The Creativity of a Translator – An Interview with Jessica Cohen

Jessica Cohen, translator of David Grossman’s genre-defying masterpiece Falling Out of Time, answered one of our most burning questions: How closely did you work with Grossman on the intent and meaning of the novel, and how much creativity can you use as a translator? 

JessCohen_picWhen I translated David Grossman’s masterful novel, To the End of the Land, I thought it would be the most intense and demanding translation I might ever take on. But then Falling Out of Time came along and proved me wrong. The translation presented many challenges, both professional and emotional. Working with a hybrid form that veers into genres I did not have a lot of experience translating—poetry and drama—required a rethinking of the translation methods I had developed over many years of translating prose. The book’s gut-wrenching subject matter and sheer emotional impact were not an easy thing to live with over the many months of translating this work. And most demanding of all was the knowledge that this was perhaps the most intensely personal work Grossman had ever written, drawing on an incredibly painful experience that he and his family had recently undergone. I was left feeling that there was a hefty responsibility that went along with this translation project. And indeed, David’s personal involvement in the translation work was greater than any I have had before or since with an author, and a fairly unique experience for any translator.

41U-Rkf0obL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Whenever I translate a book, the author generally makes him or herself available to answer the questions that inevitably arise, and in this case, too, I periodically sent David queries about the text, asked him to clarify the meaning of certain phrases and word-choices, and so forth. But whereas that is usually the extent of the author’s involvement in a translation, in this case, after I had completed my translation, David and I met over the course of a few days in Jerusalem and I read my translation out-loud to him, pausing frequently to discuss the text and my translation choices, and for him to offer comments and corrections when necessary. David’s long-time agent, Deborah Harris, was also present at these readings, and the three of us had many fascinating and fruitful discussions about various translation challenges and textual issues. Having this degree of access to the author’s thought process and being able to probe his mind for all the layers of meaning behind every line in the book, was a rare opportunity.

David made it clear in our work together that he had a keen interest in making sure this translation came as close as possible to his original intent. Although this is true, to varying degrees, of any work by a good author, Falling Out of Time is an extreme example—perhaps the most extreme—of the writer’s heart and soul being laid bare on the page, and that was clear to me throughout my work on the project. Yet despite all this weight, I was allowed and even encouraged to find creative solutions to some of the tricky issues presented by the text. David has always been respectful of my creative license as the translator of his words, and it was no different with this book.

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Jessica Cohen is a freelance translator born in England, raised in Israel, and now living in Denver. She translates contemporary Israeli prose, poetry, and other creative work. Her translations include David Grossman’s critically acclaimed To The End of the Land, and works by major Israeli writers including Etgar Keret, Rutu Modan, Yael Hedaya, Ronit Matalon, Amir Gutfreund and Tom Segev, as well as Golden Globe-winning director Ari Folman. She is a past board member of the American Literary Translators Association and has served as a judge for the National Translation Award.


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