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On Translation: Push and Dig

By Adriana X. Jacobs

Reading Haviva Pedaya’s “A Poem for Rachel Corrie”  

Haviva Pedaya’s poem, “A Poem for Rachel Corrie” (in Hebrew, “Shir le-Rachel Corrie”) was written in the immediate aftermath of the death of the American activist Rachel Corrie, who died in Gaza on March 16, 2003. Corrie was standing in front of a house that was about to be demolished by the IDF and was crushed by the advancing bulldozer. The circumstances surrounding her death have been deeply contested; in fact, last February the Israeli Supreme Court rejected the Corrie family’s appeal to hold the IDF responsible for her death on the grounds that her death was a “combat zone exception.”[1] 

Very graphic images of Corrie’s injuries circulated in the media after her death, but the most iconic of these images is an Associated Press photograph of Corrie standing in front of a Caterpillar D9, a military-grade armored bulldozer that goes by the nickname “doobi,” Hebrew for teddy bear. This image of Corrie presents us with competing perspectives of the driver, Corrie, and the photographer. We can see the area where the driver is sitting, though we can’t get a clear picture of his face and body. This isn’t Corrie’s perspective, and we can’t really determine what she sees. Nor can we ascertain, as has been fiercely debated, whether or not the soldier manoeuvring the bulldozer had Corrie in sight when the bulldozer approached and dragged her under its blade. The photographer brings both the driver and Corrie into the frame.

Pedaya’s poem appeared in the 2003 issue of Hadarim, a prominent Israeli literary journal. Howard (Tzvi) Cohen’s English translation, which preceded the Hebrew publication, seems to draw from an earlier version of the poem.[2] In its published version, the Hebrew poem opens with an epigraph taken from the eyewitness testimony of one of Corrie’s friends. In the English translation, in place of an epigraph, this testimony is incorporated into the body of the poem as follows:

When a digger approaches the earth is upturned piling up into piles
When you stand before it mounds of earth drag you downwards
And you fall
When you climb to the top of the mound, you must climb to the top of the mound
Balancing at the edge of the digger’s palm

And there remain a few moments for you to jump aside
To flee to escape

To continue to scream from the side

When crushed the question arises: will the digger stop
Allowing the body to be pulled out from beneath
For if the digger moves back and then it moves forth
Its palm may injure once more

These lines describe what happened to Corrie, but the testimony, as it is transcribed, describes the dangers of the bulldozer in general terms, more hypothesis than fact. In English, the word digger, and its relation to “digger’s palm,” could be read simultaneously as a reference to the human digger and the digging machine (in Hebrew, the word for digger refers to the machine alone). Broken up into lines and stanzas, the English translation of the testimony leaves the question of how this injury happened and who caused it to happen open and unresolved. In the next stanzas, the poem assumes the imagined perspective of the land that rises up to bury Corrie: 

When a bulldozer approaches the earth is upturned
When a bulldozer approaches with intent to destroy
The earth has no wish to hear it speak out in Hebrew calling itself a digger

Pedaya’s poem opens with the foreign loanword “bulldozer,” which turns over the land as it approaches; this word, like the Caterpillar D9 bulldozer itself, is an import to the Israeli context. The way that Pedaya moves between the words “bulldozer” and “digger” (dachpor) not only creates a personifying effect but also underscores a prosthetic relation: the human soldier has become a bulldozing machine.

Etymologically, the American English word came into circulation in the late nineteenth century, when the term bulldose referred to a brutal beating, the kind fit for an unruly bull. In some accounts, it also referred to a long calibre handgun, “which carries a bullet heavy enough to destroy human life with certainty,”[3] as one lexicon described it. In the post-Civil War American South, particularly during the 1876 elections, acts of aggression and intimidation against African-Americans were referred to as bulldozing. Over time, the idea of pushing through an obstacle came to apply to this word, and by the 1930s its meaning extended to the function of ground-clearing tractors, machines that were regularly featured on postcards celebrating Jewish labor in Palestine.

As a descendant of a prominent line of Sephardic rabbis and kabbalists, and a scholar of these texts in her own right, Pedaya is attuned to Hebrew etymology, the historical roots of language.  Whereas a contemporary reader may take it for granted that words change meaning over time, Pedaya questions what happens to a culture when violence and conflict alter the shape and meaning of words (speakers of American English, for example, will recall the transformation of words like “embed” and “deploy” following 9/11). Coined in 1949, the Hebrew word dachpor, “digger,” is a portmanteau of lidchof, to push, and lachpor, to dig. But Pedaya is also invoking the word “pur” (“a lot”), a reference to the Jewish festival Purim, which took place the week that Corrie died. All of these associations are stirred up, figuratively and literally, from the perspective of the earth.

The blade of the bulldozer becomes in Pedaya’s poem the kaf ha-dachpor, the palm of the digger, but the land, Pedaya’s speaker tells us, “with its memory of Hebrew doesn’t want to hear that the digger / has a palm.” Instead, the land digs into its memory for an etymological root that will release it from the violence of the modern idiom, and comes up with kaf ha-kela, the hollow of the sling (mentioned in 1 Samuel 25: 29), which refers in rabbinic and mystical literature to a state after death in which souls are tossed from one end of the world to the other to shake off the dust of their human attachments. But now that kaf has become connected to dachpor, and now that the bulldozer’s digging has made Corrie a part of the land, how can these attachments be shaken off? Should they be? As readers of this poem, whether in Hebrew or English (or both), our attachment to the text will vary. But what remains after our encounter with this poem? And do we want to shake that off?

The words push and dig are repeated throughout the poem, combining the motions of the bulldozer with the hermeneutic strategies of writing and reading. The motions of the soldier and bulldozer may be mechanized, but pushing and digging are also ways of probing this narrative from multiple points of view, of stirring up and unsettling the memory of Rachel Corrie “into an incessant unrest.”


[2] Haviva Pedaya, “To the Memory of Rachel Corrie,” trans. Howard (Tzvi) Cohen, An uncredited French translation was published in Libération on March 23, 2003 and appears to have been based from the same version that Cohen used.

Published Apr 18, 2016   Copyright 2016 Adriana X. Jacobs

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