The Beauty of the Unsolved: On Translating a Difficult Poem
In his short essay “The Difficult Poem,” Charles Bernstein outlines “a handy checklist” to aid in the diagnosis of a difficult poem:
1. Do you find the poem hard to appreciate?
2. Do you find the poem’s vocabulary and syntax hard to understand?
3. Are you often struggling with the poem?
4. Does the poem make you feel inadequate or stupid as a reader?
5. Is your imagination being affected by the poem?[i]
These questions often came to mind in the process of translating Avot Yeshurun’s poem “Let’s Say” (Bo’ no’mar), which was originally published in his 1990 collection, Master of Rest (’Adon menuḥa). Bernstein’s second, third, and fourth questions can assuredly elicit a resounding “yes” from readers of Yeshurun’s poetry. This particular poem features both Yeshurun’s penchant for wordplay and his disjointed syntax, including his characteristic omission of the letter vav (ו), one of Hebrew’s matres lectionis. For this reason, among others, “Let’s Say” is emblematic of Yeshurun’s oblique, oftentimes perplexing poetics, which can make many readers feel “inadequate or stupid.” However, the first and fifth questions posed by Bernstein represent the core duality of the difficult poem (perhaps of the poem at large): while it may be difficult to appreciate, it affects the reader in a way that the comprehensible cannot.
Bernstein, for his part, defends the difficult poem, discouraging readers from glossing over the inaccessible. This is perhaps an unsurprising position for a poet such as Bernstein, a member of the L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E group of avant-garde American poets, who is self-admittedly “the author of, and a frequent reader of, difficult poems.”[ii] But in translation, a poem’s difficulty runs the risk of solidifying the white line between the lanes. Beyond the usual questions of fidelity, a difficult poem invariably brings to light the interpretative nature of translation. As Jacques Derrida intimates in his declaration that translators are “the only ones who know how to read and write,”[iii] to translate a poem is to read and rewrite it, which ostensibly entails understanding it.
This quandary clearly also beset the most prominent translator of Yeshurun’s poetry, Harold Schimmel, who published the only complete volume of English translations in Yeshurun’s lifetime, The Syrian-African Rift and Other Poems, in 1980. Schimmel is himself a poet whose work, as Adriana X. Jacobs argues, is deeply enmeshed in translational dynamics, particularly along the Hebrew-English axis.[iv] He published his first volume of poetry in English and shifted to Hebrew when he moved from New York to Jerusalem in the early 1960s. In his translator’s foreword, Schimmel attests to the challenges of translating difficult poetry:
But can one defend his Hebrew through English? Ten years ago it would have been wild even to consider the notion of translation. . . . I have taken over Yeshurun’s own words (humbling) as my motto: “parrot paraphrase by precept.” That is, admiring the poetry, I have felt inclined to take it whole. I have never glossed the odd or excised the difficult. I have tried to keep the difficulty (a closeness of thinking, or poetic argument, I have discovered) in.[v]
For Schimmel, the difficulty of Yeshurun’s poetics represents “a closeness of thinking, or poetic argument,” that must be kept in. But this declaration of fidelity is perhaps undercut somewhat by his own translational dictum, borrowed from Yeshurun himself: “parrot paraphrase by precept.”[vi] The tension between parroting and paraphrasing—two seemingly contradictory actions—perhaps best encapsulates the difficulty of keeping the difficulty in.
The more one paraphrases the less one can parrot. Each stroke of the keyboard represents an interpretative act that always seems to conjure the specters of roads not taken—an onerous position that is only multiplied by a difficult poetics such as Yeshurun’s. This issue is underscored in Yeshurun’s collection before the very first poem appears, as every Hebrew-language book must present an English translation of its title on the copyright page. In the case of Yeshurun’s ’Adon menuḥa, the “official” translation, Master of Rest, is the result of a deliberate translational decision, as the word ’adon can denote both “master” and “lord,” as well as the Hebrew equivalent of the honorific “mister” or “sir.” To decide between “master” and “mister” seals the hermeneutical fate of both the entire book and its namesake poem, as the former connotes reverence while the latter politely keeps rest at arm’s length.
The perplexing nature of Yeshurun’s poetics is often attributed to what Jacobs terms his “linguistic acrobatics,” which include “multilingualism, neologism, and formal hybridity.” Parrot-paraphrasing Yeshurun by precept, Jacobs summarizes his use of language as a “fragmented, deformed, polyglot, and translational safa shel smartutim, language of rags.”[vii] Indeed, Yeshurun’s poetry is often characterized by a mixture of Yiddish, Polish, Arabic, and Hebrew. For example, poems such as “Passover on Caves” (Pesaḥ ‘al kukhim) confounded readers in 1952 not only because of its radical politics but also because of its linguistic idiosyncrasy.[viii] While the late collection Master of Rest is a far cry from the long poems of Yeshurun’s earlier work, continuing a turn to shorter poetic forms that started in the 1970s with A Cappella Voices (Kapela kolot, 1977), most of the poems in the book retain Yeshurun’s multilingual, fragmentary language. In fact, toward his twilight years, Yeshurun seemed to return to subjects he had explored in Thirty Pages of Avot Yeshurun (Shloshim ‘amud shel Avot Yeshurun, 1964), particularly his guilt surrounding his immigration to Eretz Yisrael while his family remained in Poland, only to perish during the Holocaust. Thus, many of the poems in Master of Rest engage in a multilingual, Yiddish-ridden dialogue with his late family and his own past, to the point that his hometown of Krasnystaw’s presence in the poems is more prominent than Tel Aviv’s.
However, “Let’s Say” is somewhat distinct from these examples of difficulty in Yeshurun’s poetry, both within and without the collection in which it appears. In line with the later currents in Yeshurun’s poetry, its form is compact, comprising three asymmetrical quatrains. But in contrast to most of the poems surrounding it, its syntactical difficulty remains squarely within the confines of Hebrew. The language is still ragged, but it is distinct from Yeshurun’s usual linguistic shatnez.[ix] This is not to say that Poland, Yiddish, and familial loss are absent in this poem—in fact, I will argue that they constitute its thematic core—but their presence is unusually veiled.
The first stanza refers to an unspecified “them” from whom the speaker had divorced. But the next lines quickly dissolve into a poetic rubato, disregarding intelligibility in favor of wordplay. This dense and prolix stanza is followed by two shorter quatrains, which are still characteristically enigmatic but seem to provide what could be described as explanatory notes to the beginning of the poem. However, if the first stanza represents a riddle, its endnotes provide, not clarification, but rather a declarative defense of “the unsolved.” It is as if the speaker is warning the reader against a close reading that would, in fact, stray from the “closeness of thinking” represented by the difficulty of the poem. If the poem’s literal bottom line asks its reader to refrain from untangling the beauty of the unsolved, how should a translator retain its inherently thematized difficulty without inadvertently solving the riddle? In other words, how can one translate a poem that is not only difficult but about difficulty in poetry?
In his essay on self-commentary in Yeshurun’s poetry, Michael Gluzman wrote about “Let’s Say” that “despite Yeshurun’s explicit stance that ‘the beauty is in the unsolved,’ this poem is in fact an allegory of the processes of knowing and unknowing that underlie Yeshurun’s writing. . . . Moreover, the poem dramatizes the ways in which the urge to communicate is thwarted in Yeshurun’s extremely ambivalent poetic address.”[x] In light of this reading, which argues that the poem centers on questions of poetic communicability, I found myself repeatedly asking the question, How would Yeshurun write this if he had been an English speaker? Of course, there is no alternate universe in which an American or British poet would write this poem. One can look for historical and poetic analogs, certainly. For example, Jos Charles’s collection feeld stood out to me as a somewhat unexpected poetic interlocutor with Yeshurun’s “language of rags.”[xi] But ultimately, I had to reconcile the poem with my own relationship to poetic difficulty and diasporic language. In The Syrian-African Rift, Yeshurun writes:
I took off the house
How did I wear the house?
I left my mother.
How did I take a wife?[xii]
These questions are not dissimilar to my own questions about the interpretative nature of translation, as the speaker here also gives expression to the heavy burden of making decisions. How did I wear the house in Hebrew, and can I take it off in exchange for a different language? The present decisions are haunted by past decisions and seal the fate of future ones, as well. This quatrain from the poem “The Road That’s between Two Parts of Dizengoff” appears here in Schimmel’s translation, but funnily enough, I happened to translate it myself before ever reading his rendition. My attempt is as follows:
I shed the home.
How did I wear a home?
I left my mother.
How did I take a wife?
The most prominent difference between the two versions is undoubtedly Schimmel’s decision to translate ha-bayit in the first line as “the house,” while I opted for “the home.”[xiii] Much has been written about the double meaning of the Hebrew word bayit, which can denote both “house” and “home” (as well as “stanza”). This duality also speaks to the core of Yeshurun’s diasporism, as well as his translators’. This part of the poem seems to be referring to Yeshurun’s flight from Poland to Eretz Yisrael and to his guilt following his family’s deaths during the Holocaust. Schimmel obviously recognized this and decided that this specific usage of bayit—that is, the place Yeshurun had left—could not be home. Thus, as Schimmel ferried Yeshurun across the Rubicon from Hebrew to English, he had to make the choice of rendering Palestine as Yeshurun’s home, while Poland remains the house he had shed.
This decision also speaks to Schimmel’s complex relations to his own diasporism, to which I seem to have unwittingly taken an oppositional stance. Schimmel, as noted above, also took off his house (in New York) and moved to Jerusalem. Though Schimmel’s circumstances were vastly different from Yeshurun’s (and likewise from my own), both poets found their home in Israel, in line with the Zionist convention of viewing immigration to the Land of Israel, or aliyah, as a homecoming. Through my own translational choices, I have unintentionally pitted my own conception of home against Schimmel’s, and perhaps also against Yeshurun’s. By choosing to translate the line as “I shed the home,” rather than “the house,” I had kept in a closeness to the diaspora—the place where he was born, but also the place he had left, and where his family remained. While this example typifies the dangers inherent to translation, it also foregrounds the inevitability of future translations replacing and supplanting my own. So, my ambivalence toward hermeneutic determination is soothed somewhat by the notion that my projections, mistakes, and deliberative choices will hopefully become merely one link in a chain of perpetual translational dialogue with Yeshurun’s work, prolonging its textual afterlife.
The home/house duality is not only a convenient example of my hopes and fears about translation at large but also a central part of the process of translating “Let’s Say.” In fact, the word bayit was the most difficult word to translate in the poem—only partly because the word bayit does not actually appear in the poem. The ways in which Yeshurun says bayit without writing it explicitly guided me in the translation process and served as the fulcrum of my interpretation. The first stanza of the poem refers to the abovementioned unspecified “them,” who are subsequently cast as kelim, as the speaker playfully describes them with the Hebrew roots ש.כ.ר and ז.כ.ר. The first major decision I made, before translating a word, is to understand “them” as a placeholder for the absent parents, whom Yeshurun divorced when he immigrated to Palestine. In the context of the collection in which “Let’s Say” appears, this interpretation is quite predictable. The plot of their land, a place destined to be missed, is precisely the house that cannot be viewed as a home. From this point on, every decision I made in translating the poem had to comport with the core dynamic of saying “home” (or “house,” rather) again and again, without once uttering the word bayit.
The first point of order is the word kelim, the plural of kli, a rich and polyvalent word that can denote “tool,” “instrument,” “utensil,” “vessel,” “organ,” “skill,” “weapon,” “garment,” and “dish,” to name but a few meanings. The first usages of the word kli in the Hebrew Bible appear in distinctly familial contexts. It first appears in Genesis 24 as part of the story of Abraham’s servant, Eliezer, and his attempt to find a bride for Isaac. Eliezer journeyed to Abraham’s birthplace and, as a test for potential brides, he stood near a well, waiting for someone to offer him water. After Rebecca emerged as a suitably generous woman, Eliezer offers her and her family raiment and jewels, described in the original Hebrew as kelim: וַיּוֹצֵא הָעֶבֶד כְּלֵי-כֶסֶף וּכְלֵי זָהָב, וּבְגָדִים, וַיִּתֵּן, לְרִבְקָה; וּמִגְדָּנֹת--נָתַן לְאָחִיהָ, וּלְאִמָּהּ (Gen. 24:53). The King James Version translates the word klei (the possessive form of kelim) as “jewels”: “And the servant brought forth jewels of silver, and jewels of gold, and raiment, and gave them to Rebekah: he gave also to her brother and to her mother precious things.”
My decision to base the first stanza’s wordplay around the word “ware” was informed by an attempt to retain the absent presence of the home as the crux of the poem. Thus, the first instance of kelim in the poem becomes “silverware”—which alludes both to the silver jewels given to Rebecca’s family by Eliezer and to the common term that denotes everyday cutlery on the family dinner table. The proximity of “ware” and “aware” parallels the homonymity of “le-haskir” (to rent, to let) and “le-hazkir” (to mention, to remind)—as both pairs juxtapose materiality and perception. Admittedly, one consequence of this decision is the consolidation of some of Yeshurun’s word choices—in my rendition “ware” serves to represent both kli and the le-haskir–le-hazkir dyad, which mingle indiscriminately.
This choice also unintentionally created a poetic cryptogram in the vein of composers such as Johann Sebastian Bach and Dmitri Shostakovich, who embedded their names in their musical scores. The word “ware” accomplishes a similar effect, as its etymological origins are found in the Old English word waer, itself derived from the Germanic waraz or wer—meaning “to heed” or “to be watchful.” Thus, the shared etymological origins of the words “ware” and “aware” also become translations of the poet’s chosen last name. After several attempts to Hebraize his birth name, Yehiel Perlmutter, he arrived at Avot Yeshurun in 1949. The word “Yeshurun” is not only a moniker for the People of Israel but also a conjugation of the verb shar (שָׁר), meaning “to behold” or “to watch.” Literally translated, Avot Yeshurun means “the fathers will watch” or, in the imperative mood, “fathers, behold!” This name, as Menakhem Perry argues, “looks like a Yeshurun poem, his shortest poem ever.” Though the discarding of the original Perlmutter (literally, “mother of pearl”) may seem to excise the mother, Perry notes that the given name Avot was in fact a translation of Yeshurun’s nickname, given to him in Yiddish by his mother at bedtime.[xiv] Against this backdrop, choosing “ware” as the center of the poem’s wordplay seemed to suitably encapsulate the coded presence of the home and the family.
Yeshurun himself famously described the fractured relationship with his family as the fabric from which his “language of rags” was torn. In answering the question, How does one become Avot Yeshurun? he also clarifies what it means to become “Avot Yeshurun,” the shortest Avot Yeshurun poem. Thus, in order to become Avot Yeshurun myself, in English, I returned to this definitive self-description (which I also had to translate):
How does one become Avot Yeshurun, you ask? The answer is: from the breakage. I broke my mother and father, I broke their home. I broke their night’s sleep. I broke their holidays, their Sabbaths. I broke their self-worth. I broke their two cents. I broke their tongue. I begrudged Yiddish, and I everydayed their Holy Tongue. I made their lives miserable. I withdrew from the partnership. And when the point of no return dawned on them—I left them in the no-return. So, I am here. In Israel. I started to hear a voice emerging from within me, alone in my shack, on a steel-frame bed, a voice calling me by my name-from-home, and the voice—a voice of myself to myself.[xv]
The breakage, then, reveals the self that peers out from between the cracks. And what is a broken language if not a way to reveal another language? Yeshurun’s fractured Hebrew contains Perlmutter’s Yiddish and Polish. His breakage is one of immigration, a result of replacing a mama loshen with a new tongue. Outside a poetic address, the cracks can become a liability in the immigrant’s attempt to assimilate. In my own experience of emigrating from Hebrew to English, the latter felt broken only insofar as the former was peering out from the cracks, threatening any turn of phrase or idiomatic expression. If the immigrant is not careful, they might stumble over the cracks and reveal their unbelonging—a point of no-return. One typical solution for the immigrant—or at least the one I opted for—is to attempt assimilation through hypervirtuosity. Know every nook and cranny of your new language as well as, if not better than, any native speaker, for there is no zealot like a convert. But Yeshurun understood the inadequacy of this approach. The cracks, his breakage, eschew linguistic virtuosity, as he would rather be the master of rest.
As for myself, I ultimately looped back like a bilingual ouroboros. Unlike Yeshurun, who never left Israel after arriving at Bat Galim in 1925, I returned from English to Hebrew, but my mother tongue felt more foreign than my adoptive tongue ever did. Behind my cracked Hebrew was English, behind which was Hebrew. The cracks collapsed into themselves. So, perhaps it was no surprise that I gravitated toward Yeshurun’s rifts and to his broken Hebrew. And that is why I wanted to bring him with me back to English. As Schimmel notes, “Yeshurun would be delighted at the idea of young New Yorkers, Californians, or graduate student poets in walled Chester reading him to get smart.”[xvi] I, too, am delighted at the idea, as describing students reading Yeshurun “to get smart” is not only an amusing Americanism but also the least likely outcome for a poet who feared above all else “solving the secret / of poetry.” Returning to Bernstein’s first question, “Do you find the poem hard to appreciate?”—the answer is yes. And I find it even harder to translate. But only because it insists upon “the beauty of the unsolved.”
[i] Charles Bernstein, Attack of the Difficult Poems: Essays and Inventions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 3–4.
[ii] Ibid., 3.
[iii] Jacques Derrida, “What Is a Relevant Translation?,” Critical Inquiry 27 (2001): 174.
[iv] For a discussion of Schimmel’s poetry of translation, see Adriana X. Jacobs, Strange Cocktail: Translation and the Making of Modern Hebrew Poetry (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2018), 167–98.
[v] Harold Schimmel, “Translator’s Foreword,” in The Syrian-African Rift and Other Poems, by Avoth Yeshurun, trans. Harold Schimmel (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1980), xx.
[vi] The phrase “parrot paraphrase by precept” appears in the poem “Growth” (Tsmiḥa), which was included in Schimmel’s translation of The Syrian-African Rift.
[vii] Jacobs, Strange Cocktail, 137, 143.
[viii] For a discussion of “Passover on Caves,” its reception, and its multilingualism, see Michael Gluzman, The Politics of Canonicity: Lines of Resistance in Modernist Hebrew Poetry (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 141–80.
[ix] The term shatnez refers to a cloth that contains both wool and linen, a forbidden mixture in Jewish law.
[x] Gluzman, “Avot Yeshurun’s Self-Commentary,” 19.
[xi] Jos Charles, feeld (Minneapolis: Milkweed Editions, 2018).
[xii] Schimmel, “Translator’s Foreword,” xvi.
[xiii] Schimmel also kept the definite article in the second line, despite the fact that Yeshurun writes bayit, which would necessitate the indefinite article I used.
[xiv] Menakhem Perry, “Sa sa, hahephekh hahege: Shlosha praqim ‘al Avot Yeshurun” [Go go, the opposite the steering wheel: Three chapters on Avot Yeshurun], in ’Eikh niqra’ Avot Yeshurun [How should we read Avot Yeshurun?], ed. Lilach Lachman (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 2011), 35.
[xv] Avot Yeshurun, Kol shirav [Collected poems], vol. 2 (Tel Aviv: Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 1997), 124.
[xvi] Schimmel, “Translator’s Foreword,” xx.