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Translation in a cultural context

This October, our Translation Projects Coordinator Sebastian Schulman and I attended the annual American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) conference in Rochester, New York. We went to a number of fascinating panels ranging from how to publish and market translations to the translation of Israeli literature.

One of the wonderful things about ALTA is that no matter what language or culture anyone is translating from, everyone experiences similar challenges and can commiserate, often offering helpful advice.  As we develop our own Translation Fellowship at the Book Center to translate Yiddish literature into English (follow this link for more information about the Fellowship), Sebastian and I are grateful for the many translators we met who showed enthusiasm and curiosity for our program, not only as possible workshop leaders but also as translators interested in bringing Jewish literature from languages such as Russian, Slovak, Italian and others to an English speaking audience.

I was especially excited to be able to attend the “Translating Israel” panel, where Jessica Cohen (translator of David Grossman’s To the End of the Land) gave a thought-provoking talk on how to translate Israeli fiction for an American Jewish audience.  One of the challenges translators face is keeping the familiar in one cultural context familiar in another.  The same applies to foreign elements.  But what happens when Jewish prayers or liturgy that might be unfamiliar to an average Israeli might be common knowledge for an American Jew?  How does this change the experience of the reader of the translation?  A writer might have intended a traditional Yom Kippur service to be unintelligible for an average reader in order to create a sense of alienation or distance in the story.  This atmosphere or tone might be difficult to preserve in an English translation for an audience that might know the High Holiday services by heart.

These questions, along with similar issues of how to translate (or not translate) cultural context, are ones that have come up for me as I’ve tackled translating Yiddish texts for an English speaking audience.  I have experienced a problem of a slightly different nature, where customs that were well known among Eastern European Jews might be quite foreign to an American Jewish, let alone general, readership of the 21st century.  For example, one text by Yiddish writer Sarah Hamer-Jacklyn talks about the death of a rebbe; I had to decide how much parenthetical explanation I needed to add so that readers would understand that a rebbe was not just a rabbi, but a spiritual leader of a Hasidic sect.  I then had to decide whether or not I wanted to go into an explanation of Hasidism… you can see how the translation of a single word can easily snowball into the task of making an entire culture intelligible to the uninitiated.

Another participant on the Israeli panel, Inga Michaeli, described her work bringing English language literature to a Hebrew speaking audience.  Many people were astounded at the number of books that were translated into Hebrew each year (over 6,000), and that publishing houses approached translators to translate and not the other way around.  Many translators, especially those who are still making a name for themselves, have to go to great lengths to persuade agents and publishers that the work they want to translate indeed deserves to be translated.  Inga is lucky enough to be in the position where she can choose from a long list of works to translate, and when she finishes a project it’s almost guaranteed that the book will be published.

Inga mentioned one downside, or at least challenge, of working as a translator in Israel -- readers aren’t shy about approaching translators in the street and telling them exactly what they think of their work, often times pointing out mistranslations, or at the very least disagreeing with the way something was translated.  Inga related the story of a friend who translated the Harry Potter books from English to Hebrew having to put up with many a criticism from Israeli fans of the series. 

While the Israeli panel might have been my favorite of the conference, I enjoyed each and every panel I attended.  As a graduate student of Comparative Literature, I am used to going to conferences where the stakes feel much higher, where the competition for academic jobs often contributes to a tenser atmosphere.  ALTA, on the other hand, felt welcoming and collegial.  The conference felt like a real opportunity for fellow translators to share both the challenges of and the love for their work.  Sebastian and I look forward to attending ALTA next year and to keeping in touch with our fellow translators and colleagues.

Allison Posner October 31, 2012