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 speaker.

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 changetheir 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 readership.

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 work.

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 universal values.