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

January 22, 2019 | Mark Glanville

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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