Ioram Melcer: “When a language dies, it no longer is the mother language of anyone”

During the 55th Annual Conference organized November 5-8, 2014 by the American Translators Association (ATA) in Chicago, I attended a session entitled Literary translation as a tool for nation-building: The case of modern Hebrew, presented by Ioram Melcer, a writer, journalist, and literary critic with a Master's degree in Linguistics and Romance Languages from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is also responsible for publications by the national Library of Israel and has translated books by Julio Cortázar, Mario Vargas Llosa, Fernando Pessoa, Mia Couto, Salman Rushdie, and Junot Diaz.

The following is an excerpt of his speech, based on the noted I took during the presentation.

The myth on the death of Hebrew”
When a language dies, it no longer is the mother language of anyone. It is not the language of dreams, reminders, and jokes. Dead languages are dead. The idea that Hebrew died was very convenient to whomever wanted to build a new nation. It created a new entity. Certain people were saying we were creating a new people, a new fatherland. That goes along with slogan like “A land with no people to a people with no land.”
Our main pride [as Israelis] is the Hebrew language. We are united by the Hebrew language. We fight about everything else; we're a very divided people, but we fight in Hebrew. It is a great reason to be proud. It is the mother tongue for people who learned it from their friends. Most of us didn't learn it from our parents. Hebrew, in a way, is a consciously created language. I keep complaining that I don't know of any other language whose speakers make so many mistakes.
There was no real reason for Hebrew to be part of the equation, because the Zionist movement was dreamed up in Germany, and caught the attention of Yiddish speakers in Russia. It was only natural that science and technology would be taught in the language of science and technology, which was German. However, students and young teachers started to rebel against it, because they were going to a Hebrew school, and Hebrew won the battle.
Hebrew became the language of Jewish enlightenment in the 19th century, on the basis of a language that had been kept alive all through the ages. Any educated Hebrew speaker can understand the Bible in its original―and it's a 3,000-old text. They will have even an easier time reading the Dead Sea Scrolls―and it's a 2,400-old text. That's not the profile of a dead language. “Letters of Credit” were written originally in Hebrew.
Sometimes, taking something out of context ensures longevity”
Once you have to translate a book in Hebrew, you need to create new words in the target language. It's a tool. It's like expanding your mind when you travel. You see new things and you have to speak about them, you have to describe them. Sometimes it is because new things are invented; other times it's because you see new things. That's the way a language grows.
Our old way of life is disappearing”
Hayim Naluman Bialik was in charge of saving the old Jewish wisdom. Compiling an anthology of stories, sayings, words of wisdom. It was disconnected from the religious and political context. “The Book of Legends” ― the standard shell of Hebrew wisdom; every kid reads it at school.
Shaul Tchernichovsky translated “The Odissey.” A new version just came out and Tchernichovsky is still the best. He takes Classic Hebrew, turns it into Modern Hebrew, and still stays true to Homer. His idea was to form the consciousness of a people finding their place among nations by giving them an epic. “I carry the poetry of victors” ― national pride. My daughter is fourteen and she knows Greek mythology through Tchernichovsky's view.
Translations vastly expanded the language―not only literary ones”
It's fascinating to read agricultural guides from the 1800s. Whenever a translator needs to come up with a word, he creates it and adds options in different languages in brackets. And, whatever caught on, caught on and was incorporated immediately in the press, by teachers. Writing was also a way of inventing words and translating, so the language was expanding.
“The Dictionary of Lost Words” compiles all the words that were rejected. Every now and then, I still use a word that is an option that wasn't adopted, in hopes to give it a second chance.
Hebrew is an extremely dynamic environment”
Literary translations were a way to say, “Yes, we can.” We can have Tchekov and Shakespeare in Hebrew. Literary translations also did another thing: Israel used to be a Socialist country. It's probably a place in the world where Socialism crumbled silently; but that also meant that things were standardized.
The Socialist Party had control of, at least, two publishing houses and decided what would be available on the shelves. This was a political movement led by men of letters. Funding of translations, back then, was centralized―not like in Stalin's Russia, but it was a centralized effort in a way. And the government wrote many of the school books, where they added most of their translations. They demanded seats in the Academy of Language.
I don't now of any other country, from Mexico to Turkey, where poets and writers were the national bards of a language as much as for Hebrew in Israel.
Now, of course, everything is running its own course, because Hebrew is alive―and possibly kicking. Energized Hebrew among 300,000 speakers, and that's no small feat. They say that now, in the world, only three ancient cultures remain alive: Chinese, Tamil, and Hebrew. We do have a reason to be very proud of Hebrew, not only because of what was left for us, but because it runs very deep.

RAFA LOMBARDINO is a translator and journalist from Brazil who lives in California. She has been working as a translator since 1997 and, in 2011, started to join forces with self-published authors to translate their work into Portuguese and English. In addition to acting as content curator at eWordNews, she also runs Word Awareness, a small network of professional translators, and coordinates Contemporary Brazilian Short Stories (CBSS),  a project to promote Brazilian literature worldwide.