Guide to the Land of Oz
By BENJAMIN POLLAK
Nicholas de Lange and Amos Oz first met almost 40 years
ago. At the time, de Lange was a graduate student at Oxford, where Oz was
spending the year as a visiting fellow. Since then, de Lange has translated
over a dozen works of fiction and prose by Oz, as well as works by A. B.
Yehoshua, S. Yizhar, and others. Most recently, de Lange has finished a
translation of Ozís novel Rhyming Life and Death.
In addition to his impressive translation rťsumť, de Lange is a historian and a
rabbi. He is a professor of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at the University of
Cambridge, and is the author of numerous scholarly works, including the books Atlas
of the Jewish World (1984), Judaism (1986), and An Introduction
to Judaism (2000). de Lange spoke to me by phone from Cambridge University
recently. We talked about the translatorís complex and challenging task, the
power of English to broaden an authorís readership, and the relation of
translation to questions of Jewish identity and community. The following are
excerpts from our conversation.
How has the character of Amos Ozís work changed in its journey from
Hebrew to English?
When you translate a book from one language to another, youíre translating
not only the words, but also the whole cultural context and the tone of voice
and so on. So I suppose, for me, Amos Oz comes across as an English-language
writeróobviously one who lives in Israel. And I suppose that I have to
interpret his tone of voice in English, so maybe he comes across sometimes a
little bit more like me. I try not to let him take on my voice, but he may
become a little more academic, a little more pedantic than he is in Hebrew. But
actually weíve worked so closely together over the years that I suspect he
comes across in more or less the way that he would if he were an English
When you translate, do you try to preserve elements of the foreignness of
the Hebrew language and the Israeli culture, or do you try to make the text
more familiar to English language readers?
That is the 64-[thousand]-dollar question. I try to soften as far as possible,
to mitigate the foreignness of the original text. But there are elements there
that are foreign. Some of them are foreign in the original.
Look, let me give you a really extreme example, and this is one of the hardest
tasks Iíve ever had to face: I once translated a book by Amos Oz called Panther
in the Basementóa book which has now been made into a film called The
Little Traitor. Itís set in the summer of 1947, towards the end of the
British Mandate in Palestine, in Jerusalem, and it concerns a young boy who
belongs to a gang and is accused of being a traitor by his friends because he
has made friends with a British policeman. Now, the British policeman, of
course, speaks English, and he trades language lessons with the little Zionist
kid. The Hebrew-speaking boy gives Hebrew lessons to the English policeman, and
the English policeman gives English lessons to the boy. The English policeman
speaks Hebrew in the book, of course, to the boy, but he speaks Biblical
Hebrew.... Now imagine the situation: I am translating from Hebrew into English
the words of an English policeman thinking in English, speaking in Biblical
Hebrew. Then you ask me about foreignness! I feel a bit dizzy!
Now, when Iím translating the words of a Yiddish speaker which are represented
in Hebrew in the Hebrew text, or an Arabic speaker, itís still very
complicated. Itís foreign to the Israeli reader, and so I do try to keep a
little foreignness as well for the English reader. But when ordinary Israelis
speak ordinary Hebrew in the Hebrew book, I try to make them unforeign because
I want the reader to get inside the book and be reading about Israel from the
inside. Thatís what you do. The translator is a little bit like a tour guide
who tries gradually to get his group to feel what the country is like †from the inside, and not be just in a
bubble and completely cut off from it.
Is part of your task, then, to acquaint people with a different culture?
Yes, but Iím a tour guide, not a travel agent. Iím not trying to persuade
people to go to Israel; Iím trying to help them find their way around. And
actually, there are a thousand little ways in a book where one tries to soften
the foreignness of the country by explaining what things are....
In My Michael, for instance, you see Jerusalem in the 1950s, a city
which has been under British rule for quite a long timeó30 yearsóand its
streets had English names; its buildings had English names.... The city of
Jerusalem is a character in the book, and she has to become as familiar to the
reader as any of the other main characters. And so, in a way, Iím a kind of
tour guide to Jerusalem. I walked around Jerusalem with Amos Oz when I was
translating that book, and he showed me the place where he was born and lived
as a child, and the various places mentioned in the book. We actually took some
of the walks that are described in the book together.... I felt that Iíd really
gotten to know Amos Ozís Jerusalem by the end of those walks.
Youíve written that your task as Ozís translator is similar to that of his
characters, who ďwrestle with the burden of their past and try to find its
meaning for the present.Ē Could you speak a little more about this?
What I was trying to get at is that all writing is an act of translation.
The writer takes the characters and tries to translate their thoughts into
words, and translate his understanding of them into words. Itís a very organic
and dynamic process. Itís not something fixed; itís not at all something
straightforward. There is a magic in the words, and the words change their
meanings over time; the words change†their meaning in space. They donít necessarily have the same
meaning in one place as they do somewhere else, and the words have a different
meaning and a different resonance according to where they come in a sentence
and a paragraph and a book. So itís like playing with quicksilver; things rush
around a lot, and youíre constantly trying to relate these characters who are
very hard to pin down.
Jews have for so long been outsiders with different customs, laws, and
languages. Is being Jewish somehow to exist in a state of translation?
Thatís a wonderful question. I think all human communication and all human
thought, in a way, is an act of translation. But do Jews have it more? I think
Jews have often existed between two languages. And perhaps that forces them to
think about words and meanings in a way that is very close to translation.
I donít want to say that everything is translation; I think that would be
absurd. Writing, I think, is translation. But also listening is translation;
thinking is translation.... We hear people speaking, and then we interpret
their words into our own language. Maybe Jews have had to do that. Maybe Jews
have taken, for example, words and thoughts from the environment and translated
them into Jewish languages; maybe theyíve taken Jewish words from another part
of the Jewish world and translated them into another language. That may well be
true, but I wouldnít like to say that all of Judaism is translation. We do, of
course, do it with the Bible and the sources of Judaism. We have to translate
them for ourselves, and I suppose that does mean that translation is at the
heart of the experience of being Jewish.
In translating Ozís work into English, do you feel that you are returning it
to a language of the Diaspora?
I donít think of English as being a Diaspora language. I think of English as
being a very wide-spread language, and of Oz as a writer with universal values.
And, you know, a great deal about Amos Oz is not locked in to Israel or the
Jewish people. I think itís extremely universal, and thatís what readers all
around the world have found. I was once told by a publisher that in America Israeli
books are mostly read by Jews. It may or may not be true, I donít know, but
itís certainly not true here in Europe. Most of Amos Ozís readers in Europe are
not Jews, and heís very, very much appreciated and loved by them. When I
translate him into English, I donít think that Iím translating him for a Jewish
Do you feel that by translating his work into a language with more readers
you are unlocking its inherent universality?
Yes, definitely, and I think he does too. You think how many millions of
people read English, and how relatively few people read Hebrewóthatís
inevitably whatís happening. And, indeed, my English translations are sometimes
translated into other languages. Sometimes itís just impossible to find a
translator into a language like Mandarin or Korean, or a language of small
diffusion like Slovak or Bulgarian, who can work straight from the Hebrew.
Luckily itís happening more and more, but these translators are very rare, and
so sometimes the English also serves as the jumping off point of a new
translation. So it is bringing him to the rest of the world.
So your translations are, in some ways, a gateway to the world for Ozís
Sometimes, yes. And I feel the same way about my translations of other
authorsórecently S. Yizhar, a wonderful Hebrew writer, and previously other
writers like A. B. Yehoshua and Aharon Appelfeld. I think all of these are
writers with something universal to say. Their words and their pictures may
often be rooted in the land of Israel, but the values theyíre talking about are