VA: Amir, in Hebrew, your book is called Shoah Shelanu, a lovely alliterative title. Let's open the conversation by talking about the rebirth of Hebrew in the nineteenth century.
AG: Let's make it clear: I am not responsible for the rebirth of the Hebrew, I was born in 1963. I must admit that I enjoy this rebirth, since as a Hebrew speaker I slide naturally between very, very old words and recently invented ones. I can use grammar that is not used anymore and then, without stopping, I can use the latest innovations of the Israeli teenagers. It is done in Israel in a common every-day use and, of course, in literary writing.
VA: Because of its disuse for many centuries, except in liturgy, Hebrew lacks many modern words...
AG: Trust me, the important words, like "help!" and "where is the restroom, please?" were invented. For other words, we use words borrowed from English or another language until we have a reasonable substitute. Hebrew is a "dry" inflexible language, but it has an interesting structure. You can invent a new word, and everybody can figure out its meaning. Sometimes it looks as if a "free space" in the language was just waiting for ages to be filled. A "new" word does not look new necessarily.
Regarding my book, it is a nightmare for translators. It combines words from ancient religious poetry, modern slang, and my private inventions. When I wrote the book, I couldn't imagine that one day someone was going to translate it; otherwise I would have been more merciful.
JC: Although the translation was indeed a huge challenge, it only rarely escalated into "nightmare" status. Different characters in the book speak in widely diverging registers, reflecting both their place in history and geography, and their personal styles. But what is interesting, and what added to the difficulties of translation, is the different ways in which an Israeli reader and, say, an American reader, would respond to such varied linguistic styles. Since Modern Hebrew is in many ways similar to, and built upon, the more ancient forms of Hebrew, and since every Israeli child studies the Old Testament and other liturgical texts in school, a Hebrew writer can assume a certain level of familiarity with non-Modern Hebrew among his or her readers. Obviously these forms may sound antiquated and slightly peculiar to the modern Israeli ear (and that is the intent), and a reader may not immediately understand every turn of phrase, but the effect is certainly not as jarring as, for example, a contemporary English-language work using Chaucerian or Shakespearean English. So the challenge was to find equivalent registers in Englishones that are clearly from a different time and place, yet without being utterly "foreignized" or not readily intelligible.
VA: Let's take them one at a time. Let's start with the ancient religious poetry.
AG: I don't use too much religious poetry (dear potential readers...don't go away...). In one place in my book there is a conversation between a young man and an old man about something dreadful that happened many years ago, during the Holocaust days. He tells the story of how a holy rabbi was forced to have sex with the Polish peasant woman who gave him shelter in her basement. While he is plotting his escape, the woman tells him that she is pregnant. The story about the holy rabbi turns into a trialog between the old man, the young man, and the rabbi. I wanted to give this trialog a "mystical" atmosphere, and I inserted words and phrases from ancient religious poetry into the trialog. It was not a very conscious choice. It just looked perfect. Now I know that I wanted to give the educated Hebrew reader the feeling that he is not quite sure about what it is he is reading, I wanted him to feel a little less confident (the words look familiar but yet they are not familiar). I wanted him to understand how far he is from a point he can judge and criticize moral choices during the time of the Holocaust. It is only now that I understand it.
This was not an easy task for Jessica because it is that feeling that needed to be transferred, not the actual words.
Perhaps I should generalize. There are only a few million people that can read Hebrew in our world, therefore, as a Hebrew writer, I live in a kind of jail. I must trust the kindness of the jailers, i.e., the translators from Hebrew into other languages. Without their good will, I cannot have any contact with all the people in the "free" world. This is why I pay a lot of attention to this matter, the translations, and since I didn't become a "good boy," and my writing is still a grueling race for translators, I try to find answers to these questions: what do I demand from translations? Which part must be preserved during the transfer from the source language to the target language? Which part can be omitted? I am not sure I have the answers.
VA: Jessica, how difficult was it to render words from ancient texts into English?
JC: Fortunately, Amir provided me with a sample of the texts he used as inspiration for some of the more traditional Hebrew, a sixth-century liturgical poem. Unfortunately, I had to grapple with the English myself. I was able to find an English translation of part of this poem, which was extremely helpful. It is virtually impossible, however, to replicate an intentional anachronism from one language in a completely different language in any convincing manner. I can't say that I employed any particularly scientific methods, but rather I tried to hear the character in my mind and somehow reproduce him in English. Since many of the phrases this character employs are closer to poetry than to prose, I ran into the problem of going from a language with extremely concise grammar and syntax, to a language that always seems to turn out more verbose than one would like. (An oft-quoted but wonderfully illustrative example of the difference between Hebrew and English construction is the phrase "And when I loved you," which requires exactly one word in Hebrew: uchshe'ahavticha).
Here's an example of what needed to be done:
Grandpa Yosef is practically whispering. His modest voice seems unworthy of the rabbi of Kalow. To heal this wound it will take a great roar.
" 'I prayed to the heavens, I begged, Take away from me this Lilith of the woods! Leave me! From the depths I called out. Asmodeus! Demon woman! Lilith! Inhabitor of the corners of the world! But no redemption came.'
" 'In the cellar I was encased like a bird in the belly of a great fish, ensnared in a crevasse, embittered as wormwood. She came down every day to give me food and drink, and by the grace of the shadows she made her servile demands of me. There was no escape. Only prayer remained.
Grandpa Yosef comes back from the window, hunched over as if bearing a heavy weight. He has been recounting the torments of the rabbi of Kalow during Effi's shifts too, and during mine, and Dad's, and Atalia's. As he retells the journey, from within his raging spirit comes the stormy soul of the rabbi, counting the passing days, shut in the cellar, agonizing. Grandpa Yosef spreads his hands out, explaining, "His firstborn was...with the goya!"
I nod understandingly.
סבא יוסף כמעט לוחש. נדמה, קולו הצנוע אינו ראוי בעיני הרבי מקאלוב, על מנת שיתרפא הפצע חובה היא צעקה גדולה.
התפללתי אל מרומים, התחננתי, הרפו ממני את זו, לילית היער! הרפו! ממעמקים קראתי. אשמדאית! לילית! שוכנת זוויות עולם! אין פודה ממנה. במרתף אני עטוף, כיונה במעי הדג, לכוד פח, לעון מר, והיאיורדת מדי יום, מאכילה, משקה, ובחדוות צללים, בחנפות ובאנקה, תובעת ממני השי. אין מפלט... רק התפילה נותרה...
?בא יוסף שב מן החלון, כפוף כנושא משא. הרי גם במשמרותיה של אפי הוא מספר את יסורי הרב מקאלוב, ובמשמרותיי, ובאלה של אבא, ושל עתליה. מוליד מסעות, על מנת לספר, מתוך סערת רוחו בוקעת סערת רוחו של הרב, מונה את הימים החולפים, סגור במרתף, מתייסר.
סבא יוסף פורש כפיו, מסביר, הלא בכורו...אצל הגוייה!
?ני מהנהן. מבין.
VA: And modern slang?
JC: Slang, as every translator can attest, rarely has an easy solution. In my own work, I have not been able to develop a policy or clear set of principles, but rather I try to evaluate each occurrence depending on its context, on whether the slang expression is in dialogue or part of the narration, how often it occurs, how crucial it is to the text, etc. On the whole I prefer to find an idiomatic equivalent in the target language, rather than translate a particular turn of phrase unique to the source language. But it often pains me to give up a particularly juicy coinage, of which Hebrew has many.
AG: I believe that more than the slang words, Jessica had problems with the unique language of grandpa Lolek. He talks with an enormous amount of mistakes. Many of them very funny. Now, Jessica, as a translator, had to "translate" mistakes and idiotic phrases. It is, I believe, a kind of contradiction to translate the mistakes without mistakes. For example, this is the section where grandpa Lolek tries to give his version of the truth concerning the gold treasure that he kept through the war days, in order to send half of it after the war.
-מה אתם מבין חצי? אחרי מלחמה אין להוציא כסף מפולין. אין. אסור. ואיפה קברתי זהב, כדי לשלוח לאמריקה, לבֶּן ההוא שם, הרבה כסף נתתי לאנשים, שיגיע זהב בשקט לאמריקה. ראש נצץ לי מזיעה, לא מכסף, עד הגיעה טלגרמה, שבסדר, שאומר לי תודה האדון פינקלשטיין הבן, שהאישה שלו גם אומרת תודה. חצי שלי, מה נשאר, לא כל כך גדול חצי, אחרי האנשים לקחו שלהם-
"What do you understood about half? After war, no getting money out of Poland. No doing. Not allowed. And where I buried the gold, to send to America, to the son over there, a lot of money I gave people, so gold will arrive to America good. My head was having shiny with sweat, not with money, until there came for me a telegram that okay, that says to me thank you from Finkelstein the son, that his wife she says thank you also. Half mine, what was left, not so big this half, after the people took for them."
VA: The last category, the words you coined, Amir, interests me enormously.
AG: My private inventions are a kind of a game that I try to play with this gloomy and "heavy" language that is Hebrew. My new words must look like real words, although one cannot find them in the dictionary (a little story: in "Our Holocaust" there is an old man that always borrows money from people and never gives it back. I coined a new word for this expertise of managing debts. An attorney called me and said that this word turned out to be very, very useful in his profession, but although he wanted to adopt it, he couldn't find it in any dictionary. He was very disappointed to learn that it was my private invention). I am not sure that when my book is translated into a "soft" and rich language like English, those games are still important.
VA: Jessica, how did you deal with these?
JC: Most Hebrew words stem from the combination of a root (usually three consonants) and one of seven "buildings" (in Hebrew, binyanim), which act as templates of sorts. Each "building" assigns a different type of meaning to the conjugated word. Not only verbs are formed in this manner, but also adjectives and nouns. The implication of this system is that words can quite easily be "made up" and their meaning will be immediately apparent to anyone who has a reasonable understanding of the grammar and can recognize the meaning of the root employed. So, for example, as Amir just said, he invented the word "chov'anut" to describe a trait of one of the main characters, Grandpa Lolek. This word had never been used before in Hebrew, but it clearly stems from the noun "chov" ("debt") with a suffix that means something like "the practice of" or "the state of being in". English does not have anywhere near the flexibility and "customizability" of grammar that we find in Hebrew, which meant that my only real option was to borrow a standard affix or suffix with a recognizable meaning, and tack it on to the end of the noun. Hence, "debtism."
VA: There is a game played in Grandpa Yosef's table called "Categories," always won by the bedridden Feiga...
AG: Yes, he is playing as two players. As himself and as Feiga, the wife he loves, admires, and worships. She always wins, because that is what she is, a natural-born winner... since the winner must know many rare examples for any category for any letter, he saves the best and rarest terms for her. I believe Jessica had some annoying moments, because above all, many terms in the "Categories" game in my book are symbolic. I can imagine that in some moments she mumbled: "next time, I would like to be his hangman, not his translator..."
VA: Jessica, was it difficult to translate the game sequences?
JC: Very difficult. Word games or puns always require a lot of creativity, and in this case the word game is an actual element of the plot. The first problem was the game itself, which in Israel, even these days, is played with only a pen and paper. It is a ubiquitous pass-time among Israeli children, and is known in Hebrew as "Animal, Mineral, Vegetable," after the first three categories assigned to the participants. Each participant must find a term belonging to one of these categories that starts with a randomly selected letter. In English, however, I had to call the game "Categories," which is, unfortunately, familiar to most Americans as the commercial board game ("Scattergories). As for the words and names themselves, I had fun coming up with English names that would fit into the puzzle presented by the Hebrew criteria. As an example, one game of Categories takes place shortly after the Gulf War, and requires the contestants to come up with names of countries beginning with "K" to replace the now-defunct "Kuwait." While in Hebrew there are virtually no other countries beginning with "kaf" (the letter with which the Hebrew for "Kuwait" begins), in English the "K" situation is not quite as dire. I had to make some adaptations to allow for this difference, which has bearing on the course of the game in the scene. Imagine my satisfaction when I happened across "Kiribati" while searching for an obscure country beginning with "K" that could stand in for Feiga's "unknown tiny republic of islands."
VA: Yes! I'm a big toponymic buff and I laughed really hard when I saw your choice. I loved it. Tell us about some of the other challenges you faced.
JC: To start with, the title of the book presented an interesting challenge. The normative form of saying "our Holocaust" in Hebrew would be to employ the definite article (which in Hebrew is an affix, not a separate word): "HaShoah Shelanu." However, Amir very intentionally chose the title "Shoah Shelanu," which does not include the definite article. The result is an extreme familiarization (and, on the surface at least, a diminution) of that most momentous concept, The Holocaust. The closest equivalent in English might be the distinction between upper-case ("Holocaust") and lower-case ("holocaust"). But this was not a practical solution for the book title, and the distinction between definite and indefinite article cannot be replicated in English in quite the same way. The English title, therefore, does not have anywhere near the jarring effect of the Hebrew one, and in retrospect it might have been wiser to choose an altogether different title.
Another difficulty I encountered throughout the book was how to handle the many historical names, places, and events that are familiar to Israelis but require clarification for other readers. I strongly prefer not to resort to footnotes or endnotes when translating fiction (although in some cases I think an argument can be made for having a glossary at the end of the book, as may end up being the case in the book I am currently translating, which happens to be Amir's most recent novel). It is also best to avoid any painfully obvious explications within the body of the text. That said, it is sometimes imperative to integrate some explanation, otherwise one risks confusing and alienating the reader. As an example, the character of Grandpa Yosef is sometimes mockingly referred to as "the Admor of Belzec". An Israeli reader would immediately understand the term "Admor" (an acronym of "our master, our teacher, and our rabbi," used to refer to Jewish sages), and would most likely also be familiar with the particular Admor on which this parody is based, "The Admor of Belz," whom Grandpa Yosef admires. The term "Admor" is not widely used in English, however, and would likely be familiar only to a fairly small subset of Jewish readers. But since no concise English translation exists, my ultimate decision was to use the Hebrew word and hope that the context would provide a sufficient sense of its meaning for those who do not know the term.
VA: Amir, there's also a different kind of translation going on in the book...
AG: Maybe you are referring to one of the kids' adventures. They find (they steal) a "suspicious" letter, written in Polish, and they want to know what it says and not get caught. They don't want the adults to know that they are trying to discover the family secrets. So, they copy one word at a time, and somehow manage to ask what it means in Polish. They try to complete the puzzle, although the problematic method brings riddles like "life is a roll".
VA: Amir, you wrote this book in Hebrew and that meant that you were writing for a Hebrew-speaking audience regardless of nationality. In other words, you were writing for a specific group of Jews, and perhaps for a few non-Jewish scholars, and perhaps for a few Hebrew-speaking Arabs. Earlier in this conversation you mentioned that you were not thinking about Shoah Shelanu's translation into English when you wrote it. Let me push this a little further, if I may. Once Jessica rendered it in English (and other translators into other European languages) your audience now includes not only non-Hebrew-speaking Jews but non-Jews as well. To put it in Berel Lang's words: Can a book simply be translated from one language to another as if neither the languages nor other differences among the speakers (that is, the readers) of those languages made any difference to the "meaning" of the text?
AG: Many times my image of the process of translation is like that: I imagine a beautiful lady that goes for a journey, maybe by train. The beautiful lady is the original text and the translation is the journey. When this lady reaches her destination, by the end of the journey (that is the text after translation), she might look tired, maybe even a bit exhausted. Her dress might be wrinkled. Her make-up may need some fixing. But, as long she still looks beautiful, everything is o.k.
There are things that cannot be transformed in translation, and there are things that should not be transformed. A good translator, I believe, is not just a guy with a pile of dictionaries on his desk, but mainly someone with good sensitivity for those issues.
VA: When you delivered your paper at Princeton you told the audience about the "ants" passage in Our Holocaust, and I quote:
"My mother hated ants in a way which had no connection to the other parts of her character. When she saw a row of ants entering our house, she would come with cans of exterminating materials. She was pulling the trigger. Ants were not dying of the poisonthey didn't know how to swim." You made them laugh and then you added: "Yes, it's funnybut it's not so funny."
AG: When I was 16, my father finally told me the story of why my mother so despised the ants. During the Holocaust, as she was being led away by the Nazis, the last image she had of home was of her mother's body lying in the dirt, covered with blood and ants.
VA: You then closed your Princeton talk with the following remark: "If you were to forget my lecture one hour from now, please, please remember only one thing from it: the Holocaust is not funny. Under no circumstances can it be considered funny. The Holocaust is very, very horrible."
AG: The formal Holocaust cannot possibly elicit a single smile but the "domestic Holocaust" is a completely different kettle of fish. As a child, I was a witness to many funny scenes, many funny behaviors. I knew admirable survivors and ridiculous ones, stupid and wise, multi-misers and very generous people. I wanted to write their story with love and compassion, and describe them exactly as they were: regular people thrown into the most horrible episode of the twentieth centurythe Holocaust. I chose the childish point of viewand the "clash" between the horror and the childish effort to understand it provides the funny material.
VA: Let's talk about Jakob the Liar where, like your Shoah Shelanu, it sets itself the improbable goal of finding humor in the Holocaust. This movie was directed by Peter Kassovitz. Is this an appropriate way for movies to treat the Nazi evil?
AG: Let me instead give you my opinion on a far more popular film, Roberto Benigni's Oscar winning Life is Beautiful, a film whose massive box-office take was equaled by its critical acclaim.
VA: Yes, this is exactly what I wanted you to do when I asked you earlier that there was another kind of translation going on in your book: your translation of the Holocaust. But I'm glad you talked about the letter in Polish, for that type of translation is also extremely interesting. But I distracted you, please tell us what you think of Benigni's reading of the horrors.
AG: It is a horrible film, an irresponsible film. It is worse than denying the Holocaust. No less. Under the cover of a very funny film (it is funny), a very romantic one, and the cover of this genial idea (a father trying to hide from his son the terrible situation and to claim it is all a big game), there is a simple message: there was a Holocaust, but it was not so horrible. There are scenes in this film that are close to blasphemy, I believe.
Here are just two of the many examples to illustrate this despicable interpretation of the horrors.
One of the inmates in the camp is injured. He says "I'm going to the clinic." In reality, there was no clinic in the camps. An injured Jew was disposed of. His fate was immediate death. But in the film the inmate comes back after a while with a very white, clean bandage, and he complains that they gave him twenty stitches.... Stitches... I always ask why he didn't just get a full manicure and pedicure treatment! A clean bandage and stitches would be as logical as a pedicure in the reality of the camps, where Jews were not considered human. The message of the film is: yes, it wasn't easy in those camps, but...
One of the funnier scenes in the film is when the father is trying to hide his son. Because of some circumstances he sends the child into the middle of a party thrown by the German staff. The child sits among the German children, and there is only one problem in his perfect camouflage: he does not speak German ... yes, this is the problem. And, of course, the father, in a very funny way, and using many tricks, succeeds in hiding his son. What a father!
The film does not show that the son would weigh half of what the normal boys around the table weighed. The film does not show that he would stink because he had not been able to shower for ages. The film does not show that he would have many ugly boils on his skin. The film does not show that this boy could not sit at a table laden with food without "jumping" on it. Fear of death? Ask my father. He was in the camps. He weighed half of what he should have weighed at his age, stank like hell, and nothing, not even the fear of being shot, could have stopped him from stuffing food into his mouth.
I feel I don't need to explain why this film, in a very sophisticated way, suggests that the Holocaust was not that terrible. Many people want to believe that it was not, so the messages of the film are accepted with a great deal of relief. Benigni's reading of the Shoah is translation of the worst kind.
VA: I also find these movies denigrating. They are the equivalent of those translations called belles infidèles where the translator would take it upon himself to clean up objectionable material so as not to offend audiences. They read pretty, but they mask the truth.
Jessica, you had to translate not only Amir's humor but also the insults and all the derogatory terms used by the Nazis and other anti-Semites that Amir puts in their mouths. Tell us about these challenges.
JC: There are a lot of expressions which Amir retained in German, Polish, and Yiddish (none of which I speak), and I consulted with experts in those languages, circumventing the Hebrew completely. As for anti-Semitic slurs, sadly there is no shortage to choose from in the English language (in fact, for obvious reasons, there are far fewer in Hebrew!), so that this did not present much of a problem. A more challenging issue was the translation of the derogatory terms used by some of the Jewish characters in the book to refer to the Nazis. Grandpa Yosef, in particular, is fond of giving nicknames to the personas he encounters in his tortuous Holocaust journey. For example, he refers to an S.S. general whom he accompanies on a bizarre expedition as "Amalek"Hebrew for a member of the biblical Amalekite tribe, and a word that is synonymous, in Hebrew, with "enemy of Israel" or "enemy of the Jewish people." Although this term is used in English and its definition is easily located by a reader who does not immediately recognize it, the name that Grandpa Yosef later chooses for this same character, "Ahasuerus," is not so immediately recognizable to a non-Israeli reader. Any Israeli child knows that Ahasuerus was the Persian king who was incited by the evil Haman to kill all the Jews of Persia. He is one of the historical characters recounted every year on the Jewish holiday of Purim, and the name is immediately evocative to an Israeli reader. In English, however, I felt that the name was not likely to bring to mind any connotations to most readers, even Jewish ones, and so I was ultimately forced to work a short, and hopefully unobtrusive, explanation into the text.
VA: When you won the 2003 Sapir Prize for Literature for your second book, "Ahuzot Hahof" [Seaside Estates] you gave an interview quoted in Haaretz. The question of censorship came up. You were, until your recent retirement, a lieutenant colonel in the Israeli army. As such, you had to have your writing cleared by the military.
AG: Running my work through the military doesn't undermine my freedom as a writer. The censors have never said a thing to me. The army in Israel is so closely connected to the people that there is no chance that they will do that. There are many creative and sensitive people surrounding me in the army. I don't feel that the military community is less creative than the literary community.
VA: Could you expand on this last sentence? How is the military community as creative as the literary one?
AG: I was working as an officer for 20 years and I met many wonderful people. Creative, skeptical about "known facts." The Israeli army is not a regular one. Here, everybody serves for a few years, and then, many people, like me, stay in the service because of a true feeling of necessity. In Israel we fight for our bare right to exist, so many young men, far from being "military people," donate some years of their lives. Some of them, as I said, are very smart and creative. After their army service they go into academia, the hi-tech industry, or...art. But this is becoming less about translation and more about social studies...
VA: Jessica, what dictionaries did you use?
JC: When I come across a Hebrew word I am not familiar with, I generally prefer to look first in a monolingual dictionary (generally the Even Shoshan Hebrew dictionary, which is sort of the equivalent of the OED), so as not to be colored by the first English definition I encounter. After I feel I understand the term, I may look in any number of Hebrew-English dictionaries (I first reach for The Complete Hebrew English Dictionary by Reuben Alcalay, followed by a series of more recent dictionaries). I also like the online "Rav Milim" dictionary, which is quick and fairly thorough.
For this particular book, I also did a great deal of encyclopedic research on the historical names, places, dates, and other data that appear in the various accounts of Holocaust events. I tend to be a perfectionist, and somewhat of an obsessive, and found myself spending a lot of time tracking down not only the correct Latin spelling of German names, but also corroborating the biographical data provided in the book (as in, for example, the many pieces of data Amir provides regarding the sentencing of Nazi criminals and the extent to which these sentences were, or were not, implemented). For this purpose, I spent many hours in libraries pouring over Holocaust reference books and biographical dictionaries.
VA: I would like to thank you both for a beautiful book that does not mask the truth. Amir and Jessica, you managed, in spite of revealing all the horrors, to write an uplifting book. Thank you for the pleasure and the pain.