A Short Story Translation: Nurit Kotler’s “Next to the Traffic Signal, Under the Streetlight”

Haim Watzman 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 … Read more

My Wife Watches Me — A Poem by Giora Fisher

Haim Watzman

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.

Giora Fisher, photo by Dafna Kaplan for Helikon
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.


Giora Fisher

I’m asleep.
My wife watches me
I feel her eyes scanning
My balding head
Examining the brown blemishes
The date of expiration
Stamped by time.

I sleep
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

My heart, too, subsides
And slumbers.

translated by Haim Watzman

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Stuck on the Fence: Shahar Bram’s “North of Boston”

Haim Watzman

Shahar Bram
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.

Robert Frost
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.

The original Hebrew version can be read here. I’ll follow my translation with some notes to explain what excites me about the poem.

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The Poem as Translation–Leah Goldberg’s “About Myself”

Haim Watzman

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.

A mistake of that sort came up in an evening on the classic Israeli poet Leah Goldberg that I attended last week.

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Marking it Up–Sami Berdugo’s “A Competition” in English

Haim Watzman

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.

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