Merchandise Table is Open!

I’ve finally joined the late 20th Century and opened a merchandise area on my blog. You can find it here: Merchandise

New this month are two Poem Cards – beautiful, glossy, 8 1/2 by 5 1/2 double-sided post cards, each with one of my poems set against a striking image. They would look great on your desk, your wall, framed, or as gifts. They are $5.00, with special pricing for buying 3 or more.

More coming soon!

"Bound, I descend" Poem Card

Cicada Poem Card


A Little Ditty for Dancing with the Stars

A Little Ditty for Dancing with the Stars
Elliott batTzedek

You’re an asshole, Nancy Grace
I flinch when I see your accusatory face
or even your right breast, hanging out.
About your character I have no doubt,
for you called for the lynching of a disturbed young mother.
So I’d be afraid now, too, if I were your choreographer.

A few thoughts on dictionaries

A few thoughts on dictionaries
Elliott batTzedek

     Translating, and reading about translation, has made me hyper-aware of dictionaries. There are, in turns out, many different kinds, each with its own purpose and usefulness.

     The “dictionary” most of us know is a book that is a collection of words with information about those words. It is monolingual (or intralingual), and it exists to explain words to people who already understand the language. While most pretend to be neutral, they are not – to explore the editorial policy of a dictionary, look up any controversial cultural term – lesbian, abortion, sex, or any racial or sexual insults. Does the definition satisfy you or just make you angry? One linguist I know, the radical lesbian feminist writer Julia Penelope, once had a job as the “offensive usage” editor for a dictionary, deciding and marking which words were sexist, racist, age-ist, etc. Imagine using THAT dictionary, what values it would express! I only wish I could remember what dictionary it was….

     And, of course, we all know how dictionary definitions can be infuriatingly obtuse or self-referential. Look up a word like “afraid,” for example, and you might find “the state of being in fear.” All fine and well, IF you know what “fear” means. If you don’t, you’ve learned nothing. There is an amazing dictionary for adults learning English, the Oxford American Dictionary for learners of English, which defines words clearly and simply, and never uses a word in the definition of itself. It has photos, illustrations, and guides to types of language, such as which kinds of words are used in a resume vs a casual email. I had one, once, and spent hours leafing through, delighted with what I was learning about my own language, but gave it away to someone trying to refine his English enough to look for a better job. (I really wish I could find a similar dictionary for modern Hebrew, for I need the information about the qualities and contexts of words, not just their “definitions.”)

     Dictionaries also define only one word at a time, or at most a short phrase that carries a single unit of meaning. They are, in this way, like looking through a microscope, trying to get a sense of an animal by searching a single cell at a time.

     Bilingual (interlingual) dictionaries are a beast of a completely different nature. They are actually more a lexicon than a dictionary, in that they exist to map one word to another and not really to define words. They are based, in the words of Jorge Luis Borges, “on the hypothesis – obviously an unproven one – that languages are made of equivalent synonyms.” And of course languages aren’t, which is why using a bilingual dictionary is only barely related to understanding or translating a language. If I look up the word “run,” for example, it will list several Hebrew words, nouns and verbs. If I look up each of those, it may say only “run.” (With a pronunciation guide, and, for Hebrew words, the gender of the nouns and class of the verbs.) But what do I then know? Does the word mean to run, to jog, to sprint, to flee for one’s life, to give someone the run around, to run for cover?

     And, within those limitations, bilingual dictionaries, like monolingual dictionaries, have editorial policies. My Hebrew/English dictionary doesn’t have the word “fuck” in English or Hebrew, and that’s a word my poet uses, as well as related concepts also missing. I probably need a Hebrew slang dictionary, if such a thing exists, as well as a Hebrew for speakers of other languages dictionary. Online interlingual translation sites help fill some of those gaps for me, although I’ve not yet found a Hebrew equivalent of an “urban” dictionary with all the pop culture references and slang terms and usages.

     Contemplating all of this is only the background to actually translating! Some days, staring at a word that ought to make sense and doesn’t, and being unable to figure out why, I do wonder what I’ve gotten myself into. Translating is incredibly hard. It is also incredibly rewarding, the same “ahhh” as dropping the right piece of a jigsaw puzzle into place and having a whole section become clear. Well, it’s like that if what you have is a pile of puzzle pieces but no picture of  what you are building, only a title that gives you a general sense and lots of shapes that look familiar.

A few more thoughts on dictionaries, from the translator’s best friend, Willis Barnstone, in his The Poetics of Translation:

A dictionary is monolingual or bilingual in format and intralingual or interlingual in purpose. With it one confronts the unknown.

An interlingual dictionary is a bible for the translator, containing official law for transferring meaning between languages. Laws, however, even holy ones, are not always perfect. An interlingual dictionary enlightens and deceives.

An interlingual dictionary provides a mirror image of the unknown in a known language, but for there to be a meaning, to be semiosis, the translator must intervene with her interpreting mind, actively choosing what amid the new data provides equivalence.

A monolingual (or intralingual) dictionary defines by explanation and synonymity. A bilingual (or interlingual) dictionary seeks equivalence and does not primarily define. It tries to translate. It tries to do so faithfully and literally, but leaves the decision of the right choice to the translator.

A bilingual dictionary is not prepared to handle sentences, since it has no memory of syntax and cares nothing about grammar. A dictionary has a multitude of cyclopses looking out from its pages. When a lexical cyclops takes on a second or third eye right in the middle of its brow, the hybrid monster is so cross-eyed it cannot see or be seen unless one focuses in one eye alone.

God as Translator

two quotations from Willis Barnstone The Poetics of Translation, pp 130-131

God created through the word. And what did God do with that word? With its utterance God translated divine sound into matter and being, thereby bringing the cosmos, the earth, and the earth’s inhabitants, great and small, into temporal existence. Since clock time did not exist before this act of cosmic creation, of transforming significant noise into time and space, clearly the first act of translation in the history of the profession occurred with those sacred Hebrew words y’hi or: “Let there be light.” And just as the pious know that ultimately our souls will, on the day of judgment, be translated back into heaven, so on that first day of creation God initiated and spoke the first sentence for the history of translation.

Willis Barnstone

In the beginning was the word and the word was translation, and with it God translated the heaven and the earth. But the earth was without form, and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep, and the word moved upon the face of the waters, translating the light from the darkness.

Pierre Grange, “God the Eternal Translator,” Dream Time and Other Earthly Signs

The tools of a translator

I’m taking a “catch up on school work” day off from my job, and sitting at Bucks County Community College and studying while Sue is in her new grad course for the day. The backpack I hauled in to do this is incredibly heavy, and my Stuff spread out takes an entire table. What the heck IS all this?

Curious you should ask. Or that I should ask a question and then claim you have asked it. But just in case inquiring minds want to know, here’s the list of what a translator brings to a day’s work:

1. the original poems, in this case a PDF of a book stored on a jump drive. Most important part of the process, but essentially invisible

2. my translations, also stored on the jump drive. Also, files with lists of suffixes, prefixes, and a sheet of “tricky words” – those that are spelled the same but, depending on the vowels, are very different words.

3. Bilingual dictionary. I really need a single-language dictionary, too, but I’m not ready for that yet.

4. All-Important Verb Table Book, the single most useful tool I’ve ever purchased.

5. Google Translate. Vital to me, as I am nothing like fluent in Hebrew. Nothing Like. Google translate is amazing – not to actually translate a poem, but to give me a way in, to help me think outside of every place I get stuck trying to make plain sense of a line. As a way to help me edit, I’ve been taking my English version of a poem and using Google to translate it into Hebrew. I then compare that Hebrew to the original. This helps me see where I might be using more words in English than I need, or see if a word I’ve used has a corresponding word in Hebrew that ISN’T in the poem, such that I might not have chosen the right sense of the original word. This has also helped me find typos in my Hebrew (since I have to retype every poem from the original into Davka. Trying to make sense of the wrong word, or off something that isn’t a word, greatly increases the frustration level of this process!

Then I take Google’s Hebrew version and have it translated back into English, and then compare that to my English. What’s remarkable about this whole process is how close the versions can be! The machine will never replace the grunt work and inspiration of translating literature, but wow does it help. I can’t imagine trying to do this even a few years ago when such a tool didn’t exist. I don’t think I could have, not with my level of Hebrew knowledge.


7. Davka, a Hebrew word processing program, which allows me to type right to left and to use my English keyboard to produce Hebrew letters. I’ve been using it for years, originally to do Passover hagaddahs, and only this summer realized it has a “translate” button that will do one word at a time. Again, not perfect, especially for the images and abstractions of poetry, but it can help me identify word roots and which binyan (type) of verb a word might be so I know where to go looking.

8. The thick packet of translations with notes from my mentor, Ellen Doré Watson.

9. book of essays on poems by contemporary Hebrew poets

10. Dell laptop

11. eyeglasses

12. Zebra F-301 pen, without which I cannot write.

13. Patience. Again, mainly invisible, but it has never been a forte of mine so I have to pack a lot of extra with me whenever I sit down to do this.

National Coming Out, 1987

National Coming Out, 1987
Elliott batTzedek

Swallowing charcoal swill
I,I,I, couldn’t say why she took the pill
bottle instead of the pill,
only that I
didn’t mean to die.

She, the smart girl, always so smart,
oh how she burst apart
heart’s juice run thin
mopped up off
the kitchen floor

with unused tickets for the bus to DC.
Instead she’d agreed to see
my parents. Why? I,I,I
didn’t want to die, talked us out
of the ER,

while she was still vomiting bile. I found
my rigid back, my prescribed smile, checked
us out to watch the marchers on the mall
chanting Come out, come out,
wherever you are!

For 25 years I’ve been a dyke, still hiding
what makes me queer, playing sleight
of hand so she and I,I,I will disappear,
folding them inward
and inward again.

“Outside the Body” – Yona Wallach

from Wild Light, translated by Linda Zisquit

Outside the Body
Yona Wallach

The hypnotist was here
she spoke of the body tired from all the years
serving and doing things for us
and I went out from the body
and sat on the edge of the bed
looked at it
and climbed up to lick it
stroke it
take care of it.

Shez – every night I will pour out

from The Dance of the Lunatic, page 12

כָּל לַיְלָה אֲנְי אַבְּיעַ לָךְ אֶת אַהֲבָתִי
אַתְּ תַּבְטִיחִי לִי שֶׁלֹּא תַּעַזְבִינִי לנֶצַח
אֲנִי אֲהַרְהֵר מְעַט עַל מַשְׁמָעוּת הַדְּבָרִים
וּבֵינְתַיִם אַחֲלִיק אֶת לֶחְיִי בִּכָרִית בִּטְנֵךְ הָרַכָּה

Shez, The Dance of the Lunatic, page 12
(untitled: every night I will pour out)
translated by Elliott batTzedek

Every night I’ll pour out my love to you
You’ll promise to not ever leave me
I’ll meditate a little on the meaning of these words
and meanwhile slide my cheek across the the pillow of your soft belly

Dahlia Ravikovitch – “Pride”

from Hovering at a Low Altitude: The Collected Poems of Dahlia Ravikovitch, translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld. I’ve been reading Ravikovitch because she is essential to reading other contemporary Israeli women poets, like, I guess, knowing Adrienne Rich is here. Everyone knows her work, everyone refers to it in some way, or has it in the background, constant commentary on or counterpoint to their own work. And some of her poems are just breathtaking! I only wish the book had the Hebrew originals so I could learn more about how these two masterful translators dealt with language issues as they went along.

Dahlia Ravikovitch

Even rocks crack, I tell you,
and not on account of age.
For years they lie on their backs in the cold and the heat,
so many years,
it almost creates the impression of calm.
They don’t move, so the cracks can hide.
A kind of pride.
Years pass over them as they wait.
Whoever is going to shatter them
hasn’t come yet.
And so the moss flourishes, the seaweed is cast about,
the sea bursts out and slides back,
and it seems the rocks are perfectly still.
Till a little seal comes to rub against them,
comes and goes.
And suddenly the stone has an open wound.
I told you, when rocks crack, it happens by surprise.
Not to mention people.