Word Thieves

Three hundred translators watched transfixed as an assortment of colleagues, speaking from their isolated studies across the globe in their respective languages, faced the camera and opened a narrative vein: out poured their stories of how they got interested in the Hebrew language, the years they spent cultivating their peculiar passion, the emotional relationships they maintained with the dead and living authors with whom they spent their waking hours, the daily warfare they waged against the Hebrew language’s obstinate refusal to fit its rhythms and archeological layers to the structural and cultural molds of their far-flung nations.

The film was “Translating,” by the Israeli filmmaker Nurith Aviv, a series of in-depth monologues by translators from Hebrew into other languages, and the occasion the annual conference of the Israel Translators Association in Jerusalem. The audience, whose linguistic gaps were filled by Hebrew subtitles, could identify with the speakers’ singular strain of obsession, their solitude, and their implicit surprise at being for once in the spotlight instead of the shadows wherein they normally lurk. The symphony of the dozen or so languages in which these unsung laborers told their stories, all referring to the one language they shared and revered, was mesmerizing.

In Barcelona, Manuel Forcano, a lapsed Catholic, told in Catalan how translating poet Yehuda Amichai, a once-orthodox Jew, helped him come to terms with his faithlessness. The Lithuanian-born Sivan Beskin, in Tel Aviv, recalled in Russian how she began translating children’s stories by Lithuanian-born Israeli poet Leah Goldberg from Hebrew back into the poet’s native Russian, so that her immigrant parents could read those stories to her children. Near Paris, Itshok Niborski spoke in a Spanish-accented Yiddish of compiling a Hebrew-Yiddish dictionary of idioms.

At minute 1:03:00 of the film appeared the Israeli author Ala Hlehel, of Acre, introduced himself and explained that his native tongue, which he was speaking, was colloquial Arabic. He learned literary Arabic in school, and then Hebrew, which was “not a neutral language for me, it was charged.” He had only just begun to elaborate – “it is the language of occupation, but also of culture” – when the system crashed, those last words frozen on the screen, and a technician rushed over.

Hlehel must not have been on screen for more than 30 seconds when the film stopped, and one had barely begun to take in this new character and absorb his words. But no sooner had the audience realized there was a problem, when a young female voice in my row said out loud: “I’m glad it got stuck. I don’t like what he’s saying.” Then she added: “I don’t like his terminology. It’s not like he’s from the occupied territories, he’s from Israel.”

Trying to understand what there was not to like – the speaker had barely opened his mouth, what “terminology”? – I looked back at the screen, and there it was, the “O” word, hanging in the air, stuck right in front of our faces, with nothing to do about it and nowhere to go. I felt stung by my colleague’s rudeness. Whereas my engrossment in the film had transported me to that perfect place where we all listen to each other with full attention and respect, the women’s outburst reminded me I was still in Israel. The mixture of sheer discourtesy, intolerance and even incuriosity made me cringe.

How dare she hope Hlehel shut up before he even had the chance to say anything? I, for one, was extremely eager to hear what Hlehel had to say. I had first heard of the 38-year-old author two years ago, when he won a literary award in Beirut but was forbidden by Israel to travel to the ceremony – an administrative injunction he challenged in the Supreme Court and succeeded to overturn. Then, some months ago, a Facebook friend had shared a witty column Hlehel had written about the Arabs “wanting back” all the words Hebrew had “stolen” from them, often mispronouncing and distorting their meanings in the process.

Now here he was, about to share some of his thoughts on the profession that had brought us here today, our shared self-appointed mission of ferrying our insular cultural treasures safely into the bigger world. And after hearing how this was being done by an assortment of people who ranged from strangers to friends, we were now about to hear it from a more challenging perspective, that of our estranged cousins, our intimate nemeses, the Arab minority of Israel. For me it was a peak moment in the film. Yet, my colleague over there in the darkness had already heard enough.

While I waited for the organizers to fix the problem, I fumed. I felt the speaker was in the middle of a very personal confession about who he was and how he had become that person, and this heckler was denying him nothing less than his right of self-determination. I tried to analyze what he had said: Hlehel had referred to Hebrew as “the language of the occupation” and the disembodied voice had said that was not acceptable coming from him as he was not occupied. It took me a moment to locate the problem, but when I did, I was actually impressed at how instantly my colleague had processed the whole situation: in her reasoning, I realized, Hlehel was declaring that his native Galilee, part of Israel since it was founded in 1948, was occupied, which meant he did not recognize Israel, and therefore she, an Israeli, did not recognize him. The linguist in me kicked in: but that’s not what he said, I thought. He said Hebrew was the language of occupation, but didn’t specifically count himself as one of the people under it. He may or may not consider himself occupied but still call it the language of occupation. But even if he was implying he did not recognize Israel, do we Israelis have to be so terrified that we would rather end the conversation right there? I would like to think we have enough confidence to hear dissenting voices, not just ones that make us feel good, and contend with them.

Unfortunately, in today’s Israel, any voice that falls outside of the political mainstream is silenced with outrageous ease. How naïve of me to be surprised that happened here, at an international translators’ conference. It must have also been naïve of me to think anyone with a complicated enough identity to qualify for this line of work was as curious as I was about other people’s complicated identities. Here was one of our esteemed colleagues laying himself bare, exposing the clashes of his battling loyalties, ultimately leading to his amazing choice to dedicate much of his human capital to bringing his people the culture of their adversaries. It was surely the most painful of all the stories we had heard. But apparently it left some people cold.

Thankfully, our competent technician got the film running again and we got to hear Hlehel’s account of pillaging Israeli literature and making it available to the Palestinian people, perhaps getting even with us for all those stolen words. He overcame his initial resistance when he discovered the iconoclastic Hebrew playwright Hanoch Levin and couldn’t resist translating his work, beginning with “The Suitcase Packers,” about a group of people who all want to leave the country, but, instead, die.

The camera panned Acre’s jumble of cinderblock tenements with solar water heaters on their rooftops, with a glimpse of a strip of blue sea on the horizon, as seen from the window of the translator’s study. The translator reverted to his shadows and his silence.