Translating Amichai II

After I selected the poems for The Amichai Windows, I soon realized that I would have to translate them myself. There were good translations, of course. But in each one there was always something that I would have done differently. And so I began to think about translating Amichai and how best to do it.

My Hebrew is fluent. For three years, I studied Hebrew Literature at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I took classes with Professors Dan Miron, Gershon Shaked, Shemaryahu Talmon and many others. I virtually lived in the dictionary – at least, it felt that way – so that I could read and understand Hebrew literature from the Bible through modern times.

In addition, I had spent another three years as a translator and reporter for The Associated Press and The New York Times in Jerusalem. I had to translate instantly in conversations as well as from the radio and TV news broadcasts. And from the daily newspapers. And yet, fluent or not, I knew that it would be helpful to have assistance translating Amichai.

Several years after I returned to the States, I became friends with Professor Gary Rendsburg, who was then serving as the chair of the Department of Jewish Studies at Rutgers University. He is a congenial man and prodigious scholar who has published numerous books, articles and translations of his own. His specialties:

  • The literature of the Bible
  • The history of ancient Israel
  • The historical development of the Hebrew language
  • The relationship between ancient Egypt and ancient Israel
  • The Hebrew manuscript tradition
Prof. Gary Rendsburg

Prof. Gary Rendsburg
Prof. of Jewish Studies
Rutgers University

In particular, I was intrigued by and in need of his broad knowledge of the development of the Hebrew language. While it’s true that Amichai writes in a colloquial style, he draws on multiple layers of a 3,000 year old Hebrew literary tradition with its own allusions, history and words from various linguistic periods — which, in and of themselves, contain their own allusions and connotations.

On the other hand, I needed someone who knew modern Hebrew fluently — the colloquial phrases and expressions that Amichai often

Azzan Yadin-Israel

Azzan Yadin-Israel
Prof. of Jewish Studies
Rutgers University

integrated into his poems. To help in this realm, I called upon Prof. Azzan Yadin-Israel, an Israeli-born scholar. His broad knowledge of the Jewish literary tradition — of Rabbinic legal hermeneutics, the origins of Midrash and Biblical interpretation — also was very helpful.

As it turned out, I had tapped my own, personal Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel. In the course of our working together, I was to discover that Prof. Rendsburg is a stickler for the literal translation of words and phrases. And, at the same time, Prof. Yadin-Israel is more open to a free-spirited rendition of text as opposed to a literal translation.

We met each week or so at a coffee shop in Highland Park. I would bring copies of the poem with me along with a rough draft — a kind of first stab at the poem, highlighting difficulties and various possibilities of interpretation. We discussed each word of each line. Each of us offered our own interpretations but more often than not I liked to listen. I would jot down their remarks to take home with me and consider.

I had decided not to try to reach a consensus. I would make my own decisions about word selection, diction, syntax, literary allusions, etc. I wanted to be able to craft each poem as a new poem in a new language. It had to read well as a poem in English to my ear. So, I wanted their input but I would finalize the poem myself.

After we went through all 18 poems, I brought back “final” drafts — and we went through them again, revising words and expressions here and there. And then I went back and “completed” the poem’s translation, taking into account their remarks.

Though, in truth, I continued to hone the translations and make my own changes here and there as I worked on the book. I will always be indebted to both of these scholars and friends for their invaluable contribution to The Amichai Windows.

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