The second of this week’s guest posts on the Jewish Book Council’s ProsenPeople blog.
“Are you a professor?” asked the woman sitting next to me on the plane from Israel to New York. She’d been eyeing my laptop screen on and off for most of the flight, as I did a final polish on my translation of Israel and the Cold War, a punctiliously-researched tome by Joseph Heller of the Hebrew University. Heller’s the professor, I’m the translator. He spent years sifting through the dark corners of archives around the world to gather the material in his book. I get the glory of being thought a historian without having looked at a single document.
Yes, I write my own books, but try buying groceries with that… (continue reading on The ProsenPeople)
My friend from Kehilat Yedidya, Nir Levy, has been commemorating the current protest movement with a poem a day. Levy, who writes under the penname Nahir Libi, is the author of a fine first book of poetry, Mahol HaNefesh, which he’s also turned into an intriguing and moving show integrating readings of his poems, autobiographical passages about his struggle with schizophrenia, and music.
To preserve something of the original’s music and form I’ve taken liberties—perhaps too many liberties—with the original meaning. But Nir has consented to allow me to post the translation here. I add the original Hebrew below so that those who know the language can criticize my approach.
How Goodly are Thy Tents
The current Balaam lives in a luxury high-rise
Out of sight of the people whom the tycoons now curse
From his penthouse the people cover the city like flies
Not like ants, but a crowd churning, shouting, and worse.
Will he be the one who’ll seek to revile but whom God prevents?
Why risk chortling: Israel, how goodly are thy tents?
My translation of Nurit Kotler’s short story, “Next to the Traffic Signal, Under the Streetlight,” has just been posted on the Zeek website, after appearing in the Summer 2010 issue. Set in Paris, the story tells of an unscheduled and unlooked-for encounter between a nervous Israeli expatriate and an elderly Jewish man. Good stories are ones that reveal something new at each reading, and after reading this story again and again during the translation process, I can promise that this is one of those stories.
Nurit and I are currently in the final stages of work on the translation of another story, “Growing Up,” also set in Paris.
The one great emotion most neglected by poets is the profound love of the long-married couple written from the perspective of middle age. Most poets who reach that age (one wonders what Byron might have sounded like at 60), the male ones in particular, seem to be hung up over their lost libido. From C.K. Williams to Hanoch Levin, they devote poem after poem to old loves or desperate attempts to regain the sexual passion of youth.
So it’s a great pleasure to find a poet with the voice and skill (for every marriage is unique, and intimate, and no true lover would violate its confidence) to depict a love that young men know not.
Giora Fisher, five years my senior, is a high school teacher and farmer who began writing poetry just a few years ago. His first book, Aharei Zeh (In the Aftermath is the English title), has just been published by Am Oved and, he tells me, the 1,000-copy print run has already sold out. I offer my translation with the poet’s permission.
MY WIFE WATCHES ME
My wife watches me
I feel her eyes scanning
My balding head
Examining the brown blemishes
The date of expiration
Stamped by time.
But my heart wakes, waylaying my wife
Waiting at the edge of sleep
For the verdict of her eyes.
And only after it hears a sigh
A sigh of no pain
And without regret
Just a quiver of wistful desire
When I encountered Shahar Bram’s lyric “North of Boston” on the back page of Ha’aretz’s arts section last month, I was immediately struck by its plethora—celebration, really—of intertextuality and interlingual word play. A poem awash in allusions and puns that cross textual and linguistic boundaries is by definition impossible to render into any other language without losing precisely that which makes the work stand out. But, inured as I am in expressive frustration, I wrote and asked him for permission to essay an English version.
I begin here with the usual caveat I affix to my other attempts at translating and commenting on poetry here on South Jerusalem. I’m not a poet, as a translator of poetry must be, so this translation is very much a work in progress that I intend to revise in response to reader comments, and those of Bram himself.
It’s always easy to tear a translation apart, and the easiest kind of translation to tear apart is poetry. Vladimir Nabokov, who lived multilingually and thought a lot about translation, was one of the best, and funniest, critics of other people’s renditions of Russian classics into English—as can be seen now in his ”Art of Translation”, a article from 1941 available on The New Republic’s website.
But Nabokov’s translation of Pushkin, which he mentions working on in this piece, didn’t come off so well, because he got overly concerned about following rules he set for himself. Any translation of a poem has to give up on entire swathes of what makes the verse intriguing and worth reading in the original, but it can’t work on any level if it doesn’t stand as a poem on its own terms. But to do that, as Nabokov notes, the translator needs to see the world, as best he can, through the poet’s eyes.
Every translator’s been there (and I was, just this week). A client says he showed your work to someone else, who proceeded to mark it up with improvements. The client deduces that you gave him a bad translation. Go convince him that there can be two good translations of a single text.
The final product will differ depending on a range of strategic and practical choices that every text forces a translator to make.
“No one can tell [the translator] how Homer affected the Greeks, but there are those who can tell him how Homer affects them,” wrote Matthew Arnold, decrying some of his contemporary translators of the ancient Greek classics. Guernica has published “A Competition,” a short story by Sami Berdugo, giving me the opportunity to say something about how the story (published on-line in Hebrew by Ynet in two parts, here and here) affected me, and how Dan Ofri’s translation affected me, and how those two experiences differed. Continue reading Marking it Up–Sami Berdugo’s “A Competition” in English→