Anglo Translators / First in a Series / 'Like Being the Dance Partner of the Greatest Dancer'

Hillel Halkin delights in translating the great masters.

For the last four decades, few people may have done as much as Hillel Halkin to bring Hebrew and Yiddish verse and prose to an English-reading audience. His catalog of dozens of definitive English translations includes seminal works by Yiddish playwright Sholem Aleichem, whose tales of Tevye the Milkman were the basis of the most widely-seen production about the life of European Jewry, "Fiddler on the Roof."

Halkin's contributions were credited when he was recently featured in a documentary movie about Aleichem, which premiered at the Jerusalem International Film Festival this past July.

Hillel Halkin
Hagai Frid

He has labored to make many Hebrew classics accessible to Anglos, though he worries over the fate of the resuscitated language in the age of globalization. "Hebrew is like an instrument that no one knows how to play. It's like a violin that people play like an electric guitar," says Halkin.

"It was basically a language of immigrants who had nobody to learn it from. Imagine if the first Americans were people who had learned English from books, and came to America, and started talking English to each other. Imagine what their English would have sounded like; that's basically what Hebrew was."

Halkin was born in New York on the eve of World War II, the scion of a liberal Orthodox family of prominent Jewish educators and Hebrew scholars. He studied English Literature in university, earning two degrees at Columbia, uptown from his Manhattan home. But during a trip to Israel just after the 1967 Six Day War, his Zionist ideology triggered a personal crisis.

On that, his third trip across the country, he felt a sense of euphoria, he says, but also deep internal contradictions. "Most American Jews have their Jewish identity and their American identity, and they have very little problem integrating them. I always had an enormous problem," says Halkin. "The American in me and the Jew in me never got along very well."

Halkin says he became convinced that Jews could only lead meaningful existences in Zion. "The decision in coming to Israel wasn't a decision between being an American Jew and being an Israeli Jew, it was really a decision between being a Jew and not being a Jew, because I wasn't going to be a Jew anywhere else," he says.

Halkin and his wife Marcia moved to Israel just after he turned 30. "[Israel] belonged to me, and I belonged to it," he says. "It was clear to me that I had to live here." These sentiments became the basis of his first book, the fictional "Letters to an American Jewish Friend - A Zionist's Polemic," published in 1977, in which he argued for increased immigration to Israel from America.

 Halkin has spent most of the last 40 years in the quiet hill town of Zichron Yaakov. Although his two daughters have moved on to Tel Aviv, he and his wife Marcia still live in a rustic home off a dirt road, perched on a cliff that overlooks the verdant valley below.

In these 40 years of relative solitude, Halkin has translated over 60 books from Hebrew and Yiddish. He says that he intends to focus in the future on his own original works, but he looks back on his career with a sense of contentment.

"If you're working on a great book - as all of these books are - it's an incredible delight to be a translator. It really is. It's a privilege. To translate a great master - Agnon, Sholem Aleichem - it's like being the dance partner of the greatest dancer: your job is to keep up with that person," says Halkin.

Sadly, he adds, his work docket isn't only filled with literary geniuses. "You can't make a living that way as a translator," he laments. "There just isn't enough of that literature that's asking to be translated."

Many of his favorite works, he says, are of deceased authors. "You have to become them, because they no longer exist. You kind of don their mantle. It's like playing Sholem Aleichem on a stage, because he is no longer there to play himself," says Halkin. "Translating a great author, with a unique voice of their own, you have to somehow create that voice in the translated language. You have to, in some ways, pretend: if Sholem Aleichem were writing in English, how would he write? What would he sound like?"

Working with an author who has already passed on not only presents the translator with a particular series of challenges, but also a set of advantages. "They're better on the whole. No one wants to translate a mediocre dead author," he says. "And you have total freedom - he's not going to complain that you've mistranslated him."

Halkin has also translated his fair share of living Israeli authors, including the first novel of Haim Be'er, "Feathers." The book was included on the list of the '100 Greatest Works of Modern Jewish Literature' by the U.S.-based Yiddish Book Center.

"He is connected to the literature that is deeply rooted in the Land of Israel. He knows the books that, for me, hold an important place," Be'er says today of Halkin. "My writing conducts an unspoken dialogue with the Jewish canon, and from that perspective, when I sat with [Halkin], I didn't need to tell him what I wanted. In many respects, he was my ultimate reader, more than many of my Hebrew readers in Israel."

Although Be'er acknowledges that his own English is not at a level which would allow him to fully appreciate Halkin, he holds his abilities in high esteem. "As [Halkin] started working on the book, he had to find solutions to deal with what I had done there. His engaging with the issues in the text was because he recognized those issues; other translators wouldn't have even noticed them," says Be'er. "From that perspective, working with him was grand."

Be'er's acknowledgment is uncommon for a translator, says Halkin. "Translators have a chronic sense of not being appreciated, because the only way to really appreciate what a good translator has done is to sit down with the original text and with his version and to compare them. Almost no one ever does that!" he says.

"There is a paradox here, which is that the better a translator is, the less you will tend to appreciate him, because part of being a good translator is to cover your tracks, to make the reader feel he's not reading a translation," Halkin adds. "Sure, people will say how much they enjoyed your translation, but very few people will understand what goes into a good translation - except for other translators."


(Next week: Stuart Schoffman )