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Gained In Translations

Gained In Translations

A translator (and fiction writer) on the tricky task of turning Israeli novels into English.

Amuch-discussed fact in the publishing world is the following statistic: only about 3 percent of all books published annually in the U.S. are works translated from another language. The stats for literary fiction and poetry are even more dismal, at 0.7 percent. So if you are an excellent writer writing in Danish or Polish or Chinese, a writer with good reviews, even a faithful following of readers, your work may never see the light of day in English.

Speaking in numbers, that means that if 288,000 books were indeed published in the U.S. in 2009, then only about 2,000 works of translated literary fiction or poetry were published that year.

I have never seen a statistic that reflects the market share by language of those 2,000 translated works, but I am willing to wager that Hebrew does relatively well — and certainly far better than our JEWISH population count would suggest. (By rough calculation, for every speaker of the Hebrew language there are 1,000 non-Hebrew speakers in the world; thus, we should expect to publish only two of those 2,000 titles.)

Obviously, the true numbers for published works of Hebrew literature in translation are much higher. Virtually every time one of Israel’s top writers — a highly prolific group that includes David Grossman, Amoz Oz, A. B. Yehoshua and Meir Shalev — publishes a new book in Hebrew, it is fairly safe to assume that it will appear in English within a year or two. But in recent years the field has grown crowded with other Israeli writers with stories and opinions and prose styles that are often every bit as worth reading as their more experienced compatriots.

So what contributes to their popularity, and their success? Certainly the biggest factor is Jewish readership, that international audience of educated, demanding Jews who are among the world’s most devoted readers. Creative institutions, both in Israel and North America, help promote Israeli writers and their work. And of course the writers themselves — a funny, irreverent, bold, introspective group if ever there was one — are often savvy marketers and networkers, popping up at every literary event imaginable and willing to share their take on a country in which there is rarely a dull moment.

It has been my privilege — as a writer, a translator, and a teacher — to work with some of the canonical writers as well as the new cohort of younger, exciting writers now appearing on the scene. They are writing about being immigrants, about living in a country that cannot quite come to terms with itself, about loving Israel with something bordering on desperation while often needing to escape (to another country, to fiction). They write, too, about what writers in other places — quieter and saner places, perhaps — are writing: love, relationships, loneliness, joy, the quest for meaning.

I enjoy interacting with them. Most know at least a little English; many know quite a bit. So long as they trust me, the cooperation between author and translator can be mutually beneficial. Given that translators break down a text to its tiniest elements, we see all the inherent slip-ups as well as the beauty, and most writers are grateful to have their errors pointed out to them. As for me, as a writer of fiction as well as a translator, I welcome the dialogue we engage in — despite the fact that when I am translating the fiction of others, I am rendered incapable of working on my own fiction. After all, both texts rely on a clear-headed and consistent voice; working on my own text and a translation at the same time thus becomes schizophrenic.

Hebrew is a blunt language, terse and direct; there is little room for hiding behind its words. If you have ever been to Israel then you know the people who speak it are much the same. I have come to love this language and its speakers — always knowing where I stand with them — much the way, I imagine, that many of the early pioneers in Israel loved this new lifestyle of theirs in which good manners and the stifling rules of decorum had been overthrown. Life was pared down to the essentials, and so it is with the language: a dry heat blows right through the sturdy legs of the letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

It is the translator’s tragedy and joy to be tasked with rendering this bronzed and brittle prose in its new incarnation in a different language — in my case, English, a supple tongue, nuanced and billowing. It is an impossible task with a necessarily imperfect result, but one well worth the effort. As Susan Sontag once wrote, “Translation is the circulatory system of the world's literatures. Literary translation, I think, is preeminently an ethical task, and one which mirrors and duplicates the role of literature itself, which is to extend our sympathies; to educate the heart and mind; to create inwardness; to secure and deepen the awareness (with all its consequences) that other people, people different from us, really do exist.”

In this case, those people are Israelis, beloved or estranged cousins with a literature that will grip your senses and your emotions and never let go. It is an embrace you will not regret.

Evan Fallenberg translates Hebrew fiction and teaches creative writing at Bar Ilan University in Tel Aviv and at City University of Hong Kong. His most recent novel is “When We Danced on Water” (Harper).