Ellen Frankel, RC '73

Back in 1969 when I was a freshman at the RC, one of my first classes was Latin American Literature in Translation.

My professor, Justin Vitiello, thought it vital for his students to appreciate how much is lost in translation from a foreign language into English.

So he had us all do a translation exercise before we read any books on the syllabus. Since being proficient in a foreign language was one of the prerequisites for attending the RC, he gave each of us an American poem that had been translated into “our” foreign language.

In my case, the language was French. I worked hard on my translation, producing an elegant, sophisticated English version. My classmates similarly came up with beautiful poems.

But when Justin gave us the original English version, we were shocked. The poem was by Amiri Baraka, aka Leroi Jones, a radical Black poet whose words stung and jived and slapped. There was no elegance there whatsoever. We’d assumed that all poetry had to be pretty. Wrong! I’ve never forgotten that Lesson.

Life Beyond the Walls of East Quad

In the fifty years since I graduated from the Residential College, I’ve spent most of my time wordsmithing: as Editor-in-Chief and CEO of a small Jewish press called The Jewish Publication Society (JPS); publishing a dozen books for adults and children on a variety of Jewish subjects; and editing other people’s writing.

Some of the books I acquired as an editor were originally written in foreign languages; if they were in French, I read them in the original. I also used what I knew of Hebrew, Yiddish, Spanish, and smatterings of other languages, always remembering how much is lost in translation. And this lesson was not the only one that has helped me in my work.

At the RC, I majored in Comparative Literature, taking courses in French literature, Chinese poetry, ancient Greek and Latin literature, the Bible, and Italian literature (all but the French in translation). I learned in these courses that rendering words from one language into another is not only a matter of linguistic equivalence but also of cultural translation.

In my work as an editor as well as a writer, I learned to be sensitive to the nuances of a particular society’s history, customs, social attitudes, and taboos. When writing a children’s Bible, for example, I was always aware of what American children would understand about sex and seduction, justice and judgment as played out in Genesis—and what would go right over their heads. Or when writing modern versions of Jewish folktales, I was careful to translate ancient moral lessons into ones that contemporary Americans would take to heart.

Now in my retirement, I’ve started a new chapter in my writerly life: writing mystery novels. This past May I published my first novel, The Deadly Scrolls, in a new series, “The Jerusalem Mysteries.” The series features a strong female protagonist, Maya Rimon, an intelligence agent in one of Israel’s spy agencies. (Not surprisingly, the RC also launched me as a feminist.)

Mystery, Research, & the Dead Sea Scrolls

Investigating the murder of a Dead Sea Scrolls scholar in Jerusalem, Maya uncovers a terrorist plot, and what starts as a mystery morphs into a thriller.

Using the research skills I learned at the RC as well as at Princeton University, where I earned my Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, I’ve turned history into mystery, using authentic scholarship about the Dead Sea Scrolls and ancient Qumran to explore cryptography, ancient theology, contemporary academic theories about these cryptic scrolls, and spycraft.

The second volume of the series, The Hyena Murders, published last November, explores the culture, traditions, and modern conflicts of Ethiopian Jews in Israel. Writing this second book similarly took me into fascinating and often esoteric rabbit holes of research. 

And so writing mysteries has brought me full circle. Translation is again at the heart of the enterprise.

As an American setting my stories in Israel, as a woman exploring the traditionally male world of espionage and criminal investigation, as a non-fiction author diving into adult fiction, and as a self-taught writer who first learned to take intellectual risks at the RC, I find myself exhilarated by these challenges.

Although Justin Vitiello is no longer alive, I think he would be proud that the lesson he first taught me has stood me in such good stead.

Ellen Frankel, RC '73, is the author of a dozen books. Her most recent publication is The Deadly Scrolls (Wicked Son Press, 2022). She and her husband divide their time between Maine and Florida.