Anglo Translators One Word for Many, Many Words for One

Stuart Schoffman says the most faithful translations of a book need not be rendered word for word.

Raphael Ahren
Raphael Ahren
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Raphael Ahren
Raphael Ahren

Stuart Schoffman has translated into English the books of some of contemporary Israel's greatest writers: David Grossman's "Lion's Honey," Meir Shalev's "Beginnings" and most recently A.B. Yehoshua's "Friendly Fire." Since he started translating their books, they have begun asking him to also render into English some of their essays and speeches. Sometimes they even revise their Hebrew manuscripts after discussing them with him.

One might assume that Schoffman, 63, is an old hand in the business. But the New York native only started translating some five years ago. Deborah Harris, a leading U.S.-Israeli literary agent, was looking for someone to translate "Lion's Honey," which deals with the biblical Samson.

Since she knew Schoffman had a strong Jewish studies background she took a leap of faith and hired him.

"For the Grossman book I needed somebody who knew Bible and he was the only one that I trusted to do it. It was an instinct," Harris told Anglo File. "I also chose him because he is just so learned and educated and one of the best readers that I know. He is just a phenomenal reader and he writes beautifully."

Harris added that she doesn't know anybody who reads as wide a variety of books as Schoffman does.

Schoffman grew up in a Hebrew-speaking home. His parents - both Hebrew teachers - sent him to Hebraist-Zionist yeshivas and summer camps. After graduating with degrees from Harvard and Yale, he worked as a journalist for Time and Fortune magazines and later as a screenwriter in Hollywood.

In the 1980s he met his future wife Roberta while traveling in Israel and decided to immigrate. His first job in his new homeland was teaching a film course at Tel Aviv University.

"I think my students were taken a little aback because film is one of the hippest majors you can have and my Hebrew sounded a little bit like Ahad Ha'am," Schoffman said. To sound a bit more up-to-date, he bought a dictionary of slang. "I started reading it only to discover it was completely outdated. And I still feel behind the curve in Israeli slang. I have two kids in the army and I don't understand a lot of what they're saying," he said, poking fun at cryptic acronyms popular in military lingo.

Despite his strong background in Hebrew, Schoffman says he is is not taking being a translator for granted.

"Is my Hebrew at a level where I'm capable of doing it? Yes, of course it is. Do I need to use a dictionary? I would imagine all translators use dictionaries. Are there things that may elude me? Sure, that's why people ask people to read their translations for them," he said. "For the translator into English, the important question is: how good is your English?"

Not having studied translating, Schoffman, who is also a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, says he thought a lot about what it means to re-render somebody else's work.

"Don't think that doing it word for word is a good thing," he said, paraphrasing a letter Maimonides once wrote to his translator. "Sometimes you need more than one word in order to convey one word and sometimes you need less than one word to convey many words and so on. There is an enormous amount of flexibility and creativity in order to get the translation to be both faithful and beautiful. That's the goal: for it not to read like a translation."

When translating literature, Schoffman tries to ask himself what effect a given passage has on him. "How do I feel? What do I see? What do I hear when I'm reading this, and how can I convey it in English? It can't possibly be a word-for-word kind of thing. What's conjured up in the mind's eye when you're reading it in Hebrew, and how do you get that same kind of thing in English? It's very hard. There is no secret. The secret is just doing it."

Currently, Schoffman is translating Yehoshua's "Hesed Sefaradi," but is not sure yet what the book's English title will be. Working on the translation, Schoffman often calls Yehoshua. He says they have become friends and often discuss things aside from the translations.

Before Schoffman - who continues to write book reviews and essays for American and Israeli publications - came to Israel, he spent a decade in Los Angeles making a living as a scriptwriter. One of his better-known works is the 1991 navy movie "The Finest Hour," starring Rob Lowe.

But his years in Tinseltown were less glamorous than one might imagine, he said, adding that most of the scripts he wrote were never actually turned into movies.

Looking back after more than 20 years, he draws philosophical lessons from the experience. "It was a very interesting time and I am very glad that I did it. In retrospect my time in Hollywood turned out to be - and I say this somewhat facetiously - 10 years of intense spiritual preparation for aliyah. Hollywood and Jerusalem are the antipodes of the modern Jewish [experience] in many ways," he explained. "Hollywood is the ultimate assimilationist fantasy, and Zionism in some ways is both a counter-assimilationist fantasy but ironically another kind of assimilationist fantasy - we aspire to be 'like all the nations,' even though we aren't and won't be."

Next week: Linda Zisquit

Stuart Schoffman.Credit: Emil Salman



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