ver since helping my father communicate in Hebrew at the local grocery store, shortly after we immigrated to Israel (it was khalavmilkthat he wanted, not kelevdog!), I knew that I wanted to be a translator. Throughout my childhood I continued to enjoy my role as interpreter and translator between two very different languages and cultures, helping both myself and others to negotiate this perilous bridge. I studied translation formally as soon as I had the opportunity, and have never looked back...
The true story of how I became a translator is one of serendipity rather than life-long ambition. I did help my father that day in the grocery store, and there were many other instances when I became an accidental (and often embarrassed) interpreter for my parents, but only in retrospect do those events seem to have any bearing on my current work as a translator. Many of my peers were well on their way to establishing their chosen careers by the time it even dawned on me that there was such a thing as a professional translator, that I might enjoy being one, and that perhaps I would even be good at it.
I was born in a small town about an hour from London, and lived there happily until the age of seven, when my life was turned upside down. My father was offered a one-year position as a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and so my parents picked up my sister and me and plopped us down in the Middle East. (The temporary move was later to become a permanent one.) The transition from a suburban British life, with only a cursory attachment to Judaism, to a predominantly Jewish, Hebrew-speaking culture was a shock to the system for all of us. After spending part of the summer in an ulpan, an intensive Hebrew language school sponsored by the state for all new immigrants, I entered the second grade at the local elementary school, where all lessons were conducted in Hebrew. I must not have been particularly studious at the ulpan, as I recall my vocabulary consisting of not much more than shalom (hello) and todah (thank you). I vividly remember the paralyzing fear of sitting in a classroom listening to someone who did not look like a teacher at all (my previous schooling had been very proper and very British) speaking extremely fast in complete gibberish.
I try to make the bridge that I am building between author and reader and between one culture and another as sturdy as I possibly can.
Fortunately, I was young enough to learn Hebrew fairly quickly after the initial hurdles, although that first period was wrenching, as every immigrant can attest. By the end of the school year I was practically fluent and had developed some very thick skin in response to my classmates' mockery of my accent and grammar mistakes. My parents, meanwhile, had a far greater struggle mastering Hebrew, and my sister and I soon had a secret languageprovided we spoke Hebrew fast enough and used enough slang, our parents had no hope of understanding us. I had not only learned a new language, but had honed the art (and comprehended the importance) of mimicry. It was easier to blend in than to stand out, and so I developed a good ear and learned to speak Hebrew with an almost perfect Israeli accent. I put this skill to good use when I spent a year in California as a teenager, where, although there was no new language to learn, I might as well have been on another planet, and I felt more comfortable trying to sound like everyone else than being a curiosity because of my British accent.
After finishing high school and spending a couple of years working in retail jobs and worrying about what I was going to do, I began my studies at the Hebrew University, where I obtained a Bachelor's Degree in English Literature, and more importantly, met my future husband. During my studies I occasionally translated academic material, sometimes as a favor to a fellow student, other times as a paid job for students or faculty. I also got a part-time job as a bilingual secretary at a local law firm; in between making coffee for the lawyers and operating the copying machine, I translated the occasional letter or fax. I was starting to realize that true bilingualism was not all that common, even in an immigrant country like Israel, and that it might be something I could use to my advantage. Still, a career in translation did not enter my mind.
Shortly after graduating, I moved to the United States so that my husband, an American who had been living in Israel for several years, could pursue his graduate studies. We settled in Seattle, and after obtaining my work permit, I made the rounds of temp agencies, hoping to find something that would generate a little income while I figured out what I wanted to do when I grew up. One of the agencies called me the day after I had been in their office: I had listed Hebrew as one of my languages on my CV (thinking it would be more of a curiosity than an asset), and the temp agency had a client ("the largest software company in the region," as they slyly phrased it) with an urgent need for a Hebrew-speaker to start contract work immediately. The job title was "Localization Quality Assurance," a phrase that might as well have been in a foreign language as far as I was concerned. After figuring out what it was they wanted me to do, and being completely frank about my pitiful computer skills, I was hired for a contract position at Microsoft.
The six months I spent there were a constant learning experience. I learned a vast amount about computing and software; I learned about corporate culture and what it's like to have a 9-to-5 job (and that I didn't want one for the rest of my life); I learned the difference between translation and localization, editing and proofreading, testing and engineering; I learned that working in a team can sometimes be hugely fulfilling and productive, and at other times stifling and frustrating. Although I knew this was not what I wanted to do forever, I generally found the work interesting, the environment pleasant and supportive, and the pay a nice plus. And then I left my job and moved to the Midwest.
After less than a year in Seattle, my husband was accepted to a Ph.D. program at Indiana University, and so we packed up what little we had accumulated (including the 30-odd boxes of books originally shipped from Israel) and drove to Bloomington, Indiana. Another culture shock awaited me there, as I negotiated the transition from a cosmopolitan city with stunning mountain views and the Pacific coast nearby, to a small Midwestern college town where basketball was the talk of the day. Career-wise, the change was even harsher. After a well-paid professional job in a world-renowned company, my offers during our first few months in Bloomington consisted of babysitting or secretarial work. But I had discovered the Internet.
While my husband toiled away at his studies, I resisted the urge to wallow in day-time TV and instead spent hours every day surfing the web in an attempt to find an occupation, or at the very least preserve my sanity. At the same time, I began translating a few short stories by an exciting new Israeli author whose book I had picked up. Etgar Keret, who is now translated into dozens of languages and is one of Israel's most successful cultural exports, was fairly unknown at the time. His stories were unlike anything I'd ever read, and it seemed like a fun idea to play around with translating them into English and see if I could extricate their universal core from its utterly Israeli frame of mind, and make it work in a different culture. I enjoyed the exercise immensely, and it was probably the first time I started to think of this pursuit as possibly more than a hobby. True, I had done translation work as part of my position at Microsoft, but that was a jobnot a career.
I eventually plucked up the courage to contact Breon Mitchell, a renowned literary translator who happened to be a professor in my husband's department. Being a selfless soul with sincere intellectual curiosity about other people's ideas, languages and books, Breon was happy to meet with me. Over a series of encounters, we talked about the art, craft, and theory of translation. He also read my first attempts at translating Keret's stories and offered some extremely helpful criticism and suggestions. As I dabbled in literary translation, with Breon's help and encouragement, I started to read on the Internet about curious creatures named "freelance translators," who sat in their home-offices all day, glued to computers and surrounded by dictionaries, rarely left their homes, did not have to be "team players" or "think outside the box," and apparently could make quite a decent living doing so. It seemed perfect for me, and I put together a list of agencies, polished up my CV, and sent it out with a cover letter.
The next chance encounter in the series of coincidences that lifted my career off the ground took place in an elevator. Breonby now my unofficial mentorwas attending an ATA conference. He walked into an elevator and read the name-tag of the person standing next to him. It said, "Rina Ne'eman, Hebrew Language Services, Inc." I had sent my CV to Rina shortly before the conference, but as any agency owner can confirm, it takes more than ending up in a stack of CVs to get noticed. Breon told Rina to look out for my application, and the next thing I knew I had passed a test and was getting regular translation assignments from the only American agency specializing in Hebrew translation. Thrown into this new line of work, I began to read every article and book I could find on freelancing, and specifically on becoming a professional translator. I joined the ATA and attended my first annual conference in St. Louis, an overwhelming and wonderful experience. But mainly, I learned, through experience and the occasional mistake, about what it takes to be professional, to keep proper records, to be available, to develop research skills, and all the other things that most readers of this article have also had to learn.
I also decided to go back to school. Since I had studied English literature in the Middle East, it seemed only natural to study the Middle East in America. And so I spent the next two years earning a Master's degree in Near Eastern Languages & Cultures at Indiana University. I also completed the Certificate of Literary Translation offered by the Comparative Literature Department. I broadened and deepened my knowledge of Hebrew literature and language through classes and directed readings with Professor Stephen Katz; I took translation workshops and theory courses with Breon Mitchell; and most challenging of all, I studied Arabic. I was fairly certain by this time that I wanted to be a full-time translator, and my dream was to be able to translate from both Hebrew and Arabic into English. But I was not seven years old anymore, and I found that learning a language in a classroom was quite different than being thrown into a new environment and forced to adapt. Although I was able to gain a rudimentary command of Arabic, I quickly realized that I could not achieve anywhere near the proficiency needed to translate out of it. I still hope one day to have the opportunity to immerse myself in an Arabic-speaking environment and achieve greater fluency.
During my first year of studies, I continued to translate contemporary Israeli fiction, choosing works that I liked and thought might work in English, but still regarding my literary translation as more of a hobby than a publishable endeavor. In the summer of 1999, I participated in a literary translation workshop at the New York State Summer Writers' Institute, at Skidmore College. A group of aspiring translators working from diverse languages met every day for two weeks to review each other's work and discuss translation issues, under the guidance of John Felstiner, a noted literary translator. The creative environment at the workshop and the contact with other writers and translators amounted to an inspiring experience for me, one that made me decide to pursue literary translation more seriously. I tried my hand at translating some poems by a contemporary Israeli poet and writer, Yehonatan Geffen, and my translations were published in the ATA Literary Division's publication, Beacons. (I have since found that translating prose is far less stressful for methe weight of a single word of poetry is immeasurably greater than that of its prose counterpart.) I also translated an excerpt from a novel by the same writer, which won me the ATA's Student Translation Award in 2000.
Meanwhile, I was building up a substantial client base for my freelance work and becoming more confident in my ability to make a living as a full-time translator. I knew that literary translation was far more time-consuming and not nearly as financially rewarding, but I felt that it was important for me to sustain a level of interest and a creative outlet in my work, and this meant pursuing literary translation as well. In yet another fortuitous connection, an old family friend in Jerusalem was, and still is, one of the premier translators of Hebrew literature. Dalya Bilu was kind enough to refer me to a literary agent based in Jerusalem, who represents some of the finest Israeli writers. The agent was looking for a translator for a novel by Ronit Matalon, a critically acclaimed writer and journalist, and asked me to translate a sample. Matalon's writing is dense and demanding, and I was doubtful that I would be able to do a good job. But to my surprise, both Matalon and her agent liked the sample, and it was sent on to the publisher in New York. Next thing I knew, I received a contract to translate my first novel!
Things began moving fairly quickly after that, and before I knew it I was asked to translate David Grossman's latest book, a collection of two novellas. This was a huge honor for me, as Grossman is one of Israel's foremost writers, a name recognized even by readers who know very little about Israel or its literature. The book, Her Body Knows, went on to win the Koret International Jewish Book Award for Fiction. Had I stopped to think about it for very long, I would probably have been paralyzed by the expectations and the alarming rate at which my literary translation career was soaring. Luckily, I was far too busy translating to give it much thought. I have been fortunate, since the beginning, to not only have a steady supply of work, but to have the luxury of translating books that I like. Alongside a giant like David Grossman, I have also translated younger writers, such as Amir Gutfreund (also featured in this issue of the Translation Journal) and Yael Hedaya, both of whose books are short-listed for the prestigious Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature this year (the winner will be announced in mid-March). I take great pleasure in being able to contribute to the well-deserved recognition of these talented writers outside of Israel.
I continue to take on commercial translation work in addition to my literary translation. This is partly a financial necessityit is virtually impossible to make a living translating literary prose, and although I am frustrated by this, I know that market pressures (and perhaps an inadequate appreciation of literary translators by the bean-counters in the publishing industry) are such that the situation is unlikely to change significantly in the near future. But there are other reasons for my choice to continue living a double-life of literary and commercial translator. While I do enjoy being able to sink my teeth into a long novel and carry it with me in my mind as a constant presence for several months, it is also refreshingand I think, necessaryto have shorter and less all-consuming projects to work on, translations that I can turn around in a day or two and forget about. And as every translator knows, one of the most rewarding aspects of our profession is the constant variety; one never translates the same document twice (unless something has gone horribly wrong!), which means that there is always an opportunity to learn something new, to refine one's skills, to delve into a new topic. As a child, my formal education was almost entirely in Hebrew, but our home was always filled with English books, which I read voraciously, reading Hebrew only when it was essential for my school work. The enduring result is that my English writing skills are far more refined and nuanced than my Hebrew ones. I can quite comfortably translate a lease or a software manual into Hebrew, but I translate literature only into English.
I am often asked to talk about how I translatewhy I make certain word choices or how I handle slang, humor, ambiguities, and so forth. But the simple truth is that I'd rather translate than talk about translating, which is why this piece has ended up being largely biographical and less philosophical. I have read a lot of translation theory and enjoy reading other people's ideas about translation (both practitioners and theoreticians), but on the whole I find that I cannot mold my approach to translation into a coherent set of principles. Rather, I approach each word, each line, each chapter, as a separate case. If I had to describe the process in any diagrammatic way, I would say that the words enter my mind in Hebrew and come out in English. As to what happens in between those two points, I cannot easily say. Of course things are rarely as straightforward as this might seemI write several drafts, and always rely on a good editor to improve the final result. Ultimately, though, I simply try to hear what sounds right, and hope that it also does to the reader. In other words, I try to make the bridge that I am building (between author and reader, between one culture and another) as sturdy as I possibly can.