Translating Amichai

“Poetry is what gets lost in translation,” Robert Frost is often quoted as saying.

It’s true, but it’s not true. The original connotations and impact of a poem is lost in translation, that’s true. One can not move from one country to another without a sense of dislocation, of newness, of discovery. But, that’s just it. A new language presents the opportunity for the poet to be discovered by a new audience — and for the poem to resonate in new ways. It might not be the same as the original but it can take on a life of its own.

Handwritten Amichai poem

Part of a handwritten Amichai poem, “I Know A Man”
Reprinted by Permission of Hana Amichai
from the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University

Translating Amichai’s poems into English — one of more than 30 languages into which he has been translated — presents its own challenges. It’s true that it’s impossible to convey the original’s sensibility or meaning in a translation. But one can convey a sense of it, a hint of it in the form of a new poem in a new language.

I would put it like this: translating is like trying to create a twin with a different set of DNA. The father or mother could bring a suit: that’s not my child! That’s not my creation! Well, and what could the translator say except that it’s true. It’s not the original child. It has a similarity to the original child – but we all know that it’s not that same child.

I try to translate as literally and as faithfully as possible to the original, including the position of words in a sentence’s structure, line breaks, etc. However, this is not always possible because a translated poem, first and foremost, needs to read like a poem, not a shadow of a poem. And, I think, this sense of a new poem being created must take precedence.

Writes Walter Benjamin: “Fidelity in the translation of individual words can almost never fully reproduce the meaning they have in the original. For sense in its poetic significance is not limited to meaning, but derives from the connotations conveyed by the word chosen to express it.”

And Jose Ortega y Gasset:

“The simple fact is that the translation is not the work but a path toward the work. “

At its best, a translation can be a wholly new utterance, a new poem for a different audience, an audience thirsting to be transported not only to a distant land but to the same emotional landscape as the original poem. We can come close, we can try to get very close to the original despite a different cultural context and historical background. And yet languages are like people: they have their own personalities, strengths and weaknesses, their own history and literary traditions.

This is both a strength and a weakness in terms of translation.  For instance, the meaning of a word like “Am” in Hebrew, which is usually translated as ‘nation’ or ‘people’ in English, simply can not be conveyed in English. The connotations of the English word relate to a different past and automatically couch the word in a different context. So, the emotional depth of the word “Am” with its connection to the chosenness of the Jewish people, to the familiar song, “Am Yisrael chai!” or an ironic use of the term, of the notion of chosenness in Yiddish – all of this is lost in English.

In addition, there are always what I call the “knots of translation” in a poem. By this, I mean the places where there’s an ambiguity of meaning that is either very difficult or impossible to translate. This forces a translator to make a choice of two or more possible meanings – and this is also the part that gets lost in translation.

At the same time, though, there is much that can be gained from the overall context and meaning/interpretation of a poem so that even if individual words are not transferable or synonymous from one language to another, the overall thought or emotion of the poem can still be successfully conveyed. A “good” translation will form a similar but new poem that hints strongly at the power and emotional meaning of the original.

In my opinion, the original poem must come through essentially in language that itself rings true. If it’s successful, a translation will convey the sounds and rhythms, the diction and syntax of the original poem. While a translation is always an approximation of the original, if we’re lucky, it will become a new poem in another language.

Ultimately, translating is both a critical and creative act that both betrays and is faithful to the original poem.

See the next post, Translating Amichai II, for how I went about translating Amichai’s poems for The Amichai Windows with the help of Professor Azzan Yadin-Israel and Professor Gary Rendsburg, both of the Jewish Studies Department of Rutgers University.

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