Beneath the Surface: The Untranslated Uri Orlev

Eve Tal

Eve Tal is completing her graduate work in children's literature at Hollins University and holds a Master's Degree in Education. She has published critical articles in The Lion and the Unicorn and Bookbird , as well as several children's books in Hebrew. She is an adjunct professor at the online American Public University where she teaches a course in Holocaust Literature and Educational Pedagogy. This paper evolved from a presentation at the 2003 Children's Literature Association Conference.

Uri Orlev, the winner of the 1996 Hans Christian Anderson Award, is the most widely known Israeli author of children's books. Eight of his children's books have been translated into English, the largest number of any Israeli author who writes for children: six deal with Holocaust themes while two are contemporary picture books. To date, Orlev has written thirty books for children and three for adults in Hebrew. Like the tip of an iceberg, slightly over a quarter of Orlev's work is visible to the English reading public. Why were certain books chosen for translation? Are the untranslated texts inferior to those that have been translated, or are non-literary criteria at work? Does the choice to translate a text into English reflect something intrinsic in the text, or in the society that chooses to translate or reject a particular text? This paper examines Orlev's untranslated works, particularly the works of fantasy, while attempting to find answers to these questions.

Both in Israel and outside, Uri Orlev is best known for his books with a Holocaust theme, but in an interview with the author, he vehemently denied that he writes about the Holocaust, stating instead "I write about my childhood," and insisting that everything he writes is either autobiographical, or resonates with echoes of his youth [1]. Yet it is not Orlev's Holocaust writings alone that make him a popular children's author in Israel. Beginning in the 1970s, he began publishing picture books based on the lives of his own children focusing on common problems of childhood.

Of Orlev's eight children's books with a Holocaust theme, seven have been translated into English: The Island on Bird Street; The Man From the Other Side; Lydia, Queen of Palestine; The Lady With the Hat; The Sandgame; and The Lead Soldiers, which, while originally classified as a book for adults, has made the cross-over into young adult fiction. Run, Boy, Run!, published in Israel in 2001, and just recently released in North America, is based on the harrowing true story of a young Jewish boy accidentally separated from his parents, who learns to live as a Christian among the peasants in the Polish countryside. At the war's end, he faces the difficult choice of remaining with his adoptive family, or coping with an unknown future as a Jewish orphan. Run, Boy, Run! combines the excitement of an adventure story with a portrait of psychological depth. The untranslated Distant Relatives, published in 1996, focuses on the problems of assimilation faced by Orlev and his younger brother on an Israeli kibbutz after the war, rather than the Holocaust.

Unlike his books with a Holocaust theme, Orlev's works of fantasy remain unknown to the English-reading public. Fantasy is not a popular genre in Israel; original Israeli fantasy and science fiction are almost non-existent, while works that do manage to get published are not reviewed (Yanai 16). Most picture books containing fantasy utilize imported sources such as comical witches or anthropomorphic animals, rather than original ideas or motifs indigenous to Jewish or Arab folklore. Orlev's fantasies are unusual for Israeli literature.

In Granny Knits, published in 1980, and translated into Spanish, German, French, Italian, Japanese, Korean and thirteen Indian languages, [2] Orlev creates a character rooted in Jewish folklore: a mysterious grandmother who appears one day in a small European city and proceeds to knit herself a house, garden, and pair of mischievous grandchildren. The school rejects the children for being different: knitted creatures of wool and holes. Granny tries unsuccessfully to fight for her grandchildren's rights. Although her knitted home draws thousands of tourists, she unravels all her creations and determines to find a country that will accept her grandchildren even with their differences. In passages like this, Orlev satirizes the shortsighted bigotry of the establishment:

The council met to hear the plea,
But came out with its own decree,
"In any self-respecting land,
Knitted children must be banned!"
They sent a wire to the powers that be
And then went out for cake and tea.

The accompanying illustration shows a group of well-fed, self-satisfied, cigar-smoking politicians striding to the restaurant.

But despite the humor, a darker thread entwines the story. Orlev relates that when he first saw the illustration of Granny unraveling the knitted house, he found it frightening. Ora Eitan, the illustrator, disagreed, suggesting that the humorous picture frightened Orlev personally. [3] "And then I suddenly thought, 'Perhaps that's true. Perhaps this is the story of my little brother and myself and how everything unraveled for us during the Holocaust, and how we were knitted anew in Israel.'" (DafDaf. my translation). On distinct levels, Granny Knits can be read as satire, Holocaust allegory, and/or as a fantasy about non-conformism and tolerance.

The Beast of Darkness, published in 1976 and translated into German, Spanish, Italian, Korean, and other languages, deals with a boy's fears of the dark, and specifically of a creature who "lives in the darkness under my bed. During the day, she makes herself tiny. But at night, right after Mommy turns out the light, she swells up. She only knows how to swell up in the dark" (5. my translation). The nameless first person narrator slowly makes friends with the beast, but the tone of the story changes when the boy's father is killed: "There was a war, the Yom Kippur War, and Daddy didn't come back" (24). While usually read as a psychological novel dealing with the process of overcoming fear and the death of a parent, the boy considers the Beast real, learns about her past, and has knowledge of events he could not have known about if the Beast were imaginary. The reader experiences the story totally through the narrator's point of view, accepting the existence of the Beast, just as the boy accepts her.

It's Tough to be a Lion, published in 1979 and translated only into Italian, is a comic novel based on the premise that the realization of a child's fantasy will be far more complicated than the child ever imagined. The first person narrator, an unremarkable young man, lives with his mother in Tel Aviv when the story opens. One day he discovers his pet dog conjuring sumptuous meals for himself and learns through conversations with this magical animal that he was an Indian magician in a former life and still retains magical powers. David confesses to his dog that as a child he was the second weakest kid in the class, and along with his friend Zvika, fantasized about turning into a lion. Then the impossible occurs: "I simply woke up one night with a strange feeling and before I could turn on the light, three things happened all at once: my pajamas ripped with a noise like old rags, my wristwatch fell on the floor as the strap burst, and I found myself buried in my bed which had collapsed under my weight" (9. my translation).

David and his friend Zvika move to America and earn a fortune exploiting the man/lion through lectures, movies and commercials. Tiring of this life, David moves to Africa where he learns to be a real lion, even forming a pack and having cubs with a lioness. One day he saves a beautiful animal researcher from a tiger attack and turns back into a human being. Needless to say, he falls in love, marries her, and returns to his former life (and his mother) a rich man. This happy ending clearly sets the story in the realm of fairy tale with the protagonist acquiring both wealth and the princess.

Orlev's only high fantasy, The Dragon Crown, was published in 1982 and translated into German and Dutch. In this story, the peoples of the East and West live separated by an enormous chasm that can only be crossed with the help of a nation of jungle dwellers called the Silent Ones, who worship dragons. A dragon crown enables them to communicate their thoughts to each other.

This secondary world exists at the technological level of the European Middle Ages. The people of the East are entirely virtuous; violence, hatred, quarrels, bad dreams, even words expressing negatives feelings have been outlawed. Everyone is a vegetarian. Guards patrol the streets ensuring that citizens behave with the utmost politeness and consideration. Violators are sent for re-education. In contrast, the people of the West are militaristic, brutal, nasty meat-eaters. Wives and husbands bite and beat each other. Kisses are considered deadly, while laughter and words expressing kindness and love are outlawed. The plot is set in motion when the Silent Ones kidnap the princess of the East. To her rescue, the king sends her teacher, a cabinet minister, and the sole representative of the West living in the East: a prince whose family crossed into the East centuries before and lives a life of violence and evil on their secluded estate.

The plot twists and turns along with the journey of the three rescuers who develop in different ways on their quest into the "underworld" of the West. As C.W. Sullivan III has written: "If much of the content and many of the concrete items come from myth, epic, and legend, the essential structure of high fantasy is taken from the magic tale, the Marchen" (305). The hero prince undertakes a journey into the magic forest, defeating evil powers, performing impossible tasks, and suffering to the brink of death to become worthy of the princess and gain the kingdom, fulfilling the prophecy that brought his family to the East centuries before. The undercurrent of satire on "good" and "bad" behavior adds a level of adult sophistication to the tale, which is one of the few high fantasies written in Hebrew.

Orlev's most recent fantasy, Song of the Whales, was published in 1997 and translated into Italian, Dutch, French and German. [4]The book interweaves realistic detail with fantasy, beginning with the matter-of-fact background of the protagonist's birth in Port Washington, N.Y. through the setting in contemporary Jerusalem. When Michael is nine, his parents move back to Israel to ingratiate themselves with his wealthy grandfather, from whom they have been estranged. Michael, the outsider, shows no interest in the concerns of children his own age but discovers a common language with his grandfather, a former antique dealer, who lives in an enormous three-story house filled with intriguing objects.

Although the story hints at the existence of magic long before it occurs, only when his grandfather suffers a stroke and moves in with the family does Michael discover that he possesses the power to take other people into his dreams, dreams that can influence the daytime world. Grandfather defines these journeys as "slight distortions of reality" (40). Michael joins his grandfather in many of his dreams, becoming a whale, assisting his grandfather to "repair" people's dreams just as he repaired their dull knifes, and watching his parents turn into meat in a vegetarian restaurant. In this novel of magic realism, the worlds of realism and fantasy coexist as Michael and his grandfather move back and forth between them until Michael learns that he has inherited his grandfather's power and will become the next dream fixer.

The narrator never passes judgment on the magical events, which are always seen through the perspective of Michael, the focalizer. As Teya Rosenberg points out, in magic realism "the author does not undermine or contradict the mixture of the real and the magical, nor the reality of the magical" (79). Magic in Song of the Whales undermines the rational perception of western society as typified by Michael's materialistic unimaginative parents who live too much in "the reality of reality" (82). His grandfather wants to "fix things" in the world, which he does through repairing dreams:

[...] women, men and children of every age and type [...] they would all hold out their dreams to grandfather to repair [...] Grandfather would add a little hope, and if they were too black -- would lighten and color them. Dreams that were too hard he would soften and distil. Sometimes he tried to reduce the poison in a venomous dream or blunt the edge of a frightening dream. To the sweet ones he added stabilizer so they would keep their sweetness for a long time.
(69, my translation)

While sharing a contemporary setting with It's Tough to be a Lion and The Beast of Darkness, Song of the Whales contains more depth and complexity. It approaches the emotional power of Orlev's Holocaust stories through the portrayal of the relationship between Michael and his grandfather, and the grandfather's approaching death. While the book makes no overt political statement, "[t]he presence of magic, the combining of history and legend, is a challenge to the basic paradigm underlying Western society in the twentieth century, that of rationalism" (Rosenberg 85).

In truth, the title of this paper, "The Untranslated Works of Uri Orlev," is more than a 'slight distortion of reality.' All the works discussed have been translated into languages other than English. So to rephrase my preliminary question, why do English language publishers choose to translate and publish certain of Orlev's books, while ignoring others? It would be gratifying to assume that quality is a primary consideration, but the facts indicate otherwise. Not all of Orlev's translated books with a Holocaust theme attain the same high level of quality as some of his untranslated works, and, as I hope I have demonstrated, his fantasies deserve to be translated.

In her discussion of the "Jewish Child in Picture Books?" June Cummins laments the absence of "culturally neutral" books featuring Jewish characters interacting in settings representing their daily lives, rather than Jewish holidays (3). Although she is talking about multicultural, rather than international literature, [5] the majority of books by Israeli children's authors translated into English for older children also fall into a limited number of fields: the Holocaust, the Middle East conflict, and historical fiction with a Jewish theme. [6] In contrast, translated picture books by Israeli authors, including Orlev, often have contemporary settings and lack a specifically Israeli backdrop. As Susan Stan points out:

This hegemony of language, culture, and political climate permeates the international fare to which American children are exposed, influencing both the books that are brought to the United States and the form in which they are published. Generally speaking, American publishers choose to publish international books of two kinds: either "the best" in their own countries (often prize winners) or books with universal storylines and generic settings that could be construed as American. (n3) The books in the latter category far outnumber those in the first and are usually picture books in which setting is not a strongly defined element of the story.

Orlev's two picture book translated into English, Hairy Tuesday and A Lion for Michael, were actually translated from the German, not the Hebrew, and use the illustrations of a German illustrator. [7] Both lack cultural identifiers, whether clothes, furniture, landscapes, foods, or holidays. The setting and story could be anywhere in the Western world.

Uri Orlev believes that his books have been translated into English because he writes in a unique manner about the Holocaust through the lens of his childhood, and this is certainly true. [8] But in choosing to primarily translate Israeli books with a Holocaust theme, publishers limit the world of their readers. Israeli culture does not consist primarily of the Holocaust, just as American-Jewish culture is not based solely on the celebration of Jewish holidays. This problem is not specific to Israeli literature in translation. I would agree with J.D. Stahl when he writes:

To describe the simplification that results from cultural as well as geographical distance, it is possible to name a handful of topics in the images each society has of the other that loom large in the landscape of the foreign children's literature. These few topics govern the picture that each country's citizens have formed of the other.

Stahl discusses German children's literature in translation, but the same holds true for Israeli children's literature and, I suspect, most children's books from other countries. By choosing to translate books with universal themes to which American children can relate, publishers homogenize children's literature to fit a universal American standard, from the vocabulary changes between the American and British editions of Harry Potter, to the choice of books that portray "universal," i.e. American, portrayals of childhood. Junko Yokota makes a helpful distinction between "mirror" books in which children see their own lives and experiences reflected, and "window" books, which provide children with a chance to see outside their own experiences and cultures (5).

At the same time, I do not discount the many obstacles American publishers face in publishing children's books in translation. In the Fall 2002 Publishing Research Quarterly, Christina Biamonte notes:

Although there are a few who publish translations, most American publishers cite high cost and little profit as well as an abundance of material from American authors as reasons why they do not publish more translations. This lack of enthusiasm for publishing translations is surprising considering the movement within the United States towards multiculturalism and diversity.

Additional obstacles cited by Biamonte include lack of familiarity with foreign languages on the part of editors, the necessity of relying on a translator or foreign language reader in the preliminary decision-making stages, the problem of finding a good translator, the cost of translation, the failure to earn a profit, lack of incentive, and finally, a sense of complacency and cultural dominance on the part of American publishers, and readers.

Susan Stan estimates that 5% of the children's books published in the U.S. come from international sources [9]. Of these, only 1-2% are in translation, while the others originate in English speaking countries whose cultures share strong similarities with North American culture. By way of comparison, 60% of Swedish and 50% of Israeli children's books are translated. [10] A study by Maureen White found 308 translated children's books reviewed in four major American children's literature journals between 1990 -- 1995. [11] According to White, "[t]he subject areas that are popular in children's books published in the United States are also the primary subject areas of translated children's books. These include books on friendship, animals, family life, and folklore"(6). The question arises whether we want children to read international literature to recognize themselves, or to learn about other cultures?

J.D. Stahl puts the issue in perspective:

[t]he goal of internationalism in children's literature is much more easily praised than defined. Understanding between people is unquestionably valuable, but what does it consist of? Does it mean knowing how greatly and in what ways other people think differently than we do? Does it mean knowing that at heart all people have the same concerns and goals? The question is not as superficial as it may appear. Of course one can say that the goal is both, to comprehend the differences and the similarities. As American children's and youth literature demonstrates, these goals are not always easily reconcilable, and sometimes even exclude each other.

To return to Uri Orlev, I am concerned that Israel is represented to American children solely as a culture of war and conflict. Song of the Whales and The Beast of Darkness, both fantasies, reflect the daily life of an Israeli child better than books with a Holocaust theme. Yet American publishers of children's literature continue to ignore these excellent books and many others, denying American children the opportunity of looking through an authentic window at the world.



1. Telephone interview with Uri Orlev, 8 April, 2003.

2. Although English is one of the thirteen languages, the book is not available outside India.

3. My translation. Orlev confirmed for me that he did not notice a connection to the Holocaust until this moment. When I insisted that he must have known because he set the story in a European city, he reminded me that he spent his childhood in such a city and set out to tell a story about difference and intolerance.

4. French and German are forthcoming, according to Orlev. A story of the same name by Orlev appeared in English in the 1998 anthology Don't Read This and Other Tales of the Unnatural! According to Orlev, along with other winners of the Hans Christian Anderson prize, he was approached by a Dutch publisher interested in publishing an anthology of scary stories. Orlev contributed an eighteen-page story entitled "Song of the Whales" and the anthology was subsequently published in several languages including English. The anthology is out of print and I am unable to compare the two works.

5. I am adopting Junko Yokota's distinction between the two. Multicultural literature is literature by and about people of cultural diversity, primarily as defined by ethnicity, while international literature is literature originally published outside the U.S. or books published in the U.S. but primarily concerned with people and cultures abroad.

6. The Institute for the Translation of Hebrew Literature compiled a list of some 38 children's books translated into English between 1985 -- 2003. Although I have doubts as to the accuracy of the list, 13 out of 38, or 34% of the books, had a Holocaust theme. Additional books published in English, including those of Yad VaShem, the Israeli Holocaust memorial center, also deal with the Holocaust.

7. According to Orlev, a German publisher, Beltz and Gelberg, decided to publish a number of Orlev's picture books as a series. They commissioned new illustrations for the series by Jacky Gleich, a German illustrator (which Orlev considers better than the originals). In order to make the books suitable for a series, Orlev changed several of the books, adding additional characters to account for the changing age of Daniela, who was previously the main character. The American publishers translated the German versions, thus diluting the national character of the books even further.

8. Telephone interview with Uri Orlev, 8 April, 2003.

9. Stan extrapolates this figure from research she conducted for her dissertation. She found 1,423 new picture books published in the U.S. in 1994. Of these 257 orginated in another country of which 59 were translated and 198 orginated as English-language books.

10. The Swedish figure is from Stan's article. Jan Mark, writing in The Guardian states that in 1998, "it was estimated that 1% of books published in England and Wales were in translation; while it has been estimated that between 40% and 50% of German, Dutch and Swedish children's books originate from other parts of the world" (3).
The Israel Central Bureau of Statistics published interesting data on children's books. In 1996, the year for which statistics were available, 4,420 books were published in Israel, 40% of which were non-fiction. 640 books for children and youth were published, 14% of all books published. 6% of all the books published were picture books, while 7% were for older children. 77% of picture books were original Hebrew books, while 50% of the books for older children were originally written in Hebrew. In other words, 23% of picture books and 50% of books for older children were translated.

11. Books were translated from twenty-five languages with the largest number coming from German (31%), French (17%), Swedish (10%), and Japanese (9%). A chart of the major languages (over five translations) and my graph follow:

Danish 15
Dutch 10
French 54
German 93
Hebrew 6
Japanese 29
Norwegian 7
Russian 12
Spanish 11
Swedish 32
Other (fewer than five) 27
Total 308

Pie Chart of Translations

Works Cited

Cummins, June and Naomi Toder. "The Jewish Child in Picture Books?" Proceedings of the 36th Annual Convention of the Association of Jewish Libraries (La Jolla, CA -- June 24-27, 2001. 1-7. http://www.jewishlibraries.org/ajlweb/publications_files/proceedings36/cumminsj.pdf. 6 March 2003.

DafDaf. "Uri Orlev." http://www.dafdaf.co.il/sofrim/UriSipurim.htm. 21 March 2003. (Hebrew)

Institute for the Translation of Israeli Literature, The. "Hebrew Literature in English Translation: Children's Books (1985-2003)". April 29, 2003. Printout.

Mark, Jan. "Other Tongues." Guardian Unlimited. 15 February 2003. http://books.Guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,12084,894928,00.html. April 25, 2003. 1-3 25, April 2003.

Orlev, Uri. Granny Knits. Trans. Eddy Lewinstein. New Dehli: National Book Trust, India, 1999.

---. Telephone Interview with the author. 8 April 2003.

---. It's Tough to be a Lion. Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1979. (Hebrew)

---. The Beast of Darkness. Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 1979. (Hebrew)

---. The Dragon Crown. Jerusalem: Keter, 1984. (Hebrew)

---. Song of the Whales. Jerusalem: Keter. 1997. (Hebrew)

---. "Translations of Uri Orlev Books -- January 2003." Sent by Uri Orlev to the author. April 2003.

Rosenberg, Teya. "Genre and Ideology in Elizabeth Goudge's The Little White Horse." Children's Literature Association Quarterly 27 (2002): 77- 87.

Stahl, J.D. "Cross-cultural Perceptions: Images of Germany in America and of America in Germany Conveyed by Children's and Youth Literature." Phaedrus: An International Annual of Children's Literature Research 11 (1985): 25-37.

Stan, Susan. "Going Global: World Literature for American Children." Theory into Practice 38 (1999): p168. 10 pages. Academic Search Elite 11 Jan 2002. http://search.epnet.com/direct.asp?an=2278842&db=afh

Sullivan, C.W.III. "High Fantasy" in The International Companion Encyclopedia of Children's Literature. Ed. Peter Hunt. London: Routledge, 1996. 303 -- 313.

White, Maureen. Untitled Talk at 5th Conference of Librarians in International Development. No date given. http://slim.emporia.edu/globenet/kc/mwhitst.htm. 25 April 2003. 1-7

Yanai, Hagar. "Never-never Land." Ha'aretz Magazine 4 Jan. 2002: 16-19.

Yokota, Junko. "Using International Literature in the K-5 Classroom." Summary of Keynote Address Given at "Cultural Representation in Children's Literature: Exploring Resources and Themes in Global Education July 30 -- August 3, 2001." http://ias.berkeley.edu/orias/summer2001/summaries.html.


Eve Tal

Volume 8, Issue 2 The Looking Glass, September/October 2004

Site design and content, except where noted, © The Looking Glass 2004.
"Beneath the Surface: The Untranslated Uri Orlev"
© Eve Tal, 2004
Send general correspondence regarding The Looking Glass c/o The Editor