Translating Poetry: An Act and Art of Preserving the Essential – By Rachel Tzvia Back

Rachel Tzvia Back discusses the art of translation after working with the poetry of Tuvia Ruebner

 “the same – different – the same attributes,
different yet the same as before.”
~H.D., Tribute to Angels


Tuvia Ruebner translated by Rachel Tzvia Back, In the Illuminated Dark: Selected Poems of Tuvia Ruebner, Hebrew Union College Press and the University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014, 396pp., $39.95

The modern Hebrew word for “translation” — tirgum (root letters t-r-g-m) — can be traced back to Aramaic, with cognates in the ancient Semitic languages of Akkadian and Ugaritic. In its earliest incarnations, the word carried with it the meaning of “interpretation,” and the simpler notions of reading and speaking — lexical evidence, it seems, that in ancient cultures the one who could read, and then speak about what he had read, occupied by definition an interpreting role. The single biblical usage of the word in the Book of Ezra references a letter written and translated into Aramaic: “ … the writing of the letter was written in the Aramaic character, and set forth [meturgam] in the Aramaic tongue” (4:7). By the third century CE, the word had evolved into the term Targum, denoting Aramaic versions of the Hebrew Bible, versions that were hybrids of translation, interpretation, and paraphrase. In an age when Aramaic was ascendant as the common language of communication and Hebrew was less understood, the purpose of the various Targumim (plural of targum) was to facilitate for the community bridges to the sacred texts that defined them as a people.

In the Jewish world, the translator’s role was from the outset imbued with sacred value. The translator would ensure the survival of a text-based identity, even when the original language of that text was no longer understood. Thereafter, a tradition evolved whereby during the weekly Torah reading, the original Hebrew text would be chanted (filling the room with the musical components of the original language), each verse followed by the same verse in Aramaic translation/interpretation/paraphrase. In this fashion, the translator’s work was instrumental in identity-formation, in community-building, and in ensuring that the original texts were always accessible to more than the elite few.

With these ponderings on the origins of the Hebrew word for translation, I come to the poetry of Tuvia Ruebner — one of the last surviving Hebrew poets of the Holocaust. An “Elder of the Tribe” in Hebrew arts and letters, having published widely and received every major literary award in Israel and many in Europe too, Ruebner marked his 90th birthday in January 2014 (his ninth birthday falling on the exact date Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933 — a bitter coincidence Ruebner notes in the opening page of his memoir). Though his poetry orbits the many losses that came to define his life — from the killing of his entire family in the Holocaust, to his first wife’s death in a car accident and, finally, to his youngest son being lost without a trace in South America — Ruebner steadfastly refuses positioning himself or his nation as victims; similarly, he eschews narratives of ethnic exceptionalism, insisting instead on shared and common truths of the individual heart. Ruebner’s fifteen poetry collections offer the reader gems of compassion and beauty, necessary poems of deep humanity. And yet, no volume of his work in English has existed until now.

Thus, translation as an act and art of preserving the essential — that which tells us who we are as human beings in the world and the communities we might build, even across language divides — is the ethos which has led me to translating Ruebner’s poetry. As conflict, violence, and self-righteous posturing continue to define broad regions of our planet, I find in Ruebner’s poetry alternative responses to the broken realities we live in, responses that are honest, open-hearted, embracing of the other, and ever-attentive to moments of grace when they might come. Because this is poetry we need, I bring it into English; the fruit of my labor is the first-ever English collection, In the Illuminated Dark: Selected Poems of Tuvia Ruebner (Hebrew Union College Press and University of Pittsburgh Press, 2014). The reflections on translating Ruebner’s poetry offered below are the result of my extended engagement with his poetic oeuvre.

[From the Introduction, with the permission of the Hebrew Union College Press and the University of Pittsburgh Press]

Early in his memoir, A Short Long Life, Tuvia Ruebner describes his move from writing poetry in German, his mother-tongue, to Hebrew, the language of his adopted homeland. At the relatively late age of twenty-nine, in a Hebrew he learned from “the new Hebrew poetry, the Bible and Agnon,” Ruebner “ … started trying to write in Hebrew” (the qualifying “trying” in his description emblematic of his characteristic modesty). The passage continues, but instead of elaborating on the struggles or joys of composing poetry in this new/ancient language, Ruebner unexpectedly shifts his attention to the issue of translation:

Once I started [writing in Hebrew], I was addicted and I didn’t want my poems translated into any other language. As a devoted student of Ludwig Strauss, I knew that sound plays a central role in the meaning of a poem, and aside from rare instances, we are unable to transfer sound from one language to another. (69)[1]

Thus, from the very start of his Hebrew writing career, which is the start of his poetic career, Ruebner is preoccupied by issues of translation, a preoccupation that undoubtedly emanates not only from the multilingual nature of his upbringing, but also from the violent translocations and dislocations he experienced in his young life. It seems as though the ancient and melodious Hebrew rhythms offered Ruebner a refuge of beauty and fashioned-wholeness in a ruptured world, and the early refusal to have his Hebrew poems translated into other languages speaks to a refusal to undergo additional loss — the inevitable loss that accompanies any transfer from language to language, as from land to land.

However, this resistance belies the fact that Ruebner’s poetry and poetic sensibility occupied from the very beginning a place of being “always already in translation,” a place of in-betweenness, doubleness and fragmentation, eschewing in content and form notions of poetic (and political) completion, perfection or redemption.[2] The seeming redemption offered in poetic music — the untranslatable sound of a poem that carries and conveys so much of the poem’s meaning and essence — is fleeting and changing, and the ancient homeland-contours of Hebrew in no way counters the enduring exilic resonances of Ruebner’s work. Indeed, Ruebner’s early and youthful resistance to translation ebbs, and he agrees to having his poetry translated; his poetry eventually finds an avid reading public in other languages beyond the borders of Hebrew, most pronouncedly in the German-speaking world.[3] In addition, the poet himself becomes a renowned translator (from Hebrew to German, and German to Hebrew), best-known for his translations of the work of S.Y. Agnon.

I offer this passage describing Ruebner’s early resistance to poetry-in-translation, and the changes that resistance undergoes, as a portal into my own evolving understanding of the translator’s work. Doubtlessly, translation of poetry is a daunting task, deemed by many as destined to fail, seemingly impossible from the outset. Unlike prose that often has plot, character and other elements to rest on, the primary world of the poem is its language — the sounds and shapes of that language, the manner in which individual words and entire phrases rest upon or push against each other. Extracted from the original language and transplanted elsewhere, what can the poem still say? How can the poem still evoke the affects it means to evoke? What, finally, should the translator’s objectives be? Theoreticians of verse translation often find themselves engaged in debates regarding these questions (and others) based on dichotomous positions: is the translator’s goal to familiarize and domesticate the poem-in-translation — that is, make the poem “at home” in the translation, as though it were originally written in that language — or is the translator’s goal to “foreignize” the poem-in-translation, announcing through syntactic and lexical choices its other language origins? Is fidelity (which seems to mean literalness) to the original text paramount, or should the translator enjoy freedom to depart from the original in the interest of producing the “best” translation? Is the poem-in-translation meant to re-enact the original poem in the foreign language, or is the poem-in-translation in fact an independent artistic entity?

The debates are important and fruitful, and the temptation to adopt one position over another is great; and yet, the most successful poetry translations very well may emanate from resistance to singular and categorical positions.[4] Thus, I offer the following as an articulation of how I see the verse translator’s responsibilities and aspirations: the translator of poetry must strive toward loyalty to the original and must also exercise a significant degree of creative freedom in order to convey in translation the poem as a whole in the best fashion. The translator of poetry must immerse herself fully in the lexical, linguistic, cultural and musical world of each poem she’s translating, and must also, at a certain point, separate herself from that world in order to hear the translated text in its own literary and sound contexts. The translated poem is beholden to and an extension of the original poetic text, just as the translated poem must also stand on its own as a successful poetic entity. Of course these objectives seem, and in many ways are, oppositional to each other; indeed, the translator’s craft and art is a confluence of paradoxes. The challenge to the translator is to negotiate these paradoxes without attempting to resolve them, for it is the very paradoxes of translating poetry that are the source not only of translation problems, and even failures, but also of generative possibilities in literary representation and cultural bridgings.

Locating my translation praxis and poetics within this arena of paradox, as the translator of Tuvia Ruebner’s poems into English I am responsible for conveying as accurately as possible the intention of his poems and the experience of reading them from the Hebrew into the English language texts. Accurately, however, does not mean equivalently, and reading the translations for one-to-one equivalencies with the Hebrew (a great temptation in a bilingual edition) undermines the essence and purpose of the translated poem — which is, finally, to stand in its own right (though ever acknowledging its place of origin, the Hebrew original). As Ruebner’s translator, I must attend religiously to the formal, lexical and syntactic choices he makes (from poem length, length of individual lines, stanzaic structure, to gendered discourses and addresses, inverted syntax, etc), and strive to be faithful to these elements in my translation choices. However, the issue of “faithfulness” to the origin is significantly complicated by the fact that the practical “kinship” between English and Hebrew is a distant one indeed, and the transfer from a highly inflected, gendered and syntactically more flexible language like Hebrew to a weakly inflected, ungendered and syntactically rigid language like English results in countless instances where deviations from the original are not only unavoidable but are in fact essential.[5] As Ruebner’s translator, I must listen closely for the many allusions, primarily biblical and liturgical, that are often the “warp and woof” of his poems.[6] However, once the allusion is uncovered, the question of how to convey it — through direct insertion into the text, through notes, or not at all — remains to be answered and carries with it numerous considerations. As Ruebner’s translator, I must follow the sound patterns of the Hebrew original and register their effect, then work to create in the English translation “a new music,” a music that is true in the English even as it evokes, in Walter Benjamin’s phrase, “the echo of the original” — though that “echo of the original” also marks what is, inevitably, lost.[7]

But that which is lost is hardly the last word on the translation project (contrary to oft-quoted axioms on the matter). For whatever is lost in the transfer, other attributes and elements are gained. Indeed, the art and act of translating poetry is, finally, an art and act of transformation; as Benjamin states, there is “a renewal of something living — the original undergoes a change.”[8] Through that renewal, the original gains a new life it might not have had otherwise — a presence in the world that is, as the epigraph to this piece suggests, “ … the same — different — the same attributes, / different yet the same as before” (H.D.). The language into which the poem is translated is, ideally, also transformed through its wrestling with the foreignness of the original language. In the best cases, the language-wrestling leaves an origin-telling mark on the target language — reminiscent, perhaps, of the mark left on Jacob’s thigh after his own night of wrestling with an unnamed, intimate, other.[9]

As previously stated, Ruebner’s early resistance to having his poems translated dissolved and he eventually became an important translator in his own right. One of his most significant translation projects was the translation into German of the work of Nobel Prize winner S.Y. Agnon, work that played a part in Agnon achieving the world-wide recognition he did. “Gershom Scholem wrote,” states Ruebner in his memoir, “ … that it was my translation [of Agnon] that was before the eyes of the judges on the Nobel Prize committee. I am proud of that” (96). But a different effect of his translations seems to be of even greater importance to Ruebner and articulates most elegantly the power of the literary translation. After journeying to Agnon’s home in the Talpiot neighborhood of Jerusalem, precious pages of his translation in hand (a journey that involved Ruebner getting drawn into an antiquarian bookstore beside his bus stop in Jerusalem’s city center, getting distracted by forty five volumes of Goethe in translation, then missing his bus and arriving in Talpiot late — to find Agnon himself waiting for him in the hot sun), Ruebner shares his translation of Shevuat Emunim (The Oath) with Agnon and remembers the moment thus:

After I read for [Agnon] my translation, tears filled his eyes and he called out: “Estherlein, Estherlein, come and hear how beautiful!” I say the following not out of false modesty … but I know for certain that Agnon was referring to the story itself, which he had not engaged with in a while, and not to the translation. The fact that the translation revived for him the original is praise enough for me. (96)

Hence, Benjamin’s aforementioned “renewal of something living” resonates and is expanded in Ruebner’s vivid description of translation as a “reviving,” a restoring of life to that which is already alive. This “revival” of the living text — for the author, the reader and the translator all — is as apt a way as any to describe the translator’s paradoxical work.

Images are translated by time and by circumstances; across years, resemblances make the connections we seek. Thus, I conclude this brief consideration of the translator’s work with an anecdote mirroring the image offered above. In spring 2013, the journal Modern Poetry in Translation published six of Ruebner’s poems in my renderings. On the Shavuot holiday — the Festival of First Fruits — I travelled to Kibbutz Merchavia to visit with Tuvia and his wife Galila, and to give him a copy of the journal. I left the journal with him; the next day, I received the following email:

Rachel my dear,
Something very nice happened to me this morning. I was reading through the journal you left here yesterday, from right to left as is my fashion, when my eyes fell on a poem that ended with the words “A human being can bear almost everything / and no one knows when and where / happiness will overcome him.” I thought to myself, now that’s a very good poem, I wish I had written it; then I saw my name on the poem and realized, with pleasure, I did write it … ~ Tuvia

The art and act of poetry translation precipitates the unexpected across language borders; the translator of poetry is the privileged practitioner of the multiple, the unexpected, the paradoxical, and the ceaselessly coming into being.

  1. Ludwig Strauss (1892‒1953), German/Israeli scholar and writer, was a mentor and close friend of Ruebner’s.  ↩
  2. I borrow the wonderfully evocative term of “always already in translation” from Phillip E. Lewis, in “The Measure of Translation Effects,” as quoted by José María Rodríguez-García in “Introduction: Literary into Cultural Translation,” Diacritics, Volume 34, Number 3/4 (Fall-Winter 2004) 27.  ↩
  3. To date, eight collections of Ruebner’s poetry in German have been published. In his memoir, Ruebner epigraphically expresses some of his discomfort over Germany being the country that has embraced his work most avidly through the imagined response of his deceased friend and colleague Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt (1921‒1990) to this popularity: “‘Grotesque,’ Durrenmatt would say, and he would be right” (69).  ↩
  4. Offering an elegant and powerful argument for the importance of engaging not only in translation work but also in thinking about translation work, Esther Allen and Susan Bernofsky write the following: “Thinking about translation means thinking about the gaps in our literature and our ability to communicate…. It also means thinking about the gaps in our political and cultural discourses, asking ourselves what and who has been left out.” “Introduction: A Culture of Translation,” in In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What It Means, (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013) xviii.  ↩
  5. I am alluding here to Walter Benjamin’s striking notion of “the kinship of languages,” the notion that “… languages are not strangers to one another but are, a priori and apart from all historical relationships, interrelated in what they want to express.” From “The Task of the Translator,” 1923; translated by Harry Zohn, 1968. In Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations, edited and with an introduction by Hannah Arendt (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1968) 71‒82.  ↩
  6. See Robert Alter’s discussion of the biblical and liturgical in modern Hebrew poetry and his argument that “…allusion is not an occasional or even frequent elective device but in many texts is the warp and woof of the poem.…” In Alter’s Hebrew and Modernity (Bloomington and Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1994) 10‒11.  ↩
  7. I have borrowed the phrase “a new music” from Eliot Weinberger, who develops this notion beautifully in the following passage: “…the primary task of a translator is not merely to get the dictionary meanings right – which is the easiest part – but rather to invent a new music for the text in the translation language, one that is mandated by the original.” See Weinberger’s “Anonymous Sources: On Translators and Translation,” in In Translation: Translators on Their Work and What It Means, 24. Benjamin’s phrase “the echo of the original” is from “The Task of the Translator,” 77.  ↩
  8. Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” 74.  ↩
  9. Of course, the mark on Jacob’s thigh is only one sign of the ways the night wrestling changes him. At night’s end, he is given a new name and Jacob is transformed – translated – into Israel. See Genesis 32:23‒32.  ↩