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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Tickets available online at bit.ly/FallingOutOfTime or by calling 202-777-3210.

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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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16 Performances, 5 Playwright meetings, and 2 Falafels in 4.5 Days

As opposed to in the US where a play may run 8 nights a week for a month or two, in Israel a successful production can run for years and years, but with only a few performances a month. That means that in any given stretch of time, there is at least 5 or 6 times as much theater to see in Israel! In Tel Aviv, productions run the gamut from major institutional theaters playing to over 100,000 patrons a year to tiny performance art troupes performing site specific work in the streets.

750In 4.5 days of the International Exposure for Israeli Theatre festival, we saw the full range cramming in as much as we possibly could, with non-stop theater from 9:30 am to after 9:00 pm (Israelis stay up late). The amount of diversity on stage is truly unique to Israeli theater ranging from the most innovative of fringe productions to large-scale productions at major institutions. The fringe-ier performances included: a performance piece of light and sound called You Never Look at Me From the Place I See You and two very personal and brave one woman autobiographical shows (The Other Body and My Ex Mother-In-Law) at Tmu-Na Theater to a movement piece about our attraction to violence in art at the Tel Aviv Museum (Forever/Never produced by Clippa Theatre) to a sweet and dark children’s story ending with a trans-gender love story told at Jaffa Theatre (where Arabs and Jews work to create art together).

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More polished was a stunning political fable told with puppets, a live video feed and 1,000 lbs of salt – The Road to Ein Harod by PuppetCinema , which you can see at The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center this April. We also saw a few pieces of more traditional theater (what we would call plays). Jehu, an older play by Gilad Evron, who wrote Ulysses on Bottles, at the Habima National Theatre, the Israeli adaptation of Falling Out of Time at Gesher Theatre, which was developed specially for their space so the audience could move throughout three locations, and a pared down adaptation of Electra at The Cameri on a gruesome and stunning set. I will admit I skipped the Habima/Cameri co-production of Our Class because I wasn’t up for sitting through the shocking violence again.

In total, I saw 4 shows with no words, 3 shows that included chalk drawings, 4 shows with puppets, 3 site-specific works, 2 of which functioned as guided tours through the political and the personal, and 5 shows that used innovative projections. What I didn’t see were a lot of new plays by Israeli playwrights. (Those will be included in next year’s IsraDrama festival, rather than the Exposure festival.) What I did see was a lot of incredible, innovative and moving performances.

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In between all of the performances, I carved out some time to connect with some playwrights – familiar faces and new friends. It was wonderful to reconnect with Motti Lerner and hear about his latest projects, which include a narrative film opening in December. I shared carrot/lemon/ginger juice (at her recommendation) with Hadar Galron (who wrote Mikveh). She is working on a new Israeli TV drama about a cult leader of sorts with many wives called Harem, which will also be adapted into a play. I dined with three young innovative artists from Ensemble Can who are working in a variety of fictional, devised and documentary style work – most recently in a trilogy about sex. I also had coffee with Goren Agmon, whose work deals primarily with the unsolved personal struggles in the lives of women in Israel.

I ended my time over a glass of wine with prolific and widely produced Israeli playwright Joshua Sobel. According to Motti, Joshua’s work is what inspired him to first become a playwright. His body of work already includes over 45 plays, but at 76 he is continuing to develop new work as both a playwright and director. His most recent works include The Melting Pot which looks at the growing prostitution problem in Israel and a new adaptation of Waiting for Godot in Yiddish, Russian and Spanish that frames the play as a story about two Russian Jewish refugees waiting for a smuggler (Godot) to ferry them across the French/Spanish border to safety.

And that’s not even getting into the fascinating people that I met from all over the world. Believe me, if I could have managed to squeeze in more than 2 falafels, I certainly would have! I’m looking forward to catching up on sleep and laundry, and then debriefing with all of my colleagues back at Theater J.

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