Saturday, May 19, 2012

Franzen's Freedom... or is it Liberty?

Liberty to the left, Freedom to the right...
Following the recent publication of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom in Hebrew, this week's Ha'aretz Book Review published a sharply critical review. To be honest, it's an excellent review: well-written, interesting, just biting enough to catch my attention, and just enough praise to convince me that this isn't pure backlash. Reviewer Liat Elkayim presents the review as a letter to Franzen, which makes for fascinating reading regardless the opinion one might hold towards Franzen. It's all peaches and cream until near the end of the review, when Elkayim starts bashing the edition.

I would translate the criticism verbatim, but it won't work. Why? Because here Elkayim expresses dissatisfaction with the title's translation. Instead of using the direct translation of Freedom, the publishers opted to retitle the book as Liberty. Elkayim takes offense: she points to the sentence she feels is the origin of the title Freedom and doesn't understand why "hofesh" (the word used in the referenced sentence) didn't make the cut, and instead the word "herut" (liberty) was chosen.

It is apparent that Elkayim has never dealt with translations. While "hofesh" is indeed the proper translation of Freedom, it has an additional (stronger) meaning: vacation. But titles are important. And with Freedom's grand ambitions and big-picture Americanism, a title that implies vacation would be entirely inappropriate, while the title Liberty makes a heck of a lot more sense. I'll forgive a bit of deliberate mistranslation in this case.


  1. That is really interesting. Until I reached the end of your piece I was with Elkayim because for me the words 'Liberty' and 'Freedom' have a subtle but very definite difference. Perhaps it is something phonetic? 'Liberty' has a feeling of grudging limitation about it, whereas 'Freedom' with that long vowel sound in the middle has more explosive power to it. But, once you explain the nuances of the language, the greater complexity of the situation becomes clear. Thank you.

  2. I think I agree with your interpretation of the translation issue. Fascinating!


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