blogitto ergo sum

July 5, 2010

#153 – A Mockingbird Lost in Translation

To Kill A Mockingbird 50th AnniversaryLike many Americans in junior high, I too was required to read Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird”.  And I loved it.  I was impressed by Atticus Finch’s dry coolness, laughed at the Bo dare devil challenges, felt sorry for the injustice Scout “suffered” by Calpurnia, worried about Jim’s trial, was hoping that Atticus’s talent will force the jury to acquit Tom Robinson.

Harper Lee

Scout’s 1st grade reading experience reminded me how my dad had to go to the public library in Pardes Hana, my hometown, and argue that since my brother and I finished the books in the children’s section, they must let us enter the 2nd floor – the sacred adult section.  It didn’t go as smoothly as he expected.  He had to consent to the librarian’s power of censorship – Chava [Hebrew for “Eve] the dominant librarian, wanted to delay our exposure to the initial scene for as long as she could.  Dear Chava demanded the power of approval, to save our fragile, easily influenced minds from irreversible scarring.

The only “damage” that this experience caused was the development of a strong disrespect to any type of censorship and unjustified restrictions, especially when the only thing that the “enforcer” has is power or authority, but nothing else.  Dear Chava tried to “direct” us in what she thought was appropriate for our young souls.  Even today I have strong aversion to historical epics and pseudo-educational lit.  Other than what was forced at school, I avoided any Charles Dickens novel.  Still do.  At home we had access to East of Eden, Zorba the Greek, and Doctor Zivago, which until today my dad doesn’t know that I’m the one who lost its first volume.

Back to Maycomb, Alabama.  While I didn’t have much understanding of the 60s southern racism described in the book, I was growing up in Israel of the early 70s. There was suspicion, distrust and disrespect to the different, not to mention the Arab-Israeli conflict and the amount of hate and pain it contaminated our existence with.           

Like anywhere else in the world, in my school, forced reading didn’t end with reading.  At the end of every book awaits the book report, with guiding questions and the “show me how creative you are by reflecting my own thoughts back to me” hints your teacher put in front of you.  The dance between guessing what your teacher wants to read and what you really think about the book was killing the joy of reading and the challenge of writing.  I didn’t mind it with books such as “The Lord of the Flies”, but I really loved “How to Kill a Mockingbird” and wanted to be true to my thoughts and ideas re this book.  Yes, I did cry when Atticus informed the kids about Tom’s Death.

What makes my teacher of 7th or 8th grade seem ignorant even so many years later is this question: “Explain the meaning of the book’s name and how it relates to or enhances the plot.  Use examples.”

I can imagine the puzzled look on your face.  A 100% legitimate question, right?  NO!  The spoken language in Israel, and the one in which I was reading the book was Hebrew.  The translator, like so many others all over the world, who do it to books, films, musical albums and brands, didn’t translate the book’s name literally.  The book I was reading was called “Don’t Touch the Nightingale”.  My answer to the question was two pages long [hand written- it’s 1973 or 1974]; two pages in which I elaborated how Tom, the poor black day laborer, big as he was, was fragile and weak in his circumstances and needed protection.  I went on to state how in order for our life to be just and fair, we must protect the nightingales among us [seriously].  I went as far as referencing H.C. Anderson’s tale of the king of China who put the nightingale in a golden cage and couldn’t understand why it won’t sing, though now I’m not quite sure was creative construction I built around that one.

It’s 1993, I am the Director Academic Affairs for Tel Aviv University for Canada and northern US, travelling all over the place.  One late night, while on a business trip, I flip the channels until I land on a black and white movie that catches my attention.  It takes me 2 minutes to realize that I’m watching “Don’t Touch the Nightingale”.   Can you imagine my surprise at the end of the movie, when I learned the name of the book/movie?  I don’t remember the teacher’s name.  I remember I aced the report, but that was never an issue.  At that night I was angry, and felt rather stupid, so many years later.

Don't Touch the Nightingale

“To Kill a Mockingbird” just turned 50.  It’s Harper Lee’s best known book.  The movie is still regularly shown on TV, Atticus Finch is known to millions and Gregory Peck got an Oscar for his role as Atticus.  I assume that American youth still writes book reports about it.  I now have a copy of the book in English; had it for the past 8 years or so.  And yet, I haven’t read it.  While I have no problem with the changes a book takes when transformed to a movie, I’m afraid of what else I may find.

You may find this interesting:

Dan Hill’s article “Happy Birthday Mockingbird” reminded me how much i enjoy the book.  [July 3, 2010, Globe and Mail, Canada]Hill draws parallels between his growing up as the son of human rights pioneer and black historian Daniel G. Hill and the offspring of the only biracial couple in their neighborhood.  Full article, for as long as the keep it posted, is HERE.

Lawrence Hill, Dan’s brother is a known Canadian writer.  His last book, The Book of Negroes, published in Canada in 19XX.  It wasn’t welcomed in the US with such name.  Have you read “Someone Knows My Name”? It’s the story of an African woman named Aminata Diallo whose story is weaved around and is based on the history of the actual “The Book of Negroes”.  Aminata has to get her name into the book before she could get out of Manhattan for Canada in 1783.

Visit the book’s 50th Anniversary website

PS: I didn’t forget Boo.  I’m painfully aware of his own suffering for being different.  Maybe I should have described him as the nightingale and the cage his own family put him in. 

Clipart / photos resources:



  1. This is better than the book report! Almost makes me want to read the book again. I did read the article in Smithsonian Magazine, so I was aware of the anniversary. Enjoy Quebec, but take a day trip over to Montreal. Much better!

    Comment by Paul — July 5, 2010 @ 13:33 | Reply

  2. Wonderful post!

    Comment by Monica — July 6, 2010 @ 08:04 | Reply

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