On the relations between Hebrew and Russian poetry



There were poet-translators who lived in two cultures, with both Russian and Hebrew as mother tongues. Perhaps herein lies the secret of their telepathic magic.

My parents emigrated from Russia to Mandatory Palestine on the ship Ruslan, which sailed from Odessa in 1919, at the beginning of the third great wave of Zionist Russian immigration to Eretz Israel – the third aliya. But in our home I never heard a word of Russian on my parents’ lips, even though they had been educated in that language and culture. Even there, beyond the sea, they expressed themselves well in Hebrew. Every now and then I recall a memory from distant childhood, my father singing to himself Lermontov’s well-known song, “I set out alone on my way.” The country I grew up in during the 1920s, 30s and 40s, was saturated in Russian.

In 1942 the book Russian Poetry was published, an anthology of new work [translated into Hebrew and] edited by [the Hebrew poets] Abraham Shlonsky and Lea Goldberg. For many of my generation the book was an unforgettable and exciting experience. At the height of the war, that terrible murderous year, we discovered poems and poets in this book. In 1949 we were fortunate to receive Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin in Shlonsky’s translation.

Of [these earlier] poet-translators [into Hebrew] there were those who lived in two cultures, with both Russian and Hebrew as mother tongues. Perhaps herein lies the secret of their telepathic magic. Most translators preserved the original poetic form – rhyme and rhythm. The tonal meter common to both languages made this easier for them. In this they were different from English and French translators of Russian, who abandoned faithfulness to rhyme and rhythm from the beginning. The 1942 anthology was wonderful, due to the choice of poems , and excellent translation into Hebrew, which was already our Hebrew, street Hebrew and book Hebrew.

Aminadav Dykman, [the editor of the new anthology, My Generation, My Beast], is well aware of what his predecessors accomplished. In his fascinating preface, he says: “The translation into Hebrew of Russian poetry, with its rich tradition, breathed life into Israeli poetry at one of its greatest hours”. And he adds: “It seems that there has never been such a profound and total match between original and translation as the one between Russian and Hebrew, and at no other time was there such a bold and obvious affinity.”

I can testify that as a young poet just starting out I was influenced by Alterman. I admit that I am guilty of this. One day I dared to ask Alterman about the non-Hebrew poet who influenced him most. He answered without hesitation: “Pasternak”. While reading Pasternak in Dykman’s translation, more than once I felt I was reading [Alterman’s] Stars Outside.

Dykman arrives at a point of great significance. “Fairly quickly, an extreme revolution in taste took place, following which this poetry and poetics was sent into exile”. He means, apparently, the appearance of the poets of the statehood generation - Natan Zach at the forefront, attacking Alterman’s poetics in his well-known and provocative articles. And the mood had changed. Zach created generations of students, and their students, who distanced themselves from this Russian poetry. Hebrew poetry opened to other possibilities and sources of influence. It looked westward, to Eliot, Pound and Auden; it met up with German expressionism once again and with Hebrew poets who had been rejected and forgotten, such as David Fogel. Some of the best poets of the younger generation adopted free verse, abandoning from the beginning the magic of rhyme and rhythm. They turned their backs on poems whose fixed form dictated the content; they demanded statements that retrieved the word from a merely magical flow. Later on, in the familiar dialectic way, some of the young Hebrew poets moved back toward the poetics that preceded Zach and his friends.

Aminadav Dykman’s book does not really present us with a completely different approach to translation; he continues Shlonsky’s tradition. He has perfect pitch and sees preservation of tone and rhyme as the translator’s major goal, an aim which sometimes forces him to make concessions in other areas. Dykman is at his best when using assonance. He also likes rare words, sending us to the dictionary. In his preface he expresses his approach directly, which is itself enough to cause controversy. But to this day I’ve never seen a translation of a masterpiece that didn’t serve as an excuse for an argument.

The work of the 1942 anthology was borne by seventeen translators. Here Aminadav Dykman has done all the work by himself. I’m dying to know what young readers will say about Russian poetry in this incarnation. Does it speak to them? Will it make waves? Will the appearance of this book, in these days of rage and of life on the edge, cause a cultural revolution? I certainly hope so. But this way or another, it will contribute and enrich.

Excerpts from a review of Aminadav Dykman’s My Generation, My Beast: Russian Poetry of the 20th Century (Tel Aviv: Schocken, 2003), in Ha'aretz Books 9 April 2003

© Chaim Gouri  
• Editors & Translators (Israel)

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