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Man Booker Winners Agree: Translating Jokes Is Hard

LONDON — On Wednesday night, the Israeli author David Grossman and the British-born, Israel-raised, Denver-based translator Jessica Cohen  jointly won the Man Booker International Prize for the novel “A Horse Walks Into a Bar,” which Mr. Grossman wrote and Ms. Cohen translated into English. This is the fourth time Ms. Cohen has translated one of Mr. Grossman’s works of fiction.

The novel centers on a performance by a small-time comedian in a basement club in Israel as he uses his routine to exorcise demons from his past.

In an interview in London on Thursday, Mr. Grossman and Ms. Cohen discussed the novel and the process of translating a comedic work from one culture, and one language, into another. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

How did you meet? Who first put you in touch?


JESSICA COHEN No, I don’t believe in that. But the next thing closest to god isDeborah Harris, who is David’s agent. And I got in touch with her when I started out translating, because she represented some major Israeli authors.

What was the process of working on the first book of David’s that you translated, “Her Body Knows”?

It was only the second book that I’d [ever] translated. I was really starting out and quite anxious at the prospect of meeting a famous author who I admired. I’m sure I asked some very bad questions. I had impostor complex and thought that this might be beyond me.

[The process has] evolved since then a lot. Generally, I read the book once it’s already out. I read it through, just as a reader. I do start to hear it in my mind in English. I hear and see the characters, the way I think they would be if David were writing in English.

“A Horse Walks Into a Bar” obviously raises a particular question of how to translate jokes. Are there any examples of jokes you weren’t able to translate?

COHEN There were a few examples of jokes — not so much because of pacing or sound but because of cultural knowledge a non-Israeli reader wouldn’t have — that just weren’t going to work in English. Obviously if you have to explain something, it’s not funny. There were some cases like that where I managed to come up with a kind of equivalent. Some things we just had to drop.

The example that comes to mind now is a joke that builds on a very, very famous Israeli song or phrase. I can tell you it, but the translation would sound so idiotic. It’s an old Zionist kind of slogan. “The River Jordan has two banks: This one’s ours, and this one’s also ours.”

It rhymes in Hebrew. It’s a joke that has to do with kind of a silly wordplay, two words that sound similar in Hebrew.

Obviously there was just no way to do that. I really wanted to make it work, and I tried and tried and tried, and I remember my husband and I sat one evening trying to think of some way to make this work, and we basically gave up.

I think I was able to work in a different joke a little bit later on, which I sometimes like to do if the author agrees. You know, if I see, an “in” later on in that paragraph or that page to kind of compensate for the loss, then I’ll take that.

GROSSMAN The whole idea of translation is really a great mystery. Because I write in Hebrew, and I write sentences that echo something, maybe from the Bible, maybe from history, maybe from modern Hebrew culture, and then Jessie takes it and translates it to American English, and it has its own vibration and magnetic field of meaning that appeals to the American reader, and resounds and rings all kinds of bells.

It’s always a question, “What do we read when we read translation?” It’s a fact that we all grew up on translations. We all read Chekhov and Gogol and Dostoyevsky and all the giants; we read them in translation, and it was coherent for us, and it acted upon us.

So what is this magic? What remains? It’s not only the backbone of the plot. It’s something else. And I just don’t know what it is.

How often do you two interact when you translate?

COHEN I usually prefer to do one whole draft before I show it to anyone or discuss anything, and along the way I’ll mark things that I know are going to be questions. Then I’ll actually do a second draft before I send those questions, because often you find the answers when you get to a later point in the book. Once I’ve gone over it a second time, I know what my questions are, and I’ll send them. If we’re fortunate enough to be in the same country at the same time, I can ask him directly. But usually it’s by fax or email. I get some responses back, and sometimes there are things that need a bit more discussion, back and forth.

Was there any point of contention or disagreement on the translation of anything in the book?

COHEN I don’t think that’s ever really happened to us.

With this book, several translators all working into their respective languages met at a center in Germany. We had a kind of a retreat there with David, where we sat down every day around a table and went over the text almost word for word, stopping at the bits that we thought were difficult or that he wanted to emphasize.

GROSSMAN We were, I think, 12 translators. I think what was special was that you were able to hear the melody with which I read the story.

COHEN I had the recording from the last one, and to hear him read it and hear where he pauses, where he stresses, it just gives you a whole different way of understanding things. And with “A Horse Walks Into a Bar,” because so much of it is spoken, it also really helps to hear how he was envisioning the character when he wrote it.

Is there anything different about the rhetorical structure of a joke in Hebrew and one in English, like where the punch line lands?

COHEN There tends to be more wordplay in Hebrew. That’s more of a legitimate, grown-up form of humor. Whereas I think in English, that tends to be reserved for kids. Puns are considered kind of the lowest form of humor. But not so in Hebrew.

GROSSMAN By the way, the most famous joke, about “the horse walks into a bar” does not exist in Hebrew. The barman asks him, “Hey, why the long face?” In Hebrew, we just don’t have this expression. “Long face” has nothing to do with a horse.

COHEN Yeah, it’s meaningless in Hebrew.