Discover the longlist: Jessica Cohen, ‘Fiction is where I feel most comfortable and most creative’

Longlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize, Jessica Cohen is the translator of More Than I Love My Life.

Having won the 2017 International Booker Prize with David Grossman for A Horse Walks into a Bar, she discusses her passion for the art of translation and how she views familiarity as an asset in her work.

Jessica Cohen

Written by Jessica Cohen

How does it feel to be longlisted for the International Booker – an award which recognises the art of translation in such a way that the translators and author share the prize money equally should they win? 

The International Booker is exceptional in its full recognition of translators, and so it is a profound honour to be long-listed for this award. Having won the MBIP in 2017, I can say that it was the high point of my career, and both David and I still look back on that occasion with joy. Many of the judges (this year in particular) not only have a keen ear for good literature, but are intimately familiar with the challenges of literary translation, which makes it particularly meaningful to be on the list. Translators have been gaining more visibility and appreciation in recent years (which is hopefully beginning to be reflected in better working conditions and remuneration), and the International Booker has undoubtedly played a part in this development.  

What first drew you to working in translation and how do you find in particular, translating fiction? 

I grew up bilingual and fell into a commercial translation job after university. I began translating literature because I’ve always loved writing but never had the storytelling drive, and whenever I read things I loved in Hebrew, I found myself thinking, “I wonder if I could write this in English?” Literary translation eventually took over, and although I enjoy translating non-fiction and the occasional play or screenplay, fiction is where I feel most comfortable and most creative. Being able to fully engage with character development, dialogue, settings, and the ideas behind the stories is what I find most enriching as both a reader and a translator. 

What’s your earliest reading memory? 

Reading Helen Oxenbury’s ABC Of Things with my mum!

2017 Man Booker Prize

I think this familiarity is an asset, and my longstanding relationships with a few authors and their writing is one of the things I cherish most about my work

What did you enjoy most about translating More Than I Love My Life? What did you find most challenging?

The answer to both questions is the same: the character of Vera. She speaks in her own vernacular, a cobbled-together, strangely-accented Hebrew, full of literal translations of idioms from her many native languages and some impenetrable expressions that she seems to have invented. Her language both reflects her personality and, in some ways, creates it. At a gathering of translators with David Grossman, we were treated to his loving but hilarious imitations of Eva Panić Nahir, the real-life inspiration for Vera, and I could hear her cadence and accent (as conveyed by David) in my mind while I was translating the book. I enjoyed recreating her in English, but also found it very difficult to replicate her idiosyncrasies and grammatical errors without making her sound unintelligent.

Aside from the book, what other writing did you draw inspiration from for your translation?

I have yet to read an English-language author who reminds me of David, stylistically. Perhaps that is why he is so beloved: he truly is one of a kind. But having translated five of his books prior to this one, I find that I can build on my familiarity with his writing (the themes, the sensibilities, the distinctive stylistic elements, even certain turns of phrase that he tends to favour) for each successive book. I sometimes wonder if a translator can be too familiar with a writer, which might lead her to automatically resolve difficulties in ways that worked previously, rather than approach them with fresh eyes. But, on the whole, I think this familiarity is an asset, and my longstanding relationships with a few authors and their writing is one of the things I cherish most about my work.

What steps do you take in your process to marry your work with the author’s, beyond literal translation?

Literal translation is the one thing I try not to do, as that is rarely successful and can result in what people have come to think of as a text that ‘sounds like a translation’. While my first draft might be quite literal, most of my subsequent work is focused on getting away from the original (sometimes very far away) in order create a new and distinct English-language work. Although this is a thought-exercise that doesn’t entirely make sense if one thinks about it too much, I do like to ask myself: ‘If the author had written this book in English, how would it have sounded?’

Tell us an interesting fact about the book.

The book makes several references to a work entitled The Ideal Marriage: Its Physiology and Technique, by Theodor Hendrik van de Velde, which one of the characters (the novel’s narrator, Gili) finds as a young girl and is very taken with. Most of the translators (myself included) assumed David had made up this book, as it sounded so outlandish and the quotes so laughable. But it is a real book, originally written in Dutch, and was widely translated and read in the 1930s and ‘40s. We each had to track down editions in our respective languages to try and make sense of the references and provide the equivalent quotes in our translations, which was not made any easier by our eventual realisation that the Hebrew translation was quite inaccurate.

Tell us about a book that changed your life.

Life-changing is a tall order, but David Grossman’s The Yellow Wind was hugely influential on my burgeoning political awareness when it came out in Hebrew, in 1987. Published less than a year before the First Intifada erupted, it was a report on David’s travels in the Palestinian territories that had been occupied twenty years earlier by Israel. His observations, and conversations with both Palestinian residents and Jewish settlers, offered Israelis a glimpse into a reality most of them did not want to see, and his fears of what the ongoing occupation would inflict on the Palestinians and corrupt within Israeli society turned out to be all too prescient. As an adolescent, the book was like nothing I’d read before, and my friends and I devoured it, wielding David’s trenchant observations as fodder in the political arguments we so loved to engage in. I once even met David when he spoke about the book with a youth group I was in. If anyone had told me then that one day I would be translating his books into English, I’m sure I would have found the idea absurd!

What book haven’t you finished?

Moby Dick.