The varied life of a Hebrew-English translator
By Dorothea Shefer-Vanson
MEVASSERET ZION, Israel — I never intended to become a translator. It just happened. I first began translating after my daughter was born and I could no longer go out to work. My knowledge of Hebrew was minimal and I frequently had to use a dictionary, but with the passing years this was needed less and less. For a long time I worked from home as a free-lance translator from Hebrew to English, then in a paid position at Israel’s central bank, translating and editing its English-language publications.
As a free-lancer my work was very varied, ranging from novels of varying literary merit to academic articles and books. During that period I spent some years translating what eventually appeared in six volumes as Selected Knesset Debates. These began with the pre-State People’s Council and the pre-Knesset Provisional Council of State, with their fascinating discussions about various aspects of founding the Jewish state. The project continued up to the Ninth Knesset in 1981 (the one sitting now is the Eighteenth), when the funds ran out.
Working on that project brought me into contact with one of the most affable and knowledgeable men I have ever met, Dr. Netanel Lorch. He had been Clerk of the Knesset for many years, as well as the author of several books on subjects relating to Israeli and modern European history. Every few weeks I would go to his house to collect a cardboard box containing another set of thick blue volumes–the Hebrew equivalent of Hansard–receive general guidelines from him about which debates (those of historical interest) and speakers (a representative selection) to focus on.
Then I would go home and delve into the enthralling world of Israel’s early years, with its internal and external conflicts and its moments of triumph and disaster. In a debate about arms coming into Israel prior to the Sinai Campaign in 1956, Prime Minister Ben-Gurion quoted a poem by the ‘national poet,’ Natan Alterman, rather than reply directly to the question. I don’t think that sort of thing happens in the Knesset today. That project stretched my translating abilities to the limit, as well as giving me a rare insight into the rhetorical abilities of Israel’s founding fathers (and mothers).
Since retiring from the Bank of Israel I have slipped back into my previous free-lance role. It makes a change from the turgid prose of practitioners of ‘the dismal science,’ even though I occasionally find myself tackling that material too. Recently I was asked to translate the autobiography of someone who had lived through the pre-state period and Israel’s early days. He recounted his experiences in the Palmach, the pre-state fighting force, being trained in night-fighting by Orde Wingate and bringing clandestine immigrants to the country on ships in varying states of seaworthiness. One of these was the Exodus, which he commanded. I was asked to do this translation in haste as his 98-year-old widow was not in good health and, despite having lived in Israel for sixty years, was unable to read the Hebrew text. Just a month or two after submitting the translation I saw her obituary in the newspaper. I hope she managed to read the memoirs, or that someone had read them to her.
There is a lot to be said for working on a free-lance basis. You are free to take the morning off if you feel like it, or work late at night, if a deadline looms. However, there is also a lot to be said for the security of a steady job, a regular salary and a pension. I still haven’t made my mind up as to which I prefer, but I feel that my work has given me a unique perspective on Israel.
Shefer-Vanson, a freelance writer and translator based in Mevasseret Zion, can be reached at email@example.com This article initially appeared in the AJR Journal, published by the Association of Jewish Refugees in the United Kingdom.