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What Happens When Agnon and Appelfeld Speak Like Faulkner and Hemingway?

A veteran practitioner of the art of translation considers the challenges—and successes—of Hebrew literature

Jeffrey M. Green
September 30, 2014
(Erik Mace)
(Erik Mace)

Recently I had the privilege of translating a novella by S. Y. Agnon, the only Israeli author who has won the Nobel Prize in Literature, for a volume being prepared by Professor Alan Mintz of the Jewish Theological Seminary. The volume will be composed of stories about Agnon’s home city of Buczacz, Poland, which is about as far from contemporary Israel as it is from contemporary America. The novella, Those Who Seek a Rabbi or the Governor’s Whim, is set in 18th-century Poland, and the Jewish characters in it can barely speak a sentence without quoting from the Bible, the Talmud, or midrash. Using the research tool fondly known here in Israel as “Rav Google,” I was able to identify and locate many of the sources quoted and ironically misquoted by Agnon, and I imagine that most native Hebrew readers would have needed similar assistance with these references, as well as with the realia that Agnon mentions. Unfortunately, Professor Abraham Holtz of JTS, who has produced a fabulous annotated edition of Agnon’s Bridal Canopy in Hebrew, has not done the same for the rest of Agnon’s work—no human being could live long enough to manage that—and I wonder whether Agnon expected us to catch all the references.

Mintz and I disagreed at the start about how to deal with Agnon’s allusive and occasionally precious style. My tendency was to preserve the quirky strangeness of the original, but Alan persuaded me to tone it down and regularize it in a second and third draft of the translation. I agreed with him, in the end, that there are enough obstacles between the reader and this text without distorting English syntax to have it match Agnon’s Hebrew. To illustrate our differences, here’s a sentence that I’m positive Alan will edit out of my translation. In describing someone in attendance at a circumcision, Agnon writes, “I saw a tall, thin man, whose years were between strength and wisdom.” To understand this, you have to know that in Pirkei Avot (The Ethics of the Fathers) 5:22 there is a list of appropriate ages for various activities and qualities: 30 is for strength, 40 is for wisdom. I would like to leave it as it is, with a footnote. I doubt I’ll get my way.

If Agnon were still alive, I could consult him. Indeed, because many of us translators into English live in Israel, and because our authors tend to know (or think they know) English, we develop personal relationships with them, and we can ask them what they meant. The author can also read our manuscript and catch our mistakes, and this is very helpful.

The writer I have worked with most extensively is Aharon Appelfeld, whom I revere as an author and human being. Like Agnon, Appelfeld aims to recreate a lost world, a lost Jewish world, so, though he writes in Hebrew and definitely considers himself Israeli, much of his work is as distant from a modern Israeli as it is from a modern American Jew—though I believe it means something quite different to each readership. (Incidentally, Appelfeld has had a lot of success in France in the past decade or more, and there his work is read in a European context.)

When I first began working with Appelfeld, Professor Arnold Band of UCLA went over the translation. We met briefly, and he expressed surprise, since my Hebrew wasn’t all that great at the time, that I had intuited the strangeness in Appelfeld’s style and tried to convey it in English. Unlike Agnon’s complexity, Appelfeld’s style is deceptively transparent and generally eschews intertextuality. His language, like those of his characters who do live in Israel, does not even try to fit into ordinary diction. The translator is often tempted to regularize Appelfeld’s Hebrew into ordinary English, which would be a lazy way of translating him. While that approach might make his books more accessible, it would also destroy the dreamlike quality of his writing. My translations have been attacked by reviewers for sticking too close to the original, and there is some justice in that. But I respect Appelfeld too much to take a high-handed attitude toward his writing.

Quite recently I spent an hour and a half with Aharon discussing my treatment of The Man Who Didn’t Stop Sleeping, which will be the next novel of his to appear in English. The novel follows about four years of the first-person narrator’s life, from his arrival on the shores of Italy with other refugees through his arrival in Israel, the War of Independence, and his efforts to master the Hebrew language so that he can write in it—an experience parallel to Appelfeld’s own life, though the novel is not autobiographical. Indeed, one of the most pejorative terms in Aharon’s literary critical vocabulary is “memoir.”

Mainly Aharon and I disagreed about time and memory. The rigidity of an Indo-European language like English, with its complex structure of tenses, forces the translator from Hebrew to make distinctions that the author did not make and may not want to make. I put the novel in the past tense, as though written retrospectively after all the action that it describes has taken place. However, Appelfeld used a mixture of present and past (which is easily done in Hebrew). He wanted me to put the whole narrative in the present, and I maintained that it would sound unnatural in English, given the way the novel is structured.

This is an argument we have had before. Aharon feels that putting the novel in the past deprives it of immediacy. He believes that, psychologically, the past is always with us, mingled with the present, not at a distance. “I’m still the little boy I was in the ghetto,” he said, a man of over 80. He wants the book to be in a constantly unrolling present, like a movie. “Didn’t Faulkner and Hemingway write in the present tense?” he challenged me. I didn’t remember offhand, but when I got home I opened the Faulkner on my shelves and saw that he wrote in the past tense, though there’s some present-tense narrative in As I Lay Dying, and here is the first sentence of For Whom the Bell Tolls: “He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees.” I’m right! In this battle of Aharon Appelfeld versus English grammar, he loses. However, I am left with the problem of heightening the immediacy of his narrative and conveying the sense that the past permeates the present, which is so central to his conception of literature and life.

Appelfeld’s writing confirms my belief that the mission of literature is to bring news from places where the reader can’t go, or doesn’t dare go, or hasn’t thought of going—either geographically or psychologically. Indeed, no one in their right mind would want to have been where Appelfeld was as a child during the Holocaust. But readers ought to hear what he has to say and learn what he has to teach, and this is where the translator enters the picture. When the author writes in a language we don’t know, he is a Dr. Livingstone, lost in a distant jungle. The translator becomes Stanley, sent out to find Livingstone and bring him home.


When I began to translate from Hebrew to English in 1979, Agnon had been dead for nine years, Amos Oz was 40, A.B. Yehoshua was 43, Aharon Appelfeld was 47, and David Grossman was 25—not yet the important author he has become. I believe that the most famous and widely translated Israeli author at the time (perhaps to this day) was the humorist Ephraim Kishon (1924-2005), translated into English by Miriam Arad. Other writers on the horizon included Aharon Megged (b. 1920), Amalia Kahanah-Carmon (b. 1926), Yoram Kaniuk (1930-2013), David Shahar (1926-1997), and Yaakov Shabtai (1934-1981)—to name a few. A great deal has changed since then, aside from the aging and passing of some of these fine writers.

A present-day list of Israeli authors whose works have received international recognition would be much longer and include more women, Mizrahi authors, and Israeli Arabs who write in Hebrew. These prolific writers have kept a large number of translators in business, translators not only into English, but into many other European and Asian languages.

Preceding me on the scene, in addition to Miriam Arad, whose productive career as a translator was cut short by untimely death, were the Scotsman Misha Louvish (1909-2001), Dalia Bilu, a delightful woman from South Africa, and the American Hillel Halkin, whose literary career far exceeds translation. And there was also Nicholas de Lange, a professor of Hebrew literature at Cambridge, who has translated Amos Oz’s novels brilliantly. And of course I should mention my friend Betsy Rosenberg, whose translations have served David Grossman so well. By now de Lange, Rosenberg, and I, as well as Michael Swirsky, another friend who has done a lot of important translation, have become a kind of old guard, which would also have included Miriam Schlesinger, an active translator of literature as well as a promoter of translation in her capacity as professor at Bar-Ilan, if she hadn’t died too young in 2012. I apologize to colleagues whom I failed to mention, including able translators of poetry, which is another topic.

To enable Hebrew literature to flourish in English, it had to flourish in Hebrew first, and it has. Quite a few talented, savvy, and interesting writers have emerged in Israel in the past 20 or 30 years, people whose Hebrew is native, whose backgrounds are varied, and whose sophistication is undeniable. Two generations ago, roughly, Israeli identity was owned, as it were, by Ashkenazi, secular, socialist-Zionist types, but by now the culture has become much more pluralistic, and the voices of people from Iraq (Sami Michael, Eli Amir), Egypt (Ronit Matalon, Yitshak Gormazano Goren), Morocco (poet Erez Biton), and elsewhere in the Middle East are heard, as well as the voices of Russian immigrants to Israel (some of whom write in Russian and are translated into Hebrew), and Holocaust survivors (Appelfeld, Ka-Tzetnik) and their children (Leah Aini).

A second condition for the flourishing of Hebrew literature in translation is international interest in the literature. This interest has been promoted successfully by the Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature, founded in 1962. The Institute functions as a literary agent for Israeli authors, those who are not represented by agents of their own. As they say on their website, their main success has been getting Hebrew literature translated “into 70 languages,” not just English. Interest in Hebrew literature has also grown because more and more non-Israelis are capable of reading the literature in the original and recommending it, and, perhaps, due to the growth of Jewish Studies departments in universities all over the world. Of course not every worthy Hebrew book is translated, because books function first of all in local dialogue, and several Hebrew authors who have a devoted public in Israel fail to make themselves heard abroad. A frustrating case in point is Yehoshua Kenaz, an excellent novelist. Although he is highly regarded in Israel, his books have been published only by a small publisher in the United States. Another unsung author whom I admire is the brilliant novelist David Shahar, who was greatly admired in France but barely managed to catch the ear of English readers.

This, by the way, is extremely mysterious. I imagine that publishers and agents all over the world constantly rack their brains, trying to figure out why a book that was well-received in country A can’t even find a publisher in country B. In part I think it has to do with timing. Sometimes a readership is able to hear the message of a certain writer now, when it wasn’t able to be heard five years ago. Beyond that, what is there to say? To some degree, all writing is like stuffing a message into a bottle and letting it drift out to sea. You could think of translations as these bottles, and the currents that push the bottles along, the choice of books that get translated, has to do with cultural politics and the economics of publishing. It’s relatively expensive to translate a book, even though translators are not well-paid, and it’s a big gamble for editors in publishing houses to invest in translations, especially of books in a language they can’t read themselves.

Nevertheless, Hebrew books do get translated, thanks to my talented, diligent, knowledgeable, and increasingly numerous colleagues. While the absolute number of “Anglo-Saxon” immigrants to Israel is not particularly high, there are more of us than ever, and many of us are university educated and culturally sophisticated. This pool of talent has produced quite a few excellent translators. (Stuart Schofmann, for example, after a career that included screenwriting and journalism, leaped into the field of translation right at the top and is now translating A.B. Yehoshua’s work.) However, despite our efforts, no Hebrew author has had impact comparable to that of Latin American authors like Borges, García Márquez, and Vargas Llosa, and frankly this is because, with all due respect to Hebrew, other national literatures are richer. I believe that Agnon truly rises to the highest level of literature—but he must be read in Hebrew. And I say that as someone who has struggled to translate him.

Translators of Spanish literature such as Gregory Rabassa and Edith Grossman, because they work so well with such fine literary material, have also gained status in the English-speaking world as intellectual figures in their own right. No one translating from Hebrew has received that kind of respect, both because we are working with a literature marginal to the main thrust of Western culture, and also because most of us, with the exception of people like Nicholas de Lange, Jessica Cohen, and Barbara Harshav, live in Israel, so we work in isolation from the American or British literary scene. Incidentally, to speculate, Robert Alter probably could have been a Rabassa or a Grossman for Hebrew literature, but he chose to work with a different author. The rest of us are well-known neither in the outside world nor in Israel, where our work is hardly recognized or appreciated. By definition, translators are marginal, straddling cultures, and thus we do not fully participate in any one culture.

Speaking for myself, I came to Israel in 1973 at the age of 29 with a doctorate in comparative literature but without a clear scholarly vocation. I didn’t know much Hebrew, but I knew a few other languages, and I had spent about 10 years in university studying texts. I was determined to be literate in Hebrew, meaning: I was damned if I was going to live in a country and not know its language and culture well. I fell out of a job at the Jewish Agency into translation, finding myself temperamentally unsuited for work in any kind of bureaucracy and having enough financial security to take the risk of freelancing for a few years until I started gathering clients. I also believed in translation as a worthy endeavor. I still do.

I refer not only to literary translation. Israeli academics have contributed greatly to Jewish Studies, and in fact the bulk of my own work as a translator has been in the field of Jewish history. Thus I have benefited personally from the growth of Jewish Studies programs in universities all over the world. When I translate academic material, I assume that my readers have a good Jewish background, and I don’t have to explain who a Cohen is or what the Mishnah is. By contrast, when I translate literature, I almost never assume that the reader will necessarily be a knowledgeable Jew. Which means a lot more has to be explained.

Readers of Tablet may tend to read Israeli literature in a North American Jewish context, which is not at all the context in or for which it was written, and it could well be that American Jews approach Israeli literature with ideological chips on their shoulders. This is unfortunate. Literature (and films) show what a country is about in a way that short-circuits ideology and prejudices. They bear witness, first of all to the place where they are produced, to the fact that the people who live there are real human beings, with families, jobs, ambitions, loves, fears, and everything else that people have, including personal histories. Literature tells us who we are, locally, and, when outsiders listen in on the local dialogue, they learn who we are. We translators help outsiders listen in on our local dialogue, and we are acutely aware of what can never be accessible to outsiders (and perhaps not to the translators themselves, to the extent that we remain outsiders).

I have been living in Israel for more than 40 years, and I am fairly well-acculturated here, which means that I can’t reliably imagine the impact of a work of Israeli literature on people living elsewhere—Jews and non-Jews. The work of most Israeli novelists is naturally set in contemporary Israel, a setting that is as foreign to Americans, Jews included, as France, Italy, or Japan. While some American Jewish readers might be more interested in Israeli literature than Indian literature, for example, because it is Israeli, they should not succumb to the illusion that Israelis are like themselves. And some Hebrew literature is more Jewish than Israeli (like the writing of Agnon and Appelfeld), which could mean that it’s just as inaccessible to Israelis as to Diaspora Jews, or, to put it positively, it deals with aspects of the background that all Jews share, though we have moved in different directions. I sense that for many Diaspora Jews, even people who have visited Israel many times, know Hebrew, and follow current events here, Israel is an idea, not a real place. This is a tendency that Israeli literature (in translation) ought to counteract.


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Jeffrey M. Green is the translator of more than a dozen books by Aharon Appelfeld. He is the author of Thinking Through Translation, and the novel Site Report.

Jeffrey M. Green is the translator of more than a dozen books by Aharon Appelfeld. He is the author ofThinking Through Translation, and the novelSite Report.