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The translator Emanuel Lotem, who founded an entire community of science fiction and popular science enthusiasts, has passed away.

From "Holit" to "Abridgement of the History of Time", the veteran translator who died yesterday at the age of 80 left behind a glorious legacy of spreading science, and a living community of science fiction enthusiasts who followed his path

Few people have left such an impressive mark on the dissemination of scientific knowledge. Emanuel Lotem Photo: Shay Avidan, Wikipedia
Few people have left such an impressive mark on the dissemination of scientific knowledge. Emanuel Lotem Photo: Shay Avidan, Wikipedia

On the ground floor of an old Tel Aviv residential building on Modiliani Street, there was a small and modest office until a few years ago. Already at the door, those who came were greeted by the smell - a heavy aroma of old books and dust. After a few seconds, when their eyes adjusted to the darkness that the row of narrow portholes on the wall failed to diffuse, the books themselves were revealed - shelves upon shelves of books, the vast majority of them science fiction titles in English, but also non-fiction and popular science books, and of course many dictionaries.

In front of the door was a small conversion corner, with chairs and a mineral water dispenser, and to the left was a varied display of shells and other memorabilia accumulated over many years. Here, from time to time, quasi-underground cliques of science fiction enthusiasts gathered for discussions about conferences, conspiracies and what is better - the book or the movie? And in the heart of this cultural temple is the Holy of Holies, a large and comfortable wooden table, surrounded by books and dictionaries, with a screen and an ergonomic keyboard on it. Near the screen there were always three or four books in various stages of translation, waiting for the alchemist of words Emanuel Lotem, who passed away yesterday at the age of 80, to breathe life into them.

Third career

Although he never made a big deal out of it, there are few people whose contribution to the spread of scientific knowledge and the way of scientific thinking in Israel comes close to that left behind by Lutem. In 48 years of work, he translated nearly 400 books, which largely shaped the culture of science fiction in Israel, and in a different way also popular science literature. He was the first chairman of the Israeli Science Fiction and Fantasy Association - and don't think for a moment to blurt out next to him, "But the Academy recommends writing 'fantasy', not 'fantasy'!", he was also one of the founders of the Icon Festival, edited the Ynet encyclopedia and the science fiction series of the publishers of the books Keter and Zamora Bitan and more Kahana and Kahana. Many of his eulogists on social media said, "thanks to him I started reading science fiction" and "through him I discovered science".

It is a bit surprising that Lotem only came to this much work at a relatively late age, after trying two very different directions in his career - first in academia and later in the diplomatic field.

Lotem, born in 1944, studied for a bachelor's degree at Tel Aviv University, then moved to the University of London where he completed a master's degree in Orientalism and African studies and a doctorate in economics. Later he said that during his years in England he fell in love with the English language and began to read one by one all the science fiction books he could find. Upon his return to Israel, in the mid-seventies, he was accepted as a junior lecturer in the Department of Developing Countries at Tel Aviv University, but did not find his place there. In the following years, he held a series of positions in the Israeli Foreign Ministry, including a researcher at the Ministry's Center for Research and Political Planning (MMT), an academic consul in New York and a scientific advisor at the Israeli Embassy in South Africa.

At the same time, Lotem began to forge a path for himself in the field of translation. In an interview for the "Continuous Future", submitted by the Landsman and Ehud Maimon Foundation, he said that at first he saw it as just supplementing his low salary as a university lecturer: "I needed a translation, and I said, 'I can translate, why not?'" A friend of the family opened the doors of Am Oved Publishing to him ”, and he translated several books in it in his professional field, international economics. Then, he says, the publisher began to publish science fiction books, in what was dubbed the "white series" after the dominant color on its covers - "And I turned on".

The first book Lotem was given to translate was "Holit" by Frank Herbert - an acclaimed and influential science fiction epic that combines complicated galactic politics, a host of Arab and Jewish motifs and a lot of ecology, and whose plot takes place on a desert planet. "The editorial secretary of Am Oved called me and said she had a book called Dune, 'Do you want to translate it?' Fortunately, I was sitting on a good chair, so I didn't fall off it," said Lotem, who obviously knew the book well. "This is how my path as a science fiction translator began."

The Hebrew translation of "Holit" is even today considered a master translation, which in some ways even surpasses the original. At the time, Lotem was already working at MMT among a talented group of fans of the genre, who were just as enthusiastic about the book as he was. They rallied to help: an expert in classical Arabic checked for him the Arabic terms that Herbert had mixed up almost carelessly in the original, another expert handled the biblical quotations, and a third female diplomat helped with the feudal terms in the book. Each person and his expertise. Lotem expressed his gratitude to his friends in two ways. One is visible: a dedication to MMT on the first page of the book; The second one he hid in the depths of the appendices at the end of the book, where he called a certain religious council from MMT.

A masterpiece of translation that sometimes surpasses the original. "Holit" and other books from the science fiction and fantasy shelf translated by Lotem fair use


Lotem is considered a strict yet creative translator, both in his literary and theoretical translations. According to the translator Inbal Shagiv-Nakdimon, who knew Lotem well, these two aspects stood out very much in his work: "He had a special combination of the talent for phrasing and invention of a translator of literature in general, and of fantasy and science fiction in particular, and of the precision required of a translator of theoretical and scientific texts," she said Davidson Institute website. "It was always clear that the nomenclature in the scientific texts he translated and edited could be trusted."

"Emanuel was an outstanding translator of books", the Israeli-American astrophysicist and popular science writer Mario Livio told us, who translated six of his books into Hebrew, including "The Golden Cut: The Incarnations of a Miraculous Number" and "Genius Errors". "He was strict, punctual and knowledgeable. Whenever he translated one of my books, he used to turn to me to clarify matters for him that he was unsure about. His Hebrew was also always excellent. In fact, here and there I asked him to use slightly less polished expressions, just to make sure that most readers would understand the language."

His in-depth attention to the point of Yod led in one case to a charged and creative polemic that caused him great heartache. Lotem, who was a big fan of the fantasy writer G.R. Tolkien, and translated, among other things, his book "The Silmarillion", had a lot of criticism of the original Hebrew translation of "The Lord of the Rings" - Tolkien's most important and famous book. For years he tried to convince the Zamora Beitan publishing house to allow him to re-edit the three books of the trilogy, correct terminology and add the appendices, which were not available to the translator Ruth Labnit when she worked on the original translation.

In 1998, the new Hebrew edition of the trilogy was published, which Shlotam was particularly proud of and considered the pinnacle of his work. At that time, there was already a community of Tolkien enthusiasts in Israel, the phase of its activity was then in the forum system of the IOL site. And in the community - mayhem! Fierce debates broke out in it between fans of the Livni translation and fans of the Lotem translation. "Translation warA real one. Lutem was offended to the depths of his soul. Several years passed until the spirits in the Tolkien community calmed down and an "apology" was held between him and the senior members of the community. In the two decades that have passed since then, Lotem has often participated in the conferences of the Israeli Tolkien Society, and has been highly regarded and respected.

His influence is also reflected in the legacy he passed on to future generations of translators and editors in the fields of non-fiction and science fiction. "Emanuel Lotem was among the first translators of science fiction into Hebrew," translator and editor Ehud Maimon told the Davidson Institute website. "Many of the books he translated opened the door for me to a rich and fascinating world that decades later I continue to enjoy and delve into. And I'm not the only one. He was thorough and punctual, imaginative, and mastered the language at an enviable level. Even when it happened that I did not agree with some of his choices in translation, I learned a lot from him - both from the books he translated and from conversations I had with him over the years."

"Lotem was also a pioneer of undefined writing, many years before it claimed its place in the linguistic mainstream," adds Shagiv-Nakdimon. "Back in the nineties, his translation of the novella "Unknown Land" by Connie Willis managed to perfectly hide the gender of one of the characters, thus preserving the humorous point of the story - an especially difficult task in a defined language like Hebrew. This ability was also used by him in the translation of "Secondary Integrity" by Ann Lackey and its sequels - a book in which the normative form of addressing a person is in the feminine language and the protagonist is an artificial intelligence in a human body that is unable to differentiate between males and females - as he explained in great detail in the afterword of the Hebrew edition of the book."

A special combination of talent for formulation and invention and the precision required of a translator of theoretical and scientific texts. Some of the popular science books translated by Lotem | fair use

A treasure trove of knowledge

If you go to the shelves of non-fiction books in a bookstore in Israel and pick a random title dealing with science, there is a very high chance that the inside cover will say, "from English: Emanuel Lotem". Indeed, for decades Lotem was the first choice of almost every publisher looking for a quality and meticulous scientific translation. His name is signed to many of the most successful bestsellers of the genre. Among other things, he translated the physicist's "Summary of the History of Time". Stephen Hawking, brought into Hebrew the books of the skeptical scientist Richard Dawkins and those of Mario Livio, and "The Invention of Nature" by Andrea Wolf - a fascinating book about the life of the adventurous scientist Alexander von Humboldt.

Lotem also translated history books, for example "World War II" by Anthony Beaver, but his main theoretical work was in the fields of natural sciences: books on physics and mathematics, evolution and also history and philosophy of science. All of these made him a treasure trove of knowledge and expertise.

"Emmanuel loved to translate science books and was very interested in science," his old friend, futurist Aharon Hauptman, told us. "Of course he also learned a lot from the books he translated and his knowledge of science was enviable. Although he had no formal scientific education, it seems to me that he could have taught physics to quite a few people with degrees in the field."

Lotem expressed this knowledge in dozens of articles he published in the popular press and in the lectures he sometimes delivered at conferences - although in them he usually preferred to talk about science fiction - his great love. In 2003, he was even appointed the scientific editor of the Ynet encyclopedia - an ambitious venture that tried to offer competition to the collaborative encyclopedia Wikipedia, but with strict professional editing and writers who are experts in their field and with an economic model based on subscriptions.

In his articles and reviews, he often combines fields, and sometimes even spices them up with subtle humor. In the entry he wrote for the encyclopedia on The physics of time travel, for example, told what happened when they asked St. Augustine what was before time was created: "He had not heard of the big bang, so he phrased the question like this: What did God do before time began? His answer: He created hell for those who ask this question."

"It's hard to imagine the popular science bookcase in Hebrew without Emanuel Lotem," Prof. Eilat Baram-Zabari, head of the research group in science communication at the Technion, told the Davidson Institute website. "When I was growing up, at a time when the Internet was an internal hobby of DARPA officers, if you wanted to read a book in English you had to organize yourself about uncles in America and a dictionary. Lotham brought Carl Sagan to me for Rishon Lezion, Richard Feynman and Richard Dawkins. His translations never separated me from the original content. Even today I find no point in reading the original if I have Lotem's translation. His accessibility, the width of the canvas and the nimble pen will be sorely missed."

Similar praise was written about him by the critic Havslet Farber in a review column About one of the books he translated: "The present book provides another example of the breadth of Emanuel Lotem's linguistic talent and his knowledge in the field of life sciences, whose translation into Hebrew requires a good familiarity with the specific contents and knowledge of their unique terminology. Against the background of his formal education (economics, orientalism and African studies) and his previous career in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, his transition from the fields of society to the life sciences and the list of hundreds of titles he has translated are particularly impressive. The translations are accurate and reliable and their language is rich, although sometimes higher than usual and a little outdated. […] He undertook translation tasks that many would not have successfully completed and thus contributed greatly to the education and enjoyment of the Israeli reader".

"Science gives us new ways to see and understand the world, and the ability to use reliable knowledge to make better decisions," adds Baram-Sabri, "and popular science plays a vital role in making these two roles accessible. Therefore, Lotem's translations are of enormous importance. There is a lot of popular science in the world, and as long as we cannot read it, because it is in a foreign language, we are at a disadvantage. The bridges created by Lotem's translations, and the invention and discovery of new words in Hebrew, not only enriched our experience of the world, but also gave us a vocabulary to influence it."

He united the science fiction enthusiasts in Israel into a community, and initiated the conference that became its main event. Lotem at the association's 20th anniversary | Photo: Courtesy of the Israeli Science Fiction and Fantasy Association

The king of amateurs

Lotem left the biggest mark, as mentioned, on the community of science fiction fans. It seems that without intending to, he became a magnet for Suga lovers who sought his advice and offered him new initiatives. And even though he was a man of books "with his head in the clouds", and not a great performer, his love for the field pushed him again and again to realize every idea that caught his eye, and if not - at least to try.

In 1996, he was motivated by a high school student's proposal to found the largest and most active amateur organization in Israel: the Israeli Society for Science Fiction and Fantasy, and to head it in its first years. at the event held On the 20th anniversary of the association Lotem said, "The idea that there should be an association had been in my head for years, but it was clear to me that it required a lot of organizational work, and I had no desire to do it. Then a 14-year-old boy, Avner Friedman, called me and assured me that behind him was a large and organized group of science fiction enthusiasts just waiting to carry the burden. In retrospect, it turned out that this group was his mother."

Around the same time, Sonya Feldman from the British Council in Israel contacted him, telling him that she had invited the science fiction author Brian Aldiss to Israel on her own initiative and that she didn't really know what to do about it." I put the two together and said, 'Let's start an association.' Avner Friedman and his colleagues will take care of the administrative work, we will set up a committee and we will have a meeting with the participation of Brian Oldis and lectures. Complete plan. and so it was". Indeed, in April 1996, Lotem summoned several friends to a meeting at the British Council on Yarkon Street in Tel Aviv, and the plan was implemented.

The goals of the association, says Hauptman, were written casually, just to satisfy the requirements of the registrar of associations. Today the association is committed to them and is inspired by them. "I was really amazed when Emanuel told me this," Liat Shahar-Keshtan, the current chairman of the association, told us. "Just as well, he could say that he wrote it on a napkin."

In the same unmediated style, two years later Lotem founded the first conference of science fiction enthusiasts in Israel, "Sector 972", from which later developed the Icon Festival - the main annual event of the genre's enthusiasts, which takes place every year on the holiday of Sukkot. Lotem and his friend, the late translator and editor Amos Gefen, set up a meeting with the director of Cinematech Tel Aviv at the time, Alon Garboz. They discussed the details while riding to the meeting on Geffen's Vespa, and by the time they arrived they had already agreed on the main details.

Of course, not all great ideas went well. One of the interesting ones was Armageddon conference.con, which was canceled due to the coming of Armageddon - or more precisely the second intifada in 2000. This time the idea came from Lotem himself, who said in an interview in 2016, "As the millennium approached, I thought that there must be something global in Megiddo (following the prophecies of the destruction of the exchange of the thousand; Rash), and I wanted to see How do we fit into this? Little by little I realized that if we don't do something, no one will. So I brought the idea up to the committee and they told me, 'Please, run with it.'"

"This", was supposed to be a huge international conference with the participation of no less than eight guests of honor from abroad. The climax event is meant to take place on the night of the turn of the millennium at Mount Megiddo, or in its foreign name "Armageddon": the place where, according to the apocalyptic writings of Christianity, the decisive battle that will bring the end of days is supposed to take place. In practice, registration for the conference faltered on the spot, and when clashes began in the territories during the second intifada, the main guest of honor of the conference, writer Larry Niven, got cold feet and canceled his visit. Apocalypse beat Armageddon.con.

Lotem left behind a legacy of many achievements, with hundreds of masterpiece translations and a large and extensive community that largely owes its existence to him. "Emanuel was always there to support and advise, in the good and bad times of the association. He was there from the beginning, and thanks to him we are all here today", concluded Shahar-Keshtan. 

To the article on the Davidson Institute website

More science news on the Davidson Institute website

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2 תגובות

  1. He also liked to be insulted, despite justified criticism, and liked to appropriate titles and actions for himself - in short, honor-seeking and not modest at all... what to do, not everyone is perfect.

    His work was great, but there were also downfalls, and these should also be noted. By the way, his translation into one of La Carre's books is in my opinion the most readable of all La Carre's books that have been translated...

    Too bad it didn't go to Tom Clancy. It would have been better if he had dealt more with modern American prose than poetic British fantasy.

  2. Indeed, popular science fiction and fantasy in Hebrew was lost to the world.

    The article indeed encompasses and exhausts the connection to the spread of the Arab culture in Israel. I just want to point out that if the 2001 conference had actually taken place, in my opinion it would have been only a partial success, because of its overly academic content. However, it was only after the planning of the conference and its cancellation that the contact and acquaintance between the participants of the IOL forums and the association began and the conferences were filled with content suitable for wider populations.

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