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Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Lost in Translation: The Giving Tree

If there’s one thing I take WAY more seriously than anybody really ought to take something, it’s kids’ books. 

(Did you follow that sentence?  If so, check out my writing kids’ books blog!)

Tonight in Ulpan Bet, in honour of Tu b’Shvat, we had to read one of the great-granddaddies of modern kids’ lit, a book I have practically memorized in almost 20 years of reading it to my children:  Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree.

The translation itself was enjoyable and readable enough until I realized, about halfway through… in the Hebrew version, the TREE is a BOY.

The Giving Tree, the main character of the story, the perennial mother, standing by to give and give and give of herself, to the point where it hurts and beyond… is a boy.  Huh?

I understand why it has to be that way, but knowing doesn’t help, somehow.

The tree MUST be a boy (or a man) in Hebrew because  עץ (eitz), the Hebrew word for tree, is masculine.  It is apparently just as inconceivably ridiculous to think of a tree being feminine in Hebrew as it is to think of an ant (נמלה /nemala), bee (דבורה / devora) or monster (מפלצת / mifletzet) as masculine.

Even the most aggressive, disgusting, slobbery, slimy monsters – are feminine (we have one book where the monstery critter is described as a שד / sheid, a demon, which is apparently okay to be a boy, but the Monsters Inc movies, for instance, are about Miflatzot – girl monsters).

But honestly, in this case, the story doesn’t work if the tree is a boy.

clip_image001Discussing it in ulpan class, the teacher asked about the relationship, and said the boy in the story is just “using” (לנצל  / lenatzel; you do NOT, apparently, use the same word for “using” a computer, pen, or notebook) the tree, without giving anything in return.

I tried to explain – this is what mothers do.  We stand and wait for our children.   We’re not the centre of their lives even though they are without question the centre of ours.  We wait for them to return, and they may not return to us for decades, or perhaps lifetime.  And we give and give and give until the point where, if we weren’t mothers, it would hurt.

If the tree’s a boy and the boy’s a boy, well, then, they both kind of deserve what they get, don’t they?  If they’re both boys, then the tree’s giving makes no sense and the title applies only in the most literal way:  the tree gives, because it’s a TREE THAT GIVES.

Never fear, faithful readership.  I explained, in the most articulate way I could, that they couldn’t possibly understand the story until they’d read it in English.  Well, I didn’t say that EXACTLY, but it was implied by my saying that only I could know the original intentions of author Shel Silverstein.

But I realized that my point was lost when one of the many Russian speakers chimed in to say that, in Russian, trees are neither masculine or feminine.  “It is the exactly same thing in English!” I cried back, with my pitifully insufficient words.  “But it is the PRONOUNS, ‘she gives,’ ‘she stands.’” 

Nobody understood, and I had no idea how to say pronoun so I had to say it in English.

“What do you think?” the teacher asked the class, when I was done saying nothing at all.  “Does the boy really love the tree?”  Unanimous head shaking all around, except me.

(um, hello, can you read what it says ON THIS PAGE?!?)

(Okay, it’s tiny, so I’ll translate – “and the boy loved the tree” – in case you didn’t catch the gist of the illustration.)

In Israel, I still FEEL like an articulate person inside, but what comes out is… well, to put it politely, usually the opposite. 

Here’s what I said:

“I don’t agree.  I think that the boy really loved the tree.  I think when we are young we know what is important but then we are busy then we forget about the things that are important and when we are old we return to the things that are most important.”

If only I knew how to say “we get our priorities all messed up, and that’s what the book is essentially about,” I might have prevailed.  Instead, I think I muttered something about “old people knowing what is true.”

The discussion continued around me while I grumpily refused to participate (nobody noticed).  The general conclusion is that the boy is just a taker and some people are just that way while the rest of us mature out of the “taking” phase of our lives.  And the tree – well, HE is just a giver, like the title says.  He is just very, very, pointlessly generous.

Are the boy and the tree really happy?  Everybody agreed that they were, that The Giving Tree (Hebrew version) has a happy ending.  While I just shook my head, quietly, internally, fuming about little things that get seriously lost in translation…

Okay, amiright or amiright???  Is this not a story about the way mothers (feminine!) give to their children?  English speakers of Israel, and mothers of the world, back me up here, please!


  1. If this book is about a mother-child relationship, it is about extremely unhealthy over-sacrifice on the part of the mother and extreme greed and lack of feeling on the part of the child. I have always viewed it as a book about the environment. It's bad enough in that context - I wouldn't want to touch it in the context you suggest!


  3. Bracha: Interesting. Don't know enough about the background to the book to know what Shel Silverstein's intention was. In this view, it doesn't matter what the gender of the tree was, I suppose... :-)


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