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Check out our February feature of folktales from the Qatari oral tradition.
from the March 2009 issue

The Necessity of Choosing

Miriam Shlesinger's essay was included in the accompanying booklet to WWB's March 5th event at the Idlewild bookstore in New York City. It is also part of our month-long discussion of Etgar Keret's Girl on the Fridge. You can find links to other essays in this series at the bottom of the page.—Editors

From the point of view of the translator at any moment of his work, translating is a decision process—a series of consecutive situations—moves, as in a game—situations imposing on the translator the necessity of choosing among a certain (and very often exactly definable) number of alternatives.—Jiří Levý 1967)

I came to Israel to study medicine, so I studied musicology, and that's why I'm a translator. Such are the twists and turns of what seemed to be a predictable trajectory. Then again, why study medicine when you can be a translator—an ersatz writer, a manipulator of words, a resourceful imitator (to quote Venuti), a practitioner of ego-suppression? True, it is the most humbling of crafts (yes, it's an art too, of course)—forcing us to concede, that "[…] no text ever survives intact the transition to a different language and culture" (Venuti again). But I would never dream of forfeiting this serendipitous career choice, or the joy of trying—again and again and again—to prove my colleague wrong, to show that the text does survive the ordeal after all.

A fellow-translator, famous for his renderings of S. Y. Agnon, once claimed that his favorite authors were the dead ones, those who would never intrude or quibble. That was his take on the delicate interaction between the two competing owners of the translated text. As for me, I prefer my authors alive. Like Etgar Keret, for example—a writer who is as supportive as he is brilliant. His "intrusions" and "quibbles" are invariably inspiring (and gently worded, so as not to offend, not to stifle my efforts at translatorial creativity).

Broadly speaking, Keret's stories present the translator with the same two types of challenge that are the nemesis of every literary translator. (There are others, but these two are the peskiest):

1) A yearning to come up with the mot juste; 2) Cultural associations that are bound to defy any search for "faithfulness."

The first of these, the maddening quest for the perfect word, persists despite our grudging admission that no target language "equivalent" will do the trick. Take "Asthma Attack," the first story in The Girl on the Fridge. How much quibbling could there possibly be over a story of no more than ten lines? I had ended the story with: "A word is a lot, because a word could be stop, or inhaler, or even ambulance." Lorin Stein at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, unfettered by the run-on Hebrew sentence, in which because is explicitly provided, suggested changing this to: "A word's a lot. It could be stop, or inhaler. It could be ambulance".

In an e-mail to Etgar, reacting to Lorin's very sound editorial suggestions, I wrote: "I like what he's done. True, I have a sentimental attachment to what I've done, and still think it's fine, but if I (being you) were forced to choose, I'd choose Lorin's version." As I said, it's a humbling experience.

The buck stops with the author, however, and it was Keret who cast the decisive vote, picking what he saw as the best of both: "A word's a lot. It could be stop, or inhaler. It could even be ambulance."

Indeed, a word's a lot!

As for the cultural associations, there are examples in almost every story—some of them under the surface and some explicit. In "My Best Friend" (pp. 141–142), for example, the protagonist, having relieved himself on his best friend's doorstep, winds up humming Giv'at Ha-Tachmoshet, a Six Day War victory song. Should this be glossed as "Ammunition Hill" or should it perhaps replaced by a familiar counterpart? But what does "counterpart" imply here? The Six Day War song evokes a mix of the pain and intoxication that goes with having won a particular battle in a particular place, but what will it evoke for the non-Israeli, non-Hebrew speaking reader? When I siphoned its rich associations into "We Shall Overcome" (with rich associations of its own, of course), was I guilty of treacherous trivialization of both setting and message? As always with translation, the decision entailed a tradeoff: sacrifice the historical allusion to avoid distraction, to retain the wry humor, to focus on the comical overtones. It is the penultimate sentence after all, not to be burdened with a foreignism or watered down by didactic over-detailing.

And who better than the author to provide me with an alibi? In a recent interview, he said:

We are much more alike than we think. In my story, "The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God", it doesn't matter that I wrote it while picturing a Tel Aviv bus driver on Allenby Street. It doesn't make a difference if you're in Chicago or Austin or Toronto. Everyone recognizes the bus driver and can identify with him.

And so it was in "My Best Friend" too, I would argue, but I'm on shaky ground here. This dilemma—specific vs. generic, explain it vs. leave it alone— is the most banal quandary faced by any translator, and as such, it has been wrung dry in countless essays, footnotes, critiques and scholarly treatises. But that does not make it any less nerve-wracking, any more resolvable. And so, all you can do is resign yourself to enduring "the necessity of choosing among a certain (and very often exactly definable) number of alternatives" and hope that the author, audience and critics will find it in their hearts to accept your solutions, faute de mieux.


Other essays, interviews and features in this series:

Keret events this March in Boston and Chicago.

Adam Rovner puts Etgar Keret in context.

Phillip Lopate discusses the roots of Keret's work.

Adam Rovner on Reading Keret: Front Line of the Hyperreal.

Nicolle Elizabeth reports on our Keret event at the Idlewild bookstore.

Photos from the event.

Adam Rovner interviews Etgar Keret

The video from the Idlewild Event

Adam Rovner talks about "An Exclusive"

The Art of Big Things: Todd Hasak-Lowy on Reading Keret

My Favorite Keret Story, from Bud Parr

Translating the Funhouse: Adam Rovner on Reading Keret

Moshe Ron and Hannan Hever discuss finding Etgar Keret.

Resources for further reading (and viewing) on Etgar Keret.

Read more from the March 2009 issue
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