Book Chapter

Celebrating Mediation: The Poet as Translator

by Chana Kronfeld

Amichai’s poetry articulates an implicit theory of translation as the intertextual practice of a historical agent, an implicit theory that is poised to provide a new perspective on the critical discourse of contemporary translation studies.

I went out into my life with willpower seventyfold / At the gates there stood as-if translators from tongue to tongue / who helped me. But now that they’ve gone to sleep / My heart returns alone to its first abode.

—Yehuda Amichai, unpublished quatrain[1]

I. The Poetics and Politics of Translation

Amichai’s poetry articulates an implicit theory of translation as the intertextual practice of a historical agent, an implicit theory that is poised to provide a new perspective on the critical discourse of contemporary translation studies. A recurring metaphor in his work, which depicts the poet as “mere” translator, goes a long way toward deflating the still-influential romantic aesthetic criteria of originality, individuality, and uniqueness; he places instead special value on translational mediation as emblematic of the creative work of the lyrical “I.” Through the prism of Amichai’s poetic corpus, and in particular through the way his poetry challenges the dichotomy between writer and translator, it becomes possible to explore the notion of translational/poetic agency while leaving behind any vestiges of romantic ideals of authenticity and authority; and to give up, I hope once and for all, honorific notions about the primacy and purity of the original and derisive views about the secondary, derived, and contaminated status of the translated work.

Exploring the ways in which translation is implicitly and explicitly theorized within the poetry of Yehuda Amichai will allow me to read it, as I read intertextuality in general, not only within the poetic but also within the ethical and political practices that impact cultural exchange. His work celebrates the translational mediation among cultural subjects around the circulation of texts and sees poetry as just one form, not necessarily a privileged one, of this vital circulation. Amichai’s poetics of translation foregrounds the historicized, culturally specific ways poets and readers affect and are affected by what he describes as the recycling of words (michzur milim). As in the case of radical allusion, the conception of translation in his poetry is not structured on the relationship between a given translator and his or her apologetic and self-deprecating secondariness to some original genius. For Amichai it is always a matter of open and dynamic constellations of historical, cultural, and personal conjunctures that inform the ways poets, translators, and readers use different intertextual discursive strategies. These strategies, for Amichai, are not just models for the poet’s work but essential human practices within the social and historical sphere. His poetry presents the recurring figure of the translator as metaphor and metonymy for the limited poetic subject and—by extension—for every human subject, whose very limitations must become a source of strength and a site of resistance.

I recently discovered in the Amichai Archives at Yale’s Beinecke Library the unpublished early quatrain I use as the epigraph for this chapter. This quatrain is a moving meditation that describes “as-if translators” (kemo turgemanim) as watchmen over the cycle of birth and death and as crucial to the conditions of possibility for poetry in general. Written in the medieval Hebrew and Arabic style, the quatrain uses monorhyme and echoes Ibn Gabirol and Shmuel Ha-Nagid, rather than Fitzgerald’s infamously colonial English translations of the Ruba’iyat, exactly as Amichai had described his unpublished quatrains to me.[2] The quatrain depicts these as-if translators (kemo turgemanim) standing guard at the gates of life, helping the newborn poet to go out into his future. Once the poet has grown up, his guardian translators can finally get some sleep, leaving him to fend for himself as his heart makes its journey toward death. It is a circular journey back to his first “abode,” to the earth-as-womb from whose gates he emerged in the opening line.

Amichai builds here on the traditional Jewish metaphorical system, whose biblical locus classicus is the Song of Songs, of the woman’s body as a house or home (here translated as “abode,” to signal the poem’s homage to the Arabic tradition), and more specifically of her womb as the gate.[3] The speaker in this poem describes his birth into life and into poetry as a birth into the multiplicity of human languages (the Septuagint, also known as the Translation of the Seventy, is subtly invoked here).[4] The as-if translators are both guardian angels and midwives, helping the speaker as he goes out into his life. This social and matrilineal modeling of life and of the possibility of poetry is described as a facilitation of the passage from one language to another. The Hebrew term lashon, literally “tongue,” is not coincidentally embodied, suggesting, as Amichai does in the other poems about translation I will discuss below, an erotics of transmission. For Amichai, the only moment that is free of linguistic mediation, hence of translation, is the return, in the last line, to his “first abode,” the maternal womb-turned-tomb. It’s the only thing he can do alone, without the translators’ help, and without the social multiplicity of linguistic exchange. Upending the notions of an originary language, the return to his “first abode” is precisely that which forecloses the possibility of life and of poetry: bayit after all is not only home and metaphorically the mother’s body but also, in the rhetoric of medieval Hebrew and Arabic poetry to which this quatrain adheres with great prosodic precision, the first line of a poem. While in modern Hebrew poetics bayit signifies a stanza, in the medieval tradition that the genre of the poem follows so strictly it is what we would today call a line, made up of two hemistichs: the first called delet, literally “door,” and the second soger, literally “lock.” The first house/line/womb to which the speaker returns ends the poem and locks out the possibility of poetry and of life.

The poem’s genre itself is, of course, an act of translational mediation between languages and cultures, offering a Hebrew homage to the illustrious tradition of the Arabic and Persian monorhymed quatrain, which saw also the flourishing of Hebrew poetry in al-Andalus during the medieval Golden Age. The poem’s conclusion then becomes a poignant thematization of the impossibility to differentiate between original poet and secondary translator, much as medieval Hebrew poetry was both a rewriting and an original creation. But the poem’s genre also underscores the inseparable cultural links between the now-warring Hebrew and Arabic literary cousins. Without cross-cultural translation there is no poetry and there is no life.[5] That the conditions of possibility for poetry and for life are predicated on “as-if translators” is also, however, a self-conscious acknowledgment of what Adorno describes as the “semblance nature” (Scheincharakter) of verbal art—the poem’s as-if mode of existence, emblematic of art’s “negative” or “oppositional” relation to the “empirical reality” that nevertheless constitutes it.[6]

This small example, like Amichai’s other poems and notes on translation discussed below, encapsulates a theory of translation as cultural mediation that makes it a model not only for poetry but also for intertextuality itself.[7] In order to set the stage for the relevance of the insights Amichai’s poetry provides and the importance of their theoretical implications, it might be helpful to first offer a brief overview of the current state of the field of translation studies. Theories of intertextuality have, as I illustrated in chapter 3, lagged significantly behind the theorizing embedded in the poetics of verbal artists like Amichai. In the early 1990s a new critical direction finally began to catch up with poetic practice, calling for a new blend of influence and intertextuality, informed by new historicist, feminist, and postcolonial criticism, and the general turn toward the political in a globalized rearticulation of literary and cultural studies.

Interestingly, the same period evinced a flowering of the theoretical study of one particular intertextual practice, namely, translation. However, construed as part of cultural studies, postcolonial theory, and subaltern studies, and their subsequent transformation into a globalized model of literary circulation, these contemporary discussions of translation rarely even acknowledge that translation needs to be examined qua intertextual practice. I believe that a conceptual analysis of intertextuality would be greatly enriched by many of the recent theoretical insights about translation. Also, conversely, the contemporary discussion of translation would benefit from an analysis of what translation has in common with other intertextual practices, especially those—like allusion—whose structure has been rigorously studied. What I’m proposing here is an integration of the theoretical developments in contemporary translation studies with the specific poetic and political insights provided by theorists such as Ziva Ben-Porat on bilateral radical allusion and André Lefevere on the politics of translation-as-rewriting. As mentioned above, Ben-Porat classified translation as one of many intertextual practices, alongside allusion, parody, pastiche, imitation, and so forth, in her groundbreaking article from 1985 titled “Rhetorical Intertextuality.”[8] A few years later, André Lefevere, in a series of important books, laid the foundation for the connection between a historicized—and politically informed—theory and praxis of translation and other formations of intertextuality.[9]

Consequently, in the last twenty years or so we have witnessed an important shift in the theoretical study of translation. The new theories have taken the field beyond the metaphors of fidelity and betrayal, to models of translation as inter-cultural negotiation, paying special attention to the unequal power relations between target and source cultures. The turn in the field has been greatly influenced by Mary Louise Pratt’s analysis of the contact zone, where she argues that the diachronic or synchronic arena of translation is situated in “the social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power.”[10] The prototypical examples that serve these cultural and political theories of translation are colonial translations from Sanskrit, Bengali, Spanish, or Native American languages into British English or Imperial Spanish as a means for “civilizing” and interpellating the “native” subjects in the colonial era.[11] In recent discussions within postcolonial and transnational cultural studies, the examples that serve as theoretical paradigms are most frequently translations from minor languages into American English, which is seen as a vehicle in the service of an imperial American globalization. In this context, translations into American English are critiqued for blurring the distinctive or subversive features of the indigenous voices they mediate, and for effacing the writers’ critical agency in order to facilitate a smoother, readable—and saleable—English text. At the same time, the opposite trend is also increasingly evident: a greater awareness—and criticism—of the tendency in traditional views of translation to erase the translator’s personal and historical agency, and a growing attempt to counter and redress the invisibility of translators, who are described in sociopoetic accounts as some of the most powerless (often female and underpaid) members of the literary community. Thus, even as translation itself is critiqued as a tool of cultural colonization, translators are now valorized for their work. The fact that these translators are the mediators of powerful cultural capital only reinforces the need to distinguish, in theorizing translation and intertextuality in general, between personal and institutional constructions of subjectivity. Various formations of translational agency are now being examined in their relation to intercultural apparatuses of authority, placing in the center the attempt to understand how such formations can constitute and reinforce discursive identities and, at the same time, undermine or destabilize them.[12]

I find much that is useful in these approaches, and indeed adopt a lot of their insights in my readings of Amichai. However, I think the field could benefit from a greater self-critical awareness of the historical and cultural contingencies that produce many of the theories’ paradigm examples. For instance, it might be helpful to treat the tenets of postcolonial translation theory not as universal but as most applicable to the particular conditions of British colonialism in the Indian subcontinent, for which these accounts were developed. Furthermore, the preoccupation with what Gayatri Spivak has famously termed “the politics of translation”[13] has all too often resulted in a crass thematicism that has precluded a more rigorous and nuanced poetics of translation. Here again I take my cue for the study—and practice—of translation from the explicit and implicit poetics and politics of translation articulated in Yehuda Amichai’s poetry.

Amichai’s “And Let Us Not Get Excited” (“Ve-lo nitlahev”)[14] is one of the earliest examples in his corpus of the translator as a figure for the poet and for human existence historically conceived. Through the figure of the translator, this 1962 poem develops Amichai’s critique of traditional notions of the poet as inspired prophet or original creator. Whereas translation enabled the birth of the poet into always multiple—and multilingual—social life in the quatrain, here the poetic subject is directly described as a translator, and as such s/he is not anything to get excited about, nor should s/he take her/himself too seriously.

And Let Us Not Get Excited

And let us not get excited, for a translator

mustn’t get excited. Quietly, we pass on

words from one person to another, from one tongue to other lips,


unawares, the way a father passes on

the facial features of his dead father to his son,

yet he doesn’t resemble either of them,

he’s just the go-between.


We shall remember the things we had in our hands

and dropped,

 whatever belongs to us and does not belong to us [15]

And ‘tis not for us to get excited.

Calls and their callers have drowned. Or, it is that my beloved

passed on to me a few words, before she went away,

so that I would raise them for her.


And no longer shall we say that which has been said to us

on to other sayers. Silence equals admission. ‘Tis not

for us to get excited.[16]


Trans. Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld


In a series of pseudo-biblical commandments to a collective “us,” perhaps the poets of his generation, Amichai’s speaker upends the romantic conception of the poet as an individual genius. At the same time he empties out the collectivist pathos of the 1948 Palmach Generation, invoked parodically in the first-person plural form of his address (in Hebrew, lit., “and we shall not get excited”).[17] In the process, the poem offers one of the earliest articulations of what I have described as Amichai’s embrace of mediation or liminality (beynayim), which is to become the central principle of his poetic worldview. As we recall, the place of the human—and poetic—subject for Amichai is in “the narrow between” (ba-beynayim ha-tsarim), the space of a hyphen between date of birth and date of death, between the grindstones of past and future, between one textual tradition and another. Aware of the inability to ever create anything anew or “to bring a world quite round,” to quote Wallace Stevens’s “Man with the Blue Guitar,”[18] the poetic subject willingly and without any anxiety of influence accepts his role as a link in a historical/familial chain of transmission. If every text that every poet can produce is always already a recycled version of something else, seeing the poet as “mere” translator underscores the impossibility of originality, the secondariness and mediated nature of all cultural exchange, and—by extension—of human existence itself. It also places the poet/ translator in that tenuous and dangerous space between opposing generational, institutional, and historical forces, subject to their pressures and aware of his own unstable position.

“And Let Us Not Get Excited” is constructed as a series of “takes” on the role of the poet as transmitter of other peoples’ words, each stanza developing a different set of metaphors for this intermediary status. All of these metaphors, interestingly, involve an implicit but devastating critique of the ways in which the discourse on translation has been structured on traditional patriarchal gender roles within the institutional nuclear family. Note that at the end of the poem’s third stanza, after portraying the normative male generational “relay race,” it is the female beloved (ahuvati) who transmits (masra) to him a few words-as-baby-daughters (milim, “words,” are gendered feminine in Hebrew), before she leaves both him and her verbal offspring, and—in violation of gender expectations—entrusts him with the maternal role of raising them for her. Thus the patriarchal family model of literary transmission is rewritten by Amichai in feminizing terms.

Amichai’s critique here prefigures Lori Chamberlain’s analysis of the cliché “tradittore traduttore” (the translator as traitor) in terms of the marriage contract and its normative emphasis on “a woman’s, not a man’s fidelity and sexual purity.”[19] As Chamberlain points out, the power relation between source and target texts (and their attendant cultures) determines who is gendered female (“marked,” in linguistic terms) in the marriage/translation contract. When the source text has the status of a classic or a sacred norm (the Bible, classical Greco-Roman literature), it is the belated translator or target text that is feminized. When, on the other hand, the target text possesses cultural and political capital, as for example in the colonial translation project described by Tejaswini Niranjana,[20] it is the indigenous, native, and subjugated source text that gets feminized. In both cases, however, the metaphors of fidelity and betrayal apply, predictably, only to the feminized party. Chamberlain does not seem to take her own analysis one step further, however, from a feminist to a queer critique that would expose the constructedness of gender itself. This despite the fact that in all of her examples the translator and the translated engage in remarkable gender-bending metaphorics: they keep switching from masculine to feminine, depending on their power relation vis-à-vis the cross-cultural texts they are mediating.

While explicitly dealing with the lack of originality in poetic transmission, Amichai’s “And Let Us Not Get Excited” also targets precisely the static, rigid, and essentialist gender hierarchy of the nuclear family model of literary transmission, with each stanza dismantling a different implication of its underlying metaphorical system. The first stanza sets up for the entire poem the overarching metaphor of the poet as translator. It does so by playing with the androcentric model of historiography, thus motivating us to retheorize the position of the poetic subject tout court. Amichai’s choice of the term turgeman for “translator,” and not the more common metargem, both in this poem and in the unpublished quatrain, is particularly interesting because it enacts a radical historical intertextual move in a poem whose very subject is the intertextuality of every textual production. William Hallo has traced this term all the way back to Old Assyrian (and perhaps originally to Hittite), as well as to many other variants (dragoman, turkeman) throughout the ancient Near East.[21] Later on, Jewish textual culture recasts “turgeman as a Talmudic term referring to a rabbinical scholar whose role in the synagogue was to translate either the Torah reading or the rabbi’s sermon into Aramaic or Greek, so that amkha, the simple folk in the congregation who no longer had a real command of Hebrew, would understand.[22] In a 1972 poets’ roundtable discussion in Washington, DC, convened by Allen Tate and published under the title The Translation of Poetry, Yehuda Amichai explains to the American poets in attendance the technical aspects of the role of the turgeman and the Jewish traditions of the targumim (translations of the Torah that form the foundation of the culture of textual exegesis). He insists on these historically and culturally specific translation practices as his model for the poet’s role, precisely because translation is the ultimate form of interpretation.[23] In notes for this and other lectures I found in the archives, Amichai often reflects on the various traditions of translation, concluding: tirgum—havana amitit! (“translation—true understanding!”).[24] Thus, in his use of turgeman in the poem “And Let Us Not Get Excited,” he recovers an egalitarian moment from traditional Jewish textual practices, and anchors in this moment his critique of romantic conceptions of the poet. In the process he reintroduces a truly Bakhtinian intersubjective polyphony into our understanding of translation—and of intertextuality in general.

In stark contrast both to Harold Bloom’s deadly duel of poetic father and son and to the faceless dialogue of clichés in poststructuralist accounts of intertextuality (see chapter 3), Amichai’s poet-cum-translator explores without judgment but with unmistakable agency a literary family genetics of unoriginality, calmly accepting his role as no more than a go-between. His notes in the archives describe this view of poetry as tirgum geneti me-chayey acherim (genetic translation from the lives of others).[25] Paradoxically, however, the closest filiation (father-son) does not imply in his view any overt similarity. As in Jurij Tynjanov’s version of literary historiography (and in contradistinction to Shklovsky’s avuncular view), “in the struggle with his father the grandson turns out to resemble the grandfather.”[26] But note that Amichai’s emphasis is not on the oedipal rejection of the father but quite the opposite, on the father as the poet-in-the-middle, whose limited power and liminal position free him up to be different from both his precursor and his follower. The mediating role of the poetic subject as an agent of intergenerational, intertextual translation gives him the liberty to be quite unlike either older or younger poets in his chain of transmission, so long as he accepts the fact that there are no new words in his mouth. Thus, instead of the Bloomian or the Russian Formalist generational struggle, Amichai underscores the physical, intimate joy of textual transmission. The poem provides an erotic literalization of the metonymically implied Hebrew idiom for oral transmission, mi-pe-le-fe, literally, “from mouth to mouth,” which in the context of the traditional role of the turgeman may also invoke the concept of torah she-be'al pe, rabbinic texts as oral law; literally, the Torah upon the mouth: “Quietly, we pass on / words from one person to another, from tongue to other lips.”[27]

Translation as intertextual transmission becomes an act of linguistic kissing, an intimacy that returns language to the body, one safa (language/lip) to the sfatayim (lips; dual form) of others.[28] What makes the difference here is the agency of human contact, the words’ contact with the lips as they move from tongue to tongue, so to speak. This intertextual pleasure, precisely because of its mediated and iterative nature, is described as an embodied, physical experience. Amichai’s account is quite reminiscent of Brodsky’s response to Bloom, discussed in chapter 3; for Brodsky, as we have seen, as soon as we accept the pleasure of cultural circulation as the norm, it’s the bourgeois individualism of the West and its obsession with being first that for once gets relegated to the domain of savagery and nonculture. In his last book and magnum opus, Open Closed Open (Patu'ach sagur patu'ach [1998]), Amichai offers a sustained articulation of a novel metaphorical system (in Lakoff’s terms): POETRY AS TRANSLATION. This metaphorical system is elaborated in a powerful serio-comic late poema, which is unparalleled in his oeuvre (with the possible exception of the 1967 “The Travels of the Last Benjamin of Tudela”).[29] Titled “Knasim Knasim: Ha-milim ha-mam’irot ve-ha-dibur ha-shafir” (“Conferences, Conferences: Malignant Words, Benign Speech”),[30] this poema is at once a witty spoof on the discourse of academic symposia and a parody of political newspeak (what leftist Hebrew slang describes as “the word laundry” [makhbesat ha-milim]),[31] in which the language of war masquerades as the language of peace. But it is also a philosophically nuanced critique of dualism, both Hellenistic-Jewish and Christian, and a profoundly serious meditation on body and soul, life and death:

A conference on language: colloquial, baroquial, poetic, pathetic.

And the chance for a new language of war and peace:

 Just as nouns and verbs in Hebrew change in the masculine and


by adding a syllable or changing a vowel, making the sound longer

or shorter, so will it be with the language of war and, once again,

the language of war. And the final conference,

just me and myself: a panel of my body parts

addressing my soul . . .[32]


In its fourteen sections, the poema strings together fragments of reports from various realist and surrealist international conferences (on inflammations of the eye, skin diseases, the import and export of religions to Jerusalem, the Book of Job). Six of the sections depict the stress of the translators (or simultaneous interpreters) at these conferences, whose role as discursive mediators exposes them to the “malignant words” of all the speechifiers, which they struggle to render into “benign speech”—words that are connected to the emotional and embodied experiential core of everyday life. After an exhausting day’s work at an ‘“International Conference on Inflammations of the Eye’ / for those who have cried too much or not cried enough” a conference where the discourse is utterly cut off from the emotional and physical sources of crying, the women translators return home at night, wash themselves clean of all the verbiage, and “with sobs of happiness  they start loving, their eyes aflame with joy” (ve-ohavot / be-hityapchut osher u-ve-eynayim dolkot mi-simcha).[33] By punning on the same root, d.l.k. (which Chana Bloch and I have rendered with the two etymologically related words “inflammation” and “aflame”), Amichai underscores the contrast between “inflammation” (daleket), the “malignant” word associated with academic jargon, and the women translators’ eyes “aflame” (dolkot) with joy: theirs is a healing alternative to the misuse of language in academia or politics (“the language of war and, once again, the language of war”). Interestingly, the first published poem to express Amichai’s conception of the poet as translator, “Ve-lonitlahev,” also focalizes a verb—le-hitlahev (to get excited)—whose root, inter alia, has the meaning of “flame” (“lehava,” root l.h.v.), and is thus synonymous with root d.l.k. What the translators try to heal—in their collective metaphorical role as the stand-in for the poet, but also as emblematic of any ordinary creative user of language—is the rhetorical equivalent of an ocular inflammation.

Like the translators of the Septuagint, Amichai’s simultaneous interpreters are confined to their isolated cubicles (“Conferences, Conferences,” Section 4), but unlike the seventy-two Jewish elders in some of the later Christian appropriations of this legend, the Holy Spirit doesn’t do the translating for them. They must toil “like bees” to make “cultured” or “wild honey” “from all the buzz and babble” (“Conferences, Conferences,” Section 14). The place of the poetic subject, for Amichai, is thus not with the queen bee but with the workers in the beehive; not with the inspiration of the Holy Ghost, nor on the podium of the speaker (be it a professor or a politician), but in the translators’ cubicles; not with the head of the yeshiva or the rabbi sermonizing from the pulpit but with the turgeman standing close to the people and interpreting for them.

The lack of originary power that comes with modeling poetry on translation is, paradoxically, what makes its language more meaningful in the universal ecology, drawing the poet/translator closer to the spirit of God in the Genesis creation story:

The translators sit and recycle it all to another

recycling plan that has no end, and the spirit of God

hovers above with the whirring wing-blades of a giant fan

whipping the air, the words whipped over and over like foam.[34]

Rather than a deification of the translator, what we have here is a cutting-down to human size of the Holy Spirit, a move that, as Boaz Arpali has shown, is central to Amichai’s poetics from its earliest stages.[35] Amichai’s bilateral radical allusion reminds us that God in chapter 1 of Genesis does not actually create the world ex nihilo, as fundamentalist readings would have it, but rather recycles primordial air and water that are already there in a state of chaos (tohu va-vohu).[36] In a series of metonymic shifts, the Spirit of God (ru’ach elohim, always literalized and embodied in the Hebrew as “the wind of God”), which “hovers above” (merachefet le-ma’ala), does not create a world but rather recycles language up in the heavens, as the translators do here on earth. In a note from the archives, Amichai asks himself, “Do you need to be a poet in order to translate?” and then answers, “You need to be God” (tzrikhim li-hyot elohim; the word elohim is doubly underlined, and the word “Septuagint” appears above it in English).[37] Even for rua’ch elohim there is no privileged access to a pre-intertextual point of origin, to some “verbal first cause,” so to speak. Here Amichai rejects outright the view of the Holy Spirit as the Logos that was there “in the beginning” (John 1:1), and along with it, various Christian appropriations of the Septuagint legend, which in the centuries following Philo began to describe the miracle of the perfect identical translations as performed by the Logos penetrating the cells and bodies of each of the seventy-two translators “from above,” thus effecting a unified, monological translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek.[38] In Amichai’s poem, however, the Spirit of God continues to hover up above, and doesn’t descend to produce a single authorized text for which the translators are mere vehicles or mediums. Here all that the translators and the Holy-Spirit-turned-wind are left with is the laborious effort of endlessly recycling beaten, whipped words, the way eggs are whipped in baking a cake. What Amichai valorizes here, then, is the creativity of ordinary labor—of creativity as ordinary labor—by the nameless translators and the biblical God alike, rather than the special gifts of human or divine inspiration. The metaphor of textual recycling makes us see the Spirit of God first as a giant ceiling fan (with the heavens as the ceiling), and then as a cosmic mixer (with the universe as the kitchen where all the recycled words are whirred and whipped up). This cosmic recycling of words encompasses all textuality, as in Kristeva and Barthes’s most orthodox poststructuralist formulations. In Amichai’s philosophy of language too, as in theirs, there is no sense in any search for origins, since intertextuality is a cycle that has no beginning and no end. But as we have seen, and in utter contrast with the poststructuralist position, the cyclical and recycled nature of all discourse does not entail for Amichai impersonality and erasure of agency, nor does it occasion an epistemological crisis. Quite the contrary, the agency of the “recyclers” themselves—precisely because it is limited and threatened—serves as both point of departure and syntactic topic for the whole stanza: “the translators sit and recycle it all.”

As the co-translator—with Chana Bloch—of Open Closed Open, the book in which this poema appears, I identify especially with the situation described in “Conferences, Conferences,” Section 6, a situation familiar to any translator:

The translators flee their burning cubicles,

run out into the streets, crying “Help!”

and make their way to other, calmer conferences.[39]

But, as in the metaphorical conceits of the ceiling fan and the giant eggbeater, there is a great deal more here than a mock-epic hyperbolic account of the translators’ flight from the all-consuming fiery speeches.[40] This section of the poem upends the New Testament celebration of divine intervention as obviating the need for translation.

Little by little it turns out that the entire poema—not just the sections dealing with textual recycling that I’ve described here—is in close critical dialogue with some early Christian conceptions of translation. In the cosmic recycling image (“Conferences, Conferences,” Section 2), as we have seen, Amichai reverses Christian appropriations of the legend of the Septuagint and the role of the Logos in it. And indeed, the connection between fire and translation, on which the image of the translators fleeing their burning cubicles is based (“Conferences, Conferences,” Section 6), appears elsewhere in the New Testament in relation to the Logos. In her book on the history and politics of Jewish-Christian translation, Naomi Seidman discusses this very poem by Amichai as “restaging a (Jewish) retelling of the Pentecost event narrated in Acts 2.”[41] This event, as she suggests, is the source of the Christian impulse toward translation. In the New Testament narrative, Seidman points out,

[t]he apostles who assembled in Jerusalem after Jesus’ death experience a theophany in the form of what could be called a miraculous translation performance. The Holy Spirit that descends in tongues of fire among the apostles in Jerusalem is heard and understood “each ... in his own native language” by a rainbow coalition of pilgrims to the temple: “Parthians and Medes and Elamites and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia” etc. etc. (Acts 2:10) [42]

Translation in the New Testament account is not necessary because mutual intelligibility across languages is reached without it. But Amichai’s poema, ironically reverses this miracle of universal linguistic transparency, in which one authoritative version audible to all makes translation altogether superfluous. At the same time the poema also upends the early Christian view of the translators—and by extension, of the poetic and human subject in general—as a mere vessel lacking any agency, whose action is completely dependent upon divine power, or upon any other authority for that matter. In Amichai’s seriocomic parody, the tongues of fire do not bring down a multilingual Holy Spirit that enables communication despite linguistic difference. Quite the opposite: the intertextual fire chases the translators away from their burning cells. As the fire of divine inspiration gets literalized, it is also emptied out of all redemptive promise—it’s just a fire, nothing more, and as such it is dangerous. And the translators, like the addressees of an injurious interpellation in Judith Butler’s analysis, have the option to refuse to collaborate with its destructive violence:[43] they can, even must, run away, call for help, or find other texts to translate. This midrash on the right to refuse, which posits the poet himself as resistant translator, is, I believe, at the heart of the theory of translational agency embedded within Yehuda Amichai’s poetry.

II. The Two Amichais and the Blessings of Mistranslation

To Yehuda Amichai

Because you are a king and I’m only a prince

without a country

with a people who trust in me

I wander sleepless at night


And you are a king and look on me as a friend

worryingly—how long can you drag yourself

through the world


—A long time Yehuda

To the very end


Even our gestures differ—gestures of mercy

of scorn of understanding

—I want from you nothing but understanding


I fall asleep at a fire with my head on my hand

when night burns out dogs howl and guards go

to and fro in the mountains

Zbigniew Herbert [44]


In the spring of 1994, Ma'ariv, the popular, distinctly lowbrow Israeli newspaper, published the following news flash:

Poet Yehuda Amichai Translated into Many Languages

At a ceremony on May 22, the 70th birthday of the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai will be celebrated. Overseas students at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem will read poems by Amichai in 21 languages.[45] Four of the translations will be by the students themselves. The languages used for the translation of the poem “Tourists” will include Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Slovak, and Italian. His poem “Jerusalem” will be read in Hungarian, Romanian, Serbian, French, and Arabic. “The Mayor” will be rendered in Amharic, Croatian, Estonian, Dutch, Czech, and Turkish. And “The Ballad of the Long Hair to [sic] the Short Hair” will be heard in German, Russian, Spanish, Danish, and English.[46]

It is hard to imagine a similar anniversary of an American poet being covered, say, by USA Today. This dry journalistic account of famous Amichai poems and their diverse languages of translation provides a striking illustration—in an almost Amichaiesque catalogue—of how eminently translatable his poetry has become. Yet this very translatability is perhaps the most puzzling aspect of his poetry. Indeed, as Robert Alter has shown in an article that, like Herbert’s poem, was published in honor of the poet’s seventieth birthday, [47] the most salient aspects that make up the Hebrew Amichai’s poetic signature are precisely those that cannot, almost in principle, be translated: his ongoing linguistic and thematic critique of—as well as his inextricable enmeshment with—the historical layers of the great inter textual echo chamber we know as Hebrew.

The key to the puzzle of Amichai’s (un)translatability may lie in what readers in the “target language” (English in our case) are left with—rather than what they lose—in translation. What, in other words, remains when the English inevitably strips Amichai’s Hebrew of its virtuoso prosodic and grammatical punning, the force of its iconoclastic allusions to sacred Jewish texts, and its radical, playful disruptions of idioms and collocations? What we are left with, in the case of Amichai, is obviously enough. In this line of thought I follow Amichai’s own poetics of translation and his privileging of the imperfect mediation and the imprecise recirculation of texts as the site of poetic agency. In their oral performance of Amichai’s poems in twenty one languages, the student-readers, unlike the pilgrims to the Temple in Acts 2, do not magically become mutually understandable, nor are they transformed into the vehicle of a single, penetrating Logos. Instead, in their diverse renditions of the multiple Amichais, these languages produce modern-day turgemanim who “help” the poetic subject, each in their own way, to “go out into my life,” in the language of the unpublished quatrain discussed above. Thus, paradoxically, the multiplicity of (diminished, inexact, unoriginal) versions of the poem is also, to quote Walter Benjamin, the poem’s “afterlife,” the very condition of its survival-through-suffering. [48]

That translational “afterlife” (which is also the source text’s “endurance”) is bound to be different from one language to another, and—following Benjamin yet again—to play a constitutive role in the formation of the target language and its culture, precisely as it deforms and mistranslates the source language. Yet traces of Amichai’s poetic signature remain legible, even as each target culture’s translation emphasizes those aspects of his poetics that best serve its own needs, rejecting others that may be construed as threatening or that simply become illegible. It’s easy enough to imagine, for example, that the poem “Tayarim” (“Tourists”), a devastating political critique of the voyeuristic culture of tourism, would read very differently by American-English and Japanese audiences (who are the stereotypic butts of Amichai’s satire), than by Italian audiences (who presumably share a similar distaste for touristic voyeurism). In fact, to account for the mystery of Amichai’s translatability we need to acknowledge that the constructions of his poetry are at least as numerous as the translation projects that have enabled his reception into the canon of that slippery entity, “international poetry.” Each of these projects significantly and necessarily recasts Amichai’s work not only according to the personal tastes and choices of the translator, although those are of course crucial, but also in accordance with the linguistic and literary practices and constraints of the target language, its audiences, and its cultures of reception at that particular historical moment.[49] Indeed, a whole system of implications—political and aesthetic—is invoked by the mere choice of the language of translation.[50] Furthermore, extratextual aspects that concern, for example, the physical production, design, and distribution of Amichai’s poetry books are additional factors that shape the reception of his poetry within the target language, yet these factors are often ignored. Thus, as I noted in earlier chapters, Amichai always insisted on the pocket-book format of Hebrew editions of his poems because a book of poetry is something that should fit in everyone’s back pocket. However, the very different relation of poetry to the culture of everyday life in American society, not to mention the commercial interests of trade publishers, have typically ruled out this format for American translations, including our own.

Far from attempting to encompass anything like an international perspective on Amichai’s translatability, I have limited myself in the rest of this chapter—as in this book as a whole—to the different, even contradictory constructions of Amichai’s poetry and poetics within the Hebrew and the Anglo-American cultural contexts. Note that I’m not talking about the Hebrew “original” versus the English translation: if we acknowledge, with Amichai, the ontologically mediated status of all poetry, then the Hebrew and the English are two—already recycled—versions. Clearly, my focus on the English Amichai, to the exclusion of translations into other languages, perpetuates the problematic dominance of “imperial English” in the discourse of translation studies within the current globalized “World Literature” movement. However, it is also the case that, pragmatically speaking, many of the translations into other languages are mediated via the English rather than performed directly from the Hebrew. A focus on the English Amichai thus of necessity redoubles the mediation: first from Hebrew to English and then from English to other target languages.

Even if we limit our purview only to book-length translations of Amichai into English, and exclude the hundreds of individual poems translated over the years in anthologies, the periodical literature, and the popular press, the sheer number and diversity of Amichai translators is remarkable: Assia Gutmann, Harold Schimmel, Dennis Silk, Ted Hughes, Glenda Abramson and Tudor Parfitt, Ruth Nevo, Benjamin and Barbara Harshav, and Chana Bloch and Stephen Mitchell, as well as Chana Bloch and myself. Such a polyphony of translational voices has been nicely captured first in the anthology edited by Ted Hughes and Daniel Weissbort, which brings together in a slim volume twelve different English translators of Amichai; and, more recently, in the comprehensive volume edited by Robert Alter, The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, which includes ten of Amichai’s major English translators.[51] Finally, and this again involves Ted Hughes, there is the theoretically intriguing phenomenon of self-translation, which is quite the tradition in Jewish literatures. Significantly, however, Amichai’s auto-translations have usually been collaborative, either as Ted Hughes’s co-translator of Amen and Time, or as a behind-the-scenes collaborator (for example, on Bloch and Mitchell’s Selected Poetry). Some insight into the way Amichai negotiated between auto- and collaborative translation can be gleaned from the books’ “outwork” (in Lefevere’s terms; or their paratext, in Genette’s terms)—front and back matter, introduction, and blurbs that situate the poems for the English reader. Time is presented as Amichai’s own English poems, without the mention of a co-translator; Amen, on the other hand, is described on the inner cover page as “translated from the Hebrew by the author and Ted Hughes.” But in the introduction, Ted Hughes’s account insists that

[t]he translations were made by the poet himself. All I did was correct the more intrusive oddities and errors of grammar and usage, and in some places shift; about the phrasing and line endings. What I wanted to preserve above all was the tone and cadence of Amichai’s own voice speaking in English, which seems to me marvelously true to the poetry, in these renderings. What Pound called the first of all poetic virtues—“the heart’s tone.” So as translations these are extremely literal. But they are also more, they are Yehuda Amichai’s own English poems.[52]

Curiously, however, in conversations with me Amichai always referred to both Amen and Time as collaborative translations with Ted Hughes; and the translations, contra Hughes, are very far from being literal, nor are the poems simply documents of “Amichai’s own voice speaking in English.” Thus, it seems that in the way these poems are situated for and presented to an English reader, Hughes’s own poetics of direct expression, authenticity, and originality overrides Amichai’s emphasis on mediation. The Selected Poetry is another interesting case in point, which involved two levels of collaboration: first, between Stephen Mitchell, who translated the early poetry, Shirim 1948-1962 (1963) and Akhsav ba-ra’ash (1968), and Chana Bloch, who translated (what was then) “the later poetry,” the books published between 1971 and 1989; and second, between Chana Bloch and Yehuda Amichai, working together in Jerusalem, and Stephen Mitchell and myself working in Berkeley. The “outwork” of the volume includes information about this second level of collaboration in acknowledgments at the end of the book (191) rather than at the beginning, although Amichai himself always highlighted the collaborative nature of this project, at the same time that he insisted that, once translated, the poems are the translators’, not his. While Amichai may have been ambivalent about noncollaborative auto-translations, he did, as is the norm among canonical Hebrew writers, translate several works into Hebrew—most notably from the German: Hermann Hesse’s Wanderung, Rolf Hochhuth’s play Der Stellvertreter, and the poetry of Else Lasker-Schüler.[53]

Despite rather significant individual differences, my study of the corpus of the “English Amichai” and the history and context of his reception appears to produce consistent and at times quite surprising results. When translation is seen, with Lefevere, as part of a system of cultural rewriting (including not only the translated poetry but also the “outwork,” as well as reviews and scholarly interpretations), the English Amichai may appear to be almost a religious poet (in the most traditional sense), as I have suggested in chapter 1, and his thematics may be viewed as predominantly Jewish. This effect, astonishing to Amichai’s Hebrew readers, is culturally useful, as we have seen, at least for the Jewish part of the American audience, whose institutions have for decades now regularly appropriated his texts for their own needs of constructing a comfortable religiosity and an uncritical Israel-centered sense of Jewish identity; but, as in other processes of reception, canonization, and appropriation, this imposed religiosity is overdetermined, created also by the differences between the Hebrew and the English language systems in everything from grammatical structure to discursive practices. First, contemporary (normative, white) American English is rather resistant to sarcasm and irony, whereas those are still very much the norms of what Benjamin Harshav has famously termed “Jewish Discourse,” norms that live on in Hebrew with little acknowledgment of their origins in Yiddish or other Jewish languages, such as Ladino.[54] Ironic readings are especially resisted in English when the topic is serious or tragic, but it is precisely in such contexts that modern Hebrew—like other Jewish languages before it—tends to be at its most acerbic. Second, American English foregrounds its cultural devaluation of linguistic puns (consider, for example, the collective groan when a witty pun is made in public), where in Hebrew it is highly valued. Various forms of linguistic punning—from paronomasia to pseudo-etymological midrash—are the stock-in-trade of Hebrew poetry historically, as well as of contemporary Israeli humor; and as I have argued throughout this study, these “language games” play a crucial and absolutely serious role in Amichai’s stylistics and thematics alike. American English typically frowns upon the insertion of ancient historical layers of English in a modern text, even via parody, and Old or Middle English are often inaccessible to the contemporary American reader. In Hebrew, by contrast, at least up until most recently, even the oldest layers of the language, like biblical Hebrew, have not only been transparent for most readers but have formed an integral part of the inter textual toolkit of any poet as well as of the citational practices in everyday speech. Part of Hebrew speakers’ psychological reality and sociolinguistic practice is an acute “component awareness”—the linguists’ term for a synchronic and diachronic metalinguistic consciousness that is expressed not only in literary but also in everyday communication: from (often ironic or sarcastic) obsessive quotations and (intentional) misquotations of sacred sources, to arguments about the verbal roots of words, to countless lexical innovations and debates over grammatical purism versus slang and foreign calques. All these discursive practices are doubly motivated by the traditional culture of commentary and by the special conditions of a language with a recent and rapidly changing vernacularization. The particular cultural conditions that distinguish the pragmatics of American English from that of Hebrew coincide with the different ideological needs among Amichai’s Israeli and Jewish American readers. As a result, it’s nearly impossible to present an English Amichai that will have as much of a counter-theological edge as the Hebrew, no matter how hard the translator tries to underscore the irreverent tone.

Another related finding about the difference between the Hebrew and the English Amichai is equally consistent and intriguing: many English versions of Amichai—especially in their “outwork” and critical reception—minimize, or even avoid altogether, the Hebrew Amichai’s dialogue with non-Judaic cultural materials and literary intertexts, from classical Arabic poetry to American postmodernism. To put it bluntly: English seems to need the Hebrew to be first and foremost Jewish. The opposite tendency seems to be characteristic of the Hebrew representation and reception of Amichai. After an initial period in the 1950s in which critics attack Amichai, alongside the other members of the Statehood Generation, for his “disrespectful” treatment of sacred Jewish sources, Israeli scholarship focuses primarily on his intertextual dialogue with the Anglo-American and European canons, from Rilke and Auden to the English Metaphysical poets and the High Modernists. This is, of course, not coincidental and needs to be read in the context of the cultural agenda of establishing modern Israeli literature as an outpost of Western modernism. Not surprisingly, very little has been done to tease out Amichai’s fascinating poetic dialogue with the Hebrew-Arabic Medieval tradition (Tova Rosen’s work is an important exception), or with the Palestinian poetry of Mahmoud Darwish, for example.[55]

An excellent case in point illustrating the prominence of Jewish intertextuality in English translations and interpretations of Amichai is Glenda Abramson’s chapter “Allusion and Irony” in her The Writing of Yehuda Amichai: A Thematic Approach, a work that was groundbreaking at the time (1989) as the first book-length study of Amichai in English, written by a noted English scholar who is fully bilingual.[56] Abramson astutely observes that the poet’s “subversive intertextuality” (35) is to be read in the dual contexts of “the aesthetics of orthodoxy” on the one hand (33), and of Anglo-American modernism and their earlier models, the English Metaphysical poets, on the other: “He can be compared to Joyce, Eliot, or John Donne in his employment of classical texts for the purpose of ironic pointedness”; but she agrees with Ted Hughes that in recharting “the map of the sources,” Amichai remains “exclusively within his own tradition” (34-35).

I am not arguing here that the “Jewish translation” of Amichai into English is wrong, any more than I believe his Western and international construal in Hebrew to be right; for, following Amichai’s own implicit theory of poetry-as-translation, I posit that the Hebrew reader does not have access to an unmediated, authentic, and “unrecycled” Amichai either, but necessarily reads him through culturally and historically situated layers of “rewriting” in Lefevere’s terms, or intralingual translation in Jakobson’s terms.[57] This cautionary note, furthermore, applies to my own reading-as-rewriting as well. The target texts and their interpretations—like the reading and reception of the source texts—are instead to be taken as “symptomatic” in the Marxist sense: clues to the different cultural needs and pressures brought into dialogue in the translation process, and to the poetics and politics of the negotiations between them at a particular historical conjuncture. Thus, it is instructive that in her translation and detailed reading of the famous early poem “Ve-hi tehilatekha” (“And That Is Your Glory”), [58] whose opening stanzas were discussed at the beginning of chapter 3, Abramson meticulously identifies the various biblical, liturgical, and kabbalistic allusions that the English reader would otherwise miss, but doesn’t address the Western classical and modern ones (and not only, I would argue, because these would be self-evident to the English reader).

In discussing the fourth stanza, significantly the point in the poem where the speaker gives up the apostrophe to the male God of Jewish liturgy, replacing it with an address to his earthbound female lover, Abramson emphasizes the Jewish cultural perspective both in her translation of the stanza and her close reading. First, here is the Hebrew text of this stanza:

In my literal translation (inflected by the construction of the Hebrew Amichai), this stanza reads:

Perhaps like an ancient statue that has no arms,

our life too is more beautiful without [good] deeds and heroics.

Ungird the armor of my yellowing undershirt,

I have fought all the knights till the electricity went out.

And that is my glory.

Abramson translates this stanza much more poetically, as follows:

Like an ancient statue without arms

Our lives might be improved

Without deeds and derring-do.

Strip off my armor, my faded undershirt,

I fought the mighty until the lights went out.

And this is my praise.

Abramson construes the last three lines of the stanza as intertextually Jewish: “He has been fighting with the mighty [abirim, “nobles”], faintly reminiscent of Jacob’s struggle with the angel, but finding no glory or ennoblement.” Since abirim is translated as “the mighty” (according to the term’s meaning in classical Hebrew; ibid., 41-42) rather than “knights” (its main meaning in modern Hebrew), then the image in the English Amichai is of a speaker engaged in a hopeless struggle with (Jewish) mystical divine beings. He recognizes his limitations, indeed “asks to be made incomplete by the reduction of his ability to perform anything but the most ordinary acts,” and armlessness represents for him “the lack of some requisite spiritual quality” as it does elsewhere in Amichai. The English Amichai is then a modern reincarnation of the traditional Jewish figure of the believer, who seeks God’s glory and is devastated when he does not find it.[59]

The Hebrew Amichai, by contrast, foregrounds the speaker’s parodic, mock-heroic, and rather funny self-portrayal, yet ultimately reaches a much more life-affirming conclusion than the English one. Yoking together allusions to Jewish sacred texts and to classical Western models, the Hebrew emphasizes the grotesque incongruity between the exhausting struggles of a workaday laborer in the modern world (“yellowing undershirt,” “electricity”) and the anachronistic vestiges of chivalrous idealizations of masculinity and of war (“knights,” “fought,” “armor”). Yet, by embracing brokenness as a mark of classical Western icons of beauty and “the beautiful life,” the speaker in this construal ends up not in despair but—precisely through his self-directed sarcasm—with an affirmation of the unheroic as a new ethical and aesthetic norm. The stanza starts, in my reading—and translation—with a reinterpretation of Venus de Milo, and of all other armless classical statues that represent perfect beauty in spite—or because—of their imperfect aesthetics, ethics, or prowess (“arms,” “[good] deeds”). As in other aspects of his poetics, Amichai’s view here is very much in line with Wallace Stevens’s major poetic principle: “the imperfect is our paradise.”[60] Interestingly, while Hebrew “rewritings” of the poem highlight it as one of many homages to Rilke’s “Archaischer Torso Apollos,” they tend to minimize the internal allusion to Shaul Tchernichovski’s poem, “Nokhach pesel apolo” (“Facing Apollo’s Statue,” 1899).[61] Finally, the Hebrew emphasizes the clash between these classical Western allusions and the intertextual frame of Jewish High Holidays liturgy, which occurs in this stanza not only in the refrain but also in the allusion to the vaunted prayer avinu malkenu / chanenu va-anenu / ki eyn banu ma'asim (Our father / our king, have mercy and respond to us / for we have no [good] deeds). The Jewish concept of ma'asim in the sense Amichai invokes here of “good deeds” (rather than “stories” or just the unmarked “deeds”) is uniquely identified with the Hebrew liturgy. Amichai’s Hebrew thus engenders a typical dialogue between disparate Western (classical and modernist) texts on the one hand and Judaic ones on the other, in order to wrest from these textual fragments an argument in favor of antiheroic, ordinary human existence as the true source of glory. In this new ethics and aesthetics of human imperfection, ordinary people’s “lack of [good] deeds” or heroics no longer needs to be atoned for, just as the torso of Venus need not be “improved” by adding arms to it but can be accepted and celebrated as a model of beauty. Indeed, Amichai suggests—via the Hebrew—that there is a correlation between a valorized aesthetics of imperfection and an ethics of compassion for human powerlessness, and for the manual laborer in particular (the socialist context of Israel in the 1950s is crucial for this aspect of the Hebrew reading).

Amichai seriocomically recasts, in the Hebrew of the last three lines of this stanza, the speaker as a modern-day Don Quixote whose only armor is a yellowing sleeveless undershirt, presumably so thick with dried sweat and grime it has hardened into armor. In this modern Hebrew use of abirim (“knights”), the stanza sets the stage for the focus on the woman, a modern-day Dulcinea, who becomes from here on in the poem the quixotic speaker’s substitute for God’s glory (in Abramson’s reading, you will recall, the speaker finds “no glory”).

The Hebrew Amichai—at least the one constructed by my translation and reading (two of the major forms of rewriting, as Lefevere reminds us)—is the “postcynical” atheist who comes to see—in the second half of the poem—his female lover, rather than God, as glory incarnate. In the poem’s title and the refrain as it recurs in the first three stanzas, ve-hi retains the sense of “and that” which it had in liturgical Hebrew: “And that is your glory,” with God as the addressee.

But as the speaker keeps questioning the evidence of “that,” the supposed manifestations of God’s glory in the world, he also increasingly erodes the medieval liturgical sense of the word ve-hi (“and that”). Finally, in the last two stanzas of the poem ve-hi comes to be read in its modern Hebrew sense of “and she,” the third-person feminine personal pronoun, thus turning the woman into a radical substitution for the liturgical earthly proofs for God’s glory. It is, in fact, possible to see this whole poem as a performance of an intralingual translation (in Roman Jakobson’s terms) from an older, liturgical layer of Hebrew to a modern, secular idiom; and from allusive deixis to the sacred (“and that”) to an anaphoric pronoun pointing at the flesh-and-blood be-loved woman (“and she”).

In Stephen Mitchell’s translation the poem retains Amichai’s epigraph, reminding the English reader, as Amichai did the reader of Hebrew, of the liturgical source of his title, only in order to affect its radical resignification:

And That Is Your Glory

(Phrase from the liturgy of the Days of Awe)

I’ve yoked together my large silence and my small outcry

like an ox and an ass. I’ve been through low and through high.

I’ve been in Jerusalem, in Rome. And perhaps in Mecca anon.

But now God is hiding, and man cries Where have you gone.

And that is your glory.


Underneath the world, God lies stretched on his back,

always repairing, always things get out of whack.

I wanted to see him all, but I see no more

than the soles of his shoes and I’m sadder than I was before.

And that is his glory.


Even the trees went out once to choose a king.

A thousand times I’ve given my life one more fling.

At the end of the street somebody stands and picks:

this one and this one and this one and this one and this.

And that is your glory.


Perhaps like an ancient statue that has no arms

our life, without deeds and heroes, has greater charms.

Ungird my T-shirt, love; this was my final bout.

I fought all the knights, until the electricity gave out.

And that is my glory.


Rest your mind, it ran with me all the way,

it’s exhausted now and needs to knock off for the day.

I see you standing by the wide-open fridge door, revealed

from head to toe in a light from another world.

And that is my glory

and that is his glory

and that is your glory.[62]

As Amichai’s epigraph suggests, the poem rewrites an ancient liturgical poem (piyyut kadum) of the same title, a Piyyut for the ten Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, in which God insists on having human beings sing his praises and provide earthly proof of his greatness, when he could have had the adoration of the heavens and the angels above.[63] Amichai’s poem, as we have seen at the beginning of this chapter, starts with a God who is hiding, then conceives of God as a mechanic lying under the world, always fixing something, and ultimately gives up the transcendental divine altogether to find mystical and aesthetic glory in the beloved woman as she performs the mundane motion of opening the refrigerator door: Ani ro’eh otakh motzi’a davar min ba-mekarer,/ mu'eret mi-tokho be-or she-me-olam acher. In my literal translation: “I see you taking a thing [davar, also a prophetic vision!] out of the fridge / illuminated from within it with an otherworldly light.” This famous seriocomic epiphany (expressed in the Hebrew in a rhyming couplet), which has become the signature of Amichai’s feminist counter-theology, depends for its punch on the Hebrew parody of Don Quixote, itself the ultimate Western parody of heroic courtly love epics. But that, I feel, is the whole point of Amichai dismantling the dichotomy between sacred and profane. “I am brought to you [fem. sing.] slow and falling./Accept me. We have no redeeming angel” (ani muva elayikh le’at ve-nofel./kablini. eyn lanu mal'akh go’el.), the speaker says in the conclusion of “The Two of Us Together, Each of Us Alone.”[64] Weary and powerless, flawed yet oddly celebratory, he rejoices in what is real, in what is of the here and now: his female partner illuminated by the mock-mystical refrigerator light, and the food she takes out of the fridge as the only “prophetic vision” (davar) he shall ever encounter. The woman thus becomes the iterative subject of the final conjugation of glory: ve-hitehilati/ve-hi tehilato/ve-hi tehilatekha, which now must be read as “and she is my glory/and she is his glory/and she is your glory.”

The ideological transformations that Amichai’s poetry undergoes en route from Hebrew to English may call into question the tendency formerly prevalent in translation studies to divorce the translation process from its social, historical, and political context in the search for some universal theoretical principles that apply to all literatures at all times—principles that, in Susan Bassnett-McGuire’s words, “can be determined and categorized, and ultimately utilized in the cycle of text- theory-text regardless of the languages involved.”[65] This underlying search for a universal criterion is, according to Gideon Toury, typical of traditional prescriptive studies concerned with discovering what it is that makes any translation “good” or “bad,” “faithful” or “unfaithful.” However, in the selection of their principles, many of the more sophisticated or “scientific” descriptive translation theories themselves “also pretend to apply to ahistorical phenomena,” to use Toury’s own terms, even as they avoid the prescriptives of universal norms.[66]

 The international distribution of Amichai’s translation (in over forty languages so far), and the literary dialogue his work maintains with contemporary poets from Ted Hughes and Zbigniew Herbert to Charles Simic and Mark Strand,[67] point up the limitations of going to the other extreme in current translation studies: modeling the theory exclusively on colonial and postcolonial cultural domination and subjugation, conflating what Tejaswini Niranjana has described as “the power relations informing translation” with a national—if not nationalist—construction of literature.[68] Translation on this account is either a tool for appropriating and controlling the discursive practices of one nation by another, or—in its resistant, disruptive reappropriations by the native culture—a vehicle in the postcolonial nation-building process. These perspectives, although primarily associated with post-colonial studies, are found, as I suggested above, also within some system-theoretical views of translation, although in a sanitized, depoliticized rhetoric. In their most doctrinaire ideological forms, however, these views consistently restrict the politics of translation to examples and theoretical principles that fit the Indian-British model, excluding the possibility of any transnational or, in Claudio Guillén’s terms, “metanational” constructions of the politics and poetics of translation.[69]  But it is precisely such constructions that the multiple translated Amichais call for.

In exploring the different versions of Amichai produced by his English translations—a process in which I myself am implicated—and in treating the Hebrew as yet another already mediated version rather than a uniquely authoritative original, I have been trying to present a corrective to these two exclusionary directions. My argument throughout has been that the literary culture and historiographic needs of English as the target language, as well as the transnational literary affiliations in which Amichai and his translators participate, alter significantly what features of his style, thematics, poetic worldview, and tone are considered salient. Thus a different set of characteristics necessarily becomes prominent and is perceived as prototypical of Amichai in English. In this context, mistranslation needs to be treated as a critically and culturally informative practice rather than as a mere “mistake” that needs to be “corrected”: it is, to recap, symptomatic in the Marxist sense.[70]

Literary (mis)translation is thus a significant resource in the construction and transference of cross-cultural models. Beyond the clichés about the untranslatability of all poetry, I think we can accept as more or less uncontroversial Roman Jakobson’s proclamation in his seminal 1959 essay, “On the Linguistic Aspects of Translation,” that in translation “[o]nly creative transposition is possible: either intralingual transposition—from one poetic shape into another, or interlingual transposition—from one language into another, or finally intersemiotic transposition—from one system of signs into another (from verbal art into music, dance, cinema, or painting).”[71] Consistent or systematic departures from the stylistic, semantic, and structural strategies of the “source text,” as well as translators' sustained omissions, become interpretable choices, crucial indices of the linguistic/cultural/political grid of the target audience. Although I am quite ambivalent about the general conceptual framework within which each works, I take my cue for this point of theory from Barbara Johnson and Tejaswini Niranjana,[72] who—each in her own way—were among the first to extricate translation studies from the seductive discourse of betrayal and fidelity (of being “faithful” or “unfaithful” to the original). Following these developments, Naomi Seidman in her “Midrash on Jewish ‘Mistranslation’: Diaspora and the Migration of Meaning” [73] has articulated a cogent programmatic statement of what was then a new approach to the politics of translation:

The history and phenomenology of translation, then, cannot help exposing its role as mediator not only between languages, between texts, and between the present and the past, but also between centers of power, and between distances traveled. Translations bear the stamp of border crossings, places one should speak of not so much in terms of true or false currency, but rather of cultural-exchanges, which may be more or less limited, but which always work under some sort of political legislation.

As I am proposing this view of translation, I am aware that it is undoubtedly colored by the fact that I am reading here translation theory through the English renditions of a modern Hebrew poet and not through the Chinese, Arabic, or even French translations mentioned in the 1994 news article from Ma’ariv with which this section of the chapter begins. And I am implicated—as Amichai’s co-translator—in the very process I am critiquing here. It is indeed the hegemonic and culturally homogenizing “global” literary idiom of English that helps establish the reassuring—but dangerous—illusion that “we” have a universal contemporary language of literary translation at our disposal, on which the theory of translation can be modeled.

Figure 2. Yehuda Amichai with Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld discussing the translation of Open Closed Open, Berkeley; California, October 29, 1996. Photo: E. Arnon.



This selection contains the first two parts of chapter 4.

[Editorial Note: For formatting/diacritics consult original.]

[1] ״יצאתי אל חיי בשבעים כח רצון / ליד השערים עמדו כמו תורגמנים מלשון ללשון / שעזרו לי. אך עכשיו כשהם שכבו לישון / שב ליבי לבדו אל ביתו הראשון״

Translation mine, CK. Unpublished quatrain; date unclear; manual typewriter copy-format indicates it is early. Amichai Archives, Beinecke Library, Box 28, Folder 972. An earlier, abbreviated version of this chapter appeared in Hebrew as “Ha-meshorer ki-metargem be-shirat Amichai” (The Poet as Translator in Amichai’s Poetry), Ot 3 (2013): 5-20. I am grateful to Michael Gluzman and Michal Arbell fortheir feedback on the article, and to Eyal Bassan and Caroline Brickman for their comments on the chapter draft.

[2] Over the years Amichai told me numerous times that he was in the habit of writing quatrains “in the classical Arabic style,” with the intention that they be published only “after 120,” as he put it (see chapter 6, n. 14). I was surprised, therefore, to find in the Archives only two extant quatrains, of which the above quoted poem is one. It is published here for the first time, so far as I know. It is possible that other quatrains are located in the portion of the archives that have not yet been made accessible to the public. The earliest translation of Omar Khayyám into Hebrew directly from the Persian, rather than via Fitzgerald’s English which Amichai would have had access to, is Ben-Tzion Ben-Shalom’s volume of the Rubai'yat (Meruba'im in Hebrew). While I have not been able to verify that Amichai did indeed read the Rubai'yat in this translation, to the best of my knowledge this was the version used in Prof. Shirman’s classes at the Hebrew University. See the Introduction for further discussion of Amichai’s studies of medieval poetry with Shirman.

[3] See Song of Songs 5. For the rabbinic allegorical interpretation of Queen Esther's home/body as a figure for the Temple, see midrash Esther Raba, Prologue Α:5. Bayit in Hebrew is also short for beyt ha-mikdash, the Temple. I’d like to thank Mandy Cohen and Marina Zilbergerts for their important insights on this section.

[4] In the narrative describing this first Greek translation there were “actually” seventy-two translators. In the typewritten manuscript of this quatrain Amichai crossed out (in pen) the word shloshim (“thirty”), which would have linked birth and death more explicitly (the first memorial for the dead traditionally takes place after thirty days and is called shloshim), and replaced it with the handwritten shiv'im (seventy).

[5] My reading of this quatrain benefited greatly from an interpretive dialogue with Shaul Setter.

[6] See Theodor Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, 142-43. And see earlier articulations in his Negative Dialectics, esp. 404-5. Amichai’s poetics of metaphor, discussed in terms of Lakoff's theory in chapter 5, is the most developed articulation in his oeuvre of the Adornian aesthetics of “as-if” This, however, is a subject for another study.

[7] Juvan explores in some detail the primarily Central and Eastern European theories that “place translation among intertextual phenomena.” History and Poetics of lntertexuality, 33.

[8] Ha-sifrut 34:1, 70-78, untranslated.

[9] See, for example, his Translation, Rewriting, and the Manipulation of Literary Fame; and Translating Literature: Practice and Theory in a Comparative Literature Framework. Though informed by system-theoretical accounts of translation like those developed by Itamar Even-Zohar and Gideon Toury, Lefevere’s work opened up the historical and political turn in translation studies, taking it beyond both poststructuralism and neoformalism. For Even-Zohar and Toury’s contributions, see, e.g., Even-Zohar, “The Position of Translated Literature within the Literary Polysystem” and “The Role of Russian and Yiddish in the Making of Modern Hebrew” in his Polysystem Studies, 45-51, III-120; and Toury, In Search of a Theory of Translation; and Toury, Descriptive Translation Studies and Beyond.

[10] “Arts of the Contact Zone,” in Ways of Reading, 584. A different version appeared as the Introduction to her Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (London: Routledge, 1992).

[11] I am grateful to Rebecca Whittington for her helpful comments on this matter.

[12] One of the first studies in this vein was Niranjana, Siting Translation: History, Post-Structuralism, and the Colonial Context; and a series of studies by Lawrence Venuti: Rethinking Translation: Discourse, Subjectivity, Ideology; The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation; and his edited The Translation Studies Reader. See also the important anthology Nation, Language, and the Ethics of Translation, ed. Sandra Bermann and Michael Wood. For a global perspective that focuses on French and Francophone translations, see Apter, The Translation Zone: The New Comparative Literature; and Tranquille and Nirisimloo-Gayan, Rencontres: Translation Studies.

[13] Spivak, “The Politics of Translation.”

[14] Shirim 1948-1962, 231.

[15] The original is a rewriting of the Aramaic words uttered during the ritual of purifying the house of the chametz before Passover. (Chametz refers to food products made from wheat, rye, and other grains that are forbidden during the holiday). Literally: “that which is in my possession and that which is not in my possession,” may it be considered null and void.

[16] Forthcoming in Alter, The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai. For an alternative rendition, see A Life of Poetry, 61.

[17] An early partial draft of the poem that I found in the archives shows Amichai experimenting with this parody of a collectivist voice, writing first the very colloquial eyn lanu ma le-hitlahev, and finally setding on the biblical ve-lo nitlahev in the poem’s first two stanzas and the rabbinic Hebrew ve-eyn lanu le-hitlahev (“tis not for us to get excited”) in the poem’s last two stanzas, in both cases echoing the syntactic structure of a legal injunction. Amichai Archives, Beinecke Library, Box 42, Folder 1451.

[18] Stevens, “The Man with the Blue Guitar ” The Palm at the End of the Mind: Selected Poems and a Play, 133.

[19] Chamberlain, “Gender Metaphorics in Translation, 94. See also a different version from 1988 in Venuti, The Translation Studies Reader, 312-29.

[20] In Siting Translation: History, Post-Structuralism, and the Colonial Context.

[21] See Hallo, Origins: The Ancient Near Eastern Background of Some Modern Western Institutions, esp. 163. I am grateful to Bill Hallo for sharing his erudition on this matter with me in conversation as well.

[22] Palestinian Talmud, Tractate Megila, 75:50, for instance. As Daniel Boyarin pointed out to me, one of the more mundane functions of the turgeman in Talmudic times was simply to repeat the words of the sage more loudly, without interlingual translation, thus performing a pure form of mediation via repetition. In later periods variations on the term dragoman are used to describe the role of official translators in the various regions of the Ottoman Empire, and it becomes associated with proficiency in Turkish (Turkeman). On the diplomatic uses of turgeman see Lewis, Middle East Mosaic: Fragments of Life, Letters, and History, esp. 130.

[23] Amichai Archives, Beinecke Library, Box 40, Folder 1393.

[24] Amichai Archives, Beinecke Library, Box 84, Folder 2082.

[25] Ibid. This is followed by a downward pointing arrow, and the statement: “your words” (milim shelkha), below which is another arrow, pointing to the statement: “foreign words” (milim zarot). Thus, Amichai’s notes illustrate graphically the connection between literary genealogy, intergenerational intertextual transmission, and translation, highlighting visually the intermediary and necessarily unoriginal status of the poet’s own words.

[26] Erlich, Russian Formalism: History/Doctrine, 259ff; Tynjanov, Arxaisty i novatory.

[27] Amichai may be providing here a secular restaging of Rabbi Yohanan’s account of Moses being given the Torah at Sinai as an act of divine kissing. This is Rabbi Yochanan’s allegorical reading of the opening verses of the Song of Songs, yishakeni mi-nshikot pihu, “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth” (KJV, 1:2); Song of Songs Rabbah 1:2. As Daniel Boyarin pointed out to me, the traditional origins of this erotics of transmission already contains a literalization of a metaphor.

[28] This is quite different from translation figured as the exposure of high-modernist sexual secrets. See Masiello, “Joyce in Buenos Aires,” 55-72.

[29] See discussion in Introduction and chapters 2 and 6.

[30] Patu'ach sagur patua'eh, 155-61; Open Closed Open, 145-51.

[31] See chapter 1.

[32] Section 3, Patu'ach sagur patua'ch, 156; Open Closed Open, 148.

[33] Patu'ach sagur patua'ch, 155; Open Closed Open, 147.

[34] Section 2, Patu'ach sagur patua'ch, 156; Open Closed Open, 147.

[35] See Arpali, Ha-prachim ve-ha-agartal, esp. 114-19 and 174-84.

[36] I wish to thank Chana Bloch for her insights on this point.

[37] Amichai Archives, Beinecke Library, Box 84, Folder 2082.

[38] And see a fascinating discussion of the different versions and appropriations of the Septuagint legend in the first chapter of Naomi Seidman’s book, Faithful Renderings: Jewish-Christian Difference and the Politics of Translation; see esp. 47-63. On the negative impact of the Septuagint as a model of perfect translation, see Norich, Writing in Tongues: Translating Yiddish in the Twentieth Century, 3-21.

[39] Secton 6, Patu'ach sagur patua'ch, 158; Open Closed Open, 149.

[40] And see Sonnet 23, the last sonnet of Amichai’s first sonnet cycle, “We Loved Here” (“Ahavnu kan”), for a similar critique of what was called in the slang of the Statehood Generation na'emet, “the speechifying disease” or “speechifitis”—this invented noun uses, as I suggest in chapter 2, the grammatical pattern of disease names: “And the wall of speechifying has now been breached” (ve-kir ha-ne'umin akhshav nivka). Shirim 1948-1962, 58-59; untranslated.

[41] Seidman, Faithful Renderings, 21.

[42]Ibid. Acts 2:4 reads: “And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” Seidman cites here Assman, “The Curse and Blessing of Babel, or, Looking Back on Universalism,” in The Translatability of Cultures: Figuration of the Space Between, 89. Even though Seidman mentions the story of the “Tongues of Fire” in the context of Amichai’s poema, she relates it only to Section 2, in which the Holy Spirit helps the translators recycle words, but not to Section 6, which, as we’ve seen, evokes the fire directly.

[43]  Buder, Excitable Speech, esp. 129. See detailed discussion in chapter 3.

[44] The Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert (1924-1998), who in Poland acquired the title “the Prince of Poetry,” spent time in Israel in 1991 when he was awarded the Jerusalem Prize and befriended Yehuda Amichai. This poem was translated from Polish into Hebrew by David Weinfeld and published in Ha'aretz, May 13, 1994, under the title: “To Yehuda Amichai for His Seventieth Birthday” This dedication is missing from the English. Herbert, “To Yehuda Amichai,” The Collected Poems 1956-1998, trans. and ed. by Alissa Valles, 489. See Introduction on the use of regal imagery in other poets’ descriptions of Amichai.

[45] Until his retirement Amichai taught in this program.

[46] Ma'ariv, May 17,1994. Cited from the online English edition. Amichai has since been translated into over forty languages by now.

[47] Alter, “The Untranslatable Amichai.” A revised version will appear as the Introduction to his forthcoming volume, The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai.

[48] Benjamin’s terms “afterlife” or “survival,” in his classical essay “The Task of the Translator.” In Harry Zohn’s “original” translation, both Benjamin’s Fortleben and his Überleben are rendered as “afterlife.” But I believe that like other terms in Benjamin—as in Celan!—their full meaning results from an interlinguistic pun on the gap between the German and the Yiddish faux-amis: iberlebn in Yiddish means “to suffer,” “to endure,” and “to live through hardship.” See Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator,” cited here from The Translation Studies Reader, 1-23; and see Steven Rendall’s important commentary on Zohn’s translation in Venuti’s first edition, ibid., 23-25, correcting several errors that invert the meaning. The full potential of a Benjaminian reading of Amichai’s view of translation still remains to be explored.

[49] On the constraints in the theory of translation, see Darwish, The Transfer Factor: Selected Essays on Translation and Cross-Cultural Communication. On this issue see also Even-Zohar, “The Position of Translated Literature within the Literary Polysystem”; and Toury, In Search of a Theory of Translation.

[50] This is not to say that there is a one-to-one correspondence between the poetic and the political implications of language choice. On this matter see Norich, “Under Whose Sign? Hebraism and Yiddishism as Paradigms of Modern Jewish Literary History,” 774-84. And see also my “The Joint Literary Historiography of Hebrew and Yiddish,” in Languages of Modern Jewish Culture: Comparative Perspectives.

[51] Alter, The Poetry of Yehuda Amichai. For Hughes’s and Weissbort’s anthology, see Yehuda Amichai: Selected Poems; after Hughes’s death in 1998, Weissbort brought the anthology to completion by himself, using notes left behind by Hughes for the Introduction. Weissbort died in 2013.

[52] Yehuda Amichai, Amen, 15; Time: Poems by Yehuda Amichai. A more complicated co-translation produced The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai, as I suggest below. A new edition, published without the translators’ knowledge(!), came out in 2014.

[53] Hesse, Nedudim; Hochhuth, Memale ha-makom, Lasker-Schüler, Shirim; and Lasker-Schüler, Ve-eynay tipot kvedot va-afelot.

[54] See, e.g., Harshav’s The Meaning of Yiddish, reissued in the Contraversions series (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999). And see my discussion in chapter I in the context of the appropriations resulting from the erasure of the tones of Jewish Discourse.

[55] Sandbank, “Nof ha-nefesh: Rilke, Auden, Amichai”; Fishelov, “Yehuda Amichai: A Modern Metaphysical Poet”; Rosen, ‘“As in a Poem by Shmuel Ha-Nagid’: Between Shmuel Ha-Nagid and Yehuda Amichai”; Kronfeld and Larkin, “Intertextuality in Amichai and Darwish” (in preparation).

[56] Pages 33-49. I am grateful to Maya Kronfeld for her methodological input on this section.

[57] Jakobson, “On Linguistic Aspects of Translation,” 428-35.

[58] Yehuda Amichai, Shirim, 1948-1962, 71-72; Selected Poetry, 11-12. See also discussion in chapter 3.

[59] Amichai as a God-seeking modern poet is typical of other Anglo-American academic construals of his work. See, e.g., Sokoloff, “On Amichai’s El male rahamim,” 127-40; and Jacobson, Does David Still Play Before You: Israeli Poetry and the Bible, 74-76ff.

[60] Stevens, “The Poems of Our Climate,” 158. On the connection between Amichai’s and Stevens’ poetic worldviews, despite important differences, see chapter 2.

[61] See, e.g., Sandbank, “Nof ha-nefesh: Rilke, Auden, Amichai”; Arpali Ha-prachim ve-ha-agartal, 114-19.

[62] Yehuda Amichai, Shirim, 1948-1962, 71-72; Selected Poetry, 11-12. Note that Stephen Mitchell, with whom I worked as native informant on this poem (and to whom I explained the transition from the first ve-hi to the last), chose not to translate the final lines as “and she is my/his/your glory,” opting to retain the traditional “and that.” Thus, in my opinion, the point of the poem’s radical transformation of the divine into the earthly feminine is missed in the English.

[63] See “Ve-avita tehila,” also known as asher eymatkha be-er'eley omen, an ancient piyyut attributed to Kalir or to Yanay (sixth and seventh centuries), included in some of the Ashkenazi Machzorim, prayer books for the High Holidays.

[64] Shirim 1948-1962,13. Translation mine.

[65] Bassnett-McGuire, Translation Studies, 11. See critique in Niranjana, Siting Translation: History, Post-Structuralism, and the Colonial Context, 59.

[66] Toury, In Search of a Theory of Translation, 92. A very sophisticated example within this scientific tendency is Gutknecht and Rölle, Translating by Factors.

[67] See discussion of Herbert and Hughes earlier in this chapter. See Introduction for Simic and Strand on Amichai as model for young American poets.

[68] Siting Translation, 59. The recent global turn in translation studies has unfortunately not improved this selective modeling so far.

[69] Challenge of Comparative Literature.

[70] See Althusser and Balibar, Reading “Capital.”

[71] “On Linguistic Aspects of Translation,” 434.

[72] Johnson, “Taking Fidelity Philosophically,” in Difference in Translation, 142-48; and Siting Translation.

[73] 1994, unpublished. For more on this topic, see her Faithful Renderings, 155-64.


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