Intimacy and politics: An interview with Tal Nitzán

“The loss of language may become dangerous”


EGR: Where were you born? Could you tell us something about your background?

TN: I was born in Jaffa, Israel, to parents born in Argentina. My childhood, as a daughter of Israeli diplomats, was characterised by constant moving, and I spent part of it in South America – in Argentina and Colombia. Later on I lived several years in New York. Today I live in Tel Aviv.

EGR: How and when did you start writing poetry?

TN: I started writing in my twenties, as a student. I didn’t make much of it, had no urge to publish my texts, and curiously stopped writing altogether, for several years, when I started translating poetry. I didn’t think of myself as a ‘poet’ till after the publication of my first book.

EGR: Which poets or artists have influenced your poetry?

TN: A great deal of my early reading included Hispanic poets. I was deeply touched and impressed by Federico García Lorca, César Vallejo, Octavio Paz, José Lezama Lima, Alejandra Pizarnik, among others. But their work inspired me primarily as a reader, not as a writer: my main urge was to translate them. I’ve always strived to keep my own writing as independent of influences as possible – which may explain why I stopped writing as soon as I started translating those powerful voices. My poetic diet included, of course, non-Hispanic poets as well: from T.S. Eliot, Sylvia Plath, Paul Celan, the great Polish poets Zbigniew Herbert and Czesław Miłosz to Hebrew poets such as Yair Hurwitz and Dalia Rabikovitch.

EGR: Do you nowadays feel that your work relates to the work of other authors or contemporaries?

TN: Among contemporary poets I feel close to the Finnish Sirkka Turkka, the Cuban Nancy Morejón and the Israeli Nurit Zarchi, to name a few. Again, they’re essential for me as a reader, but I don’t think my own poetry bears traces of theirs.

EGR: Your first poetry collection Doméstica was published in 2002 and won the Culture Minister’s Prize for a debut book. There is powerful war imagery in these poems, as well as a recurrent theme of authority and the contrast between calamity and peace, corruption and innocence [see ‘Afternoon and a little girl’ and other poems translated into English by the author together with Vivian Eden]. You clearly write with a strong critical grip on your social reality. Tell us more about why you chose to entitle this work Doméstica and to what extent you stand as an insider or outsider to the conflicts that surround you?

TN: The title Doméstica – a word non-existent in Hebrew – was defiant, in a way: in the struggle between writing and ‘life’, instead of turning my back on my home, family, everyday petty things in order to write about the ‘important’, I dived right into those things to find my poetry. Instead of reaching out to “Exótica” or “Romántica” I went to “Doméstica”. The last line in ‘Afternoon and a little girl’ sums it up: “You keep me from writing the poem about you.” The title also refers to one of the main themes in the book: the concept and possibility of home as a shelter, the illusion of its walls and borders when terror and evil can invade it, the danger and abyss that lie within. Since I cannot remain detached from my time and place, there’s a constant clash between inside and outside. Without it being an agenda, I found myself writing political poems, simply because those matters wouldn’t let me sleep. I believe a poet can be involved in social and political struggles without it being manifested in their poetry, but this wasn’t my case.

EGR: How do you feel the focus and themes of your writing have changed or evolved since that first publication in your other poetry collections, An Ordinary Evening (2006), Café Soleil Bleu (2007) and The First to Forget (2009)?

TN: It’s difficult to sum up a book, moreover one that is quite polyphonic as is An Ordinary Evening, which, I think, reaches further in several directions, both the political and the intimate. Maybe the title poem could encapsulate it: it is a long, meticulous depiction, in the first person, of one nondescript, regular evening in the life of a couple somewhere, anywhere but here. The tone is matter-of-fact and all the elements precise and realistic, but every detail is fake, imagined, impossible. In many places in Europe this text would hardly be read as a poem – from here it looks as sheer fantasy: the most ordinary is the most impossible.

Café Soleil Bleu is a single long poem of love and loss. It is written in a male voice and addressed to a second female person, but I play all the roles in it.

The First to Forget is also complicated to summarise. One of its sections, entitled ‘What country’, is composed of fragments that deal with the multiple immigrations that ran through my childhood. In the last fragment disorientation and loss of language became practically dangerous:

I sit by the edge of a swimming pool, dipping my feet in the deep water. Someone pushes me in. Perhaps he wouldn’t have done it, had he known I can’t swim, I think on the way down. I sink till my toes touch the bottom and then I rise. I pull my head out of the water and know that now I should be screaming “Help!” before I go under again, but I forgot what country I’m in and what language I’m supposed to shout in.

The last section of the book, entitled ‘Wanderer’, is apparently a translation from Spanish, of the work of an Argentinian poet, Luis Sebastián Masetto, including a short biography. The last footnote reveals that such a poet doesn’t exist, that is, ‘his’ poems are mine, but somehow many readers, reviewers as well, still regard it as a translation. Masetto obtained a life of his own and now another Argentinian poet (a real one . . .) is going to translate him ‘back’ to Spanish and publish him in Argentina.

EGR: You have recently edited a poetry anthology of different authors that addresses the phenomenon of protest poetry in Israel entitled With an Iron Pen: Twenty Years of Hebrew Protest Poetry 1984–2004. In the introduction of this book, you mention: “The extended silence has been broken, and protest against the occupation has become an important, central and generative subject of contemporary Hebrew poetry.” Could you tell us a little more about the motivation and effect of protest poetry in Israel?

TN: Political poetry – or protest poetry, as I prefer to call it – is a wide phenomenon. But the 99 poems assembled in With an Iron Pen deal with one specific issue: the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, and the oppression, injustice and harm for both people that derive from it. On one hand it is to be expected that these circumstances, so significant in the Israeli existence, would find their way to letters and generate a poetic and moral reaction. But on the other hand it isn’t obvious, regarding the difficulties these poets have to confront: the chasm between their message and the predominant viewpoint among the majority of the Israeli Jewish public, the complex and intense reality of the occupation, that strikes daily, its multifaceted nature etc. Nevertheless, it became a substantial theme in Hebrew poetry, with an intriguing variety of manifestations. Since the publication of the anthology – that was published also in an English version in the USA – political writing, sometimes combined with political activity, became more widespread here. Apart from their literary value, for me the major importance of these poems lies in their granting readers – and writers – an option of resistance, a right to doubt, to dissent, to rise up.

EGR: You are also an avid and preeminent translator of Hispanic literature and have won numerous awards for your translations, among them the Culture Minister Prize for translators (1995, 2005), and an honorary medal from Chile’s president for your translation of Pablo Neruda’s poetry in 2004. Your translations into Hebrew, over 70 books, include authors such as Antonio Machado, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz and César Vallejo, Miguel de Cervantes, Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Horacio Quiroga, Augusto Monterroso, Julio Cortázar and Roberto Bolaño. These must have all posed multiple challenges and difficulties as a translator. Could you tell us a little more about your experience as a literary translator and if possible could you comment on some of the challenges you have faced?

TN: The most serious difficulty is translating a book I don’t like or don’t believe in. Fortunately, this is seldom the case. All other challenges I embrace, and translating poetry is simply one of my favorite occupations. My biggest challenge was translating Trilce by César Vallejo and an anthology of his poetry. His work is considered, rightly, the most untranslatable text in Spanish. Reconstructing his idiosyncratic language in Hebrew was physically exhausting at times. But I feel fortunate to have been there, so close to him. And sometimes when I face a great difficulty I remind myself that I translated Vallejo and survived.

EGR: What affinities do you find between Spanish and Hebrew?

TN: I found that both languages have a peculiar poetic strength, some dense and concise quality that I don’t see in other languages. Hebrew’s force might derive partly from its biblical origin, and sometimes poems in Spanish have a biblical subtext that comes to light with the passage to Hebrew. I’m a great patriot of my language: again and again I take pleasure in leaning on it and letting it guide my translation. And usually translating poetry is easier for me – certainly more rewarding – than translating prose into Hebrew.

EGR: In what ways has your work in translation influenced your own writing?

TN: As I said, the first influence was almost lethal to my poetry – as soon as I started translating I stopped writing. The impact of those great poets that I translated – Neruda, Paz, García Lorca etc. – turned out to be devastating, paralyzing, to my own writing. At that early phase it was too easy to shut myself up and leave the stage to them. It took me several years to dare write again, to realise that my voice can be heard too, that it is unique in its own way. But this authenticity became very important: I’ve always been on guard regarding influences. Translating is the deepest reading, those poems have gone through my system – in fact I wrote them, in Hebrew – so I always made certain that I approach my poems tabula rasa. On the other hand, translating has enriched my writing; for instance, I don’t know if I would write sonnets having not translated Cervantes. Translation, this intimate contact with various poets, has given me a wider range.

© Elisa Gallego Rooseboom  
• Editors & Translators (Israel)

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