In our April JBC Book­shelf, we fea­tured a pdf ver­sion of an arti­cle that first appeared in the sum­mer 2007 issue of Jew­ish Book World. We thought it would be a good idea to breathe new life into it by adding the text here, as well. This arti­cle was writ­ten by Jes­si­ca Cohen, the trans­la­tor of two of the 2007 Sami Rohr Prize awardees: Choice Award win­ner Amir Gut­fre­und’s Our Holo­caust and Final­ist Yael Hedaya’s Acci­dents. In each sum­mer issue we fea­ture words from the cur­rent year’s Sami Rohr Prize hon­orees, and in 2007, in lieu of Jes­si­ca Cohen hav­ing trans­lat­ed two of the hon­ored titles, we asked her to con­tribute to the section:

When I think of all the trans­la­tors I have met since enter­ing this fas­ci­nat­ing pro­fes­sion, I can­not call to mind any who knew they want­ed to be trans­la­tors when they grew up. Most of us seem to have past lives — and often par­al­lel ones — in oth­er fields or entire­ly dif­fer­ent pro­fes­sions, and many came to trans­la­tion in round­about ways. The com­mon denom­i­na­tor among trans­la­tors is, of course, an inti­mate knowl­edge of at least two lan­guages. (Many trans­la­tors are pure­ly bilin­gual, although this is by no means req­ui­site, and con­verse­ly, being bilin­gual does not nec­es­sar­i­ly make one a good trans­la­tor.) Trans­la­tors also pos­sess an abil­i­ty, and a dri­ve, to con­stant­ly trav­el back and forth between their two lan­guages and the cul­tur­al worlds they rep­re­sent, and to build bridges so that oth­ers can follow. 

My own case is no excep­tion. I was born in Eng­land and moved to Jerusalem with my fam­i­ly at the age of sev­en. In Israel, I spoke Hebrew in school and almost every­where else, but con­tin­ued to speak Eng­lish at home and often spent time in Eng­lish-speak­ing coun­tries. I also got into the habit of read­ing almost exclu­sive­ly in Eng­lish, much to the cha­grin of my Hebrew lit­er­a­ture teach­ers, which con­tributed sig­nif­i­cant­ly to my Eng­lish-lan­guage writ­ing facil­i­ty. I stud­ied Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture at The Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty of Jerusalem, and after mov­ing to the U.S., I stud­ied Mid­dle East­ern lit­er­a­ture and lan­guages at Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty. This seem­ing con­tra­dic­tion — the con­stant peer­ing into one cul­ture while being immersed in anoth­er — is part of my iden­ti­ty, and now a cen­tral ele­ment of my cho­sen career. Like many immi­grants and cul­tur­al trans­plants, I feel com­pelled to keep one foot in each cul­ture, and to pur­sue the frus­trat­ing goal of bring­ing them clos­er to one anoth­er. And since lit­er­a­ture is, to my mind, the great­est and most telling reflec­tion of a cul­ture and the repos­i­to­ry of its lan­guage, what bet­ter way to achieve this rec­on­cil­i­a­tion than to intro­duce the lit­er­a­ture of one cul­ture into another? 

One of the para­dox­es of being a lit­er­ary trans­la­tor is that the less atten­tion we draw to our­selves, the bet­ter our work prob­a­bly is. When I trans­late a book, my job is to find a way to con­vey the author’s style and voice. Ide­al­ly, the read­ers of my Eng­lish trans­la­tion will have the same expe­ri­ence as the read­ers of the Hebrew orig­i­nal. Geri Gin­dea, Direc­tor of the Sami Rohr Prize, recent­ly com­ment­ed on how sur­prised she was upon real­iz­ing that I had trans­lat­ed two of the final­ists for the Sami Rohr Prize (Amir Gut­fre­und, win­ner of the Choice Award for Our Holo­caust, and Yael Hedaya, Hon­or­able Men­tion for Acci­dents), because the two books employ such very dif­fer­ent styles. I took this as a com­pli­ment: if Yael Hedaya and Amir Gut­fre­und sound noth­ing like each oth­er in Eng­lish, then I did my job well, because they have very dis­tinc­tive voic­es and dis­parate nar­ra­tive styles in Hebrew. 

Along­side these two young and excit­ing authors, I have also had the hon­or of trans­lat­ing a lit­er­ary giant like David Gross­man (Her Body Knows). Since Mr. Gross­man has had many pre­vi­ous works trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish and his rep­u­ta­tion is well estab­lished, the chal­lenge of retain­ing his unique voice was all the more daunt­ing. I have also trans­lat­ed non-fic­tion works, such as the forth­com­ing book by Tom Segev (1967: Israel, the War, and the Year that Trans­formed the Mid­dle East), which pre­sent­ed a chal­lenge of a dif­fer­ent sort: it is impor­tant to con­vey the flu­id nar­ra­tive style that is the mark of a good non-fic­tion writer, yet the pri­ma­ry objec­tive in trans­lat­ing non­fic­tion must be to retain the clar­i­ty of the infor­ma­tion and the author’s arguments. 

What­ev­er I hap­pen to be trans­lat­ing on a giv­en day — a love sto­ry, a fam­i­ly saga, child­hood rec­ol­lec­tions, or his­tor­i­cal analy­sis — I strive to car­ry across into my trans­la­tion not only the lit­er­al mean­ing of the words, but their cul­tur­al weight, their allu­sions, the imagery and emo­tions they evoke. This is rarely an easy task, and not always attain­able, and every so often I have to accept that some things must be lost in trans­la­tion. I am also aware that, much as no two writ­ers will ever tell a sto­ry the same way, there are often infi­nite­ly var­ied ways of trans­lat­ing a line or even a sin­gle word. Find­ing the per­fect turn of phrase brings a sense of sat­is­fac­tion that all trans­la­tors look for­ward to, and the search itself pro­vides an oppor­tu­ni­ty to delve deep­er into lan­guage and mean­ing, which is a part of my work that I rel­ish. The first-rate writ­ers I have been for­tu­nate to work with, and the cre­ative nego­ti­a­tion between dif­fer­ent lan­guages, cul­tures, and ways of look­ing at the world, make for an engag­ing and ever­chang­ing occupation. 

Jes­si­ca Cohen has trans­lat­ed the fol­low­ing titles on the JBC website:

1967: Israel, the War, and the Year That Trans­formed the Mid­dle East, Tom Segev
Acci­dents, Yael Hedaya
Eden, Yael Hedaya
Our Holo­caust, Amir Gut­fre­und
The World a Moment Lat­er, Amir Gut­fre­und
To the End of the Land, David Gross­man

Find out more about Jes­si­ca by vis­it­ing her web­site: The Hebrew Trans­la­tor.

Jes­si­ca Cohen shared the 2017 Man Book­er Inter­na­tion­al Prize with author David Gross­man for her trans­la­tion of A Horse Walks into a Bar. She has trans­lat­ed works by Amos Oz, Etgar Keret, Dorit Rabinyan, Ronit Mat­alon, Nir Baram, and others.