Books: Independent Foreign Fiction Award: Symbol machine on full throttle: Natasha Walter talks to Hillel Halkin, translator of Mr Mani by A B Yehoshua (Peter Halban 15.99)

HILLEL HALKIN became aware of the work of A B Yehoshua, one of Israel's foremost novelists, when he moved to Israel from New York in 1970. He first translated Yehoshua's A Late Divorce and Five Seasons, and feels that in Mr Mani 'Yehoshua has reached his full potential. One of his problems before was that the symbolic machine sometimes throttled the story. Although Mr Mani has its carefully planted symbols, the story has really taken off'.

Halkin works as a literary critic and journalist as well as translator, and has translated a wide range of Hebrew books. The real problem in translating from Hebrew to English, is the 'rich tradition of intertextuality. Writers tend to refer to other books in the Hebrew tradition. If you know the sources - especially the Bible and other Jewish texts - that adds a whole dimension to the work that is pretty well untranslateable.'

Mr Mani poses particular problems because of its complex structure. The book is composed in five one-sided dialogues which feature only half of each coversation. And the novel moves back in time from the present day to end in the 19th century, retracing the history of the Mani family. 'Each one is in a different Hebrew style, for which I had to find some kind of equivalent English. I tended to get more ornate as I moved back in time, to play with the punctuation, to have more colons and dashes, as 19th-century English tends to have. But one chapter presented a particular opportunity - a dialogue between two English officers in the First World War. There, I had the odd experience of putting in the very experience for which the Hebrew was only a translation. The First World War English that I used reads better than the Hebrew.'

Halkin admits that he tends to a freestyle approach to translating. 'I like to be left pretty much to myself. Yehoshua reads English, but he doesn't take a very active role and I like that. I like free reins and a good gallop.'

For Israeli writers, the English translation of their works often reaches a wider audience than the original. Halkin's version of Mr Mani comes with recommendations from American writers Saul Bellow and Cynthia Ozick, and he is aware of the enormous significance of the Anglo-American audience for the Hebrew writers that he translates. 'Translations are very important for Israeli novelists. This is a small country, a language that very few people know. One can feel rather claustrophobic here - not physically but intellectually - and translation is the way to break through to the wider world.'