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Review of a Translation LiveZine in SoHo Gallery in Tel Aviv

May 27, 2005

Culture as an encrypted code A Translation LiveZine in SoHo Gallery Reviewed By Erez Schatz

This is a review of a LiveZine I've witnessed on in SoHo Gallery on the 15th of May. The event was arranged by the General Union of Israeli Writers.

The LiveZine, titled “Translation: Art or Technique?” which was edited by Zissy Stavi, dealt less with the fine points of translation and was actually about translation from “Exotic” languages, meaning languages other than English, French, Spanish or German. This being a “LiveZine” rather than panel or discussion, the format included guests stepping up to a quick interrogation with the host, spieling their craft, then escaping while they still can. The Host was Emmanuel Halperin. As expected, there was several mentions of France and French poets, but, to my surprise, not that much, and it did serve to spice up the conversation with something he was most comfortable with. Halperin is known to be an intellectual, but early on it appeared that he was wearing the appearance of the Layman. He began by referring to translation as a “Sisyphean task” and also wondered why translators practice such an unrewarding occupation. This helped enrage the front line of the crowd who later turned out to be the interviewees in the LiveZine. This tactic was maintained by Halperin throughout the discussions, as he kept asking simple questions feigning ignorance, while keeping the actual cards of knowledge and intellectualism close to his chest.

The evening began with a series of technical faults, including the postponement of the musical entree to after the break and also a couple of mishaps concerning the single microphone, causing Halperin to speak loudly, fortunately this retired anchorman didn't lose his voice over those things, and maintained a cheerful attire, which, as one of the participants commented, helped making the whole affair a pleasant one.

As I mentioned earlier, there was nothing in the title, or the original presentation to hint the actual content of the actual theme of the evening, and the same could be said regarding the first guest, Dr. Nitza Ben-Ari, who spoke of several articles she published about 30 years ago dealing with what she called “translationism” (Targoomit), a language crafted especially for translations, whether from the need to “educate” the public, the problem of applying proper register to the text, etc. She addressed the situation today, saying that while the dominant trend of late was to “transpose” the originals into Hebrew, today she can see a more artistic trend allowing more creative freedoms in translation. From what I understood, she felt it was similar to the 70's translationism, only done in the name of artistic freedom. She then went to speak highly of a translation that suffered from those exact illness, enforcing my opinion of the matter, which is that in art, the end does justify the means at times.

She was followed by Sabina Meseg who just published a compilation of poems by Olab Hauge, a Norwegian poet, who combined his love for nature (in a very Kosinkian way, he was a gardener prior to first publishing his poems) with his deep love for his country. She then explained, quite thoroughly, the long journey she made towards understanding his poems. She also narrated the story of Ana Ami-Swendel, her “literature editor” whose transposition of the poems from Norwegian served as the base for Sabina Meseg's translations. This raised one question which the discussions rarely touched, which was the whole concept of sub-culture, and cultural references. Most of the guests focused on how they originally accessed the language in question, and whether it could be transposed due to differences of structure, syntax, etc. Another odd theme was how much of the text could be translated in percents, which I found irrelevant. A saving grace to this was the idea that poems would be read in the original language, and in the translated form. This slightly assisted in appreciating the effort the translators did in preserving the original rhythm, structure and meter of the poems, even when the original language was quite alien to Hebrew. However, the amount of precision in translating the right meter and rhymes becomes a moot point once the fine cultural nuances are lost.

The next guest (name eludes me) who translated Kirkegaard and also recently published a translation of Danish poems. She seemed set on detailing what she called the “Via Dolorosa” she went through to be able to translate those works. Halperin's ability as an interviewer allowed him to stop her in due time, and also helped disguise the communal sigh of relief that came from the audience. She then turned into reciting some paragraphs from her translation of Kirkegaard's Piazza or his “Either or” book. Her translation, I have to admit, was quite appealing, and seemed to grasp the philosopher's spirit of writing. There was a side debate whether her use of “melancholia” in the translation was appropriate, again, a moot issue, as the Danish text includes the same word, which is neither Danish, nor Hebrew.

Once she finished her part, Halperin unleashed his wrath over the Dutch language, which was the cue for another switch of guests, this time Dr. Ran HaCohen, who spoke of his recently published (anyone guessing a theme here, stop guessing. This free event did allow all the participants a stage in which to promote their recently published work.) While Dr. HaCohen did try to speak of the author and her language, he kept heading into a brick wall as every mentioning of the terms “Dutch” and “language” sprung Halperin into another series of jokes regarding the overall quality of the Dutch and Flemish dialects.

This was followed by an interesting cross issue was raised of an Israeli poet whose poems were translated into Norwegian. While the poet elaborated on the special connection that was formed between him and the Norwegian translator, it was revealed that the Norwegian based his work on the English translation. While the translation did manage to grasp the meter and rhythm of the poems (as a recitation in both languages clearly showed) I couldn't help wondering how much of the actual spirit was retained, especially since the poem is a religious man who writes about the private and general with a religious, spiritual view, elements that are hard to translate across cultures, especially when written by a Hebrew speaking Jew and translated from English by a Christian Norwegian.

We then went on a short break, which included a musical interlude by a quartet of students from Thelma Yellin High School of the Arts. The students, led by an oboe playing teacher, played a quartet for strings and oboe by Mozart (which filled me with unspoken joy) following an arrangement of two Israeli songs, which were a bit out of place (I seriously doubt Neomi Shemer had an oboe quartet in mind when writing her songs).

After the musical interlude, came the next guest, Dan Daor, who was supposed to be speaking of his recent translations of Chinese poems. This almost didn't happen, as Halperin's Layman attitude backfired at him, and the friendly bickering from his side caused a very upset reaction from Daor's side. Sadly, though cause for an instance some real topic rose from the discussion. Daor claimed that he was translating poems written in ancient Chinese, a dialect not fluent among contemporary Chinese, so, according to him, the experience of reading his translations, along with side comments and notes is similar to the experience of a contemporary Chinese reader, which, by his standards means that he managed to reach a near 100% of accuracy in his attempt to bridge over the experience gap. Again, I believe this entirely misses the point, since a Chinese writer would be closer to a Chinese reader, culture and historical wise, than to a Hebrew reader. It's hard to me even to think that I am able to experience a Chinese poem, notes and comments included, in the same way a Chinese reader would. I believe many Israeli businessmen who deal with Chinese could testify to the huge gaps of culture between us and the Chinese, gaps that couldn't be bridged over by mere notes and comments, however good they are.

This important issue was not entirely addressed by the next speaker, Professor Ben-Ami Shiloni, who spoke of his Haiku translations. His spiel was quite interesting, as he commented on the similarity of the highly structured Hebrew and Japanese, with the surprising example of Shema Israel, the well known Jewish prayer which has exactly 5-7-5 syllables: the famous Haiku meter! This make Hebrew a more suitable language for Haiku translations than English. He also commented that the meter was not strictly kept, and so a translation does not have to be made in such a manner. Prof Shiloni then spoke of the difficulties in translated the ambiguity of the Japanese language, referring in passing to the cultural nature of this ambiguity, as the Japanese tend to shy from directly addressing emotions, feelings, opinions, even each other, a matter heavily reflected in their language which could be interpreted mostly on context, allowing for a rich metaphoric ground for poets and writers. Another key issue was passed by when he read several translations of Haiku to Hebrew, to which Halperin commented that he has a hard time referring to those as poems. This is partly due to the translations losing many layers of meaning hidden in the ambiguity of the Japanese language, but also to the fact that try as we may, common western readers do not have the cultural affinity to this method of poetry. The translator could perform miracles in his work, but the end result, to a common western reader, would still be cryptic, nearly telegraphic in structure, and not inherently pleasing. In other words, we have no means of aesthetically appreciating Haiku anymore than we could aesthetically appreciate Morse code. His reading of the Haiku, in both languages, was quite pleasing.

The next interview was slightly rushed by Halperin, due to the late hour, and thus focused more on the juicy details of how he got his hands on poems in Portuguese written by a minister of one of the more oppressed African nations (Zimbabwe, I think).

The evening drew to a close, and only then, as parting notes, Emanuel Halperin revealed that he also erred in translation of some French poems, finally showing his true face as a co-conspirator to all those he interrogated so ferociously earlier on.

The SoHo Design Gallery resides in the top level of the Disengoff Centre, Tel Aviv. More information regarding the future events of the General Union of Israeli Writers and the gallery could be found here: