Translations / Gained in Translation

Edith Grossman examines the crucial role that the rendering of literature in other languages does in the bridging of cultures. Yael Hedaya, in her dark novel 'Eden,' gives us entree into a generation of Israelis whose ethos is seldom exposed to non-Hebrew readers.

by Edith Grossman. Yale University Press, 135 pages, $24

by Yael Hedaya (translated from Hebrew by Jessica Cohen ). Metropolitan Books / Henry Holt, 486 pages, $35

A book in its original form - in its original language - is unique, but let us not forget that reading books is an activity in which the original does not really exist until it is read, at which time the reader breathes life into it. Whether people prefer detective novels, romances, best sellers or what is known as "serious literature," the reader completes the text in a very real sense. That is, the reader brings her world, as well as knowledge, inquisitiveness and critical faculties (or lack of them ) to any book, and transforms it from a passive, static object into a dynamic stimulant. This seemingly shared experience is actually a rather individual one. Hence the disagreements aired in book clubs and literature departments, at literary evenings, in online blogs and in book supplements like this one.

What happens when the text is a translation? The same thing - with a difference: This time the reader is also responding to the knowledge/inquisitiveness/critical faculties of a very particular prior reader, the translator. This difference is not a fault, as it is often considered, and translation is not a traitorous act; it has been a human necessity since the Tower of Babel. We may as well accept the fact that all readings in whatever languages are different, but hey, so what? Is Anna Karenina's fatal despair at her limited choices (of lifestyles, of men ) really that different in the original Russian? The book's impact varies depending not only on language, but on the era and culture of the reader, as well as the reader's age and gender. And yet, these differences are negligible in some ways. Meir Shalev once joked at a panel conducted at the Jerusalem International Book Fair that "all of us who read 'Crime and Punishment' in translation thought it was pretty good."

We too should stop apologizing for reading translations. Why should we accept the accusation that we are kissing through a veil, as Bialik supposedly said about reading poetry in translation? Two recent books, one of them a contemporary work of fiction translated from Hebrew, offer an opportunity to consider the genuinely profound questions raised by the act of translation, which are, to a large extent, questions of reading.

It turns out that reading translations is good for you, according to Edith Grossman, the acclaimed American translator of Cervantes and other Spanish authors. In the first part of her brief and lucid monograph, "Why Translation Matters," she makes the claim that translation gains us entry into "the thoughts and feelings of people from another society or another time. It permits us to savor the transformation of the foreign into the familiar and for a brief time live outside our own skins, our own preconceptions and misconceptions. It expands and deepens our world, our consciousness, in countless indescribable ways."

However, translation scholar Lawrence Venuti, among others, long ago pointed out that the "transformation of the foreign into the familiar" may have exactly the opposite effect, leading us to assume that there aren't any differences between foreign cultures and our own, or barely any. (Which could be a good thing, if you believe in underlying, universal truth, and a fault, if you believe in maintaining rather than papering over cultural differences. ) Works from cultures that have values apparently outside a 21st-century, purportedly Judeo-Christian framework, or literary styles incompatible with the sparseness, clarity and unsentimental nature of enduring Anglo-American modernism, are not likely to be found in English translation, for understandable reasons that are partly technical as well as culturally judgmental.

For example, translation theorist Andre Lefevere has written about the absence in English translation of the Arabic qasidah: a pre-Islamic lyric form with strict meter and a single end rhyme. Lefevere finds its absence only partially a function of poetic form - the fact that mono-rhyme, the lack of narrative in the original, and the lack of analogous techniques in English were considered difficult by potential translators (while the presence of sexual innuendo made the job difficult for some censorious 19th-century translators! ). Many translation problems, he pointed out, are cultural: in this case a different "universe of discourse" without signposts familiar to the British and Americans, as well as a lack of respect in the West for Arab culture.

The choice of what we can read in translation is no longer merely a matter of contemporary taste and prejudices. The range of available works is broadened by what is offered on the Internet, sometimes by big media outlets (The New Yorker ), and sometimes by small ones (Zeek, Words Without Borders, etc. ), or even by individuals who translate out of an admirable desire to share what they love. It is also constrained by the forces of the global market, and therefore homogenized at the same time. Grossman cites the fact that, while 50 percent of all the books in translation worldwide were written in English, only 6 percent of the books available in the United States are translations.

Some of these are translations of Israeli books, the most notable recent example being David Grossman's anti-war novel "To the End of the Land," translated by Jessica Cohen, who also translated the book reviewed below. Most reviewers of Grossman's book ignore the fact of translation, the same way television preachers cite the Bible as though it had been written in English.

Of course, translations should be accurate, but accuracy is harder to gauge than one might think, because reading involves qualitative interpretive judgments. Quite apart from the question of accuracy, Edith Grossman observes that translation may in fact have a positive effect on the target language. "The result of the linguistic infusion of new means of expression is an expansion of vocabulary, evocative potentiality, and structural experimentation," she writes. "In other words, the broadening of horizons that comes with translation does not affect only readers, speakers and writers of a language, but the very nature of language itself." In the case of the translation under discussion here, the original text does not depend on language for special effects, and the translator is a particularly excellent writer of English. In my opinion, the book's language is not an issue and I will focus on a reading of its cultural impact.

Grossman goes so far as to claim that literary translation should be an intrinsic part of "our commitment to free speech and civil liberty." Despite this lofty service to humanity, translators are largely invisible and their pay minuscule. Grossman is humorous about the "obvious question why any sane person would engage in a much-maligned activity that is often either discounted as menial hackwork or reviled as nothing short of criminal."

In the second section of her book, Grossman discusses her approach to Cervantes, and mentions the autonomy of the translated work. People who know more than one language and have not given much thought to the act of translation often forget that translations are really aimed at those who do not know the language of the original. In the most neutral terms, of course, translations should be accurate. But since all reading involves interpretation, and because languages and cultures differ, translations are naturally different from original works. They are indeed autonomous, and have a life of their own; when it comes to poetry, which foregrounds language, this difference concerns us more (and often turns bilingual critics into grumps who are impossible to please, as if there were only one way to read any poem). The third section of "Why Translation Matters," about the translation of poetry, is where Grossman is explicit about technique, and gives examples, including a lovely bilingual poem by translator Alastair Reid: "Who has written it? / Del escritor or del traductor writer, translator / o de los idomas or language itself?"

Horizons may very well be broadened, as Edith Grossman suggests, by reading Yael Hedaya's "Eden," in that the view of Israeli life it offers is that of a new generation and not of the internationally famous Oz-Yehoshua-Grossman triad. The three canonical writers create characters who, though they are critical of their society and internally conflicted by its contradictions, are still quite lovingly involved in it, and are themselves lovable. They embrace the European past (as Amos Oz does in his autobiography ), Palestinian culture and Russian immigrants (as per A.B. Yehoshua in comic novels ), and search their souls for a way to understand the other and end the conflict, or despair that it cannot be ended (David Grossman in nonfiction and fiction ). Their characters may be said to depict the good Israeli: deeply thoughtful and aware of the heavily freighted Jewish and Palestinian past, but anti-militaristic and wryly struggling with Mediterranean identity and Jewish/Israeli foibles.

In contrast, "Eden" is a scathing, sensual novel about Israeli yuppies translated by the deft Jessica Cohen. (Cohen, born in England, was educated from grade school through university in Israel, and has lived in the U.S. since 1997. ) The most shocking thing about the book is how marginal the political conflict is to the inner lives of its characters. And, at first, all of them are unattractive, because they are so neurotic - unable to enjoy the moment, because they are enmeshed in disturbing thoughts about the past, and very judgmental about the people closest to them. Of course, this makes them interesting (or not ). Some of them are "ugly Israelis," mostly with regard to relationships between men and women, though less so by the end of the book.

The political world is absent in "Eden," which was originally published in Hebrew in 2005, recalled only in the lack of relations with Palestinians, or brief and uneasy relations with Palestinian workmen, who seem to have only first names. But this doesn't mean the novel is cut off from reality; after all, the Palestinians really are much more scarce in Israeli society since the second intifada and the building of the separation wall. Perhaps they have only first names because they are only half there. After all, even if the personal is political, here as elsewhere, one lives one's personal life first: family, work, friends, love and sex (or the lack thereof ).

"Eden" (the title is a tad too arch for my taste ) offers chapters that alternate the points of view of different characters whose lives are connected by the town in which they live or once lived. Eden is what remains of the small cooperative (but non-collective ) farming community known as a moshav; the kind of place where some immigrants to Israel were brought in the 1950s, in the hope that they would make their living in agriculture and literally provide sustenance to the new country. Like many such communities, Eden has become a suburb where Israelis build large homes, and the characters who live in them are intertwined by marriage or sex, or at least proximity.

Dafna and Eli are trying to have a baby through in vitro fertilization; Eli is having an affair with Roni, Mark's teenage daughter from his first marriage; Mark is separated from his second wife, Alona, who is editing the first book of one of Roni's former lovers, and so on. Reuven is a really repulsive Israeli type I didn't expect to meet in the novel (and hope to avoid in real life ): the guy who is so afraid of being taken advantage of - of being a sucker - that his worldview is warped by paranoia and his time devoted to making sure no one cheats him; meanwhile he conducts an imaginary sex life, exploiting (in his mind ) the women he comes across. It sounds like soap opera, but soap opera is the sweaty heart of the novel, for Oz and Yehoshua and Grossman too. If popular or contemporary culture were taught at Israeli universities, this book would be instructive to analyze: While the rest of the Western world is eschewing children, why are they so crucial to the people in this novel, and then why do they have such trouble dealing with them? Why is the only soldier in the book so unheroic? Why is the teenager the most sensitive (and sensual ) character? And, excuse me, but she is underage, and this is an issue.

The 46-year-old Hedaya comes off here as a sort of cross between Mary McCarthy and Philip Roth. Hedaya, a journalist who has written four books of fiction to date, wrote seven screenplays for the brilliant Israeli drama series "In Treatment," whose American adaptation has succeeded wildly on the U.S. cable network HBO without need of much cultural "translation." Like that show, this book gives a sense of the intimate life of a particular class of people in a particular place. The characters in "Eden" seek love, and, surprisingly, they sometimes love the one they're with, even if this is a spouse they've grown tired of (or gotten divorced from ) or a person of an inappropriate age. On the other hand, perhaps just as surprisingly, a grandmother has no patience for her grandchildren, and neither Roni's biological mother nor her sort-of-ex-stepmother have much patience for her.

This teenager supplies one of the few elements of plot in the novel, which is realistic, since teenagers undergo extreme conflicts and are often unrestrained by rules or experience. However, the fulfilling sex life of this 16-year-old with a 40-something man, which seems in some ways a positive emotional achievement for both fictional characters, poses a moral problem for the reader. The relationship, in particular the sex, is attractive, and young Roni is the one in control. But this is only one relationship in a series in which Roni tries to efface herself - to drown herself in sensuality - which does not bode well for her chances of finding herself.

Lawrence Venuti says that translations "interrogate" original works. I think he means that translations - the application of a different language and culture to someone else's writing - raise a lot of questions about what is said and what is meant. But this is also how readers interrogate fiction (in any language ). Interrogation (of text and self ) is perhaps the role of fiction, and not only the province of translated works. When reading about Roni's dilemma - posed by Yael Hedaya as the crux of her novel "Eden" - I was disturbed by the fact that she was such a young and needy siren. I came to the conclusion that there are some experiences best left to a time when we are strong and critical enough to build the reality we need, but that not everybody gets to wait.

Those who like psychologically convincing and sexually evocative (and might I say realistic? ) fiction will like the book, whether they are seeking a fast read or deeper insight into the sometimes unpretty contemporary Israeli psyche, which is apparently not so different from anyone else's. There may be a kind of a thrill in the fact that these neurotic Israelis are so ignoble, and so like any other middle-class neurotics. Or this may point to a sort of normalization of Israeli life, despite the abnormal conditions here.

Poet and translator Lisa Katz teaches at the Poetry Place in Jerusalem and co-edits the Israeli pages of the Poetry International website for world poetry in translation ( ).