translation notes – Hebrew – This land is a volcano

Linguist Gershom Scholem (1897-1982) believed in the power of the language to invoke supernatural phenomena. An authority in Kabbalah, he believed Hebrew was the only language capable of revealing the divine truth. Scholem considered the Kabbalists to be interpreters of a pre-existent linguistic revelation.

Scholem repeatedly posed to his listeners and readers the following question: “Can Jewish history manage to re-enter concrete reality without being destroyed by the messianic claim which [that reentry is bound to] bring up from its depths.” Scholem set down these words rather late in his career, but as early as 1926, in a letter written to Franz Rosenzweig and only recently published, he raises a similarly penetrating question regarding the renewal and “secularization” of the Hebrew language:

“The Land is a volcano. It provides lodging for the language…[But] what will be the result of the updating of Hebrew? Will the abyss of the holy tongue which we have implanted in our children not yawn wide? People here do not realize what they are doing. The think they have made Hebrew into a secular language, that they have removed its apocalyptic sting. But that is not so…Every word which is not simply made up but rather taken from the treasure house of well-worn terms is laden with explosives…God will not remain dumb in the language in which He has been adjured so many thousands of times to come back into our lives.” The “explosives” and “apocalyptic sting” are to be found in such classical expressions as memshalah u-mamlakhah (rulership and kingdom), kibbutz galuyot (the ingathering of exiles), yeshuah(salvation), shalom (peace), tzur yisrael (Rock of Israel), and ge-ulah la-aretz (redemption of the land)—expressions that have found their way into the modern Hebrew vernacular. Similarly, a “volcano” lies dormant in many terms whose original religious meaning has been radically altered or altogether lost in modern Hebrew. For example, bittachon, which now denotes military security, originally referred to trust in God; ha’apadah, which is used to refer to prestate “illegal” immigration, originally denoted a forbidden and catastrophic breakthrough (Num 14:44); keren kayemet, the name of the modern-day Jewish National Fund, is taken from a Talmudic reference to “credit” for good deeds accumulated for the afterlife; and one often hears in a secular context such antique phrases as zakhut avot(the merits of our ancestors). But that is not all. The very name given to the State of Israel, Medinat Yisrael, presents just such a phenomenon. Although not drawn directly from ancient sources, so that one might believe it to be free of historical and eschatological hopes, it too is encumbered by the freight of the past and the accompanying tensions between part and whole, the political and the theological.

from Messianism, Zionism, and Jewish Religious Radicalism, Aviezer Ravitzky, University of Chicago Press


translation notes – Hebrew

from “A Note on Translation” in Hovering at a Low Altitude: The Collected Poetry of Dahlia Ravikovith, translated by Chana Block and Chana Kronfeld

Any translation from Hebrew presents an unusual challenge. To begin with, Hebrew is a language with its roots in antiquity that was revived as a vernacular only about a hundred years ago, and modern Hebrew is an echo chamber that preserves, even in everyday speech, the resonance of all its historical layers. The simplest words may be charged with ancient, often sacred, significance. Ordinary terms may have multiple meanings and a wide range of nuances and symbolic valences, drawing on three thousand years of literary and religious use. Even a straightforward term like bayit, “house,” “home,” can also mean a stanza in a poem, the Temple in Jerusalem, and the national homeland; in biblical and rabbinic culture, it can be a common metaphor for the female body.

Modern Hebrew has the dynamic nature of a new vernacular, eager to enrich its means of expression from every available source. Since the triliteral root system of Hebrew creates a kind of “component awareness,” both the archaic layers of the language and new-minted expressions are generally transparent to readers. Ravikovitch artfully exploits the tensions between the archaic and modern senses of a term. The verb le-himachel, for example, is usually understood in biblical Hebrew as “to inherit” or “settle down in” [the land]; in the contemporary Israeli context, however, the primary meaning is “to join a settlement in the Occupied Territories.” In “Rough Draft,” this word is a juncture between the personal and political meanings of the poem. When we asked Dahlia which of the two was primary for her, she told us: “Either way you lose something.” Our solution here, as in a few other instances, is to use both: “not settle down, not be a settler.”

translation notes – not all languages are equal

from “A Note on Translation” in Hovering at a Low Altitude: The Collected Poetry of Dahlia Ravikovith, translated by Chana Block and Chana Kronfeld

Given the imperial status of American English today, translations of poetry into English, especially from minor languages, run the risk of domesticating the foreign, blurring subversive features, or bleaching out any sign of cultural particularity. This is a tendency we have consciously tried to resist. We have benefited in this regard from recent developments in translation studies that move beyond metaphors of fidelity and betrayal to a model of intercultural negotiation, one that is keenly aware of asymmetries of power between languages.

Which is the perfect way of saying something I’ve known about language but had no way to say quite so clearly. For me, I think, the problem is how to deal with something that is the most ordinary, everyday image or cultural understanding in one language but, translated, takes on the exotic, the unfamiliar, the extraordinary. What then to do? Choose an image that is domestic to the speakers of the translated language (that is, as one teacher said, change the tacos to hamburgers)? Write the literal with a lot of notes? How do you both let the readers of the translation remain aware of the other and yet, if the poem calls for it, write in the every day, comfortable, familiar?

A Poem on the Middle East “Peace Process”

A Poem on the Middle East
“Peace Process”
Etheridge Knight ~1972

Israel à la Begin, begins, “We
             /  love  /peace-and-uh
That’s why we  /   drove  /
             the Palestinians off   /  their   /  land—
With the help of america and england’s evil hand.

In the Gaza strip an Arab boy sleeps,
              his knees /  are /  drawn  /  up to his chest.
His hands cup his crotch. He dreams of grenades,
And machine guns and prayers to Allah.

An Israeli boy sleeps in Tel Aviv. He dreams
Of the tales told to him by his  /  grand   /  father:
Nazi boots goosestepping on cobblestone, of lampshades
Made  /  from Jewish skin, of Jewish women—and men—
Naked and torn. He dreams too of blooming gardens
In the “promised land” and of killing Arabs
At his rabbi’s command.

And the “Peacemakers?” Ah, the peacemakers
Give guns to  /  one
And bombs to the  /  other
All contrary to the   /  cries  /  of the Mother.

Thank you, Mr. Barnstone

When, among a group of translation students, I got to have a long and winding conversation with Willis Barnstone, he said many many smart (as in genius-level) things about translating. One of those has become not only my favorite, but my guiding mantra for poetry:

When it seems impossible, try a little harder and it will be easy

Tonight, working on a chapbook manuscript that was utterly flat and awkward, I tried that little bit harder, opened my mind a little farther, and, sure enough, it got easy.

Nu – if that advice worked for him translating the New Testament and Sappho and the Gnostic gospels and Greek and Chinese and Spanish and who knows how many other languages, how could it not work for me?

Translation Revision – Shez’ “The Excuse of Literature”

See my most recent translation here

With input from poet and translator Ruth Artman-Breindler, with whom I might be working, a deep revision of my first attempt. I have to go back and re-do the learning I once did about verb forms, because I mistranslated as first person what was actually “to me” in second person. So the true sense of the poem is much more like this:

The Excuse of Literature
Shez, translated by Elliott batTzedek

On the day of judgment for fathers who rape,
you will not say a word
you will sit, mouth shut,
in this place where girls are allowed
to weep from the horror

But until that day of judgment, you go on silencing me
while smiling politely,
refusing to allow my words to be printed
in my hometown
behind the lie of their literary value

Thoughts on translating or why this is so damn difficult

“Poetry is what is lost in translation.” Robert Frost

“Poetry is what is gained in translation.” Joseph Brodsky, the Nobel prize winning Russian poet who also spoke several languages.

“Poetry is what gets transformed.” Octavio Paz

“A poem is a manifestation of an invisible poem that is written beyond languages themselves.” Tomas Transtromer, renowned Swedish poet

“Languages are many but poetry is one,” says the Russian poet Andrei Voznesensky.

“If you say it is a matter of words, I will say a good poet gets rid of words. If you say it is a matter of meaning, I will say a good poet gets rid of meaning. ‘But,’ you ask ‘without words and without meaning, where is the poetry?’ To this I reply: ‘get rid of words and get rid of meaning, and still there is poetry.’” Yang Wan-Li, a Chinese poet

“A literal word-for-word trot is not a translation. The attempt to recreate qualities of sound is not translation. The simple conveyance of meaning is not translation.” Jane Hirshfield

“Translation is an actor’s medium. If I cannot make myself believe I am writing the poem I’m translating, no degree of aesthetic admiration for the work will help me.” Charles Simic

“One can be impeccably accurate verbally and yet miss the point or blur the tone quite badly….I wanted to be ‘literal’ in another sense. I wanted to be more faithful…to the complexities of the poetry, both to its shades of meaning and its tone. At the same time I wanted the English to flow very naturally. Therefore I avoided transferring ‘meanings’ from one language directly into another.” Galway Kinnell on translating Villon

“It is because it is impossible that translation is so interesting.” William Matthews

April 30 – If you sit in the woods

If you sit in the woods

If you sit in the woods long enough
nothing happens

just the earth’s breath climbing and descending
the tree trunks copper-green in morning light

just your own body warming this spot of earth
your own heart beating

And you begin, like all creatures,
to repeat yourself—

the same ragged thoughts rasping
over and over,

the same yearnings rising like the tails
of startled squirrels