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The Billboard on Kikar Hamoshavot

Tel Aviv 1968 ... Judith waves in triumph on the veranda of her newly-acquired flat in Bar Kochva Street

"You," Uncle Lew advised, unoriginally, "should become a teacher. That way," he divulged confidentially, as one sharing an esoteric secret, "you will be on holiday the same time as your children."

It was the early 1950s in Swansea, South Wales, and I was 14 years old. My mother had departed this life four years earlier; and within the twelvemonth, my father would remarry. My whole family, Uncle Lew always excepted, either did or would have subscribed to the prevailing ethos of the time that "it's no use giving a girl an education because she'll get married and it will all be wasted." No provision was going to be made for me to be trained as a teacher or anything else. But I had made my own plans, with which I now regaled Uncle Lew.

"What I'm good at at school," I confided, "are languages. And so now I'm boning up on Hebrew. I'm going to go and live in Israel. I'll start out on a kibbutz, because that's the easiest thing to do. While I'm there, I'll probably get called up for military service…"

Uncle Lew's arm curved out protectively.

"The girls don't go into combat," I explained. "They just work in the offices. By the time I've finished my army service," I continued, "my Hebrew will be excellent. I'll set up as a translator. I might start out working in a government office. But then, when I get married and have kids, I can work from home as a freelancer." I certainly had it all worked out. Uncle Lew rubbed his chin thoughtfully but raised no objections.

"Now that you have completed your education, Judith," my stepmother said as soon as I turned 16 (which was in June at the end of term), "what are your plans for the future?"

So I hied myself to the David Eder Farm in Sussex for a spell of training. Then joined by my brother Philip, who had just been demobbed from the RAF, we set sail on the "Theodor Herzl" arriving at Kfar HaNassi in October 1957. Just one week after setting foot on the soil of the Holy Land I was summoned to the nearest IDF recruitment bureau in Tiberias. They kindly allowed me a grace period of one year, after which, unless I had married in the meantime, I would be called up for national service. I had never planned on spending my life on the kibbutz, so there would be no marriage. And sure enough, come October, I got my call-up papers.

National Service, which involved clerking at the GHQ, was fairly boring and uneventful.

On demob, I bade farewell to Kfar HaNassi. The kibbutz treasurer carefully counted out IL 60 lirot, 20 for each year of membership. IL60 amounted to one month's rent for a furnished room in Tel Aviv. From the IDF I received the princely sum of IL14.

I found a furnished room in Tel Aviv's Zamenhof Street. From there, I headed to the office maintained by the kibbutz factory, and borrowed IL50 (which I repaid as soon as I was in funds). I then presented myself at the Labor Exchange where I was directed to the department for persons professing no profession, which proved to be manned by a kindly, avuncular gentleman.

I put my case briefly: "Just out of the army, left the kibbutz, looking for a job." While at the kibbutz, I had done a Hebrew proficiency correspondence course and been awarded a certificate attesting that I had passed the relevant exam. This I now plonked on his desk, along with my O-levels certificate, my ID card and my IDF demob card. He perused them at leisure and began filling out forms.

"You," he said, stapling the forms together, "are going on a course for laboratory assistants, in Beersheba. You'll get an allowance while studying and a job placement as soon as you graduate."

"When does the course start?" I enquired.

"In three weeks' time."

"I haven't got enough to live on for three weeks."

With a barely audible sigh of exasperation, he tore up the forms and said that in that case, I could work as an operator at "18" - the overseas telephone exchange. He scanned my expression for signs that I was feeling insulted. Actually, I was as pleased as Punch. I was getting what I wanted - a foothold in Tel Aviv.

After a bit of toing and froing, which included obtaining a certificate of Israeli citizenship, I started work the next day. The month (probably October) was nearing its end, so I drew my tiny pittance of a pay packet a few days later, only to find that the Assessing Officer had helped himself liberally from it.

I went to the income tax office, a dingy little room somewhere on Allenby. I showed the clerk my payslip.

"I don't have to pay income tax," I protested indignantly. "I'm a new immigrant!"

"No, you're not," he said, "Your first three years are up."

"But I served two years in the IDF," I explained, confident that this would be a clincher.

"So?" said the taxman, "Tough on you!"

The undemanding Post Office job naturally involved shift work, and the shift I liked best was from 13:00 to 20:00, which left me all the morning and part of the evening free. I started dabbling in odd translation jobs for the Habonim magazine, edited by a member of the kibbutz.

A chance encounter with a girl I had known in the army got me introduced to a small circle of friends. There was even a brief romantic interlude with a fellow who had taken a job at the exchange to help finance his accountancy studies. But none of this was getting me any nearer to my goal of a career in translation.

Then, one fine day, I emerged from the office with no expectation of anything earthshaking about to happen. And there, blazoning forth like an epiphany in HaMoshavot Square, was an arrestingly large billboard proclaiming the opening of the Tel Aviv School of Interpreters, under the management of one Adam Richter.

Mr. Richter, who had been the chief interpreter at the recent Eichmann trial, was a hugely talented polyglot, able to interpret back and forth in nine languages, including Arabic and Japanese. At the trial it transpired that Israel (of all places!) was short of interpreters; so Mr. Richter proceeded to establish his School of Interpreters. It wasn't far from HaMoshavot Square to the address on Frishman Street indicated by the advert, so off I went.

There I was directed to take an admission test, to be administered by Mr. Richter himself. That portly gentleman handed me a headset and microphone to match his own, explaining that I was to translate simultaneously as he talked.

"Hu haya chassid nilhav shel torato shel Hegel," Mr. Richter intoned.

This was supposed to be a trap whereby the unwary might be misled by the use of the words "chassid" and "torah."

"He was an enthusiastic disciple of Hegel's philosophic doctrine," I countered.

"Excellent!" said Mr. Richter, doffing his headset. I was in!

There was still, of course, the small matter of the registration fee. Back at reception, I diffidently enquired how much the course would cost.

"Five hundred lirot," said the clerk, eliciting a horrified gasp.

"You don't have to pay it all at once," he added. "I'll take a deposit, and you can pay it off in instalments."

As the only Anglo there, I quickly became Mr. Richter's star student. He would hire me for an occasional conference interpreting job which provided valuable experience, but contributed almost nothing to my livelihood. As coordinator, Mr. Richter would be paid IL100 per diem for each interpreter he hired for the conference. Of that amount, he would pay experienced interpreters IL60, one or two highly experienced colleagues IL80, and beginners like me IL40. The conferences would take place in Jerusalem at the International Convention Center. The interpreter had to stump up for travel expenses to and from Jerusalem, overnight stay (at the YMCA, in my case) and meals.

Soon however, as various businesses approached him wanting Hebrew documents rendered into English, Mr. Richter began sending me translation jobs. He also referred me to a translation agency, which began supplying me with regular work.

Thanks to a small inheritance from my Grandma, I had graduated from my furnished room to a key money studio on Frishman, no less! One day, on my way home, I was stopped by a handsome young man. He told me he was an impresario from Beersheba, and was handling an English mannequin who was currently staying in Tel Aviv. He would introduce us, and would I kindly keep an eye on her and help her out with anything she needed. I have no idea how he knew I was British.

The shapely young lady in question, beautifully dressed, made up, coiffed and manicured, didn't seem to require much assistance at all; perhaps just an English speaker as company now and again. I willingly made myself available whenever needed. A week later, her Israeli stint over, she went home.

The impresario showed up after a day or so, trying to figure out what quid pro quo I expected, even though, in fact, I wasn't expecting anything. "What do you do?" he enquired. I told him I had recently graduated from Interpreting School, was doing a bit of freelancing and looking for a job. A few days later, an envelope arrived, postmarked Beersheba, and containing an advert from a Friday paper. A government institution was looking for Hebrew-to-English translators…

I got the job (at what proved to be the Mossad) and spent an interesting and enjoyable time working there.

A few years later, married + 2, I was living in Petah Tikva doing the homemaker thing. I had taken out a subscription to an English-language magazine by the name of Lilith. On my subscription form I had indicated translation as my profession. One of the magazine's editors came all the way from Jerusalem to ask whether I would translate a blurb to a book (Eretz HaZvi) by Arie (Lova) Eliav, whom the magazine was due to interview.

I translated the blurb. Finding it interesting, I contacted Mr. Eliav, offering to translate the book; but someone else was already on the job. A week later, however, Mr. Eliav called. His translator had bowed out. Was I still interested? If so, would I come over for an interview? Armed with a glowing recommendation from a former boss at the Mossad, I went to see Mr. Eliav.

My translation of Land of the Hart, to give it its English title, was published in 1974 by the Jewish Publication Society of America.

About two years ago, I was at a conference of the Israel Translators Association, wearing a name tag. A young girl came up to me asking, breathlessly, whether I was the Judith Yalon who had translated Eliav's Eretz HaZvi

Other books followed - both fiction and non-fiction. The most recently published (by Cambridge University Press), was Game Theory by Aviad Heifetz. Currently in the pipeline is Genocide: Hurban – The Destruction of the Jews by Nazi Germany by Ariel Hurwitz.

There were also other jobs and stints of freelancing, with both domestic and foreign clients, including law firms, universities, commercial firms and agencies. In addition, I worked as an in-house translator for a firm of certified public accountants, acquiring proficiency in financial statements. I spent many years freelancing, and have now decided to retire, following a varied, interesting, enjoyable and reasonably lucrative career.

So you see, Uncle Lew? All worked out as planned. That billboard directed me well! 



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Wednesday, 17 July 2024

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