BOOKS / The Independent Foreign Fiction Award: Two people lost in a blanket: Dina Rabinovitch talks to Amos Oz's translator, Nicholas de Lange

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The Independent Culture
Nicholas de Lange, translator of Amos Oz's Fima, declared that when he retires he will go into winemaking. 'Both occupations require technical know-how and luck,' he said, 'but above all, both translating and wine-making have one particular thing in common: they are both a gift from God.'

This might sound a touch grandiose, but there is more to come. 'Translating,' said de Lange, 'is a great deal harder than writing. After all, all translators write, but not many writers are able to translate. The Independent's prize ought to go to the translator, not to a translated book. Every word you read is the translator's language, and though people don't often bother to note the translator's name, they should. Because if you have liked a translator's version, what you must look for is his work on another novel - Dostoevsky is quite different in different translations.'

When de Lange and Oz first met some 20 years ago in Oxford, de Lange spoke no Hebrew and Oz not very much English. 'It was the strangest thing,' said de Lange. 'He simply read aloud to me in Hebrew. We had a great understanding between us - in those days we communicated in sign language, and we still communicate telepathically.

'Nora Smallwood of Chatto, one of Britain's great publishing visionaries, took Amos on, and quite extraordinarily took me on as well, paying for me to go out to Israel and work with Amos. I did that twice, for periods of three weeks. Now, we communicate mainly by phone, but the mutual understanding is the same. It goes into me in Hebrew, and comes out in English.

'Fima was difficult to get over to an English readership because it's full of Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism) which most English readers don't appreciate. Mind you, having read the Israeli reviews, I suspect they didn't understand it either.

'The translation was not helped by the choice of title - Fima - which is quite different from the Hebrew. My suggestion was 'A State of Grace', but unfortunately translators don't get much say over the important points like cover illustration and title.

'You know,' he summarised, 'Amos once said something about the art of translating, with which I totally disagree. He said a translation is like making love through a blanket. I assume he meant by that that it must be a frustrating experience. Well, that's simply not true - I'd say it's more like sleeping with two people at once. Mind you, neither of those are experiences which I have tried.'