"Re-Translations Have to Improve Upon Previous Versions; Otherwise They'll be Criticized," Assures Inga Michaeli

Here's my second to last review on literary sessions held at the ATA Conference. 
This time, let's talk about translating classics into Hebrew

During the 53rd Annual Conference organized October 24-27, 2012 by theAmerican Translators Association (ATA) in San Diego, I attended a session entitled Re-Translations: Do We Really Need Them? The presenter, Inga Michaeli, is an English into Hebrew translator who has been working with fiction and nonfiction books for the past fifteen years, as well as some travel guides and transcreation projects.

Inga opened her session stating that there is a new wave of translations among Israeli publishers targeting classic titles in English literature that had been translated into Hebrew back in the 1950s and 1960s. “But what's the publisher's agenda in translating a classic again?” she wondered.

Apart from profiting with popular titles, there is indeed a need to update some translations because Hebrew has evolved in the past fifty years. “The language has been resurrected and there are many new norms in place,” Inga explains.

She listed some of the reasons for re-translation in Israel:

  • Adequacy vs. Acceptability
  • Educational aspect in the contemporary use of Hebrew
  • There's no perfect translation; there are renditions
  • Translations are a form of art, an artistic expression
  • Modern researching abilities (Internet, more cultural exposure) lead to better understanding of the source text

Mentioning an article entitled "The War of Versions," Inga further enumerated the pros and cons of having new Hebrew translations available on the market. “Readers demand new and fresh titles all the time,” she says. “New translations have an impact on readers and older versions have been now relegated to the back shelves.”

Old, But Localized ― On the one hand, past translations reflected the cultural pulse of Israel and the Hebrew-speaking world when they were first published. Everything needed to be adapted to the Jewish culture; therefore, character names were replaced with traditional Hebrew names, recipes and names of dishes were adapted, and holidays related to Christianity were transposed into those related to Judaism. Consequently, those translations were richer and much more creative in their adaptations.

On the other hand, some chapters were shortened or combined if developments seemed culturally irrelevant. Translators took a lot of liberty in explaining concepts potentially unknown to readers, often adding their own views and prejudices, thus resulting in too much interference.

Overall, old translations were not really faithful to the original, language and cultural conflicts were not resolved to the current reader’s satisfaction, and today they sound outdated, despite prioritizing the local reality.

New, But Foreignized ― On the one hand, new translations benefit from the expanded vocabulary, since more words have been added to the Hebrew lexicon, including slangs. Cultural proximity to the source language is another advantage, as more accessibility to information is needed to resolve potential challenges during the translation.

On the other hand, new translations are not always accurate, in that some simplification occurs and the original meaning may be lost. Besides, publishers believe it is cheaper to re-translate a book by assigning it to a “newbie” translator, instead of updating and improving upon an existing version in Hebrew.

Overall, new translations have a higher potential of remaining faithful to the original due to a better level of understanding, but this task still needs to be carried out by experienced translators who will be able to provide a suitable version of classic books to contemporary Hebrew readers.

What’s in a Name? ― “Re-translations have to improve upon previous translations; otherwise they’ll be criticized,” she assures. Mentioning one popular example, referring to it as the "Call me Ishmael" syndrome, Inga points to the re-translation ofHerman Melville's “Moby Dick” and the fact that the version published recently did not stand out when compared to the older version―at least not under a positive light. 

“The opening line ‘Call me Ishmael’ was changed in Hebrew into ‘My name is Ishmael,’” she says, explaining the strong differences between the classic and the new translation: The main character’s request to be called Ishmael did not necessarily mean it was his real name; therefore, the ambiguity was lost in the contemporary Hebrew version. 

"I read that first line, closed the book and put it away," she confesses. 

Case Study ― Inga went on to compare her rendition of Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead" with the classic translation that existed in Hebrew, which was made available in 1954. It had remained in circulation until the current publisher bought the rights to the new version. 

She did not refer to it during her translation process, since her goal was to provide a new, fresh version. "I get the edited version of the book before it is published and usually have the last say,” she says. “Not in the name of the book, though."

However, when she revisited the old translation she had read in school in order to add examples to the presentation, she was able to identify issues concerning the transcription of character names and wrong terminology, sometimes due to the lack of a word or concept in Hebrew, while in other instances it was a case of misunderstanding the original message:

  • "Dandruff" was translated as "fins" 
  • "Flaunted" became "taunted" 
  • "Pipe dream" was translated literally, thus losing its metaphorical meaning
  • "Contraceptives" became "preservatives" 
  • The previous translator felt the need to explain what "werewolves" were, but believed “vampires” were well-know to Hebrew readers
  • "Suckers" were rendered as "fools who are asking for someone to trick them" 
  • "Black tie or white tie" had a literal translation based on colors, not the kind of formal attire
  • Chapters 12 and 13 were combined and Chapter 14 became Chapter 13
  • "First Communion," a Christian rite of passage, was adapted into "Bar Mitzvah," which is not exactly a direct counterpart in Jewish tradition, while "sacrament" could have been a more neutral option

All in all, the new translation was widely praised and even the followers of Ayn Rand's objectivism called Inga to compliment her in the quality of her work. "I always ask the editor, 'Why are we doing this again?' And they usually say, "Because I love these books.'"