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Tuesday, September 7, 2010




Lost in translation

Translations published in Hebrew are riddled with mistakes and lose much of the spirit of the original.

By Shiri Lev-Arifrom Haaretz.com


The number of books being translated into Hebrew has increased considerably, while the quality of the translations has deteriorated. Recent years have seen astonishing growth in the number of translators, but laxness in publishers' overseeing translation, editing and proofreading - not to mention the low fees paid to translators and editors. Quite a few poor translations have appeared that in the best case are written in a Hebrew dialect that reads like a translation and in the worse case have little connection to the original text. Translation is indeed a perpetually debated, complex matter because it is dependent on the critic's personal taste and interpretation of terms and phrases. Nonetheless, over the last few years, many of the translations published range from unclear to the unreadable. Some large and well-established publishers are also guilty of doing this.


Aviad Kleinberg's review of "The History of Reading" by Alberto Mengel, for example, cited a series of errors in translating Latin phrases, names and terms common in the Middle Ages. "Editing the translation increases a book's publishing expenses by around NIS 15,000," says Menachem Perri, the editor of the Sifria Hahadasha publishing house. "It makes most translated books economically unviable, because you pay for the rights, translation, editing and printing, and in the end you sell 1,000 copies - it verges on a loss. It's all the more so with publishers that release 50-60 translated books annually. They can't afford to spend so much money on every translation."
The main problem is with translations from English to Hebrew, which covers most of the translated books published in Israel. Many translators think that translating from English to Hebrew is easy and can be done quickly. In these translations, the English syntax is maintained and even if the words are correctly translated, the sentences are convoluted. Translating English books originally written in other languages into Hebrew is especially problematic. In order to cut costs, some small publishing houses only translate English books into Hebrew. To do it, they hire novice translators and they tend to skip over the process of editing the translation.
The most blatant among them is the Astrolog Publishing House, which has been sharply criticized for its translations. Astrolog was set up five years ago and though it specializes in New Age books, it chose to publish interesting literature such as works by Charles Bukowski and Leonard Cohen. "The beauty of the original is totally lost and the result is a text that is almost meaningless," wrote Doron B. Cohen in a review in the literary supplement, "Sefarim," on the translation of Leonard Cohen's novel "Beautiful Losers."
Elisha Ben Mordechai, Astrolog's publisher-in-chief, is not moved by the criticism. "True, we don't always translate texts from Chinese or Japanese," he says, "but we use English translations that the authors themselves did. I would rather translate every book from its source language, but there are very few translators of those languages and also our budget for translations is limited. We don't always get support from Hamifal Letirgum Sifrei Mofet [the agency promoting translation of books into Hebrew], the number of copies sold is small and we are a private publisher that must make a profit. The critique of Leonard Cohen, for example, was unfair because the three books of his that we published are on a relatively high level. Unfortunately, we have some translations that are worse. The translations are done by human beings and sometimes they come out good, and other times they don't."
"There were also mistakes in the translations of 50 years ago," says Menachem Perri, "but at least it wasn't embarrassing. They were written in Hebrew and the translators were people who liked to write. Many of them were writers - M.Z. Wolfovsky, who translated Dostoyevsky; Yaakov Rabinowitz, who translated Flaubert. Today most of our writers - even the famous ones - write faltering Hebrew and need editing, and that applies even more so to the translators.
"Some publishers," Perri continues, "send texts from the translator's computer directly to printing. Once, people would copy a manuscript over five times, and along the way they realized that what they had written wasn't always clear. Today, the computer shortens the process. Many publishers employ a language editor who polishes the text. Then the translation doesn't come out catastrophic, but it doesn't resemble the original at all. So it happens that the translator writes pe'ula [Hebrew for action or operation in the non-medical context] and we'll never realize that in the original the word referred to another context, because the word `operation' has two meanings. Editing a translation requires a comparison to the original, understanding of the logic of the book, choosing among several alternatives and an understanding of literary tools. In theory, all foreign literature can be translated into Hebrew; in practice they are different books from the original."
Too many books
Little time has passed since the debate over the translation of the Harry Potter books into Hebrew and their faithfulness to the original before a new focus of debate surfaced. Several weeks ago, two books by the German author Heinrich von Kleist were published simultaneously. Babel Publishers released "Michael Kolhaas," translated by Miriam Dinur and Hanan Elstein; Sifria Hahadasha released an anthology of Kleist novellas, "Kolhaas and Others," translated by Ran Hacohen. In a very non-collegial way, Menachem Perri attacked Babel's translation. Babel executives in turn found problems with Hacohen's translation.
Unfortunately, several books published by Babel, which has a reputation for being a meticulous publishing house, contain translation and proofreading errors. In Babel's paperback series edition of the Henry James' story, "The Turn of the Screw," the following sentence appears on page one:
"L'teguvat Douglas al hadvarim ha'eyleh - shelo ne'emra miyad ela b'hemshech ha'erev - hayeta totza'a me'anyenet she'ani mekhaneh ota keshev."
The last part of the sentence in Hebrew speaks of "an interesting consequence which I refer to as: attention." The original English sentence ends with "a reply that had the interesting consequence to which I call attention."
Chaim Pesach, the editor of the paperback series, is ready to defend the publisher's translations against any criticism. "In James' Victorian English, the same words have different meanings," he says. "These are not errors, just sentences that were understood in a different way."
Amit Rothbard, the publisher of Babel books, claims that to do the translation of von Kleist, the publishing house consulted with professors from Germany about the legal terminology. "The translation of `Kolhaas' is a special case because the translator died while in the middle of working on the book," she says, "and she was replaced by Hanan Elstein, who also edited the translation. Every one of our translations has a translation editor who is fluent in the source language and at least another two or three people who read the text."
Hanan Elstein says in response to the criticism that "the text was carefully checked and our choices can be explained. When the two translations were released, there was an opportunity to have a meaningful discussion on norms of translation, but Perri opted to attack. I don't think Sifria Hahadasha's translation is accurate enough; it isn't meticulous about the different levels of the language; in it, criminals and princesses speak in the same language. The translator fell in love with Kleist's long and convoluted sentences. I can provide examples of the mistakes, but I'm not looking to pick a fight."
The growing number of books published in Hebrew every year is one of the reasons for the decline in the quality of the translations. "They publish too many books here and that's why the quality control is poor," says translator, critic and writer Yoram Meltzer. "I have found many cases where the translator added or skipped paragraphs. I found one book where the translator translated the Kaddish prayer from Spanish into Hebrew as `she-yehiyeh gadol veyehiyeh kaddosh shemo shel elohim' instead of `yitgadal veyitkadash shmei raba.'
"One of the respected series had a translator who took private lessons in Spanish and that was enough for her to translate the work of an important author into Hebrew. A story about a kidnapping in that book said `hem ifsheru sharsheret le'umit (a national chain).' What is a `sharsheret le'umit'? In Spanish the word `sharsheret' can also refer to a network of channels and the story was referring to television channels all broadcasting the same program during a period of emergency. But the translator is not familiar with the way things work in that country.
"Therefore," Meltzer adds, "the number of books published here should be reduced. Only the best should be published and premium prices should be paid for it - double what they currently pay. And there should also be a standard set with only the best translations published, such as those of Rami Sa'ari, who translates from the Balkan languages, Romanian and Finnish or Dan Daor's translations from Chinese, or Miriam Tivon's translations from Portuguese and many other fine translations. In our cultural milieu, the assumption is that the audience is stupid, but the audience is intelligent and sensitive."












Low-wage grind
Translators argue in their defense that the wages they are paid are so low that in order to earn a living, they must finish the translation job in a hurry so they can take on other translation projects.
The publishers benefit from this situation because this way they can quickly publish more titles. Translations are paid for on the basis of folios. Each folio contains around 16 pages. For a 300-page book or so that has some 20 folios a translator will get paid around NIS 14,000 for approximately three months of work.
The rates publishers pay translators are not uniform. Translators with a reputation can earn NIS 1,200 per folio, whereas inexperienced translators may settle for just NIS 300.
The rates vary depending on the kind of book (a literary work, for example, is more expensive than translations of guide books), level of difficulty of the book and the language from which it is being translated.
The Israel Translators Association (ITA), a body that has been around for over 20 years but only resumed its activities in the last year-and-a-half, sets recommended translation rates but very few publishers adhere to them. According to the ITA's rates, translators should be paid NIS 1,140 per folio or a minimum of NIS 63 per page (i.e., for translating an average book of 240 pages, the translator should get at least NIS 15,000). The editor of the translation should be paid NIS 683 per folio, so that the translation of an average-length book will cost the publisher around NIS 10,000. In practice, translation editors receive around half the amount the translator does, usually about NIS 300 or so for an average folio.
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