‘A Translator is First and Foremost a Reader’

An interview with Jessica Cohen, who was awarded, together with David Grossman, the 2017 Man Booker International Prize for her translation of his book "A Horse Walks into a Bar."

Translators, it’s fair to say, often draw the short straw. Most of the time, they suffer from the anonymity of their profession; when they are noticed, it’s either to be damned by the faint praise of having done a competent job or, worse, to stand accused of taking liberties with a classic. (Joseph Brodsky, complaining about Constance Garnett’s work with the Russian classics: “The reason English-speaking readers can barely tell the difference between Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky is that they aren’t reading the prose of either one. They’re reading Constance Garnett.”). As a translator fulfils a role that exceeds the abilities of most people – translating words and ideas, not just from one language to another but from one cultural sensibility to another – perhaps one shouldn’t be surprised that their work is often underappreciated or (ironically, perhaps) misunderstood.

In this sense Jessica Cohen is one of a rare breed, a translator acknowledged by peers, authors and the reading public as a translator who combines subtlety, wit, and a sharply honed knowledge of her milieu to excellent effect in her translations, principally of Israeli fiction, from Hebrew to English.

Born in Colchester, England, Cohen immigrated to Israel at the age of seven, and grew up in Jerusalem. After studying English Literature at the Hebrew University, she moved to the United States, where she now spends most of the year. Her translations include major works by Ronit Matalon, Tom Segev, Rutu Modan, Nir Baram and David Grossman. With the last, she was jointly awarded the Man Booker International Prize in 2017 for her translation of his book A Horse Walks into a Bar. (She donated half her share of the prize to B’Tselem, an Israeli organisation that documents human rights violations in the Occupied Territories.)

On a humid morning last summer, Cohen and I met for breakfast in a café in central Tel Aviv. Amongst other things, we discussed the place of translation in the machine age; striking a balance between creative and commercial imperatives in translation and the publishing world; the role of a translator as a gatekeeper; and, to whom does the translator owe the greatest allegiance – to the reader, the publisher, the author or, indeed, to one’s own creative instincts? This is a condensed and edited version of our conversation.

Akin Ajayi


Akin Ajayi: We live in a machine age, one in which it is increasingly argued that humans and the human touch are dispensable. With this in mind, I wondered if you could describe, in very general terms, what it is that a translator does?

Jessica Cohen: First of all, a translator reads. I’ve been told by a number of authors I’ve worked with that I’ve given them the closest read that their work has ever received, and picked up on things that not even the editor, whose job it is to catch these things, caught. A translator reads. I always read a book before I agree to translate it, one quick read. And then, when I actually sit down to begin work on it, months or even a couple of years later, I start to see things I didn’t see in the first read. Good and bad. If there are any flaws in the prose, that’s when I see them. Or… really sophisticated and clever things. It’s like examining the text under surgical lighting. Nothing can escape the eye of a translator once they are sitting down with the text this way. So really, translation is getting into the… every last tendon and tissue of the text.

AA: Deconstruction and reconstruction.

JC: Yes.

AA: Is it analytical or is it more… critical?

JC: I’m not sure it’s either. I don’t think I would use those words. Well, analytical, yes, but not in a conscious way. It’s not a process I can necessarily put into words, it’s more an alchemical sort of process… you know, something goes in one ear in Hebrew, and comes out of the other in English, and I’m not exactly sure what happens in my brain in the middle of that. [Laughter]

I do think this is one reason why machines will never quite succeed in replacing human translators. Not for literature, at least. There’s an aspect of literary translation that addresses the musicality of the text, the emotion that words don’t explicitly convey, the things between or beneath the words that I can’t envision a machine ever being able to pick up. It is hard to describe, because it is about hearing… about hearing the text, perhaps more than just understanding it.

AA: That’s interesting. Transtromer’s [Tomas Transtromer, Swedish poet, Nobel Prize for Literature laureate 2011] translator says something similar. He doesn’t speak Swedish; he says that his wife makes a rough translation of the work, and then they work together on the musicality, the tone…

JC: Yes, there are many examples in poetry of translators who don’t speak the original language, and there are lots of really excellent translations in poetry that use that method. But I don’t think it can work in prose. In my case, at least, this is at least in part because I am an almost true bilingual and true bicultural. English is my dominant language in the sense that it is the language I am most eloquent writing in, but the two languages are almost balanced in my mind. And that’s what I need in order to translate well. That’s why I translate, I think, to be able to live in these two parts of my brain. So the thought of translating something I don’t have a good intuitive grasp of… it’s just strange to me.

AA: Beyond the words, what is it that a translator tries to capture in this process of transmuting a text from one language to another?

JC: Well… this is going to sound a bit vague… It is whatever it is that a good writer conveys that is beyond words. That’s what the translation should capture. It’s emotion… it’s something evocative. I think a good writer knows how to put together words and sentences in a way that has a heavier weight than the words themselves. That’s what the translator is trying to capture. This abstract, nebulous thing that a writer is able to produce… that’s what I’m trying to carry over in my translations.

AA: I don’t think that’s a vague answer at all. When I used to review books, one of the things that the review tries to do is to say, “why does this book work?” And one can’t always give a diagrammatic or schematic explanation. It is more about the sense that the work evokes…what it conjures up

JC: Like why is a Madeleine more than a Madeleine… even if you’ve never had one as a child and you grew up eating… Hobnobs.

AA: I quite like Hobnobs!

JC: Me too! But yes, there’s something there, there’s a reason why that has become such a trope of what a text can convey, that isn’t in the words.

AA: What premium should a translator place on invisibility?

JC: This notion of the invisibility of the translator, I don’t really buy it. I just don’t think that it is at all possible. I said before that mostly what a translator does is read, but the other half of that is to write. I increasingly consider myself a writer in this sense. I write books that someone else has done the hard work for… someone else has thought out the plot and characters and has struggled to make sense of all that. Then I get to rewrite it in my own language. So, inasmuch as it’s ridiculous to say that the writer isn’t present in what they write, I don’t think the translator can be invisible either. As a reader, I bring my own memories and sentiments and associations and psyche into whatever I read, just like you do. Just like any other reader does. And we all get different things out of the same text because we bring our own…[sensibilities,] our own sense of [things]. And that’s what I’m carrying into my translations. So, of course, I do think that a good translator will have the author’s voice coming through, because that is the most important thing. But we can’t be invisible. And I’m not sure we should be, either. There is a lot of creativity that goes into a translated book, and there is a lot of us, as translators. And I think this should be recognized and appreciated.

The question is, I think, does this translated book create the same emotional impact on the reader? Does it entertain or inform in the same way as the original?

AA: A very angry translator wrote me once, to complain about my crediting their work in a review of a book they had translated from Hebrew. After working very hard on a book written in very idiomatic Hebrew, the publishers had smoothened out a lot of the work. The translator was terribly unhappy about this, and asked for their name to be removed from the book. Now, of course, most readers don’t have the luxury of looking behind the scenes, as it were, comparing versions. But it did make me wonder. What tools can a reader use to appreciate the craft, the nuance and effect of a translation?

JC: That’s a good question, one that translators often discuss particularly in the context of book reviews. Should a reviewer, at least, know the original language? Now, of course, this is just not feasible. But if this were to be the case, what might this knowledge add? I’m not sure that I have a clear answer. If one does know the original language and compares the two texts, one will always find “flaws.” Things that could have been different, could have been “better”…

AA: To some degree, it’s very subjective.

JC: Yes, yes. And that’s the nature of it. Working with a long text, different people make different choices, and indeed sometimes there are actual errors… But that’s not the point of translation. That’s not the point of evaluating a translation. The question is, I think, does this translated book create the same emotional impact on the reader? Does it entertain or inform in the same way as the original? That’s what I keep in mind when I’m translating. Am I giving the English reader as close as possible the same experience as the Hebrew reader? And it is enormously complicated, because of the culture and all the other things one has to carry over.

But I guess that what one should look for in a translation is… is this book… well, if I read this book without knowing that it was a translation, would I think that it is a good book? A good reader can evaluate the text as an English text: “Do I like that? Do I not?” As simple as that.

AA: What concepts are particularly hard to translate? To put it in a more specific sense: a while ago, I read Waking Lions by Ayelet Gundar Goshen. Part of the book is set in Omer [an affluent town in southern Israel], which I know reasonably well. And it got me thinking, because even the very setting would have been chosen to convey…a sense of place and time, which can be very hard to translate across just in words. I wondered if there are techniques, a means of trying to convey something that is bigger than words, but nonetheless…

JC: Names of place, celebrities, politicians, whatever. The local culture, the things that a local reader automatically knows and recognizes. These are really difficult. I don’t have a philosophy, a principle for dealing with these. It really depends on the context. What else is going on in that sentence, that paragraph? There’s a term, “stealth glossing,” coined by Jason Grunebaum, who translates from Hindi to English. The cultural differences that he deals with are enormous. So…you stealthily find a way to work in some explication without making it obvious. But you can’t always do that. Not with dialogue, almost never, because people don’t speak like that. But one can with narrative. Sometimes one tries to work in an explanation across the text as a whole. And sometimes, if it is minor, or not essential to the plot, one consults with the author and considers dropping it altogether. But the one thing I never do…no, that’s not true, that I hardly ever do [laughs] is to transpose the new culture with its local equivalent. (Like finding a replacement for American pie.) That always rings false to me. I don’t think we should be creating this illusion that this Israeli book now takes place in New York… Although there are cases when it seems like just the right solution…

AA: Could you give me an example, perhaps?

JC: I’ve done it with pop songs, especially if they are used as a stand-in for a certain era. If the writer is trying to get across, like, “This must be 1973, because…” So, if it’s an Israeli song that’s not going to mean anything to anyone, then I might use an American song of the same sort of type – folky or poppy or whatever. I had to think about this in David Grossman’s A Horse Walked into a Bar. The main character is a stand-up comedian, and he is reminiscing about his parents, and he describes how his father never touched his mother, never even gave her a little pat on the behind like a “סיבוב של פיתה בחומוס”  [literally, “a twist [or spin] of pitta in hummus.”] Any Israeli reading this would immediately get it [JC and AA, in unison, mimic the action of scooping up hummus with pita, Levant-style]. Now, Americans do eat a lot of “Huh-muhs,” as they call it, but they don’t [dips and scoops at an imaginary plate of hummus]. They spread it on a little triangle of pitta. So, after a lot of thought, and almost dropping it altogether, I ended up with a “shmear.” You know, Jewish Americans in particular would know what a shmear of cream cheese on a bagel is, and lots of Americans in general use the word “shmear.”

AA: It has the same evocative, tactile quality…

JC: I do really try to avoid equating Israeli humor with Jewish-American humor, because they are not at all the same thing. But in this case, it just felt right to use this term, because it got across the same meaning…

AA: Because you’re Israeli you know Israeli culture intimately, but you’ve also lived in America for a very long time, and you can recognize and acknowledge the distinctions between Jewish American and Israeli sensibilities. Non-Jews and non-Israelis may not, probably would not at least part of the time. Is this an issue you must negotiate when translating a book which is very likely, at the very least, to be picked up by a large Jewish-American readership?

JC: Yes, it is tricky. Obviously, in a perfect world, this wouldn’t be an issue. After all, if I’m translating a book and I think it has literary merit, then I would like all sorts of people to read it. But the reality is that publishers have to find a niche when marketing the book. Most readers of translated Israeli fiction are Jewish, although by no means all. And it is hard to avoid the thought that this is the primary audience for most Israeli books. That said, I still don’t think it is right to take that position, especially since, as we’ve said, the Israeli and Jewish American sensibilities are not at all the same. Take things that a Jewish American could be expected to know, but a non-Jew probably wouldn’t. I have to decide …do I put in the effort, and possibly make the text clumsy, by explaining what this means. Something like Kaddish, for instance. The most religious-y terms that Jews are going to know and non-Jews are almost certainly not going to know. It doesn’t seem right to leave in a lot of those things that only one specific audience is going to recognize.

AA: If a writer is writing in English, and uses the word “Kaddish,” then even if the audience won’t understand the word itself, one can structure the text in such a way as to allow the meaning to emerge from the context. The translator doesn’t necessarily have this luxury, I suppose, given that the translator is working with an authorial choice that would have been quite legitimate in the original language.

JC: The classic dichotomy in translation theory is between “foreignizing” and “domesticating.” Very briefly, this means, do I want everything in this text to sound familiar and unchallenging, to make the reader’s life easy…

AA: That’s domesticating.

JC: Yes. With foreignizing, one retains elements that may sound foreign, or may not be easily understood. The truth is, though, that practicing translators don’t really get that worked up about it, because they just do their job. [Laughs]

There are theoreticians of translation who feel very strongly about it, and write whole books about this. But they are almost never practicing translators. I fall somewhere in between, and I think every translator does. I lean a bit towards foreignizing, in the sense that I don’t see a big problem with leaving the occasional term that most readers may not immediately understand. I don’t think my job is to make the reader’s life easy, not necessarily.

AA: As a translator, who do you feel most closely aligned to? The author, the hypothetical reader, or the publisher?

JC: Not the publisher.

AA: Why not?

JC: [Pause] Let me think about it, because no one’s ever given that as one of the options.

AA: I’ll be a bit clearer. Much as I would like to believe that the act of commissioning a book to be translated is based on the intrinsic merit of the book itself, the bottom line would be the potential profitability. In that sense, the publisher has a vested interest in the work being… market-ready. I was thinking about this specifically in relation to your translation of Yael Hedaya’s Eden, where a significant chunk of the original was cut from the English translation.

JC: OK. So now, I’ll give you a much more complicated answer. Yael is a fantastic writer. I love her. Her books are very long, and are even longer in English because of the “expansion” rate [a translation from Hebrew to English increases in length by between 20 or 30 percent]. So yes, I guess it is silly to claim that this is not a consideration, that if a book is too long or too difficult it may never get published or translated. But it isn’t my consideration when I sit down to work. I’ll give you a recent example. I’ve just finished translating Stockholm by Noa Yedlin. It’s a pretty long book, and it’s going to be even longer in English. And when she first came to me, I told her that it’ll be an uphill struggle for a writer not known outside Israel to get this book out in translation. So she decided to go back to her editor, and they did quite a lot of work on it. They didn’t just cut out a section, they went through the whole thing.

But increasingly, there isn’t a publisher when I start working on a book. It has become really difficult to sell Israeli fiction to publishers in the States and in England, and more of them want to see the entire manuscript before they’ll even consider it, which means that an author has to come up with the money upfront. This isn’t easy. So if I’m translating, I can’t have a specific publisher and their specific desires in mind, because there isn’t a publisher.

AA: That’s quite a leap of faith on her part. Delicate question. What does a translation cost?

JC: It depends, mostly on the length. It will be several thousand dollars, and for a really long book, it could be up to twenty-something thousand…it’s a lot of money, you know, for an author. Author’s aren’t known for making money [wry smile]. It is a really big investment, for sure.

AA: Going back to the question of loyalties, now we’ve put the publisher dynamics to one side. The author or the audience, who do you align yourself with more closely?

JC: So, I’m going to tell you something I heard a while ago from a colleague of mine, and I’ve been quoting her ever since… And again, I am avoiding answering your question [Laughter]. Her name is Sophie Hughes, and she translates from Spanish to English. At an event in London, someone asked her the same question, and she said, “I’m faithful to English, to the English language.” And I just love that. That’s how it should be, right? I am trying to write something in English using the amazing… flexibility and capacity of the language, to express the original, the creation of a beautiful work in English. That is what I think my job is.

AA: Is there something desirable about an author having the opportunity to work consistently with the one translator?

JC: From the author’s perspective… I haven’t really discussed this with authors before, but I would imagine that once they find a translator who they feel they have a good rapport with, and whom they trust – “This is it, this person [translator] gets me” – I would imagine that they would want to stick with that translator.

AA: Like Amos Oz and Nicholas de Lange. Or David Grossman…

JC: So, with David Grossman. He has actually had a few different translators, and I don’t recall the history of why, and whose decision that may have been. But… I can say with all modesty that my sense is that he is comfortable with the work I am doing, and that he is probably going to stick with me for as long as he keeps working. I certainly would hope so. With the trust in particular… a translator may be great, but not right for a particular author. I’m sure a different translator could have taken any of the books that I have translated, and would have done an equally fine job, but it will be different. Not hierarchically so, just different. They may hear different things. Like I said before, we all bring our own cargo to our reading of a book.

AA: A different consciousness.

JC: Yeah…

AA: Fiction versus non-fiction. Your work is predominantly, but not universally, fiction. You’ve also translated Tom Segev, and…

JC: I’ve also done one non-fiction book with Nir Baram, and the new non-fiction book by Amos Oz…

AA: Do you have a preference?

JC: On the whole I prefer fiction. I feel that I can be more creative. I certainly enjoy fiction more, but I like the balance of what I do now, mainly fiction peppered with the occasional non-fiction, because I feel it gives my brain…well, not a break, because it is also difficult in its own way. I like switching modes once in a while, because fiction and non-fiction are different ways of working. I know this sounds ironic, but I think a translator of non-fiction can take more liberties in some ways. In non-fiction, there is a clear goal – to get across this information in a clear way. Although, of course, some non-fiction is more literary, personal, and there you are treading a finer line…

AA: I see.

JC: I’ve talked about this with my colleague Haim Watzman, he’s one of the best translators of Hebrew non-fiction into English. He would very often go to an author and say, “Look, I see what you are trying to do here, but it won’t work in English, I suggest doing this instead…” He does a lot of editorial work for the English-speaking market, and has a strong grasp of the conventions. He’ll say, “Here’s how I think you should be telling the story…” And because he is so good at what he does, the authors trust him.

AA: Is there ever a sense that you will be overstepping your role as a translator by advising the author to… well, what would entail an active restructuring of parts of… the presentation of parts of the book in order to fit the sensibilities of the anticipated audience?

JC: I’ve definitely evolved in that sense. When I started translating, I had a huge sense of reverence towards the author and the text, and it wouldn’t have occurred to me to suggest an alternative. As I’ve gained more experience and confidence, I do increasingly step over the boundary [laughs]. It’s not adversarial, at all, there have never been arguments, but there have been cases in the last few years where I’ve been insistent. With Noa Yedlin, for example. Her language is very colloquial, and she doesn’t use quotation marks, so her dialogue is integrated within the narrative text. I feel pretty strongly that this doesn’t work in English and so… I won’t say we argued, but we had lengthy discussions. I translated the same paragraph two different ways. And she showed it to some readers she trusts and… and I won.

AA: Translator 1, Author 0.


At an event in London, someone asked a colleague of mine whether she felt more faithful to the reader or the author, and she said, “I’m faithful to English, to the English language.” And I just love that. That’s how it should be, right?

AA: In a general sense – not necessarily about you – is there a danger of an author becoming too dependent on a translator?

JC: I’ve never thought about that. I guess it…  depends on how… on what you mean by that. So, could it be that Author X is consistently represented by Translator Y in this language… and this is therefore their voice in that language? Yeah! There are cases of that. Is it a bad thing? Not necessarily…

AA: I was thinking a bit further than that. An author has to rely on the judgement of the translator, especially if the author isn’t comfortable in the language of translation. In the terms that her work, as an author, is presented. In that context, in the most benign circumstances, it is a symbiotic relationship. But there is a danger, a possibility – and of course, this would be inadvertent – of the translator not consciously acknowledging that certain aspects of the way the author’s work is presented have been, in a sense, outsourced to the translator. And thus they superimpose their own interpretations, their own sensibilities, their own feelings… serving as a gatekeeper of sorts between the author and the audience?

JC: There is that risk, definitely. If I take David Grossman, for example, because he is the author with whom I have worked most frequently. Like many great writers, he is always trying to get to the same issues. Whilst his books are very different, fundamentally they are all exploring the same themes. And so, often I see a Grossman… hallmark, I suppose, in his writing, and there is the temptation for me to think “oh yeah, I know…” maybe without fully reading what he is actually saying, what the nuances are. I hope I don’t do this, but there is the risk. Particularly with speeches and op-ed pieces and political things, which I translate for him from time to time. Where again, he brings up a lot of these issues, the things he believes in, and talks about them. And there is the temptation for me, first of all, to put my own politics to the fore… He and I have sometimes disagreed on these things, and I have tried to nudge him in a particular direction. Yeah, you get to know someone, or at least you have the illusion of getting to know someone really well through their writing, when you read a writer as closely and as frequently as I do. And it can create the illusion that I do understand how his mind works and… I suppose that does create the risk of not fully… not making sure that this is what he is actually saying right now.

AA: Let’s talk about you and your development as a translator. Your family immigrated to Israel when you were seven.

JC: Yes.

AA: Did you grow up in a bilingual household, or in a bilingual world? The distinction I mean is that in a bilingual household, you grew up speaking both languages at home, but in a bilingual world, you grew up speaking one language with the outside world and a different language at home.

JC: Up until seven, it was monolingual, entirely. My parents were originally South African, and they moved to England which is where my sister and I were born. It was all English, and very little Jewish content in our lives. Then we moved to Israel with only very rudimentary Hebrew. My parents had learnt a little as Jewish kids in South Africa, through youth movements, but it was not really… functional. I probably learnt fastest and best, because I was the youngest. So we always spoke English at home. I read English at home, I did my best to get out of ever reading anything in Hebrew, even in school. In Hebrew literature class, if we were studying books that had been translated into English then I’d read them in English. Which was a huge mistake, looking back [laughter]. So English at home, Hebrew everywhere else.

AA: Was your family part of the Israeli milieu, or of the “Anglo” community, English-speaking migrants to Israel?

JC: My family’s social circle was very Anglo. Not exclusively, though. My mother, in particular, did have Israeli friends. But most of the people my parents socialized with, that were in and out of our home, were Anglos. And I grew up in (Jerusalem’s) German Colony, a neighbourhood with a lot of Anglos. But for me, personally, all my friends were Israelis.

AA: In terms of culture, did you serve as a sort of translator for your parents, between worlds?

JC: Yeah, I did, especially with my dad. His Hebrew never was… great.

AA: Your father was a sociologist [an eminent sociologist and criminologist, Prof. Stanley Cohen was best known for his theory of “moral panic” regarding perceptions of juvenile delinquency], he had a professional interest in studying the rules that people use to interact with one another. At an early stage in your life, you moved from a very defined world to another very defined world. I’m wondering how this, and the influences of your home life might have contributed to the development of your sensibilities as a translator. How, as a child, you negotiated the differences between two markedly different worlds.

JC: I think it’s more related to my father’s biography. From what I know, it almost feels as though he had some sort of genetic inclination towards being an outsider. Moving around… never being fully at home in one culture. That’s something both my parents experienced, but particularly my father, more than my mother, even though their biographies were almost identical. My father talked a lot more about feeling like an outsider, being aware of being different because he was Jewish… then they moved to England, which again wasn’t their culture. They did come to feel very at home there, but not entirely. And I seem to have continued that tradition. When I was five, and again at 14, we lived in California [while my father was on sabbatical] and both times I was “the foreign kid.” That outsider experience is part of who I am, and a part of who they were.

My father did start off as a sociologist, and moved to specializing in criminology, but most of his later career was devoted to human rights issues. I think that had more of an impact on me growing up, the awareness of other populations, of individuals and populations being wronged, being treated unjustly by society, by the state. He wrote a book about it, States of Denial, about how a society is complicit in ignoring what is being done in its name. So that sort of political consciousness was definitely part of my upbringing.

A lot of authors have talked about literature as a way to try to understand the other, right? To understand people who are very different from us, and that writing is a way of trying to step into their shoes. This is something that I think I absorbed, this idea, simply put, of empathy, of trying to have empathy for someone who is different from you. That was a part of my upbringing. Maybe that plays into what I do now…

AA: Translation is an effort – at a remove, but nonetheless important – of presenting the point of view of another. Your mother was an artist [the potter Ruth Cohen]. Did you take on any of her sensibilities, in terms of her interest in the wider world, growing up?

JC: Artistic, you mean? Yeah, I have always…

AA: Interpretive sensibilities…

JC: I would like to think that what I do is… you know, it’s a craft but it’s also an art. Maybe somehow, something of the artistic sensibility, creativity, trickled down.

Translators are always coming up with metaphors for the work of translators. For example, translators as a bridge, or as the adoptive parent of someone else’s child. And I was thinking a while ago about, when I was a kid, I used to go to my mom’s studio after school and watch her. Before she started to make a pot, she would take a lump of clay and work it… knead it, to bring it to the right temperature, to have the right amount of moisture, the right amount of air. Back then, it seemed like a tedious, long process. But now, when I think of watching her do it, it was also kind of meditative, in the sense that I can imagine thinking about what this lump of clay was going to be turned into, eventually. I’ve been thinking about translation as something like that. The way I translate, the first draft is very rough, I do it as quickly as I can, with lots of question marks and queries across the text. Then I set the original aside, and I take the draft as my raw material, my lump of clay, that I have kneaded, and then I start to make something out of it.

AA: Sounds like a very effective metaphor.

In the context of your formative experiences, across several countries and long periods of time… do you feel an outsider in Israel?

JC: [Pause]. Yeah. I mean, the short answer is yes.

AA: OK. And the long answer?

JC: I think that there were… settings in which I felt at home.

AA: I may be being really nosy. Do say if I’m being too intrusive…

JC: It’s OK, I don’t mind… I think my experiences trained me to be a good chameleon, a good actress. I didn’t like to stand out as a child. Even before my Hebrew was very good, my accent was perfect. I didn’t want to sound different, and I didn’t want to look different. As a child, it was really important for me to dress the same way and not have the appearance of an outsider. And I think that, because I did such a good job of it, of creating this illusion, I didn’t fully come to terms with the fact that I actually was an outsider. I wasn’t fully being myself. It was more important for me to be like everyone else.

AA: A sort of compartmentalization.

JC: I think it was always clear to me, and to everyone else here, that I wasn’t fully from here. I remember a number of political arguments that would get very heated. And in the end, someone would say ׳את לא יכולה להבין, את לא מפה׳  [You can’t understand, you’re not from here]. That was always something that people would pull out. Which, in a country of immigrants, is such a ridiculous notion. ׳אף אחד לא מפה׳ (No one is from here].

Pigeonholing is a very Israeli thing. My mother had cancer, and when she was going through chemotherapy she lost her hair, and would occasionally wear a sort of headscarf when she went out. And I remember her saying that on days like that, she would walk in the neighborhood, down the streets she had walked for twenty years, and people she knew would walk straight past her. It wasn’t that the headscarf made her look any different, but you’re in Jerusalem. A woman wearing a headscarf is observant, religious. That’s not someone who could possibly be in the same world [as the world that they identified with].

The way I translate, the first draft is very rough, I do it as quickly as I can, with lots of question marks and queries across the text. Then I set the original aside, and I take the draft as my raw material, my lump of clay, that I have kneaded, and then I start to make something out of it.

AA: You studied English Literature at university. In as much as most people… let’s go back a moment. Did you serve in the army?

JC: I did not. I was a conscientious objector.

AA: Did you do National Service instead?

JC: I tried to do National Service. After I got my exemption from army service, which was a long and involved process, I contacted the National Service administration. And they said that if I wanted to do National Service, I would… well, it was only for religiously observant girls, and that I would have to sign a declaration that I would live a religious lifestyle. I was appalled by this. I was like “No! I’m not going to do that because it would be dishonest and… are you seriously telling me that you are rejecting someone who is volunteering two years of her life because she is not religious?” But that was the case.

AA: So did you take… sort of multiple gap years, or go straight to university?

JC: I took time off. I… sort of wanted to be at the same point as my peers were, I didn’t want to be an 18-year-old university student. So I worked in a record shop, back when they were still called record shops. Then round about the time that a lot of my friends went off to university, I did that too.

AA: Why literature. Hebrew literature?

JC: English literature. Initially, I was going to do Philosophy, and while I was working, I did a couple of Open University courses and… I dunno. I guess it was just too abstract. English literature? Well, I’ve always enjoyed reading, I enjoyed literature… The truth is, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, and that just seemed like something that would be interesting, and fun. Yeah, I don’t have a more profound reason [laughs].

AA: When did you begin to consider translation as something you might want to do, something you might want to build a life around?

JC: At university, I did some translation jobs, mostly translating from English to Hebrew, actually. For students who needed to read material that was only available in English, sometimes for professors doing research. But I really just viewed it as a way to make a bit of money, not at all then as a career…

AA: Career or vocation.

JC: [Long pause]. At the time, neither. Now… well, now it is both, I suppose. Then we moved to the States, and once I got my work visa, I went to a temping agency. I still didn’t have any idea what I wanted to do. And they asked, “do you speak any foreign languages?” We were in Seattle at the time, and it turned out Microsoft were looking for Hebrew speakers. So that was the first time I did translation work as work. It was very technical, but I learnt a lot. Then after about six months, we moved away [to Indiana] because my husband got into a PhD program. There was nothing for me to do, I couldn’t find a job, so I started a freelance translation business. Mostly technical and legal stuff. And then I started translating literature. The first things I translated were short stories by Etgar Keret. He wasn’t well known in Israel at the time, just a little, and wasn’t known outside Israel at all. I just loved his stories, and I thought “it would be cool if English-speaking people could read it…” and I just did for fun, basically.

AA: Did you have an audience in mind?

JC: Not really. Friends who didn’t speak Hebrew, to whom I wanted to say “oh, you should read this, it’s really cool.” And then I met Breon Mitchell [a noted translator of German literature]. He was a professor of my husband’s actually. And we started meeting, informally, talking about translation. He read my stuff and encouraged me to take it more seriously, maybe submit some things. And then I got in touch with Deborah Harris [Jerusalem-based literary agent, specializing in translations from Hebrew], and she asked for some samples, and she liked them. And that was when I realized, “Oh, I can actually do this!”

AA: Did you have any formal training?

JC: After my first year in Indiana, I did decide to sign up for an MA program, in Near Eastern Languages and Cultures. And I also did a certificate in literary translation. The program was slightly moribund at the time, and they sort of resurrected it for me. It was, actually, tailor-made, because it mostly consisted of directed readings, me and Breon Mitchell meeting in a coffee shop and talking translation. There was a workshop that he put together with a group of different translators, and he added one course about theory.

AA: In a more general sense, your path to becoming a translator seems incremental, rather than directed or goal-oriented.

JC: Definitely, I think that with translators of my age and above, this is almost invariably the story. We’ve all fallen into it.

AA: You’ve lived outside Israel for quite a while. From a professional perspective, how connected do you feel to the country today? I may be wrong, but I imagine that a strong sense of place and sensibility is useful for a translator, in order to be at one’s most effective.

JC: I feel very closely connected to Israel. Things that happen here matter more to me than things that happen in the country that I live in… matter more in a deep emotional sense. In some ways, I feel like 90 percent of my social and cultural life happens here, for six weeks out of a year. I suppose it is partly because, since we come for a limited amount of time, everything is really focused while we are here, constantly seeing people and having interesting conversations and going to events and… I feel more alive, nourished, even. There is a part of me that almost wishes that I had a different career that didn’t keep me in this connection. Because it makes me so sad to see how bad things are getting here.

AA: Of course, the fact that you are outside the country, but nonetheless really connected to the country, perhaps gives you the opportunity to see things more clearly.

JC: Yes. Yes. There is something about these annual visits that operates like a glimpse. It creates a series of points on a graph. And yes, if I had lived in it all the time, I wouldn’t be as aware of it, I’m sure I wouldn’t be.

AA: A state of denial, perhaps?

JC: Which… in some ways is a human need. I mean, there are lots of things I am in denial about in the States, lots of horrendous things that go on, especially now. But I live my life, and I’m not really impacted by it unless I… consciously make the effort. Maybe there really isn’t a difference, it’s just a question of where I am inside, and where I am outside of.

AA: Let’s return to something we talked about earlier, the potential, possibility, of the translator becoming a gatekeeper. At this point in your career, do you rely entirely on commissions? Or do you have the opportunity to seek out work that you think might be fun, or interesting, or important to translate?

JC: Both. Probably most of the work I do comes to me, but there have been cases when I’ve read an author and I think “wow, this is great, I would really like to translate this.” However, I’ve failed, almost completely, to actually find publishers for those writers…

AA: Why?

JC: Probably because over the last few years it has been increasingly difficult to find publishers of translated fiction in general, Israeli in particular. I think partly because my tastes don’t seem aligned with what is popular or commercially viable.

AA: There is sometimes a gap, perhaps even at times an element of self-censorship, on the part of Israelis in terms of what they talk about in Hebrew and what they talk about in English. Does this have an impact on what is and what isn’t translated from Hebrew into English?

JC: [Pause]. This is a generalization, and it does depend on whom one asks. There does seem to be a sense, over the last few years that… on the one hand, publishers are just sort of sick of Israel in general, that it is no longer Israel’s moment, or that there are different languages vying to become the “it” language to translate from. But there is also an element of “if we are going to do something Israeli, then it needs to be political.” So, there’s less interest in a domestic drama that happens to take place in Israel. If there are no Palestinians, no “Matzav” [Israel’s existential situation], no conflict between the religious and the secular, no Holocaust… these tropes of Israeli literature. In some sense, this is a perpetuation of the idea that all Israeli writing has to be political, that the “Matzav” has to be, at the least, a very present backdrop. Which is unfortunate, because there’s a lot of other writing going on.

It is true, probably, that there are Israeli writers who won’t do public appearances abroad and say things that they may say here. But in some cases it’s for personal reasons, for safety reasons. I mean, I know writers who have had death threats for expressing leftist points of view. I completely respect their choice not to take that risk. I won’t criticize them for that.

AA: If you were in the position to commission your own translations, which Israeli writers would you be looking at the moment? And why?

JC: Nir Baram is, I think, one of the best writers of his generation. One of the most serious and thoughtful and original. There’s a writer called Tomer Gardi. He is… completely uncommercial, but absolutely brilliant. His writing is some of the most original stuff I’ve read in any language. He is funny, but also serious, and quite political. He has two books… they’re quite difficult to categorize, which is one of the reasons, I think, that he has struggled to find a publisher in English, because they simply don’t know what shelf to put him on. His work is very hybrid, meta-genre. There’s Leah Aini, who is a really fantastic and underappreciated writer. She has not been translated at all. We’ve been in touch, and I’ve done some samples, I’m trying to get her stuff out there, but haven’t succeeded yet.

AA: What are you working on now?

JC: Now, I’m working on a novella by Yair Assulin. It was published several years ago, in 2011. And again, it’s an example of something that doesn’t have a publisher yet. He was able to get a grant to cover most of the costs of translation. And then the next book I’m going to do is by Esther Peled [tentatively titled Wide Open Underneath in English]. Even though this book won the Sapir Prize, Israel’s most prestigious literary award, we do not currently have a publisher or an agent. The prize comes with money for the translation, but it’s something of a gamble.

AA: It’s an act of faith.

JC: Yes.

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