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.”


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