Report from Jerusalem – Attending the Israel Translators Association Conference

At the ATA’s conference in Toronto in 2004, I met a translator from Israel who told me, “You know, we have one of these, too.” That was all I needed to start combining my annual visit to Israel with attendance at the Israel Translators Association conference.

The population of Israel is about 8.4 million. That’s less than the population of New Jersey. Yet each year the ITA conference draws about 350 attendees, as compared with about 1600-1800 for the ATA, which covers the entire USA and Canada. What’s going on here?

Israel is one of the world’s most internationally-connected economies. Developments in science, technology, medicine are quickly disseminated worldwide. In fact, Israel is No. 1 in terms of the percentage of its GDP spent on research and development (the US is in 10th place) . Many innovations we take for granted, such as WAZE, were originally developed there. This means that foreign countries are eager to establish a presence in Israel, hiring managers, leasing space and promoting products, while Israeli companies are doing the same worldwide. And when documents cross borders, translators find work. When I first joined the ITA, most translators, who are often immigrants to Israel, worked in language pairs other than Hebrew (Spanish, French, German, Russian <> English). Now, however, there’s plenty of work into and from Hebrew as well.

At the same time, Israelis are voracious readers. Not only have bookstores not disappeared, they are to be found on the main street of every city and even smaller towns, while the side streets are home to many used book stores, often full of browsers. At one of these, I looked for a volume of Harry Potter in Hebrew. “Harry Potter? Are you kidding? Those never last more than a day,” I was told. The Israeli translator of the Harry Potter books, Gili Bar Hillel, became an instant national celebrity, but fans were not shy about expressing their opinion on any word that they would have translated differently.

On the street outside our apartment in Jerusalem, old books mysteriously appear on a bench each morning. They range from encyclopedia volumes to books of poetry, and on this year’s visit I spied some in English, Hebrew, French German and even Greek. Passers-by leaf through them, sometimes pocketing one or two. We’ve never determined where these books come from, but they appear day after day, year after year, all efficiently “recycled” by this simple mechanism of trusting Israelis’ love of books.

The Israel Translators Association’s annual conference has one more thing going for it – it is usually held in Jerusalem, one of the world’s most fascinating cities, and a unique destination for international visitors. Over the years, thanks to that distinction and the international connections of its organizers, the conference has attracted numerous attendees and speakers who are themselves stars in the translation world. This year’s keynote speakers included André Lindenmann, President of the German Federal Association of Interpreters and Translators (BDÜ) and the ATA’s own Jost Zetzsche, author of the Chronicle’s “GeekSpeak” column.

In recent years the conference’s organizers have provided optional tours that take visitors to some of Jerusalem’s top tourist sites. This year’s offerings included two that truly embody the special nature of the city: An evening excursion to the recently-excavated tunnels beneath the Temple Mount took us on a voyage back 2000 years to the time of King Herod, the megalomaniac master builder of his era. Walking underneath the famed Western Wall, we saw water conduits, Roman streets and massive building stones used to build the famous walls of the city. One such stone, the largest ever discovered in a structure completed by human beings without powered machinery, has an estimated weight of 570 tons!

The next day, an early morning visit to the bustling Mahane Yehuda “Shuk” or market, with its outdoor stalls, vendors shouting out the quality of their wares, and handcarts pushing through throngs of shoppers with their ubiquitous plastic shopping bags, revealed the other side of Jerusalem: A city that is bustling, thriving and filled with life, despite the fact that news reports sometimes make it seem like a conflict zone. Looking through a rack of shirts for something suitable for the gorgeous spring weather that had suddenly taken the place of cold winter drizzle, I was jostled by Arab women in hijab, Hassidic women in the wig-plus-hat combination adopted by some sects, and teenagers with headphones and miniskirts.

The modern and efficient light rai
l line running along Yafo (Jaffa) Street, for centuries the route from the Mediterranean port of Jaffa (remember Jonah and the whale?) to the Old City, was filled with soldiers in uniform (some with Uzis), mothers and babies, older women with shopping carts and men in business suits with briefcases. Jerusalem is also home to thousands of American students who, after graduating Jewish high schools, spend a “gap year” in Israeli seminaries. One evening, walking from the hotel, I encountered a trio of them bouncing a basketball, which then flew into the road with its rush hour traffic. The next evening I saw the same girls and asked them about the ball. They looked at one another in amazement and I could not resist teasing, “Whatever you do in Jerusalem, your mother gets a call within the hour.”

The night before the conference opened, international visitors were invited to dinner at the Eucalyptus Restaurant, which serves a modern interpretation of biblical cuisine. All dishes have their origins in biblical scenes and all the spices and herbs grow in the surrounding hills of Jerusalem and Judea. In fact, the meals served at the conference hotel (registration includes lunch, dinner is optional) are a feast in themselves, a far cry from the sandwich carts and quick trips to the supermarket that have become lunch fare at recent ATA conferences. And networking over a leisurely three-course meal with white tablecloths is certainly a luxury to be prized.

Sessions are presented in either Hebrew or English (and occasionally in other languages – our German guest this year gave one in German) and virtually everyone at the conference is fluent in English. In addition, this year the plenary presentations made in Hebrew were simultaneously interpreted into English by professional ITA members.

The preconference workshops covered marketing, CAT tools, transcreation and social media. The sessions over the next two days ranged from the usual legal and technical topics to some that are distinctly Israeli, such as the translation of Judaica and, unfortunately, the politics and translation of terror. My presentation this year was entitled “Patent Litigation – Understanding the Choreography”. In it I attempted to assure legal translators that this growing and lucrative field is not only for technical experts.

Last year, together with my colleague Carl Wurtzel, I presented on the translation of clinical trial documentation. In fact, Israel holds a unique position in this area. It has one of the world’s most comprehensive health care systems, with a network of clinics that stretches to each town, kibbutz and settlement in the country, and top-ranked hospitals and research centers. In addition, some of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies have facilities in Israel, including Teva, an Israeli company that is the world’s No. 1 manufacturer of generic drugs. This makes the country a great place to conduct such trials. And the good news for translators is that most documentation is translated (and back-translated) into/from Hebrew, English, Arabic and Russian to reach all sectors of the population.

Israelis are famously argumentative, and this was illustrated to me within minutes of setting foot on Israeli soil. The passport control officer asked the purpose of my visit. I responded, in Hebrew, that I was attending the Israel Translators Association conference. He then corrected me: “Oh, you mean the Interpreters Association”; I, in turn, corrected him and explained the difference. He asked me how many languages I spoke, and then interrupted himself to discourse a bit on the Hebrew words for spoken language and written language. Behind me stretched an ever-lengthening line of exhausted travelers, but no matter. I knew I had come to a country that takes its languages seriously, and for a translator or interpreter, that’s quite a welcome.

Written by Eve Hecht