Taking Matters Literally

According to Jeff Green, there is merit in a translation reading like a translation.

Conventional wisdom has it that the translation of a novel should not read like a translation but should feel as natural as possible. But for Jeffrey M. Green, an American-Israeli translator, writer, poet and language theorist, things are not that simple.

"I'm very divided about whether a translation should read like a translation. In some ways I think it should," he says. "In some cases, the reader, while reading a book, should have a kind of estrangement, a feeling that, okay, I'm reading a book translated from Albanian and it's going to sound strange to me because I don't know anything about Albanians. But then, at a certain point it's too much, and the reader doesn't want to read it anymore." He adds that his editors often feel his translations are too literal.

Jeffery M. Green - Emil Salman - November 2011
Emil Salman

Green, 66, says he has principles when it comes to his translations. He recently worked on Sara Shilo's award-winning "The Falafel King is Dead" (published in Hebrew in 2005 under the title "No Elf's Going to Show Up" ), which tells the story of a poor Moroccan-Jewish family living in Israel's North. But after an editor tinkered with his translation he refused to be affiliated with the final product.

"The book is written in Ma'alotit, the Hebrew spoken by Moroccan immigrants in the northern city of Ma'alot in the early 80s. It's a very spoken Hebrew, with a lot of grammatical errors and limited vocabulary," Green told Anglo File recently in his home in Jerusalem's picturesque Abu Tor neighborhood. "It was a dilemma for me as a translator: what English can represent the Hebrew spoken by Moroccan immigrants somewhere in the Galilee?" he said. Green's solution: create a new kind of substandard English. He was proud of his originality, as were the author and the literary agent, he said. But the publication house, the London-based Portobello Books, apparently was not.

"They rewrote it completely," Green fumed. "I was extremely angry because the person who rewrote it doesn't even know Hebrew. They just said, oh, we consulted the German translation." He stressed, "I was very proud of the work that I did, and I still think the readers are smart enough to figure it out." The publishers agreed to remove his name from the book, but in reviews and online articles Green is still occasionally mentioned.

In its review of the "The Falafel King is Dead," The Times Literary Supplement, for example, criticized that Green's translation didn't capture the sound of the original Hebrew. Green responded that his translation was edited, without consultation, by someone who was unable to compare his work to the original. The reviewer subsequently apologized.

Born in New York, Green studied at Princeton and later did a PhD in comparative literature at Harvard. He visited Israel for the first time on June 5, 1967 - the day the Six-Day-War broke out.

'We could never live here'

"It was great," Green recalled. "I was on a kibbutz, and all the men had been drafted so I was actually very useful." He spent about six weeks on Kibbutz Dovrat, near Afula.

Green, his wife and their first of four children visited Israel again in 1970. "We hated it. We just thought we could never live here," he recalled. "It was crowded and hot and unpleasant." But the 1972 Munich massacres, during which terrorists killed 11 Israelis, made the young family decide to make its permanent home here.

"We were so upset by it, we both decided, what's the point of living anywhere else if you're going to be sitting around being horrified by what's happening to Israelis?" Green said. In 1973, two weeks before the Yom Kippur War began, the Greens immigrated to Israel. "My record on wars is very bad," he joked.

Green taught at Hebrew University and worked for the Jewish Agency, putting together a literary anthology about Sephardic Jews. "It wasn't a good salary, but that's really where I learned to read Hebrew," he said. After six years in Israel, he accepted his first freelance translation job, and has since rendered into the English the works of S.Y. Agnon, Aharon Appelfeld, Uri Nissan Gnessin, Haim Hazaz, Amalia Kahana-Carmon, Dan Tsalka and many others.

"Every translator has to know there are certain things he or she just can't translate, either because they don't like the writing or the style," Green said. Without judging their writing, translators should recognize when they are just not compatible with a certain author, he added.

Green remembers cases where a writer refused to publish a translation he had done for her, and, vice versa, where after having translated some 60 pages of a manuscript he decided he wasn't the right man for the job. "It's really important for a translator to translate things that are congenial, that you either agree with or like and feel that you can write that way in your native language."

It is important for translators "to understand that you don't understand," according to Green, who published two books in Hebrew and one in English called "Thinking Through Translation." He explained, "If you think you understand something, then you're going to make a mistake and translate it wrong. But if you realize that you don't understand it, then you look it up, or you ask somebody. You can understand every word in a sentence and really have not have any idea of what the writer is talking about."

Green is currently working on an English version of Appelfeld's "Suddenly Love" - without having finished it. "I never read the book all the way through before I translate it," he said, adding that authors and editors often get upset at him for that. "Translation is tedious work. If you're reading a book for pleasure, you want to finish it. You want to find out what happens. You want to be surprised by the end. I prefer to do it that way to have a stimulus to go on - that's part of the fun. Right now I am toward the end of the novel and I'm not really sure how it's going to end."