Rendering a Reborn Tongue

In the third of a trilogy of films she has made about the Hebrew language, director Nurit Aviv looks at the usually anonymous people who translate into other languages.

Veteran Israeli filmmaker Nurit Aviv's evocative, many-layered documentary "Traduire" ("Translating" ), about translators of Hebrew, is the third in her cinematic trilogy about the language. She does not portray Hebrew as an abstract or academic entity, but rather as something palpable; as matter that is worked and undergoes intriguing transformations into other tongues, and that takes part in - and is influenced by - other cultures. Thus, Hebrew as a connecting, creative force.

In the first of Aviv's three films about the language, "Mesafa Lesafa" ("From One Language to Another," 2004 ), Israeli writers born into other first languages discuss writing their life's work in their adopted mother tongue, Hebrew; the second, "Langue Sacree, Langue Parlee" ("Sacred Language, Spoken Language," 2008 ), is about Hebrew as a spoken language sprung from a sacred one.

In the latest film, which is to be screened this weekend at the Jerusalem Film Festival , talking and reciting provide the sound track. After all, what can we possibly look at in a movie about translation? Translators, of course. They are shown at their desks, and so the film may be described as belonging to the talking-heads genre. This could have been an unimaginative choice of format; it is potentially dull. However, "Traduire," like a really good poem, also contains an image - in this case, a window - that is repeated with variations and becomes a metaphor with a chain of myriad associations, much as translation itself causes such a chain to develop in the host but also the source culture.

Before each translator is revealed standing against a wall in a corner of the room in which he or she works, we see through the window (if the office has one ) such sights as the sea in Brest, France, the rooftops of the San Simon neighborhood in Jerusalem and Berkeley in California, and so on. While we look at them and out of their windows, the translators tell the stories of their discoveries of Hebrew, and discuss the works they chose to translate into their mother tongues: the fiction of David Grossman, Ronit Matalon and S.Y. Agnon; the poetry of Dahlia Ravikovitch, Lea Goldberg, Solomon Ibn Gabirol and Yehuda Amichai; the plays of Hanoch Levin; midrash. We see the translators, but learn about them only in connection to their relationship to the Hebrew language; they are visible, but despite the fact that we see them at home or in their offices, they remain fairly anonymous, the way translators often are, for many reasons.

The translators speak in their native tongues; the subtitles are in Hebrew. That means, for those of us limited to one or two languages, our experience of the translators is for the most part mediated by another (this time completely invisible ) translator, who offers us a window into their thoughts.

The film's first shot, held for a long time, is footage of the sea with some sailboats, a small rock or island jutting out into it in the middle of the picture, and a mountain range in the background; it is then revealed to be the scene framed by the French translator Sandrick Le Maguer's three-paneled window.

Aside from the fact that this is what he sees from his window, what could the picture of tiny boats bobbing on blue water have to do with translation, or with midrash, the short and inventive rabbinical commentaries on religious texts that he is translating into French? The film lingers on the window, and we search for connections - which, it turns out, is what the writers of midrash did with regard to biblical texts. Le Maguer speaks of his fascination with the way midrash provides endless interpretation, juxtaposing stories from different times and places to create a new tale, while disregarding chronology.

In an essay on "Rooms with a View," a recent exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, critic Sanford Schwartz points to three interpretations of the motif of open windows in early 19th-century European paintings: bringing "distance and the unknown ... into everyday life"; showing "characteristic and uneventful moments in middle-class lives," including artists "showing themselves ... in studio settings ... [and] ... the source of light needed for their work"; and as making the statement that "private, apolitical persons are now poised to have more of a stake in what happens in the world beyond them."

To Le Maguer, who studies the relationship of the Christian gospels to midrash, translation obviously brings the once-distant Jewish text into now intimate contact with him.

The views from the translators' windows in the film are indeed characteristic of what ordinary people see from their windows: rooftops are common, as are trees, some sky and the windows of other peoples' apartments in large buildings or their single-family homes. The lives of translators who spend days sitting at desks may well be considered physically uneventful. But however private the translators may be, they all appear to have a stake in what happens (or happened ) in the world of their subjects.

Authority and power

In the film, the translators (who also include the American Chana Bloch, who has rendered Yehuda Amichai and Dahlia Ravikovitch into English; the Israeli Palestinian Ala Hlehel, who translates Hanoch Levin into Arabic; and Yitskhok Niborski, who works with Yiddish ) eagerly and enthusiastically consider cultural, historical and literary issues raised by the act of translation from Hebrew: how medieval Jewish poets in Spain learned (from the Arabs ) to use sacred language to write about daily life; how Yiddish aided Hebrew in becoming a literary language; how Italian may be Agnon-ized; whether Goldberg should be returned to her original Russian culture; how translation of poetry teaches you to be a poet; how to figure out how young people in a Grossman novel would talk if they spoke German (if you've been living in Israel for some years, the answer is to visit bars and other such venues in Berlin ); whether literary Arabic ("with 20 words for every three in Hebrew" ) can be made to accommodate a colloquial Hebrew playwright, and the like.

A snippet of a poem by Yehuda Amichai is heard later in film: "What does God see through the window" (Tr. Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell; the poem goes on to say "while his hands reach into the world? / What does my mother see?" ). In this context, Amichai's line imputes authority and power to translators. This is obviously so in the case of translators of the Bible and other best sellers, and perhaps, one feels when watching this film, even when a small group of readers is exposed to a writer they have never heard of, but then fall in love with him or her.

There is something of the very process of translation, its continuous discovery of the amazing and seemingly endless chain of tangential associations, in this documentary. The joy and personal fervor exhibited by the speakers is something else a non-translator may learn from the film. Far from being a detached academic task, translation requires feelings of love and intimacy, and encourages a desire to connect.

If the movie has a flaw, it is that it is hard to pay attention to the views from the windows and to the translators when you have to read subtitles (which is the case unless you understand Russian, Catalan, German, Yiddish, Spanish, French, English, Italian, Arabic and Hebrew ). And there is a lot of talking in this movie. On the other hand, it is an experience to listen to languages one doesn't know, if you pay attention to their nonverbal qualities. (The New York Times recently reported, by the way, on a study that showed that bilingualism delays the onset of Alzheimer's disease, which affects 50 percent of people over 85. )

"Traduire" (2011) will be screened today and tomorrow at the Jerusalem Film Festival, at 3:30 P.M. and 7:30 P.M., at Cinematheque 2.

Lisa Katz's most recent book of translations, "Approaching You in English," a bilingual anthology of poems by Admiel Kosman (Zephyr Press ), will be out next month.