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

Who Changed the Term “Nakba” into a Symbol of Arab Victimization?

April 19 2019

In contemporary Palestinian discourse, not to mention that of the Palestinians’ Western supporters, the creation of the state of Israel is known as the Nakba, or catastrophe—sometimes explicitly compared with the Holocaust. The very term has come to form a central element in a narrative of passive Palestinian suffering at Jewish hands. But when the Syrian historian Constantin Zureiq first used the term with regard to the events of 1948, he meant something quite different, and those responsible for changing its meaning were none other than Israelis. Raphael Bouchnik-Chen explains:

In his 1948 pamphlet The Meaning of the Disaster (Ma’na al-Nakba), Zureiq attributed the Palestinian/Arab flight to the stillborn pan-Arab assault on the nascent Jewish state rather than to a premeditated Zionist design to disinherit the Palestinian Arabs. “We [Arabs] must admit our mistakes,” [he wrote], “and recognize the extent of our responsibility for the disaster that is our lot.” . . . In a later book, The Meaning of the Catastrophe Anew, published after the June 1967 war, he defined that latest defeat as a “Nakba,” . . . since—just as in 1948—it was a self-inflicted disaster emanating from the Arab world’s failure to confront Zionism. . . .

It was only in the late 1980s that it began to be widely perceived as an Israeli-inflicted injustice. Ironically, it was a group of politically engaged, self-styled Israeli “new historians” who provided the Palestinian national movement with perhaps its best propaganda tool by turning the saga of Israel’s birth upside down, with aggressors turned into hapless victims, and vice-versa, on the basis of massive misrepresentation of archival evidence.

While earlier generations of Palestinian academics and intellectuals had refrained from exploring the origins of the 1948 defeat, the PLO chairman Yasir Arafat, who was brought to Gaza and the West Bank as part of the 1993 Oslo Accords and was allowed to establish his Palestinian Authority (PA) in parts of those territories, grasped the immense potential of reincarnating the Nakba as a symbol of Palestinian victimhood rather than a self-inflicted disaster. In 1998, he proclaimed May 15 a national day of remembrance of the Nakba. In subsequent years, “Nakba Day” has become an integral component of the Palestinian national narrative and the foremost event commemorating their 1948 “catastrophe.”

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More about: Arab World, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, New historians, Yasir Arafat