Daliah Cohen-Gross compared 17 different translations of the same Oscar Wilde story ("The Happy Prince") into Hebrew over nine decades and showed that each translation reflected the translator's background. The first four translators were all born in Eastern Europe and knew mainly biblical Hebrew, while other translators, from secular homes, were born in Israel and grew up speaking modern Hebrew. Many subtle hints at Wilde's homosexuality in the English original posed problems, the biggest one being the relationship between the prince and the male swallow. Should the Hebrew word "snunit," a feminine noun, be used? Or an inaccurate translation ("dror") with the right sex? One of the translators tried a compromise, in questionable Hebrew: "ba'al snunit." A bigger challenge was an anti-Semitic passage describing the Jewish ghetto, reminiscent of Shylock. Here, the role of the translator as censor became apparent: Some left the passage out completely, while others described a market scene, but not a Jewish one. Finally, Cohen-Gross elaborated on a number of translations done twice by the same translators (albeit with 20 years in between). It is, says Cohen-Gross, a testament on how quickly and how fundamentally the Hebrew language has developed. A new translation was, in the eyes of these translators, an absolute necessity, since the Hebrew from the 1950s hardly reflected the language of the 1970s. Another focus of the Israel Translators' Association conference was Judaica and the dilemmas in translating it. Dr. Brenda Idstein focused on this issue, comparing translations from King James to Artscroll. Whether or not leaving the original text and/or adapting Hebrew terms in the English text (like "Hashem" in Artscroll) really conveys the meaning, was a question discussed but remained unanswered. Shira Leibowitz-Schmidt and Jessica Setbon, both working on the translation of former chief rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau's autobiography, elaborated on this dilemma in their lecture on Rabbi Haim Sabato's Adjusting Sight, a work of fiction with biblical motifs. Does the translated acronym LORD (for Law of the Order and Rule of Discussion) really convey the original Yesod Ha'inyanim Vehidush Hashma'atot? Leibowitz-Schmidt and Setbon also elaborated on the pitfalls in translating Israeli fiction while residing in America, translating ethnic terms without footnotes and other related issues. A significant part of the lecture focused on religious references, often missed by the translator, like "tzarat habat" (the misfortune of the daughter), which is a famous Shammai/Hillel debate (Talmud, Yevamot 16a). The holy and the profane was a topic mentioned in many lectures and also caused a good deal of debate. Not to hurt some of the audiences' religious feelings while still conveying the often obscene character of the translation became quite a challenge. While sitting with Pascale Amozig-Bukszpan, renowned linguist Dr. Thamar Eylam approached her, asking for advice as to which profanities to include and which to leave out in the closing lecture: "Pajamas in Paradise - Hebrew Words from All Diasporas." It is, Amozig-Bukszpan said, an intricate manner that can only be solved with a special kind of sensitivity for the audience - just like translation in general.