Translating Humor: Jessica Cohen Gets Jokes to Land in Second Language

“If it bends, it’s funny; if it breaks, it isn’t.”

In his latest novel, the Israeli author David Grossman sets himself a near impossible task—to write a tale of tragedy set at a comedy club, all in the course of single stand-up set. As Gary Shteyngart warns in The New York Times Book Review, it’s a work that “only a true master—a Lenny Bruce, a Franz Kafka—could dream of replicating. Don’t try this at home, folks. I know I won’t.” A Horse Walks into a Bar, translated by Jessica Cohen and just longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, is a 194-page tour de force and, again citing Shteyngart, “there is nothing extraneous, not one comma, not one word, not one drop of comic’s sweat . . . Its technical proficiency is astounding.” Of course he’s referring here to the English-language edition, not to the original Hebrew, which makes this is in large part a compliment to Jessica Cohen, who somehow gets the jokes into English. This despite the translator’s three greatest obstacles: puns, idioms, and foreign context. Even the setting of the novel, Netanya—an apparently dumpy Israeli city—is the butt of countless jokes. Won’t the American reader, unfamiliar with the place or references, yawn through this all? Not this American reader, who read the novel in a single sitting, laughing and crying, at first in turns and, by the end, simultaneously. Figuring out how Cohen managed to “[turn] the performance into fluent, America-style patter, bad-a-bing bad-a-boom,” as Ken Kalfus writes for The Washington Post, is precisely why I’m talking to her now.

Here’s a quick run-down of the plot: Dov Greenstein (stage name: Dovaleh G) is an aging comedian with a tragic past. In one night of stand-up—to which he invites an old friend, Avishai Lazar, a witness to the defining event of this tragic past—Dov takes the crowd on something of a haunted hay ride. He cracks them up, taunts them, taunts (and hits) himself, bores them, entertains them again, loses their respect, and sheds his dignity openly, meanwhile sharply critiquing his native country and opening up important discussions about historical atrocities (his mother was a Holocaust survivor) and personal grief. The tale’s central event, recounted between barbs, potshots, and one-liners, takes place at a junior Israeli Army camp, when Dovaleh was 14—but that’s all I’ll say.

Todd (T): Here you have a book set in Netanya, a city that no American—and maybe no Israeli?—has ever heard of, and, as in most stand-up sets, the comedian breaks the ice by slamming the host city. Again and again. How did you approach this dilemma? Did you find yourself having to add context here and there, to let foreign readers in on the joke?

Jessica (J): Every translator knows she will run into something maddening in the course of a translation—a colloquialism with no equivalent in English, a culturally-specific term that can’t be neatly translated, etc. But I don’t usually expect to hit this brick wall in the very first sentence of a book, and that’s what happened with A Horse Walks into a Bar. The novel begins with the protagonist, a stand-up comedian named Dovaleh G, yelling from offstage (translated literally): “Good evening, good evening, good evening Ceasariyaaaah!!!” So right off the bat we have the set-up for a joke (which, as you mentioned, is always a challenge to translate), a city that most readers will never have heard of, and to make it worse, this is a line of dialogue, which means there’s little room for explication or “stealth glossing” (to borrow a term coined by Susan Bernofsky). Two paragraphs later, the joke unfolds: “Oh, wait a minute… this isn’t Caesarea, is it?” Dovaleh G then spends several lines building up (and hamming up) the realization that he is in fact not in Caesarea but in Netanya. At this point, if I’d just left things as is, most readers would probably have figured out that there is some sort of dichotomy here: Caesarea is not like Netanya; the speaker is disappointed with his actual location. But that’s not enough to make it funny, and so I needed to somehow get across the conflicting images of these two cities, which every Israeli reader is familiar with. I decided the only way was to add a touch of characterization at the beginning, which is why the final English translation reads: “Good evening! Good evening! Good evening to the majestic city of Ceasariyaaaah!” (the addition is underlined). My hope is that not only does this give an indication of what type of city Caesarea is (an exclusive seaside town populated by the rich and famous) but also gets across some of Dovaleh’s hallmark cynicism.

As for Netanya, it is the butt of many jokes in this book, and not completely without reason. It’s not a “dump” in the traditional sense—Netanya sits on the coast of the Mediterranean, only 20 miles north of Tel Aviv, and has some beautiful beaches. But that’s probably the best thing it has going for it. Roughly a third of its 200,000 residents are immigrants, many of whom are unemployed, and it has a long-standing association with organized crime, which is the main basis for the book’s Netanya-related jokes. I remember Grossman mentioning that among the many letters he received from readers after the book came out, quite a few were from Netanya residents who were outraged at his perpetuation of the stereotypes about their city! But back to the translation: once I had done what I could to establish the general schema of Caesarea vs. Netanya, I had to trust that the nuances of Netanya’s image would come through in the other jokes and put-downs that Dovaleh strews throughout his performance.

T: That is without doubt a brick wall of a first sentence (and I think you handled it ably). Were you at all reluctant to get into this project, given that comedy was so central, and is so full of linguistic brick walls? Did you come out of it with any unexpected insights?

J: I always have a certain amount of anxiety before I translate David’s works, primarily because I know there will be a lot of exposure, and my translation will therefore be especially scrutinized. But it’s also because he is a writer who takes new risks in every book—whether in genre, language, theme, or all of the above—and it can be daunting to feel that I have to keep up with these ventures. On the other hand, his writing is so thoughtful, and his craft so finely executed, that it balances out the difficulties. I think most translators would agree that it’s easier to translate a truly excellent writer (even if the expectations are higher and the challenges more complex) than a mediocre one.

Regarding the specific challenges of translating humor, that is actually something I encounter in many books, since so many Israeli writers tend to employ humor, albeit of a very dark variety. One of the few guidelines I received from David before I began this translation was that if a joke doesn’t work in English and there’s no obvious equivalent or elegant solution, it’s best to drop it. That was good advice, which I tried to follow. As the adage goes: if you have to explain it, it’s not funny.

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T: Your explication of the opening joke was so intriguing, I’m wondering, were there any other particular jokes that gave you trouble? Perhaps you could give us a brief play-by-play of one you had to scrap and one you were able to salvage?

J: Lots of jokes gave me a lot of trouble! Some went through several iterations in the translation—often with David’s input—and in some cases I had to give up. Here’s one where I did a little more cultural transposition than I’m usually comfortable with, but I think it’s faithful to the spirit of the original, and most importantly, it’s funny. This is early on in the show, when Dovaleh G picks on a dolled-up, Botoxed woman in the audience. As part of his tirade, he accuses her of being a member of “ha’kartzion ha’elyon.” This is a pun based on “ha’achuzon ha’elyon,” which means “the top percentile,” a term used by Israelis to refer to the extremely wealthy class (in a country where the gap between rich and poor has grown alarmingly in recent years). But instead of the Hebrew word for “percentile” (achuzon), Dovaleh uses the invented word (invented by Grossman, that is): kartzion, which derives from kartzia, Hebrew for “tick”—and by extension: a pest, a blood-sucker, an exploiter. Needless to say, this was not going to work in English. Puns are hard enough, but this one uses a made-up word! I knew I wanted to use “the one percent,” because the term has become so loaded—and so wonderfully brimming with contempt—that I thought it would inject exactly the right tone here, even though it is fairly specific to U.S. culture and politics. After several attempts, I went back to the preceding sentence, in which Dovaleh “detect[s] the faint whiff of a shitload of money emanating from your direction,” and I took the olfactory element one step further to come up with: “Eau de one percent.”

A few pages later there is an example of a joke I ultimately decided to drop, with Grossman’s approval. While roasting another audience member, Dovaleh makes a particularly mean joke about the man’s eyebrows being joined together. This is followed, in the original, by his parody of a right-wing anthem of sorts, a political song penned by the founder of Revisionist Zionism, Ze’ev Jabotinsky (who is mentioned in the subsequent monologue). The parody involves the Hebrew words gadot, which means “banks” (as in the West bank) and gabot, which means “eyebrows.” Non-Israeli readers could not be expected to know the original song, and any attempt to explain it would involve far too much historical and political background, which would make for a very unfunny moment. I tried to force something in here at first (in one early draft I experimented with “Two brows beat as one”), but everything I tried was too clunky and simply not funny, so it had to go.

T: Any other advice for translators when approaching puns and wordplay and other issues with linguistic and cultural context? Better to play it safe, or take the risk?

J: I would have to refer translators of humor to the motto of one of Woody Allen’s smarmiest and most wonderful characters, Lester, in Crimes and Misdemeanors (although the line is allegedly cribbed from comedic writer Larry Gelbart): “If it bends, it’s funny; if it breaks, it isn’t.” In other words: taking risks is essential, but if you push a joke (or a wordplay) so far that you have a hunch it’s about to break, it probably is. And as with any translation, the best way to be sure is to let the text sit for as long as you can, and then read it out loud. You will be surprised at how much you catch (good and bad) when you do this. And, incidentally, that is another piece of advice I received from David Grossman, which has served me well. 

T: Any new projects in the works?

J: Always! I’m currently translating a long, dense, furious novel by Nir Baram called World Shadow (forthcoming from Text Publishing in 2018). It’s very political stuff, but also very human, and takes place in multiple countries around the world, featuring several characters who are neither Hebrew-speaking nor in any way connected to Israel. This makes for a very interesting translation challenge (in a way, bringing English-as-written-in-Hebrew back into English), and I’m enjoying it immensely. And out in April is my translation of Baram’s non-fiction book, a collection of his impressions from eighteen months of travel up and down the “Green Line” in Israel and Palestine.

Jessica Cohen was born in England, raised in Israel, and now lives in the United States. She has translated contemporary Israeli fiction, nonfiction and other creative works, including David Grossman’s To the End of the Land.

Todd Portnowitz is the recipient of a Raiziss/de Palchi Fellowship from the Academy of America Poets, and is the translator of two forthcoming books: Midnight in Spoleto by Paolo Valesio (Fomite, 2017) and Viva il latino by Nicola Gardini (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2018). He lives and works in New York, where he co-hosts the writer-translator reading series, Us&Them.

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  • Assaf

    What sad, sad, sad, memorable book. If I’d trust anyone to translate it, it’s Jessica.