Translators come out of the shadows

Two Israeli novels are up for the Man Booker International Prize. Susan Reuben spoke to translators Jessica Cohen and Nicholas de Lange.


Translators are the shadow heroes of literature, the often forgotten instruments that make it possible for different cultures to talk to one another, who have enabled us to understand that we all, from every part of the world, live in one world.”

Those words, from novelist Paul Auster, apply particularly to two translators who bring Israel and its writers to the world stage. Jessica Cohen and Nicholas de Lange are on the six-strong shortlist of the Man Booker International Prize , alongside the authors they work with. Next Wednesday they discover who has won the £50,000 prize, which is split equally between author and translator.

Cohen, shortlisted for her translation of David Grossman’s A Horse Walks Into a Bar was born in 1973 in Colchester, and moved with her family to Jerusalem aged seven. Placed in a Hebrew-speaking primary school, she quickly became bilingual.

“Negotiating the transitions between two very different languages and cultures was immensely difficult at times,” she says, “but I am now grateful for having grown up bilingual. Bilingualism has led me to a career I love.”

She has translated many other prominent Israeli authors, including Etgar Keret, Rutu Modan and Tom Segev. Her partnership with Grossman started in 2003 with his book In Another Life.

For A Horse Walks Into a Bar, Grossman collaborated with his translators around the world bringing them together to work intensively on the text. Cohen came to Germany, to a literary translation centre, from her home in Denver. “We sat there — eight of us — with David — for three full days. We talked about how things would work in different languages. He read most of the book out loud.”

The process was very helpful. “You can pick up things from his intonation and his stresses that you may not have realised just reading it on the page.”

A Horse Walks Into a Bar is the tale of a stand-up comedian who falls apart on stage as he relates his life story to a transfixed audience. Cohen particularly enjoys writing dialogue and monologue, and Grossman’s novel lends itself perfectly to this. The Washington Post praised her for turning Grossman’s Hebrew into “fluent, American-style patter, bad-a-bing bad-a-boom.”

“I feel that I can take a lot more licence [with speech],” she says. “You have to be able to hear a person speaking and believe that it’s a real person — even if it means taking departures from the original. I enjoyed having this character whom I get to recreate.”

It is often said that too few works of fiction are translated into English. Is this true of Israeli novels? “Israeli literature in translation is in a pretty good state compared to some other countries,” says Cohen. “It’s more about the type of things that get translated. I’m not sure if this is publishers or the readership, but I think there’s a perception that what people want is politics. I don’t think that people are particularly interested in reading a domestic drama that happens to take place in Israel.”

The other Hebrew-English translation on the shortlist is the latest product of a partnership that has lasted for fifty years, starting in late 1960s Oxford, when a young, up-and-coming Israeli novelist, Amoz Oz was introduced to student Nicholas de Lange through a mutual friend. Oz’s work was not available in English at the time, and the two young men decided to work on a translation together.

“We got on very well,” says de Lange, “and Amos said he hadn’t been translated, so we decided to have a go. He was writing a long short story at the time called Crusade. I went to Israel to work with him. We worked for stretches of three weeks at a time — about 18 hours a day. He read the book aloud to me. The purpose was to make sure the music of the text came out properly. We sent it off to the Jewish Quarterly and they published it.”

When they embarked on translating Crusade, de Lange had never translated anything before and he was not bilingual. “I lived in Israel as a child,” he says, “but it was a bit of stretch for me to capture all the literary nuances.” He is now Professor Emeritus of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at Cambridge University, and also a rabbi, having trained at Leo Baeck College.

Since then de Lange has translated 17 major works of fiction by Oz, as well as several minor ones. Their shortlisted novel is Judas, which juxtaposes the story of a young, sensitive university drop-out in Jerusalem in 1959 with an examination of the role of Judas in the New Testament.

De Lange equates the process of literary translation to that of a musician “translating” the work of a classical composer.

“A performing musician is someone who loves music, but he’s also producing the music,” he says. “When you’re listening to ‘Beethoven’, you’re not really listening to Beethoven — you’re listening to the musician.” In the same way, when you read Judas in English, you are reading Amos Oz — but as interpreted by Nicholas de Lange.

As for the Booker, Cohen sums it up: “I am happy, not just to be shortlisted for this prize, but that it exists at all — and recognises the translator on equal billing.”

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