Facing a Personal Shoah by Tackling Another's

It wasn't until Aloma Halter began translating Aharon Appelfeld's books that she was able to take on her own father's experiences in the Holocaust.

Raphael Ahren
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For Aloma Halter, translating Aharon Appelfeld's books was not business as usual. Immersing herself in his works, which always seem related in some way to the Holocaust, helped her digest the memories of her own father, who lost his entire family and wrote his own book about the horrors he witnessed, which she edited.

"My father would always talk a lot about the Holocaust, but sometimes this was hard for me and my brother and sister to listen to," the London-born translator and editor told Anglo File. "Personally I found it easier to 'listen' to Appelfeld's characters and plots as they were near, but weren't the exact appalling things that happened to my own grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. Translating Appelfeld's books was in a way understanding, immersing myself in the material and learning about it, understanding it, assimilating it."

Aloma Halter: “Translating is like being a tracker.” Credit: Debbi Cooper

While at work translating four Appelfeld novels, Halter realized she had to help her father, Roman, tell his story as well. "He'd been writing and re-writing his own autobiography for some 20 years, and I realized that if I wasn't going to edit it down from the 700-page manuscript, it would never come out," she said. "I was really glad to do this because my father had promised his own grandfather, before he died in the Lodz Ghetto, that he would tell the world what had happened, and he accomplished it mainly with the book." Published in 2007, "Roman's Journey," found success, with the BBC turning it into an audiobook and a film.

"My father and Aharon are around the same age," Halter, a mother of two teenage daughters, explained. "Translating [Appelfeld's] books, I found it was possible to really listen to what someone who had been through the Shoah was saying - because translation gives the closest read possible. You have to be prepared to live inside an author's head for the months you're translating their book. Naturally, the Shoah is in every book that Appelfeld writes." She added that even a book like "Laish," which is ostensibly about a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in the 19th century, has the feel of a convoy of refugees after World War II. Halter's translation of the book came out in 2009.

Halter studied literature at Cambridge University before she immigrated to Israel in 1980, and started her career as a freelance journalist. After a lengthy interview with Appelfeld, the now 79-year-old writer took on Halter for her first translation job, launching an illustrious career that has won her the respect of literati across Western world.

Liesl Schillinger, in her New York Times review of Appelfeld's "All Whom I Have Loved," praised Halter's translation, noting that for the 1999 novel - which tells the story of Paul, a 9-year-old boy in prewar Romania - she mastered the difficult task of translating "intentionally unripe language."

Appelfeld has said that while he was writing the book, he imagined the boy's words in his mother tongue, Polish, which imposed a "certain chastity of expression" once he had to translate them into Hebrew.

"Halter faithfully conveys this chastity in Paul's words," Schillinger noted. "It feels like a translation at a remove: a rendering of an author's own translation of words and thoughts it pains him to remember, in a language he no longer speaks."

Halter, who also translates other writers and writes poetry herself and recently started tackling fiction, admits that her Hebrew is far from perfect.

"Even after so many years in Israel, I'm still learning new words," she said. "At least now I'm at the stage where I know exactly what I don't know."

A true perfectionist, Halter prepares numerous drafts before she submits a translation. She also discusses every translation with her native-speaking friend Judy Reich - an enjoyable task "because translating can be lonely," Halter said.

While working on Appelfeld's books, she would meet him every week at Little Jerusalem, the cafe inside the city's Anna Ticho House, where he would do much of his writing. "It was usually on a Wednesday, for around two hours," she recalled. "It was incredibly time-consuming, but I derived a weird sense of satisfaction from doing the work as well as I possibly could and knowing that my translation was the English equivalent of exactly what he felt he'd written."

Translating literature is a constant struggle, Halter says.

"You're struggling with yourself, to be faithful to the text. And then you're struggling to some extent with the author, because they want to go for the words in English that they know because they feel comfortable with them. They might not know all these other words in English and you have to tell them, 'Believe me, this sounds better. You might not have heard of that word, but it's not a high word, it's okay, it's fine in your context.' They usually trust me. When you work together for a long time, it has to be relationship of trust."

On the other hand, a good translator has to know put his ego aside and realize that he is at the service of the writer. "You're there for them, they're not there for you," she said. "That's a poster you have to write and put in front of yourself as you sit by the computer: It's not my book, I'm there to render what other's have written."

For Halter, the secret of a good translation is "total transparency." Ideally, a translation is like a pane of glass that stands between the author and the reader, she says.

"It shouldn't sound like a translation but it should be totally faithful to the text. That is an impossible goal, but the aim is to get as near to it as possible. A good translator has to be stealthy, like a tracker, brushing away their own footprints as they move on."

Next week: Jeffrey Green