“Are you a professor?” asked the woman sitting next to me on the plane from Israel to New York. She’d been eyeing my laptop screen on and off for most of the flight, as I did a final polish on my translation of Israel and the Cold War, a punctiliously-researched tome by Joseph Heller of the Hebrew University. Heller’s the professor, I’m the translator. He spent years sifting through the dark corners of archives around the world to gather the material in his book. I get the glory of being thought a historian without having looked at a single document.
Yes, I write my own books, but try buying groceries with that. My family gets fed thanks to books that other people write, people who need my help to present their ideas to the public. Sometimes I translate in the simple sense of the word—that is, recast a Hebrew work in English. But the specific niche I’ve developed over the years is that of translator/editor, or perhaps bilingual book doctor would be a better term. That means I don’t just transfer prose from one language to another but also help the author rewrite the book.
Of course, the substance remains that of the scholar. But substance needs presentation. I feel privileged to have helped bring the work of Israeli scholars before the English-speaking world while making them more reader-friendly books than they would otherwise have been.
While it’s hardly ideal, the pressures are such that I often work on two or three book translations or edits at the same time, alongside my own writing. Right now I’m translating a book on the Mossad by Ronen Bergman of the newspaper Yediot Aharonot, and a book about Eliezer Gruenbaum, a Jewish Communist who became a kapo at Auschwitz, by the historian Tuvia Friling.
On top of that, I’m editing the English version of one of the Israeli publication phenomena of the past year. Yuval Noah Harari’s history of the world, from humankind’s evolution in Africa to the present day, has been a bestseller in Hebrew. It’s based on the survey course he teaches, which has become one of the university’s most popular classes.
Harari’s book covers a lot of ground that I’ve written about in my career as a journalist covering research and science, so as I edit I disagree, debate, and argue points with him. Like most of my clients, Harari appreciates this deep involvement in his work. I am, of course, an amateur scholar, not a real one, so it’s the client who makes the final decisions about the book’s ideas and arguments. But it’s a real pleasure to engage in disputations with my authors.
And, of course, I learn a great deal in the process. Almost enough to be taken for a professor myself.
I was born and raised in Israel, and my novel The People of Forever Are Not Afraid takes place in Israel. Because of that, many people wonder why I wrote my book in English. Someone asked me if I had something against the Hebrew language. One Israeli person speculated online that I chose to write in English because I was looking for a shortcut into getting published widely.
That’s not at all true, but the question of why I chose to write in English is a valid one.
The truth is—it happened by accident. I wrote my first book while I was studying at a US college. That’s the only reason I wrote it in English. It wasn’t really a conscious choice, and I never expected the book to get published, so I didn’t give the decision to write in English too much thought.
Whatever I write next may be in Hebrew, or it may be in English. It all depends on what I feel like doing. I am terrible at writing English with pen and paper—I never quite got used to drawing those strange Latin letters, and I need my spell check, so it is easier for me in some ways to write in Hebrew because I don’t need a computer for that.
Yet I believe writing in a foreign language helped my fiction. There is something about writing in a language that does not truly belong to you that is liberating. It is easier to create a new world from scratch when the words you are using are not the ones you used as a child, or those you use to talk to the people you love. Just the knowledge that the characters and places I was describing belonged to the Hebrew language meant that by using English, I was firmly footed in the realm of fantasy, where anything I wanted to make happen could happen as long as it made sense in the world of the story.
Additionally, writing about Israel in English meant that I sometimes had to translate Hebrew phrases and metaphors. The process of navigating between the two languages often resulted in some of the most significant parts of my book. My title, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, is actually a translation of a Hebrew bumper sticker and slogan.
I also found that at times it was advantageous not to know all the words that I needed. I often knew what I wanted to say, but did not have the words to say it in English. This forced me to turn to a dictionary, then to others’ fiction. To consider different possibilities, to examine how the new words I considered using were used by others. When writing in English, I am often at a loss for words. I have to fight harder for what comes naturally to native speakers. In Hebrew the choice of words is quickly obvious to me. I don’t have to discover them.
My book is in the process of being translated into several languages, and I have found in my interactions with my translators that they ask the best questions. In my book, I describe the hairs inside a mean base commander’s nose as looking like “the life lines of spiders.” My Croatian translator recently asked me about that image. She wanted to know whether I meant “‘life lines’, the ones you throw into the water when somebody’s drowning or just life + line?”
The truth is I meant both meanings, but even I didn’t realize that was the case until my translator asked about it. She needed to know which of those two meanings I meant in order to accurately translate the text.
Unlike most readers, translators are forced to care about every word and comma. They really read what is in front of them. They press me to explain what I fully meant by every image or dialogue line. Is it a common Hebrew metaphor? Is it an American figure of speech? Did I just invent that image on my own? Could this or that line be a combination of a common metaphor and invention? I myself translate fiction, so I understand exactly how translating forces you to engage with a text in a way merely reading it never does.
I wrote my book in English, but when I wrote it I was often translating from Hebrew in my head. English was an accident, but not, I think, a bad accident.