Thursday, November 3, 2011

Interview with Gili Bar-Hillel

Posted by Simcha 4:23 PM, under | 4 comments

Whenever I visit a bookstore, after checking out the small selection of English books available,  I like to peruse the Hebrew SciFi & Fantasy section to see which books have been translated into Hebrew. I'm always curious as to how these particular books were chosen for translation, what the process involved, and perhaps, why other books that I've enjoyed are not on the bookshelf ( I am baffled by the fact that I have not seen any Brandon Sanderson in Hebrew). When I recently came across Gili Bar-Hillel on Twitter, and found out that she works as book translator for Israeli publishers, I jumped at the chance to have some of my questions about the subject answered.

Luckily for me Gili graciously agreed to an interview, and I preceded to inundate her with questions, all of which she patiently answered (including the second batch, that came after I discovered that Gili now works in the YA acquisition department for an Israeli publisher. What a job!)


Thanks so much Gili for taking the time to do this interview.

Can you start of by telling me about your job as a translator?

GB: I'm less of a translator than I used to be: nowadays I'm more on the publishing end of things. That is, I read and evaluate books in English, decide which books are appropriate for my imprint (the Young Readers series for Graff Publishing), negotiate rights, select the translators, push the translation through the different stages, have final say in editing decisions, cover design, marketing... I don't translate for my own imprint because I believe there needs to be a system of checks and balances and I can't edit myself. I've been turning down new translation projects because I simply don't have the time, unless I'm offered something particularly delicious.

How do you begin the process of translating a book from English to Hebrew?

GB: Usually translators are approached by publishers and offered a project: a translator who is in demand can afford to be choosy. I've been fortunate enough that in some instances I was able to suggest projects to publishers and have them take me up on my offer: that's how The Annotated Peter Pan came about. With a book I haven't read before, I usually ask to read the book before deciding if it's something I want to translate. I've been very fortunate and to date all the books I've translated have been books that I liked, and several were books I absolutely adored. Reading a book once just for the experience is important in several ways: it helps to understand the emotional impact of different parts of the book, to establish a roadmap of the plot, to mark out potential challenges in advance... then I translate, then reread what I translated and edit as necessary, then it's off to the publisher for outside editing. My preferred way to work is to be in touch with the editor, and to see and approve all the changes. This is important both because I don't always agree with the editors and I can sometimes catch their mistakes, and because reviewing good changes is the only way to learn and improve.

How closely do you work with the authors whose work you translate?

GB: It really depends on the author. I mean, obviously, some authors are already dead... but living authors run the gamut from those who want absolutely nothing to do with their translators, like J.K.Rowling, to those who are thrilled to be in touch with their translators and will share all sorts of insights. I've even heard of an author who added a few paragraphs especially for the Hebrew translation. Obviously it's most fun when the author does answer questions, and I believe authors benefit from this as well, because few readers develop a relationship with the text that is as close and detailed as a translator's.

Do you just work with genre books or non-genre as well?

GB: My first steps in translation were not even in literature: I once translated a manual for contractors working at Intel. Boring as all hell, but pays about three times as much as literature. I translated "Predictably Irrational" by Dan Ariely which is non-fiction. And several of the children's books I've translated are not genre books, but I do prefer children's and/or YA books to adult literature, simply because it's my forte and my favorite reading material.

How many books have you translated so far?

When last I counted it was about 40...

How did you get started as a book translator?

GB: I wanted to be a theater director but theater did not love me. Children's books did, and they stalked me down and MADE me translate them.

What are books are you currently working on?

GB:  Again, I'm not translating that much any more. If I do take a new translation project, it has to be something short and particularly attractive like a classic or a beloved childhood book. I just translated The Worst Witch by Jill Murphy, which was the first proper book I read when I first started reading at age 5; next in line which I couldn't turn down: The 101 Dalmations by Dodie Smith.

What is the most challenging aspect of translating a book?

GB:  Dealing with cultural gaps and differences in idiom. Sometimes there are things that are deceptively simple in one language, but completely alien to another. Verbs like "frown", "gasp", "scuttle"... the meaning is very clear but Hebrew just doesn't do that.

Do you only translate from English to Hebrew?

GB:I translate from English to Hebrew and more rarely from Hebrew to English, which is a completely different way of translating... It's like the difference between pouring from a washtub into a jug, and pouring from a jug into a washtub.

What has been your most interesting experience as a book translator?

GB: Translating the Harry Potter books was a life altering experience, mostly because it brought me celebrity (and sometimes notoriety) on a scale very seldom experienced by translators. I was not merely a translator, I was an ambassador of Potter, with all the implied diplomatic complications.

Fantasy books are often full of imaginary words created by the author and I am curious how you go about translating such words. Do you rewrite them in Hebrew, make up your own words to replace them, or use some other method?

GB:  I play it by ear, depending on my understanding of the original. When an author is as playful and inventive as Rowling, I feel the translation should be playful and inventive as well, and I enjoy making up my own words. But sometimes invented words are just a brand name or something pseudo-scientific, and the Hebrew should follow that as well. I give many detailed examples in my lectures, and do have an FAQ set up on my website in Hebrew where I discuss many examples, though I haven't updated it in a while.

Have there been any Hebrew scifi or fantasy books translated into English? Is there any particular Israeli speculative fiction book that you would like to see translated into English?

GB:  I'm not a good person to ask this question of, I don't read a lot of Israeli fiction. Some would argue that Meir Shalev writes magical realism, and all his books are translated. Shimon Adaf's book Sunburned Faces is being translated and it's highly worthwhile, it's not clearly fantasy but dabbles in fantasy... his book The Buried Heart is a much more classic there-and-back-again children's book, I'm sorry it has not been translated. And Assaf Ashery has written an urban fantasy, Waiting in the Wings, that could easily be translated. (I should mention that both these authors are personal friends of mine.)

Do you ever get to meet the authors whose books you translate? If so, which author were you most excited to meet, or, which author would you want to meet the most?

GB:  I met Diana Wynne Jones, an author I absolutely idolized, and I had translated her Howl's Moving Castle. Dan Ariely who wrote Predictably Irrational is a colleague of my mother's and specifically asked for me to translate his book. Some authors I've translated have been so friendly online that I feel I've met them, for example Wendy Orr who wrote Nim's Island. It's always nicer when the authors are forthcoming, but you translate the book to the best of your ability either way.

And since you mentioned that you work in acquiring books for translation, I'd love to ask you some questions about this as well.

Can you tell me how you decide which books would be suitable for Israeli teens and kids?

GB:  I go by my gut. Israeli kids are not that different from kids in other countries, and the differences seem to be diminishing with global culture and the internet.

How do Israeli YA readers' taste in books compare to American readers?

GB: Again, not that different.

For what reasons would you choose to not translate a book into Hebrew?

GB:  Sometimes there are technical difficulties: Scott Westerfeld has a series, "The Midnighters", in which 13-letter words play an important part, and I couldn't think of any way around that. It's nearly impossible to generate 13-letter words in Hebrew. Or I might turn down a book set, say, in a Catholic school if I think the cultural differences are too numerous to explain - though if the book has true depth and quality, that shouldn't really matter. I might turn down a book that is too rooted in local culture and dialect for being too difficult to translate. I've given these examples as books that I would turn down even if they are good, but of course I turn down 99% of books simply because I don't like them or think they are not good enough.

What is currently the most popular YA book, translated from English?

Fads come and go. The Hunger Games is doing well now, Diary of a Wimpy Kid is a big hit in Israel. I don't get too excited about bestsellers. I'm more interested in books that have staying power, classic qualities that you can imagine future generations still appreciating. At the same time, bestsellers are our bread and butter, and they allow us to continue working. The Percy Jackson books that we publish are such bestsellers: I enjoy them and believe in them, but I can't say I'm confident they will still be loved 20 years from now; however they do allow us to publish books like The Homeward Bounders or Archer's Goon by Diana Wynne Jones, which don't sell nearly as well but which I feel are classics for the ages.

What books are you currently reading?

GB:  I'm reading Tantony by Australian author Ananda Braxton-Smith, set on the same island as her stunning book Merrow. So much of the appeal of these books is in the language, I can't decide if they would even translate into Hebrew without losing too much of their soul.


Thanks again Gili for a fantastic interview!

For more information about Gili Bar-Hillel you can visit her blog (though it's mostly in Hebrew) or follow her on Twitter.


It was nice to read an interview with a translator :)

I usually do not read translated books, I fear too many bad fantasy books :/ They do not know how to translate those here

I think it is so cool to be able to be so talented to translate books into another language. Especially since language is so imprecise.

What a fascinating post! I am always in awe of translators, especially if the translation retains all the nuances of the original. I like how you call yourself as an "ambassador" - such an apt title!

Thanks Simcha, it was my pleasure to participate. I just wanted to point out that the cover image you used for "The Annotated Peter Pan" is the Norton edition annotated by Maria Tatar: this is not what I was referring to. I translated Peter Pan and wrote my own original annotations in Hebrew for Aryeh Nir Publishing in Israel. (More accurately, what I annotated was "Peter and Wendy" and "Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens".)

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