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Teaching in Translation: These Pines

By Adriana X. Jacobs

With this post we launch our new series on teaching in translation. Whether teaching in their areas of specialization or shouldering introductory world literature courses, teachers at all levels face questions about how to frame foreign literature for their students. How can instructors make foreign work accessible? What are the best ways to provide social and cultural context? Which books and authors are most useful? Contributors will discuss approaches to teaching translated literature in both specialized and general courses, and will recommend works with which they've had success. Here Yale's Adriana X. Jacobs describes her method of teaching Hebrew poetry in translation.—The Editors

I have been teaching poetry in translation for several years now, and translating poetry into English for even longer, so I’m more than familiar with the resistance and skepticism that looms over this enterprise.  Aphorisms like “poetry is what gets lost in translation” (Robert Frost) or “reading poetry in translation is like kissing through a veil” (Chaim Nachman Bialik) constantly grate against my conviction that poetry is translatable. I’m not concerned with equivalence, however. “In poetry you must go with force,” wrote the Hebrew poet Avot Yeshurun in Harold Schimmel’s English translation.  Force is power, but it is also translatability.  Words move in a poem, which make them tricky to pin down, even when you’re reading in the original.  When you translate a word in a poem, you’re aware that you are urging the word (by force, at times) to settle down, but you also hope that it will continue to move, to translate (“never-ending motion” is how Bialik described it). In his poem, “And we must not get excited,” the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai writes, “Quietly we pass on/ words from one person to another, one tongue to other lips// unawares, the way a father passes on/ the features of his dead father to his son,/ yet he doesn’t resemble either of them,/ he’s just the go-between” (translation by Chana Kronfeld and Chana Bloch). This is the translatability that I look for when I translate poetry, the translatability that remains after I have translated.  Translatability is something that we can learn to discern when we read poetry in translation.  We can—and should—develop an instinct and sensitivity for this kind of movement in translation.  Too often discussions of translated poetic texts focus on the absent word or the uneven phrase, rather than trying to sense and make sense of how a translator has made elements of the original present in other ways in the translation, or even to understand why a translator would choose to leave something out or alter it entirely.  These kinds of choices are also very much a part of writing original poetry.

I often teach Leah Goldberg’s poem “Pine” (“Oren” in Hebrew) using multiple translations.  The poem itself belongs to a cycle of three sonnets titled “Ilanot,” or “Trees,” published in the 1955 collection Barak ba-boker (Lightning in the Morning).  “Pine” is the first poem of the cycle and the most famous of the three. Lines from the poem have become iconic in Hebrew literature, particularly Goldberg’s phrase “the pain of two homelands” (ha-ke’ev shel shtei ha-moladot), which appears toward the poem’s end.  I’ve included here my fairly literal translation:

Here I will not hear the cuckoo’s voice.
Here the tree will not don a turban of snow,
But in the shade of these pines
My entire childhood comes back to life.
The chiming of the needles: Once upon a time—
I will call the distance of snow a homeland,
The greenish ice that fetters the brook,
The poem’s language in a foreign land.
Perhaps only birds of travel know—
when they hang between land and sky—
This pain of the two homelands.
With you I was planted twice,
With you I grew, pines,
And my roots are in two different landscapes.

“Pine” is modeled, for the most part, after the Petrarchan sonnet.  The octave (composed of ABBA rhyming quatrains in the original) articulates the poem’s central problem or argument, followed by a sestet (in CDC/DEE rhyming tercets) that offers—or in this case, seems to offer—some sort of resolution. The “turn”—or volta—from problem to (re)solution occurs in line nine, signaled by the word “perhaps” (ulay).  These formal properties of the poem give the poem the appearance of order and structure, which is then challenged by the poem’s content.  Goldberg’s “argument” proves to be ambiguous, unclear, confusing—full of beautiful but contradictory images and grammar—leaving tremendous room for interpretation, in other words, for translation.

Scholarly discussions of “Pine” often focus on the deliberately unresolved binary condition between “native” and “adopted” homelands in Goldberg’s poem. The “two homelands” to which the poetic speaker claims belonging articulate the double-bind of exile that characterized the experiences of many Jewish immigrants to Palestine in the early twentieth century.  The poem not only aestheticizes an ambivalent exilic condition in the space of the poem, but also advances the poem as a site of translation. In other words, the poem not only emerges through the crossing over of languages, landscapes and memories, but also places these movements in a state of suspension.  It asserts poetic language as the language that uniquely can articulate acts and sites of translation.

When I teach this poem I like to bring in multiple translations.  I do this for other poems that I teach, but in the case of this poem, asking students to read multiple translations complements the acts of translation and retranslation that occur in the poem.  I often have students compare the English translations of Michael Gluzman (from his book The Politics of Canonicity), Rachel Tzvia Back (from Lea Goldberg: Selected Poetry and Drama), and Sharon Kessler (in Fish-eye Press). The distinct contexts in which these poems are situated arguably motivated the particular choices these translators made.  Gluzman translated for an academic audience and uses the translation as part of a broader discussion of Goldberg’s poetics of exile. Tzvia Back is an US-born Israeli poet and translator.  Kessler is also an US-born Israeli poet and translator; her Goldberg translation accompanies a drawing by Noga Farchi.

When I teach this particular poem in this way, I usually don’t provide students with any background information on the translators, but, without fail, they quickly discern that there is something more “poetic” about the Back and Kessler translations.  This hinges on certain words that Back and Kessler use that the students perceive as being less literal.  They wonder why Gluzman’s translation strikes them as a more literal translation and what this says about the purposes that this translation serves.  Students who can read the poem in Hebrew are asked to let go of the idea of equivalence and simply consider what the similarities and differences between the different translations mean.  Those who read only the translation rely primarily on instinct and critical reading skills.  In our discussion, we hone in on key lexical differences, particularly the translations of the expression tsiporei masa: “passing birds” (Gluzman), “migrating birds” (Back) and “migratory birds” (Kessler).  Goldberg’s phrase is unusual in Hebrew.  If Goldberg were thinking of migratory birds, as Kessler and Back suggest, why didn’t she opt for tsiporim nodedot, idiomatic Hebrew for “migrating birds”? Instead she fashions tsiporei masa (birds of travel), which complicates the here/there binary that the “pain of two homelands” at the end of the poem seems to advance.  In class, we distinguish between “travel” and “migration” and consider what Goldberg is saying about the immigrant condition through her deliberate use of the word “travel”—but we also consider what guided these three distinct translations of the expression and what these choices tell us about how each translator reads the poem in the original.  We consider how the original poem allows for these readings. 

 “Poetry is what gets lost in translation,” unsurprisingly, has been taken out of context.  Set apart, it suggests that poetry itself gets lost in the act of translation, but what Frost meant was that “poetry” in both poetry and prose is lost in translation.  In other words, both share the risk of losing the poetic element.  The very idea that poetry is untranslatable disregards the massive role that poetic translation has played in generating new trends and developments in poetry—indeed, in writing—throughout the centuries.  In a talk on Renaissance imitations of Petrarch, Goldberg remarked that it is through translation that allusions move from a text in one language to another text in a different language, generating new ideas, and sometimes, new traditions altogether. In so doing, the “foreign poem [becomes] immanent” in the target culture.  “Pine” also addresses this kind of literary translation in its recasting of Heinrich Heine’s (1797–1856) “Ein Fichtenbaum steht einsam” (A Pine Tree Stands Alone) and Mikhail Lermontov’s (1814–41) poem “Сосна” (1841, The Pine Tree). By the poem’s end, the two homelands of Goldberg’s poem may not lie so far apart—in fact, they prove to be not two but multiple.  In Goldberg’s poem, the landscape of the past is not only recalled by and in the present; rather, the shade of the pines revives a hybrid landscape that includes the transplants from Heine’s and Lermontov’s poems, as well as the immigrant history of the pine tree itself, a transplant to the Israeli landscape.

Published Oct 5, 2011   Copyright 2011 Adriana X. Jacobs

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