Two New Translations Attempt to Bring Avrom Sutzkever’s Poetry into English

Jan. 22 2019

While the moving life story of the Yiddish poet Avrom Sutzkever—who grew up in Siberia, spent part of World War II saving books and manuscripts from destruction at the hands of the Third Reich, fought the Nazis as a partisan, testified at Nuremberg, and spent the second half of the 20th century sustaining Yiddish literature in Israel—resonates in any language, translating his poetry has proved a more daunting task. In greeting two new English versions of his poems with enthusiasm, Mark Glanville reflects on the challenges they confront:

Sutzkever was unafraid to forge his high-poetic Yiddish out of a street “jargon” that had not previously been associated with serious literary culture, creating neologisms at will—but always within the context of strict poetic forms. Sutzkever’s employment of meter and rhyme themselves present considerable difficulty to his translators. . . .

One of the later poems, “The Full Pomegranate,” has given its title to Richard J. Fein’s collection [of translated poems]. Though for the most part it is well and accurately rendered, elements of this translation reveal the difficulties attendant on any non-annotated edition of such a difficult and sophisticated poet. Fein translates the lines “lave zayne kerndlekh. Atomen/ breyshesdik aroysgeyoyerte” as “Lava—its grains. Genesis—/ atoms turbulent,” hurling words at the page like paint at a canvas, omitting the neologisms and imagery that are Sutzkever’s trademarks.

A more literal translation might read “Lava its seeds. Atoms/ Fermented forth primevally.” The word yoyern is used of fermenting bread, while breyshesdik is an adverb Sutzkever has invented, a derivation from the Hebrew b’resyhit (in the beginning), the first word of the first book of the Bible and the Hebrew name for the book known to Christians as Genesis. The seeds of the pomegranate are seen as lava, as atoms, fermented primevally, combining two images—the power of fermentation and the shooting out of lava from the depths. None of this is apparent in Fein’s version, but is any translation able to convey such intricately wrought language without the help of notes?

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Read more at Times Literary Supplement

More about: Arts & Culture, Avraham Sutzkever, Jewish literature, Poetry, Translation, Yiddish literature


The Impossibility of Unilateral Withdrawal from the West Bank

Feb. 19 2019

Since throwing his hat into the ring for the Israeli premiership, the former IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz has been reticent about his policy plans. Nonetheless, he has made clear his openness to unilateral disengagement from the West Bank along the lines of the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, stating the necessity of finding “a way in which we’re not controlling other people.” Gershon Hacohen argues that any such plan would be ill-advised:

The political and strategic precepts underlying the Oslo “peace” process, which Gantz echoes, vanished long ago. The PLO has unequivocally revealed its true colors: its total lack of interest in peace, unyielding rejection of the idea of Jewish statehood, and incessant propensity for violence and terrorism. . . . Tehran is rapidly emerging as regional hegemon, with its tentacles spreading from Yemen and Iraq to the Mediterranean Sea and its dogged quest for nuclear weapons continuing apace under the international radar. Even the terror groups Hizballah and Hamas pose a far greater threat to Israel’s national security than they did a decade ago. Under these circumstances, Israel’s withdrawal from the West Bank’s Area C, [the only part still under direct Israeli control], would constitute nothing short of an existential threat.

Nor does Israel need to find a way to stop “controlling other people,” as Gantz put it, for the simple reason that its control of the Palestinians ended some two decades ago. In May 1994 the IDF withdrew from all Palestinian population centers in the Gaza Strip. In January 1996 it vacated the West Bank’s populated areas (the Oslo Accords’ Areas A and B), comprising over 90 percent of the West Bank’s Palestinian residents, and handed control of that population to the Palestinian Authority (PA). . . .

This in turn means that the real dispute between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as within Israel itself, no longer revolves around the end of “occupation” but around the future of eastern Jerusalem and Area C. And since Area C (which is home to only 100,000 Palestinians) includes all the Jewish West Bank localities, IDF bases, transportation arteries, vital topographic sites, and habitable empty spaces between the Jordan Valley and the Jerusalem metropolis, its continued retention by Israel is a vital national interest. Why? Because its surrender to a potentially hostile Palestinian state would make the defense of the Israeli hinterland virtually impossible—and because these highly strategic and sparsely populated lands are of immense economic, infrastructural, communal, ecological, and cultural importance, not to mention their historical significance as the bedrock of the Jewish ancestral homeland

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More about: Benny Gantz, Israel & Zionism, Two-State Solution, West Bank