Most modern-day literary translators have completed some level of formal education, but Jessica Cohen isn't most translators. Born in England and raised speaking Hebrew in Israel, Cohen now calls Denver home. "Freelancer" might be the best term for Cohen, though she does work closely and often with Israeli author David Grossman (whom she refers to as "her author" by phone), with whom she recently shared the Man Booker Prize for A Horse Walks Into A Bar. Cohen appears for "The Art of Translation," a discussion at the Center for Contemporary Arts this Sunday (3:30 pm. Free. 1050 Old Pecos Trail, 982-1338) to provide a closer look at the trials of the field in conversation with local linguistics PhD Bonnie Ellinger as part of the Santa Fe Jewish Film Festival.
How does one get into literary translation work?
You'd get a different answer to that from every translator you asked. It's the kind of job people fall into, though there are more and more translation studies and programs now. I grew up bilingual, did a little bit of translation as a student—mostly for other students—and then, by luck, I got a job translating software for Microsoft while I lived in Seattle. I did other commercial translation; personal documents, legal stuff; but I found more and more that I was enjoying the satisfaction of working with literature. I find it more personally enriching and challenging.
We hear that translating the nuance and subtlety of humor might be the hardest part. Is this true?
It's definitely a challenge. So much of humor and jokes is dependent on the culture, even within the same country. It can be based on regional or local. … Some cities have jokes you'd only understand if you're from that city.
Do translators often share credit for awards like you recently did with David Grossman?
It's a difficult line of work, and I have to say most people who read translated literature don't stop to think, 'Wait. Someone stopped to read and redo this book in a whole different language.' It's a whole art form unto itself, but there aren't really awards for the translator to share credit the way the Man Booker does. Maybe one day there will be more.