Re-translating the Classics in Hebrew

New lessons in literature

By Merav Rozenblum

The Hebrew-language book market may be small in Israel, but it is extremely passionate. Consider that among a population of some seven million people, only about 100,000—after subtracting Arabic and Russian speakers, children, ultra orthodox Jews, and others who simply don’t read—are potential book buyers. Still, these are avid readers who need translators to quench their literary thirst.

In a country where half of all books published are translations, a typical publication run numbers about 1,500. Selling 4,000 copies of a book makes it a bestseller. Into this rather concentrated market, put a translator with the ability to work from an exotic language such as Japanese or Portuguese, or with the opportunity to translate an important novel such as the Harry Potter series or Life of Pi (by NCTA’s own Ofer Shorr), and the result is an environment in which Hebrew translators may receive recognition (if not some modest monetary rewards) that is virtually unheard of here in the States. This is especially true with regard to the current trend of re-translating much of the classic literature of the 20th century.

New perspectives

Why the re-translations? Efrat Lev, a Foreign Rights Director with The Deborah Harris Literary Agency in Jerusalem, explains that some world classics are taught in schools and there’s a real need to update the language. Modern Hebrew, after all—now about 140 years old—has developed rapidly in the past 40 years, and a 17-year-old girl today will not be attracted to a 1958 Hebrew translation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. (The new translation of this Russian masterpiece became a bestseller within weeks of its publication.)

Several high-profile books have been retranslated recently in Israel, among them Nicholas Nickleby, by Charles Dickens. This book was re-translated by a well-known journalist, Irit Linor, an author in her own right, and a TV and radio personality well known for her acerbic wit. Whether it was because of her celebrity status that her name is featured prominently on the cover is open to speculation (Ms. Lev thinks it is something of a PR stunt), but the fact remains that that the translator has assumed a new prominence in this evolving author-translator-publisher relationship.

Language to the fore

In addition to Nicholas Nickleby, A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh has also seen a recent re-translation (supporters of the new translation say children can understand it more easily; opponents argue the language has been dumbed down), and other classics are also receiving fresh interpretations. Gili Bar-Hillel, who gained her reputation primarily as the translator of the Harry Potter series, is working these days on a new translation of The Wizard of Oz, of which she is a long-time fan.

For Huckleberry Finn, Yaniv Farkash deliberately did not use previous translations as a reference. “The point of departure was just so different,” said Mr. Farkash. “The previous translations focused on the story; in one of them, the translator, a famous author of children’s books, even decided to omit the murder scene, thinking it wasn’t appropriate for children. I wanted to convey the text as in the original language, with all its linguistic richness.”

Most of the translators of the great Western masterpieces first published in modern Hebrew in the 50s, 60s, and 70s were poets and writers, who felt it was their duty to teach the new language to readers through their work. These translations are therefore highly poetic, using a register that might sound stilted and unnatural to many of today’s native speakers.

Mr. Farkash is very much aware of his advantage as a young native-Hebrew speaker living in 21st century Israel. It has been only in the last couple of decades that the use of slang, as well as informal and colloquial language, has been legitimized in original Hebrew literature, and even more so in local Hebrew newspapers and media.

As if to underscore this point, one of last fall’s bestsellers in Israel was a 10,000-word dictionary of Israeli slang, which not only reflects the influx of foreign words into modern Hebrew, but also illustrates the ancient language’s challenge in adapting to modern times.

New words, new ideas

The Academy for the Hebrew Language (the Israeli equivalent of the Académie Française), which generally tries to inhibit the importation and use of foreign words, often tries to invent Hebrew alternatives to these imports. In this forum, the nation’s most respected linguists offer their creations, which are then debated (often vigorously) and voted upon. A list of new words is published several times a year, and while state radio and TV are asked to use them, the requests are not binding—and often not heeded.

“Every word has its fate,” explained Avraham Tal, deputy director of the Academy, admitting that the Academy does not have a stellar record of getting its creations into the modern vernacular.

The greatest challenge in the new translation of Huckleberry Finn was in fact the treatment of language. Mr. Farkash worked closely with his editor, a privilege that only translators working with the more serious publishing houses get. They wanted the Hebrew text to be fluid, dynamic, and fun, just like the original English. Mr. Farkash used his intuition and tried to differentiate between the various voices that Twain employs. The glowing reviews that the book received attest to his success.

Literary translator as celebrity? Welcome to Israel, where this idea is not necessarily a contradiction in terms

Note: Some material sourced from the article “Hebrew Slang Pushes Aside Older Words,” by Karin Laub, Associated Press.