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The Song and the Singer: On Translating Gon Ben Ari’s “The Sequoia Children”

By Yardenne Greenspan

I grew up in Israel to bilingual parents. My father was born and raised in Philadelphia. My mother was born in New York City to Israeli parents. When my father speaks Hebrew he still has an accent. His Rs are soft. My mother is fluent in English and Hebrew, and makes spelling mistakes in both. I grew up in a household where we’d say things like, “Can you go to the makolet and buy some chalav?”

When I started the MFA Writing program at Columbia, speaking the language was easy. Getting directions, discussing workshop materials, making small-talk. Piece of cake. But expressing myself on a more intimate level, making my thoughts and emotions understood? Not so much. I had the necessary vocabulary and the friends who would listen to me use it; but the context, the state of mind, was lost.

Then I read The Sequoia Children, by Gon Ben Ari, and I was struck by an unusual sensation. More than appreciation for its unique style and its imaginative storyline, more than the insightful—and universal—emotions that it raised, the feeling I was consumed with was pure love, love for this book that was so much about me, about my boyfriend, about my friends back home, about Ben Ari himself.

The Sequoia Children was published in Israel in 2010. It spans great distances of time and place, from 1940s Europe, stricken by the Jewish Holocaust, to an Israel of the 2000s, where a mysterious drug given at birth allows children to live to be 1,000 years old. The novel follows the inventor of the drug through his harrowing experiences in labor camps and portrays the bizarre consciousness of the first generation of children to receive the drug, knowing that they will outlive their siblings who were born merely a year or two prior to the invention of this questionable blessing. The book looks at the connection between the destruction of humanity and the desire to have it last forever. It examines the loss of innocence experienced by Holocaust survivors, and the twisted, unexpected way it translates itself into an extended, innocent and never-ending childhood for following generations; a childhood so permanent that it causes whoever experiences it to lose all passion for learning, evolving and cherishing life. I had to translate it.

On my next visit to Tel Aviv I sat down to have a beer with Ben Ari. He expressed his concern that the book was too long and complex. The chapters are of different lengths and forms, moving between places and characters and between straightforward plot and anecdotal, intimate portraits and vignettes. We both felt that the length and convolution were things we could get away with in the Israeli literary scene, which is prone toward the poetic and the magical. The American industry, in which I was now working, would prove more demanding.

We made a plan to begin working as a team. As I translated the book, I would mark up sections I thought might be cut out or shortened. Then I’d send my work to him and he would confirm or deny the cut and make notes about the translation. So far, this process has been harmonious. We are both fluent in English and Hebrew and we are both writers, but the division of work is clear—he is the song and I am the singer.

In this process, I often pause at word choices or concepts that are very obviously Israeli. There is the issue of the different levels of Hebrew diction—the old Yiddish-accented Hebrew of the older generation, the sabra army-speak, the radio programming humor and the reality TV references.

There is the fact that much of the book takes place in Nahalal, a village in the Yizre’el Valley that has played a major role in Israeli folklore as a settlement for European immigrants, a hub from which the Galilee was built, and home to many important political and cultural figures.           

Then there is the character of Yona, who likes to disassemble words and create new ones. Some of these required me to transliterate the Hebrew word, so that the sound might be transported into the translation. Other times I tried to make my own equivalent hybrids in English. At one point, Yona realizes that the difference between the word Man—ish—and the word Woman—isha—is the Hebrew letter ה, which is a symbol for God. “A woman is a man plus God,” Yona realizes and feels momentarily happy. In attempting to translate this, I came up with the solution “Woman is man+woe.” The meaning, I know, has been completely altered, and yet somehow, in the long run, I suspect Ben Ari and I will choose to use this. For the character of Yona, I believe, God and woe are interchangeable concepts.

Perhaps the most loaded challenge I’ve had to deal with when presenting this book to American colleagues has been the treatment of the Jewish Holocaust. For young Israelis, as painful and ever-explosive as this topic is, there is also a sense that it is “ours” and so we can joke about it if we wish. The Sequoia Children is filled with sarcastic Holocaust humor, rough and biting, but also conveying the sense that for children of the third generation the Holocaust isn’t only a history lesson—it is a constant presence in the background of our lives, like a hushed static, and at the same time it is also a sort of fairytale. In the book, the Jewish Holocaust is referred to at one time as having been “boring.” Another time, Nazi soldiers are cited as promising inmates walking into gas chambers, “It’s a shower, honest!” When Romanian Jews are transported out of their village and into a barn in the woods, the rain banging on the roof of the barn sounds like applause: “Welcome to the Holocaust!”

In this process of working together, Ben Ari and I are able to create our own language—one that English readers will be able to understand, but one that will not compromise the nature and context in which The Sequoia Children was born. We’re able to make English a less lonely place, one that can contain the ideas with which we grew up—the Israeli ethos and its slow crumbling; the love-hate relationship we have with our own history and the forced forgetting of our identity as wanderers and refugees; the rage and the pain and the humor that is draped over it all.

To be sure, everything we choose to cut is still beautiful and still fits on some level or another. Every so often we leave something in that could have been cut. It is our small rebellion. 

Published Oct 17, 2012   Copyright 2012 Yardenne Greenspan

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