The Pleasure and Pain of Translating Yossi Sarid

Sarid's columns were more akin to poetry than prose, and I dreaded translating them into English as much as I loved reading them in the original Hebrew.

Yossi Sarid.
Rafi Kotz

Yossi Sarid's columns were sharp, funny, and poignant and they were filled with love for his country and its people. But they were also utterly untranslatable.

As a young reporter, I had interviewed Sarid many times when he was a Knesset member and the leader of the left-wing Meretz party. But that still did not entirely prepare me for the challenge that came in later years when I had to translate his columns for Haaretz from Hebrew to English. 

There was no way, for example, of moving Sarid's Biblical or Talmudic references, always delivered with a cynical, bitter twist, into English. One had to of course, but the subtle meaning, the irony and humor, would invariably be lost. Every idiomatic nuance or thought alluded to some literary tradition, mostly Hebrew, but not always. 

The only way to make the translation work was to distill the essence of what he wrote in Hebrew and then think of a way to say it in English that would be just as original and penetrating. In short, it was nerve-wracking because, as a translator, where would one get that sort of talent from? It was more akin to translating poetry, and everyone knows you have to be a poet to do that. I dreaded having to translate his columns against a tight deadline, but I still loved reading them, even while knowing I couldn't do them justice.

I loved for example, that he moved to Moshav Margaliot in the Upper Galilee after the Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000 so he could write from the front lines, and even stayed there with the farmers who couldn't leave their chickens. “The eggs cannot collect themselves," he wrote, and the peaches ripening on the trees “cannot wait for better days.” 

There were anecdotes of David Ben Gurion and other state founders with whom he had a close personal relationship. He wrote of how he and his wife had fallen in love with a child, the son of a Filipina caretaker in their home, and how his heart would break if he was deported. He held a steady mirror to the ugliness of the country’s leadership always reminding them of their lost conscience. 

Sarid once asked in his column (one I thankfully didn't translate) if the blind goat had become the leader of the herd. I could imagine our readers going the next morning: What's that supposed to mean? How many readers, especially in English, would know or remember that the late Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, spiritual mentor of Shas, had once, years before, called Benjamin Netanyahu a blind she-goat?

Sarid was always patient when I called him at home to discuss ways of putting into English some biblical reference he had combined with a contemporary twist. Once, when Time Magazine asked him to write a column about Bibi's reelection, Sarid called me and asked me to translate what he had written. It was an honor.

Once, I saw Sarid had made a mistake and lacked the confidence to change it without his approval.  He had read that Netanyahu in a campaign had used a photograph from 10 years earlier in the newspapers that week. ("Strong against Hamas, weak facing the mirror, February 10, 2006). Sarid ended the piece with Dorian Gray, the Oscar Wilde character whose picture grew old and distorted in the basement while he remained forever young. I remembered that Dorian Gray's picture was in the attic, not the basement. 

Sarid was in Berlin at the time, and if I'm not mistaken actually left an opera performance to take the call. He didn't sound annoyed at all. “So change it,” he said, when I told him of the error.