Because the poetry of Leah Goldberg inhabits such a central place in the
national consciousness, it is easy to forget that she was an immigrant who
suffered from the same pangs of displacement as many of her non-indigenous
compatriots. It is a tension that is evident in much of her poetry, and as Annie
Kantar observes, this gives her work the potency that makes it still relevant
today, a century after her birth.
“She speaks from the inside, from the
heart of the literary establishment,” Kantar observes when we meet for coffee in
the German Colony neighborhood of Jerusalem. “But she also speaks for the
experience of the other.”
Annie Kantar, a poet and creative writing
teacher, is the translator of the recently published With This Night, Goldberg’s
last published collection of poetry before her death from lung cancer in
Even before she immigrated to Israel at the age of 25, Goldberg had
lived something of a transient existence, “more geography than biography” as
Kantar quotes her in the introduction to her translations. A preternaturally
talented linguist and scholar, her arrival in Israel was marked by an
announcement in a leading newspaper of the day, such was the excitement
concerning her aliya.
Likewise, there is no question that Goldberg felt
deeply connected to the land and people of Israel. She kept her personal diary
in Hebrew from a young age: when she was 15, she wrote in it that “writing not
in Hebrew is the same for me as not writing at all.” But a personal ambiguity
about her place in Israel dogged her throughout her life.
culture, you’re supposed to have one homeland,” Kantar explains. “But for
Goldberg, there really were two: Israel and Western Europe, which she fell in
love with while studying [for her PhD, in Semitic languages and German, at the
universities of Bonn and Berlin].” The capacity to negotiate this understanding
through her writing sustained her, even when criticized by her contemporaries
for not writing “nationalistic” poetry.
“She said not only is a person
allowed to write a love poem during a time of war, one must,” Kantar notes. This
emotional candor still resonates today.
“Her humanism, her ability to
speak to people who do not necessarily fit into the consensus, even though she
was a part of the consensus in many ways: I think it is still refreshing for
people,” Kantar says. “They are really drawn into it.”
Goldberg afforded Kantar herself the opportunity to explore the conflicting
experiences of her own aliya. Originally from the United States, Kantar came to
Israel on a Fulbright scholarship in 2001, to work on translating Hebrew poetry.
She ended up staying after meeting her Israeli partner.
personally, aliya wasn’t the ecstatic homecoming that it is for many people,”
Kantar recalls. “I feel very fortunate to be able to live here; but at the same
time, there was a lot of loss for me. I miss my family back home, I miss the
landscape, I miss the smells.”
In 2003, Kantar attended a reading of
Goldberg’s poetry set to music, at Tel Aviv’s Beit Bialik. At a point where she
was still negotiating the complexities of her new life, Goldberg’s poetry was
“I think that she went through the same things,” Kantar
says. “In a different time, under very different, much harder
But I think she felt similarly about her aliya. So yes,
translating her was therapeutic in certain ways.”
POETRY IN translation
in Israel maintains a lower profile than other art forms made available to
non-native audiences. Kantar’s experience – as both reader and translator –
hints at the possibilities that it can open up for even casual readers. The task
is to widen participation, by encouraging an anthropological approach to the art
of translation. One example of this approach in action is at Bar-Ilan
University’s Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing. Last spring,
the department ran a workshop on poetry in translation for the first time; this
spring, the department’s literary journal, the Ilanot Review, will be devoting
an issue to the art of translation.
Poetry may appear to be the most
intimidating of the literary forms, but it is also the most emotionally
“But poetry is the most basic inner voice speaking,” Linda
Stern-Zisquit tells me, mild reproof in her voice, when I suggest that many
people – that is to say, myself – are intimidated by poetry. It is a beautiful
December morning, and sunlight streams through the windows onto the kitchen
table where we sit.
“Poetry in translation is a way into a new culture, a
way to the pulse, the heart, the soul of a poet living in a place and at a
time,” she says.
A poet and a teacher of poetry in translation at
Bar-Ilan University and elsewhere, Zisquit has translated several Hebrew poets
into English, most notably the work of Rivka Miriam – who has been described by
Aharon Appelfeld as “a leading voice of the Jewish experience in recent
generations” – and Yona Wallach, the tempestuous, controversial poet who
streaked across the firmament, meteor-like, before her untimely death at the age
Poetry – and the translation of poetry – served as both an emotional and a
practical crutch for Zisquit in challenging times. She first lived in Israel for
a year and a half in the early 1970s, but returned to the US after the birth of
her oldest child.
“It was a difficult experience,” she says. “I felt like
I had lost all language, except for that very elementary poetry language that I
speak and think and write in.”
Five years later, she made aliya with her
family. A colleague furnished her with introductory letters to Yehuda Amichai –
probably Israel’s best-known contemporary poet – and Shirley Kaufman, an
American poet who had immigrated to Jerusalem. The former became a friend;
Zisquit has since translated a volume of his poetry into English. Kaufman, for
her part, invited Zisquit to a party for literary translators on the day after
her arrival in Israel.
At the party, she was introduced to the editors of
an American poetry journal, The Literary Review. Their next edition was to be
devoted to Hebrew poetry, and they asked if Zisquit would translate two of
Wallach’s poems for them.
“There’s no way I could translate that,”
Zisquit recalls. Her Hebrew was basic; more to the point, she wasn’t even
sure she wanted to be in Israel. “I wasn’t speaking with my husband, a beautiful
porcelain vase that we had brought broke in the absorption center... it was just
like that [Bob] Dylan song, “Everything is Broken.” But she decided to give it a
Zisquit worked on the poems over the next 18 months, at the same
time balancing ulpan studies and the demands of young family life in a new
“And then something happened,” she recalls. “There was this
sense of something wild and dynamic in her work, that just spoke to me... an
extraordinary, spiritual kind of energy, one not afraid to examine things that
one would call taboo places.”
At the same party, Zisquit was introduced
to Rivka Miriam. The two struck up a friendship, often meeting for coffee in the
German Colony and reading Miriam’s poetry together in English and Hebrew.
Zisquit has since translated the definitive collection of Miriam’s work in
English, These Mountains.
Miriam and Wallach are very different poets to
read, but according to Zisquit the task of retaining in translation the
sensibilities that one would derive from reading their work in the original
remains the same for both.
With Wallach, for instance, this means
retaining the occasionally abrasive juxtaposition of words that she used to
great effect. With Miriam, it means finding a way of communicating the rich
interpolation of Jewish history and biblical references that make their way into
her work without the use of footnotes, and without losing the rhythmic quality
of her poetry.
With both, the translator’s task is not merely to
translate, but to transpose the meaning from one language to another. It is a
reminder of the complexity of the translator’s task; the necessity to steep
oneself in not just the words, but also the social milieu from which the work
LIKE KANTAR and Zisquit, Marcela Sulak believes strongly in the
power of poetry to reveal something of the unknown in unfamiliar surroundings.
Director of the Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing at Bar-Ilan
University, the American-born Sulak is also a poet and a translator of poetry.
She has published two volumes of her own work, and has translated poetry from
Spanish, Czech and French.
Like Zisquit, she thinks that the social
function of poetry is often buried by other considerations.
always been this communal mouthpiece,” she says. “To [air] grievances about the
mayor, or your neighbor, or the law....”
She suggests that what many
people find challenging about poetry is actually the formalism with which many
people are encouraged to engage with it.
“When you decide that poetry
isn’t really this huge, feared crossword puzzle in which you have to transform
codes into prose then it becomes more fun, something more
Sulak relocated to Israel from the US a year and a half ago.
Something that struck her – as a reader, writer and teacher – is the lack of
cross-pollination between poetry written in the different languages spoken in
Israel. She refers to her experience of translating “May” – the epic Czech poem
by the 19th-century poet Hynek Macha – as an example of the benefits of engaging
with poetry in translation, and of translating poetry.
“If you get 20
Czechs in a room, they’ll all be able to recite it, it’s a sort of cohesion for
them. My Czech wasn’t so great when I moved there [Israel], but I started to
learn and translate the poem because I wanted to delve deeper into the
In this, Sulak argues, lies the significance of taking poetry
from one language and rendering it into another: it is an important yet
understated tool for delving into the unstated truths of the community from
which it comes.
“Writing is not a solitary, solipsistic activity; it is
where we say our most important truths, it is where we meet the
And where is translation’s place in this?
diplomats, communicating the thoughts of others,” Sulak says. “They bring the
voices, the lives of other people to you.”
Israel is a country where many
languages are spoken: Hebrew, Arabic, English, Yiddish, Russian, Spanish, but
the connections made though translations from any one of these languages into
another locally does not necessarily reflect the rich diversity of the country’s
Sulak wants to bring this diversity to the heart of the
creative writing program at Bar-Ilan University.
Zisquit’s workshop on
poetry in translation las spring was the first of what Sulak hopes will become a
established translation of literary translation courses. Beyond this, for the
Ilanot Review issue “Translation and Transformation,” the Shaindy Rudoff center
will be accepting submissions not just from students and professional
translators, but from anyone with an interest in the subject. Sulak hopes
that even those who do not necessarily have a very high degree of fluency in the
language they hope to translate from will not be dissuaded from submitting their
“It is important to know how the language works, but not having
full mastery of the language,” she says, “is not harmful in itself.”
challenge, ultimately, is one of communicating the sensibilities expressed in
the original in the translation. This goes beyond the words, and extends
to negotiating the complexities of rhyme and meter. Translating Wallach, for
instance, involved a sensitivity to the complexities of her gender interplay,
particularly difficult to render in gender-neutral English.
sound counter-intuitive, but it is worth noting that Robert Robertson, the
leading English-language translator of Sweden’s Tomas Transtromer – the most
recent Nobel laureate for Literature – does not speak Swedish. Robertson’s
partner – who is Swedish – reads to him first a literal, line-by-line
translation, then the original Swedish. Thus, he renders a “relatively free”
translation in English, but one that retains the cadences and sensations that
one gets from reading in the original.
Paradoxically, what might seem to
be a disadvantage can work to the translator’s advantage, “If one is not going
to be lazy about it,” Sulak cautions. It prompts the translator to dig deeper to
recreate the multi-sensory experience of the original. As Annie Kantar describes
the process of translating Leah Goldberg from Hebrew into English, “One ingests
it.” And reader, writer and translator all become the richer for the
Annie Kantar will be reading from her translation of With
This Night by Leah Goldberg on January 3 at Building 404, Room 115, Bar-Ilan
University, at 5 p.m. Submissions for “Translation and Transformation” are
solicited for any original translation of work by Middle Eastern writers and
poets, and will be considered until March 31. For more information: