The Fear of Getting it Wrong, the Sound of Getting it Right

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December 2, 2010
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Todd Hasak-Lowy

The moment I sat down as a translator, opened the book for which I was now responsible — Asaf Schurr’s Hebrew novel Motti — and read the first sentence, I suddenly realized, with more than a bit of anxiety, that I had no idea what I was doing.

Now I was, as far as first-time translators go, at least theoretically qualified. I had to my name a doctorate in Hebrew literature and two published books of fiction. The languages, narrowly speaking, weren’t the problem. But as I read and reread that first sentence, I became aware of how infinite was my task — not because this novel is particularly long (it isn’t) or unusually complicated (it’s not), but because each sentence presented dozens of opportunities for me to make the absolutely wrong decision.

I feared I would make the wrong decision because I believed that making the right decision was a clear impossibility. I was drawn to this text because I sensed Schurr had done something new in Hebrew — not necessary revolutionary, but something wonderfully distinct, something I knew was distinct precisely because I couldn’t define it as anything but different. I couldn’t simply name or classify this distinctness and then move on. So my job as a translator was, I felt, to somehow render this distinctness in English, even though I didn’t know what it was.

This distinctness was, obviously, linguistic in some sense, since his book was just that, a collection of words. The word “tone” might come closest to it, but it wasn’t quite that either; it was something singular, located in the relationship among the words, the real-world things they appeared to point to, and the hesitant manner in which Schurr used them (the novel is full of strangely poignant hypotheticals and painfully sincere, self-conscious asides). Even after giving it much thought, I still only understood the novel’s distinctness by the way it made me feel. Try translating such a feeling.

Nevertheless, thanks to the authority I assigned to the deadline in my international contract, I eventually started, forcing myself to string together a series of English words that seemed a reasonable version of the Hebrew original.

Then, I got lucky. I always listen to music when I write or work. In the best of circumstances, the music I’m listening to should still be new to me, a piece I’m discovering as I discover whatever it is I’m discovering as I write (for instance, I wrote at least half of a novel while living inside Keith Jarrett’s “The Köln Concert” for the better part of a year).

I had, almost on a whim, recently purchased a single-instrument recording of Philip Glass’ “The Orphée Suite for Piano,” performed by Paul Barnes. Like all of Glass’ music, it’s quite repetitive. Only in contrast to the often breakneck tempo and overpowering dynamics in much of Glass’ compositions, this recording is restrained, gentle, yet emotionally powerful. And plainly beautiful. As I worked through Asaf’s novel, I found myself returning to this recording again and again until I accepted the fact that there was no point in pretending I wanted to listen to anything else. By the time I reached the last third of the translation, which I finished in an insane hurry over the course of a couple of weeks, it seemed this music was playing inside the protagonist’s apartment.

So how exactly did listening to this solo piano recording inform and even facilitate the actual process of translation? The answer begins with the fact that I’m certain this recording made me feel almost precisely what I felt when I read Schurr’s book. In other words, I had stumbled upon a sort of synesthetic correspondence between a work of literature and a piece of music. I still couldn’t — and can’t — fully name what I felt in either case, but now I felt it more clearly and more fully — I could feel it with the touch of a button. Better yet, the music, unlike the Hebrew novel, could be in two texts at once. I could read my English inside the same sonic space and know — by paying attention to the existence of various cross-medium harmonies and dissonances — whether or not I had captured the language and meter and tone in my translation.

The phrase “lost in translation” suggests, at least to me, a process that occurs not merely over time but across distance as well. During this act of translation, I often found myself feeling like a smuggler of sorts, transporting a massive, intricate, and fragile object in small, intricate, and fragile pieces through a subterranean tunnel. My time spent underground, in between Schurr’s Hebrew and my reconstruction in English on the other side, was both unavoidable and taxing. I was certain I would damage the goods en route or simply forget how to put it all together once I got to the other side. But the music prevented either from happening, to the point that I knew I was doing justice to Schurr’s novel well before I finished. Indeed, I was a bit sad when I finished. But I had some consolation: I could still listen to the music.

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Todd Hasak-Lowy is an associate professor of Hebrew language and literature at the University of Florida. His most recent works are Captives, a novel, and a short story collection, The Task of This Translator.

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