The Happy Prince and I

At the end of these two wonderful days, celebrating words and those who use them, I should like to tell you a story about words and their potency: words generally, and those which make up literature in particular. It is a story first and foremost about reading, with authorship and translation as natural offspring, not necessarily of the same generation. A story about literary intimacy, about the potency of authorship, and the absolute relevance of both of them to the work of translation.

After telling you this story, I shall explore this triad in a more general way, and illustrate it with very specific examples from my latest translation, De Profundis, Oscar Wilde's heart-wrenching letter to Lord Alfred Douglas, written towards the end of his prison term.

Our story starts in England, in the late 19th century, with a youth who set out to vanquish the world with flower-like words. I shall not dwell on this part, which is well known, and will move on to Krakow, Poland, 1936. It was then that my grandmother decided that her son must know not only Polish, German, French, Latin, Hebrew and Greek, as did his peers, but also English. A good Jewish mother with shrewd vision, she promptly engaged a private tutor to teach her son the language of the new world, the language of commerce and opportunity. This tutor came with a system of his own. He simply took for his text a story which would appeal to a young boy, and presenting my father with a dictionary and the story of The Happy Prince, he proceeded to teach him English, word by word.

High, above, the, city, stood –  and so on and so forth. My father seems to have been pleased. Twenty years later, when he set out to teach my Austrian mother English, he used the very same method. She still has not quite recovered. 

As a child I heard the story, all of it. The story of the prince, the story of the boy and his tutor, of the husband and his wife, a story told to me in German, English, sometimes Hebrew…. A story about language, as much as about a prince.

We move to Israel. I am ten years old. For some reason I no longer recall, the teacher mentions The Picture of Dorian Gray. "You can read this when you're older," she tells the class. That same afternoon, of course, I check out the book. I read it in Hebrew. At ten, it is a perfectly simple book, a book of marvels: a poignant love story, a magic picture that ages, a gruesome murder, evil and due punishment.
Over the following years, like most people, I encountered diluted forms of Wilde's fables. The Nightingale and the Rose, The Fisherman and his Soul, things of astonishing beauty. Things that left subtle traces, in terms of content as well as form.

Then, suddenly, when I was in my teens, poetry came knocking at our door. And it was he, again. Oscar Wilde. The Ballad of Reading Goal. My mother and father seemed to delight in it – for reasons which call for a very different kind of exploration. "For each man kills the thing he loves", don't ask me why, but it was the only piece of poetry ever quoted and re-quoted at home. And then again – "Like two doomed ships," what a challenge in elocution.

Of course the complete works came next. I was by now a reader in control of her reading material, no longer at the mercy, as children are, of those who chose their books for them. After trying to memorize the entire Ballad the plays came as a relief. But the poems in prose, The House of Pomegranates reencountered, transformed me and defined my sense of beauty, my vision of art and artists, of what writing should be. The beauty of words, the beauty of the world, the beauty of kindness, that was what it was all about. Content and Form merged. To quote another childhood hero, "A thing of beauty is a joy forever". To those unfamiliar with the quote, I refer you to Mary Poppins, and can only hope that she will refer you to Keats.
Those were troubled years, and in Oscar Wilde I found a troubled soul to converse with. The Happy Prince of my childhood, it turned out, was not really happy. He was actually a master of sorrow. I copied an entire passage from De Profundis and hung it on my wall.

Let me skip quite a few years, say fifteen. By then I had written some short stories, very much influenced by my aesthetic muse, I had also written two novels, in Hebrew, in which I tried to release myself of this influence. Another novel was in the works, a fable for adults. After a few unproductive years of trying to write it in Hebrew, I had switched to English. "Somehow", it was in this language that I found the tone I needed. The novel had talking animals, a flying scooter, and Loveless Winds which killed anyone who loved too much. I was in my element when Rachel Penn called and suggested that I re-translate Dorian Gray. What a gift!

The work itself came naturally. The eternal dilemmas of translation were easily settled, the paradigm being so clear, and defined by the author himself: Beauty must reign supreme. But the content – the content was a disappointment. The glib philosophy, the neat, epigrammatic phrases – at thirty-five I felt I had outgrown such things. Indeed, it seemed that like the protagonist, I "had been poisoned by a book", which was The Picture of Dorian Gray itself. Who was this dandy I had admired so, what were these horrid superficialities, how could aesthetics be so nasty? Who on earth would recommend such pernicious reading to the young? Yes, the dialogues were witty, and re-creating the speech of a sinful Duchess's in Hebrew was indeed an entertaining challenge. But familiarity had at last bred contempt: It seemed that one more love-story had come to its natural demise.
The night after I finished the translation, I had a dream. Oscar Wilde was sitting on a beanbag at a party, dressed in chic black. I introduced myself, and told him I had just finished translating his book. The next scene took place in a huge hangar, we were there to have our picture taken for the Hebrew translation's PR. Costumes were available, complete with floppy hats and feather boas. We dressed up and posed: Wilde in front of me, and I holding his hips from behind. In my wish I had only one concern at this point: "I hope he doesn't fart on me". For those unfamiliar with Hebrew let me note, that "farting" and "artsy-fartsy" work the very same way in Hebrew. The avid reader had become a concerned writer: I no longer wanted Wilde's narcissitic aesthetics clinging to me. 

Ten more years passed. I stopped writing things of no direct moral import. Ethics were more important to my art now than aesthetics. The world was full of trouble, and things of beauty were really not enough to make it better. Wilde remained an ambivalent remembrance of things I had put behind me.

Some years later, on a summer holiday, I came across De Profundis. Reread it, or perhaps one should say truly read it for the first time – not merely searching for confirmation, as one often does in one's youth, but actually read it. It was stunning. The flippant dandy had learned his lesson. He was embracing it. "Sheer simplicity of pathos" as he writes in his letter, "had been wedded and made one with sublimity of tragic effect".

My initial reverence had been rekindled. I simply had to translate this. Fortunately, I found in Ornit Cohen Barak an enthusiastic editor, who was able to convince a commercial publishing house that this work should be made available to the Hebrew public.

In De Profundis one finds an incredible mixture of grudges both financial and emotional, of aesthetic theology or perhaps theological aesthetics, of bitterness at war with itself, searching for love. The language moves freely between sublime and mundane, challenging any such demarcation.  Translating it has been, first and foremost, a terrible kind of joy. My story had come to its natural, perfect conclusion. Reader and writer were harnessed to the ultimate task of translation. 

* * * 

So what does this story mean?

Seemingly, it proposes an extreme version of the possible relation between a translator and her work. It is, arguably, an ideal version. But I should like to examine how it can apply generally.
The clue is intimacy. The reverent intimacy of readership. A translator is first and foremost a reader. An active reader, one who must transmit, convey, express what she has read: the words, their arrangement, their sound and cadence, their innermost meanings. It is, it should be, an act of love: "Here, this has been my wonderful experience as a reader – I shall try and make it yours." It is a relationship between one reader (who read the source) and another, anonymous reader, who will read the translation, and should be able to establish her own intimate relation with the text. 

Of course, not all encounters can have such a long history. But intimacy, inner resonance with the text, can also arise immediately, by a stroke of lightening. Love can come at first sight, and it is then that it often hits hardest. Moreover, not all texts call for such intensity. Let us say then, that if we are to have the "intense engagement" Larry Rosenwald talked about yesterday, then the level of intimacy experienced by the translator as reader must be on a par with the level of intimacy set by the original author, as one who has something to confess. A detective novel, for instance, makes no such claims, it calls for a completely different level of engagement, though I dare say that true suspense while reading it must be experienced by the translator to make for an effective translation. As long as the sense of fun and excitement make their way from author to reader and are then translated to a new reader, all is well.

We have the reader then: a committed, reverent reader. This is one part of the triad.

Authorship comes next. Indeed, it is the result of reading, and may be compared to one who has been invited to a banquet, and upon coming home tries to recreate some of the dishes – or cook up something of a completely different sort. Some people write the books they like to read. Some write the books they would have liked to read. Authorship can be an act of subservience, but it is at its best as an act of freedom, of self-assertion – an act charged with urgency. I wouldn't like to propose that every translator must be an author in the usual sense of the word. Rather, I should like to insist that translation is, must be, an act of authorship. Previous, independent experience in penmanship may be of use, though it may also stand in the way, a point I shall get to immediately.

And now for the third part – translation. What strange offspring. It takes readership one step further, it takes authorship one step… where? Further? Back, in the sense of less personal agency? Sideways, perhaps? The knight's move in chess comes to mind: Two steps ahead, one step sideways. The author is in search for personal expression and release; the translator is in search of… what? Satisfaction at a job well done? Shared ownership, a stake in the work that moved her as a reader? One thing is clear: in no other position, neither when reading nor when writing, does one experience such sense of responsibility – and the stern masters are more than one. This is indeed the safeguard against the author's own agenda and the reader's paralyzing awe.

You may recall the R's of education – they have been around since the early 19th century attempts to promote general education: Reading, "Righting", and of course, 'Rithmetic.

I should like to propose, then, three 'Rs of translation: Reverence, Responsibility, and – 'Rgency. Reverence is the part of the reader, in awe of what she has encountered. Urgency is the impulse of the author, a need to express, to assert, to shape and to mold. This, as indeed reverence as well, must be tempered by responsibility – not only towards the source, as we all know, but to the target text as well.  

The starting point, the basis, remains reading. Viriginia Woolf, another great favourite of mine, and also one I had the privilege of translating, had the following
to say: "To read a book as it should be read calls for the rarest qualities of imagination, insight, and judgment… Do not dictate to your author", she says, "try to become him. Be his fellow-worker and accomplice…. You must be capable not only of great fineness of perception, but of great boldness of imagination if you are going to make use of all that the novelist— the great artist—gives you."  She is talking of readership – and might as well be talking about translation.

This boldness of imagination then – what does it take, and how does it fit in with an active, generative, fineness of perception? One must take the bold strokes of imagination – so dear to Wilde – and break them down into fine-grained semantic and syntactic judgements – and the compounded result, of course, must ring true. "Language requires to be tuned like a violin," writes Wilde towards the end of his letter; "and just as too many or too few vibrations in the voice of the singer or the trembling of the string will make the note false, so too much or too little in words will spoil the message." And he adds, quoting Keats – “It is not for nothing, or to no purpose, that in my lifelong cult of literature I have made myself a 'Miser of sound and syllable, no less than Midas of his coinage'.”


Let me now explore, then, some moments of miserliness in my recent work, moments in which I had actually to count syllables in order to make up my mind – and release it from the thrall of the source.

Here is one–

The phrase "as children, as flowers, are apt to do" concludes a very long and complex sentence, and must therefore remain as compact as possible. Instead of the four-syllabic ARE APT TO DO we get in Hebrew נוטים לעשות, five syllables, which is not too bad. But the multiplication of "as" would be grammatically impossible. At first I transposed this to the word גם, meaning also. The result was

כשם שנוטים לעשות גם ילדים, גם פרחים

This is quite adequate, and yet it is long. Too long. 15 syllables! And only ten in English! Impossible! Hebrew thrives on terseness, any translation is usually two thirds as long as the English source – how could a Hebrew translation be LONGER than the English?  Here is my best solution:

כדרכם של ילדים, כדרך פרחים

Literally meaning – "in the way of children, in the way of flowers". 12 syllables, and a much better melodic flow.


Or to take another example –

Wilde refers to Douglas's lack of imagination: "[Your] imagination was as much in prison as I was", he says, concluding with the phrase:


Well, here is a double challenge – there is the music and symmetry of the phrase, of course. But there is also a more specific, prosaic fact: Hate is feminine in Hebrew, and for HER to be warden would be extremely strange within this context (Vanity is feminine too, but unfortunately that does not create a similar dissonance).

And another irritating little fact – there is no convenient verb for "barred" in Hebrew, so that one has to become a bit more cumbersome. A first approximation, with hate as a feminine warden, would sound like this:

את הסורגים בחלונות הציבה היוהרה, ושמה של הסוהרת היה שנאה.

This is simply ugly, long, and with a feminine warden to boot. Counting my syllables I ended up with –

היוהרה נתנה סורגים בחלונות, והשנאה עמדה על המשמר.

The warden is gone. Hate "stands guard". She is still feminine, but there is no concern with her name, she remains abstract and one doesn't have to wonder about her uniform.


Here is a different type of problem:



These musical repetitions, "that the, that the", must be expressed, of course, but would not sit well with Hebrew usage. The cleft sentence (It is in the brain that…) is also a constant challenge to Hebrew translations. A literal rendering would sound like this, more or less, and it would be a terrible, non-Hebrew sentence:

זה במוח שהפרג אדום, שהתפוח ריחני, שהעפרוני שר.

The cleft can always be dealt with by the usual means of altered word order; the repetitions have been transposed to suit the language:

במוח אדום הפרג; שם בָּשוּם התפוח, שם שר העפרוני.

Which in back-translation would be – "there is the apple scented, there sings the lark."


I could go on and on, about syllable and sound; about lexical issues such as PERVERSITY and WILFULNESS and PHILISTINES; about the countercultural subversiveness of presenting the Hebrew reader with such a profoundly Christian text. Of course all this cannot be done here, but I'd like to say this: Any analysis of my work on Wilde is an exercise in endless recursion. I base myself on his aesthetics, and give form and beauty their due. This was already there in תמונתו של דוריאן גריי; but only recently have I realized, that whatever I consider beautiful in language, that the rhythms that attract me and influence my choices in Hebrew – whether original writing or translation – have been influenced, or even shaped, by him.

In De Profundis OW refers to Douglas's unfortunate attempt to translate his Salome: "I knew quite well that no translation, unless one done by a poet, could render the colour and cadence of my work in any adequate measure."

So is this true? Does it take a poet to translate a play? I would say not; but at the same time, I would venture to say that only poet can translate poetry. The writer has to be there, and she cannot be one who sings in prose. Indeed, the writer, the author, must always be there, to help the reader convey her experience to a new reader, in a new language.  

It is time to tie up loose ends. First, let me venture an excerpt from my translation of DP. These are the lines I had copied out at sixteen, those which hung on my teenager's wall – these were my rock stars then:

"Society, as we have constituted it, will have no place for me, has none to offer. But nature, whose sweets rains fall on unjust and just alike, will have clefts in the rocks where I may hide, and secret valleys in whose silence I may weep undisturbed. She will hang the nights with stars so that I may walk abroad in the darkness without stumbling, and send the wind over my footprints, so that none may track me to my hurt: she will cleanse me with great waters, and with bitter herbs make me whole."

"לחברה, כפי שכוננו אותה, אין מקום להציע לי, ולא יהיה לה. אך הטבע, הממטיר במתיקות על צדיקים ורשעים כאחד, ימציא לי מסתור בין חגווי הסלע, ועמקים נחבאים שבדומייתם אוכל להתייפח לבדי.
הוא יתלה בכוכבים את הלילה, שלא אמעד בחשיכה, ויכסה את עקבי ברוח כדי שאיש לא ירדוף אותי להרע לי: במים רבים יטהר אותי, ובמרורים יביא לי מרפא." [ממעמקים]

So what would my father and his tutor say about this? Do they still come in at this stage? I believe they do. I believe the tutor's extraordinary system, teaching word by word, "high-above-the…", each word to its fullness, was seminal. It was a way of feeling the taste of each word in the mouth, as Jack Abcassis said. I believe that the love and respect that went into such a venture are crucial for the formation of intimate reverence, the intimacy of readership which feeds all the rest. I hope that such reverence, spurned by my sense of urgency, tempered by dual responsibility, has made its way to the work, and will recreate a similar experience for the Hebrew reader.  I shall conclude with VW, that very uncommon reader:

"I have sometimes dreamt … that when the Day of Judgment dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewards … the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when he sees us coming with our books under our arms, 'Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.'”

Presented at TAU conference "Beyond Transfiction: Translators and (their) Authors", 2013

כתיבת תגובה

סגירת תפריט