He is the invisible hand in Israeli theatre — the man who opens its stages up to the world.
Eli Bijaoui is the translator who has brought writers such as William Shakespeare, Woody Allen, Stephen Sondheim, Agatha Christie and many others to Israeli theatres.
He struggles to keep up with the demand for plays and musicals that have been translated into Hebrew. The hunger is quite insatiable, he says, because Israelis love theatre — and Shakespeare in particular — almost more than any other nation.
“Something in Israeli society is dramatic, sometimes almost like a Shakespearean play,” he believes.
One of Bijaoui’s talents is to take a play from a very specific cultural or historical niche, and help it speak to Israelis. He triumphed two years ago with Billy Elliot, despite its focus on the British mining strike, its foul language, and phrases that play on the British class system. It became a hit that 100,000 Israelis went to see.
He also has a special talent for reworking songs from musicals without losing impact in the translation.
There is a “big problem” with Hebrew, he says. “In Hebrew you have very few words that have only one syllable. So what would be a short line of a song in English takes double the syllables in Hebrew — a headache for a translator.”
But he has succeeded, to great acclaim, with big-name shows like West Side Story, Cabaret, Shrek the Musical, Beauty and the Beast, Jekyll & Hyde, and Oliver! Plays have included Romeo and Juliet, The Mousetrap, Play It Again, Sam, and Biloxi Blues — as well as 15 French plays.
On opening nights, 39-year-old Bijaoui can be seen sitting in theatres, far more focussed on audience reactions than the dialogue or songs on stage. “Everyone is listening to what happened on stage, but I sit there guessing when the audience will laugh or gasp. If it all happens as I hoped, it’s like music to my ears.”
Asked what is most exciting about his work, he says that he is “privileged to translate in the ultimate old-new language”. He goes on: “The biggest joy in translating theatre to Hebrew is that while it is one of the world’s oldest languages, its recent revival also means it is a young language that changes all the time and is absorbing words from the many immigrants.”
Translating Shakespeare is a particular thrill. “He used different levels of language in English, so in Hebrew I can follow this by using a range from Biblical Hebrew to modern slang. Shakespeare allows me to juggle with the Hebrew in a way no other writer does.”
Oliver! lent itself to Hebrew because “the fact that Fagin is a Jew meant you could use Hebrew expressions that came from Yiddish to signify this”.
Whether he is working on Shakespeare or a hit musical, the Bible is always an important resource — and he even snuck in a line from the Mishna when translating Billy Elliot. “Biblical language is the most powerful and vast field with a lot of phrases that people know with connotations and allusions,” he says.
The biggest tribute of all to his work, and the power he harnesses through the Hebrew language, is the reaction of a renowned New York author to one of his musicals. He adapted Library Lion, a New York Times bestselling children’s book written by Michelle Knudsen, into a Hebrew-language musical.
He recalls: “The author heard there was an Israeli version and that it was one of the biggest successes in children’s theatre, so she came from America to see it and cried all evening.” Now she is working with him to produce an English-language musical — by translating his version of her story back to English.