Yohanan Goldman, a translator and a gentleman, 1922-2009

What a trite-sounding heading! Mr. Goldman would grimace, I'm sure.
But I can't help it – I can no longer consult him, and this is how I feel about him. Erudite, wise, discerning, kind… old-worldly in the best sense of the word. And a wonderful translator and editor. Co-founder and co-owner of the company, he translated Ephraim Kishon from Hebrew to English before Miriam Arad took over that responsibility. Anyone who's translated great humorists knows what a tricky job it is.
Personally, I owe Mr. Goldman a huge debt of gratitude: he was the one who approved my sample translation and editing when I applied for the job of in-house editor at Hever Translators Pool in 2002.

At the time, I saw the Hever ad in the paper, thought I was eminently suitable, and sent off my CV. I got no response, but the ad continued to appear. Why are they still looking, I said to myself, when I've already sent them the perfect CV? I sent it again. This time, a cheerful but not very hopeful-sounding girl got back to me. She had trashed my previous application because it said specifically that I was Israeli-born and my mother tongue was Hebrew [and English], and she strongly believed that that wasn't good enough. Out of sheer desperation, she decided to give me a chance. It later turned out that both my sample translation and sample editing passed Mr. Goldman's scrutiny. I got the job, and worked there for four and a half years.

During that time, Mr. Goldman and I would consult each other, exchange dictionaries, browse the extensive reference book shelves, or just bring each other amusing or interesting articles we came across. He had a twinkle in his eye and a calming presence. I miss him already.

Am pasting below the text of a letter my mother wrote to Mr. Goldman. His gracious reply is filed somewhere among her personal papers, and as soon as a find it, I'll paste that, too.

Clara Caren Rimon
12/2 Fichman St.
Ramat Aviv

22 April 2006

Mr. Y. Goldman
Hever Translators Pool
Tel Aviv

Dear Mr. Goldman:

When I heard your name mentioned, I immediately associated it with “the genius who translated the Ephraim Kishon column from Hebrew to English for the Jerusalem Post.”

My late husband and I would vie for first dibs on the paper to read Kishon. How you captured the very essence of Kishon, so perfectly! Sometimes we would get to see the Hebrew, too, and we would marvel at your choice of words that would exactly convey Kishon’s feeling and intention. “How does he do it?” we would ask. Anyone can enjoy Kishon, but for us to be able to enjoy his work in our mother-tongue was an even greater pleasure.

I’ve never read any other of your translations but I feel sure they must be superb.

Kol hakavod! (I’ve never been able to translate that satisfactorily!)

Yours sincerely,

Clara Caren Rimon

Good translation is never a trivial subject

… so I got back from London all gung-ho, excited over brilliant British copywriting, with a notebook full of examples I wanted to share with you.

But before I could do so, there were urgent matters to attend to, then Operation Cast Lead began, and everything else paled and looked trivial and insignificant. Always happens to me (just me?) in times of war -- and gods know I've been through a few of those. Incidentally, doesn't the expression "cast lead" make you sick? Maybe it's supposed to cast fear into the hearts of our enemies, I don't know. Maybe it's part of psychological warfare.

In times of war, obviously there's a constant stream of news that needs to be translated, and it needs to be done fast and accurately. Seems to me that that's the time when good, experienced, professional translators are needed most. These should be thinking translators, who will pick up on writer errors or the inadvisability of certain statements. But, as far as I know, some very good veteran translators have been sacked recently, to be replaced by newbies. Sure, newbies have to start somewhere, sometime. We old timers can't hog the translation scene forever. But… but… but… I can't help feeling the timing is wrong.

In the past couple of weeks I've been laboring over the translation of a weighty paper about French philosophers Montaigne, Bayle, and Diderot – guys that were little more than names to me. I had to do considerable research before even starting on the translation, to have an idea what I'm talking about. Fascinating stuff, by the way; skeptics, all three – right up my alley.

But war trumps philosophy, and several times I was wrenched, mid-epistemological discourse, to translate a government communiqué or report to do with the war, a.k.a the "operation".

We've all complained bitterly in the past that Israel's "hasbara", i.e. PR, advocacy, informational campaign – is sorely lacking. Turns out that there's this guy at some government bureau who decided he must put out a heartfelt letter explaining why Israel is in the right. (This is my interpretation of events. For all I know, maybe his boss told him to write the letter. Or the letter had been part of a contingency plan that was sitting in the files waiting for the right moment. As if.) Not only was the tone of the article whiny and off-putting; but it included a horrendous statement accusing all Europe's Christians of anti-Semitism. I pointed it out to the agency that had sent me the article; the agency was duly horrified and took the matter further. I don't want to make sweeping generalizations, but I'm not sure an inexperienced translator would have trusted him/herself to comment on the content of the text and warn the client of the "blunder", to put it mildly.

A few days later, a not-much-better article appeared in the J. Post. The writer, a former senior government adviser and current presidential adviser, wrote what was obviously supposed to be a heartfelt pro-Israel piece. Not only was it childish and banal in tone, but the translation was amateurish, and contained some amusing mistakes. It's all very well to keep me amused with imperfect translations; but it's not okay to send out to the world such a low-grade product. I suspect that the J. Post is mostly read by Jews, i.e. it is preaching to the choir, or to the converted, or to the synagogue goers. Maybe J.P. editors make allowances; maybe they don’t care if the English is less than perfect. But I care. And if that article was read by the type of persons it was supposed to persuade, it can't have done a good job. A poorly written, poorly translated text surely can't drive home one's message, whatever it is.

Just two examples:

The English translation:
"… the citizens in the southern part of our nation"
Should read: In the south of the country, or in the country's south

The English translation:
"…was caught at sea … and who, with great initiative, threw all his documents into the sea…"
Should read: With great resourcefulness

- Well, there's plenty more where that came from :-)
I have drafts of at least three more posts, so do come back!