The diplomats of the literary world

Translators of poetry face the monumental task of transposing the meaning and cultural nuances from one language to another.

MARCELA SULAK_150 (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
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 1970.
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.
“In Jewish 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.”
Translating 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.
“For me 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 illuminating.
“I think that she went through the same things,” Kantar says. “In a different time, under very different, much harder circumstances.
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 connected.
“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 of 41.
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 shot.
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 country.
“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 emanates.
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.
“Poetry had 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 relevant.”
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 culture.”
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 world.”
And where is translation’s place in this?
“Translators are 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 population.
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 work.
“It is important to know how the language works, but not having full mastery of the language,” she says, “is not harmful in itself.”
The 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.
This may 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 experience.
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: