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The Political Poem, Translation, and the Bias of Familiarity

Published on 
August 13, 2021

First the translator begins, bit by bit, to discover the poet’s verbal and ideational habits; then, little by little, the translator acquires the poet’s obsessions. . . . Next the translator is certain he or she inhabits the poet. . . . And at last, the translator turns into the poet. Not that the translator has “merged” with the poet; but the one has genuinely become the other.

—Cynthia Ozick, “Prayer Leader” (1983)


Ethical concerns exist in every act of literary translation, but translating overtly political content can bring them to the surface, clarifying the stakes and sharpening the terms of the discourse. A bias of familiarity between the translator and the author is one such issue, which gains urgency in contemporary literature, when politics are upfront and the proximity between the translator and the author is no longer considered in the abstract.


The Periphery Is Not a Small Town: Translating Contemporary Mizrahi Poetry

In 2015, I translated poetry from Shlomi Hatuka’s debut collection Mizraḥ yareaḥ [Moon east; Tangier Publishing, 2015]. Hatuka is a Mizrahi activist, one of the founding members of the Ars Poetica poetry series, and a member of the Amram Association, which raises awareness for the disappearance of Yemenite children. He also hosts a web series titled Ha-mishmar ha-Mizraḥi on Kan Israeli Public Broadcasting, in which he discusses media discrimination and representation of Mizrahis in Israeli culture. In addition to being an activist and a poet, Hatuka is also a math teacher.

“Mikhtav le-na‘ar me-ha-peripheria” (Letter to a young man from the periphery) first appeared in Hebrew in the Ha-aretz literary supplement and was published in my English translation as “Open Letter to a Small Town Boy'' in the Ilanot Review.[1] The poem consists of a heartfelt, straightforward plea to refuse military service in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and calls for rebellion in light of institutional racism and inequality suffered by the Mizrahi community in Israel. Hatuka prompts the young man to consider the futility of his service when “all of the promises are reserved for whites”:


What’s the use

of your hands adjusting to the feel of metal

and your eyes seeing friends

through the gun sight

and why should you hear

commanders barking

you’re better off with

professions of love

from a girl


He advises the young man to seek out an army psychiatrist or a doctor, those custodians of mental and physical health who not only hold the power to exempt the young man from military service but also set the established—and skewed—criterion of well-being in societal terms. In place of the values they represent, Hatuka urges the young man to give the three years to his heart, or “at least” to his mind, whereby he will discover that his real enemy is not the one he sees through the gunsight but rather the ones (“whites”) who benefit from a biased system designed to keep the young man in place.

More prose than poetry, Hatuka’s manifesto takes direct aim at the traditional view of the IDF as a cultural “melting pot,” the great equalizer in Israeli society, and the most viable mode of social mobility. Rather, the military is revealed as an agent of conditioning, subjecting bodies, hearts, and minds to continuous oppression. Importantly, Hatuka also indirectly gestures toward a bond between the young man and the figure on the other side of the gunsight, the Palestinian man, his potential double. A connection is thus made between the Mizrahi soldier—whose parents or grandparents likely spoke Arabic—and the Palestinian young man whom he is trained to regard as his enemy.

The main challenge of translating this poem relates to the title “Mikhtav le-na‘ar me-ha-peripheria” and the culturally specific use of the Latin term peripheria that found its way into modern Hebrew usage. In the Israeli context, “periphery” designates a particular form of marginality involving both a geographic region and a set of specific social, economic, and often ethnic identities. The Israeli periphery thus merges the literal and metaphoric meanings of the word and lies on the outskirts, discriminated against and relegated to secondary importance. While “outskirts” comes close to this usage, it’s not a direct corollary for the particular (social and ethnic) designation and seemed to me a clunky and inelegant choice. Therefore, as is often in translation, I settled on something entirely different and chose to translate the young man from “the periphery” as a “small town boy.” By evoking the notion of a small town—which, in American culture, is often the site of a high volume of military enlistment—I aimed to complement Hatuka’s wake-up call, undermining the sentiment of naivete and habitual faith in the IDF, arguably Israel’s most revered institution. I also had the faint hope that readers would pick up the allusion to the 1980s hit song “Smalltown Boy” by Bronski Beat and its memorable music video, which highlighted homophobia in rural England. In this sense, the “small town” in the title carries varied meanings in English depending on one’s cultural orientation, as it could refer to a place of naivete, disadvantage, or narrow-mindedness while also suggesting an awakening from the unexamined acceptance of the Establishment.

In addition, my translation of the title as an “open letter” underscores the public and direct nature of its content, which reads as a prose manifesto and was first published in one of Israel’s leading daily newspapers. I was also cognizant of the important role that the epistolary form has in the American tradition of writing on race, particularly as a public address to a young man, such as James Baldwin's essays in The Fire Next Time (1963) and, more recently, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me (2015). From my brief acquaintance with Hatuka, I sensed he would approve.


Translation and the Bias of Familiarity

In the course of our amiable exchanges during the translation of Hatuka’s work, my own identity (Ashkenazi, woman, definitely not a math teacher) did not come up in a meaningful way. What significance, if any, did it have for the translation? Did my choices as a translator draw from my own culturally specific identity (evidently) or prejudices (possibly)? Would choosing a Mizrahi translator better serve the political agenda that he is advocating? Recent events in the international translation community led me to revisit such essential questions but also to look beyond them to examine the bias of familiarity as a complex and compelling issue embedded in the ethics of translation.

In March 2021, a heated debate emerged surrounding the translation of a collection of poetry by Amanda Gorman, the young poet who gave a striking performance at Joe Biden’s inauguration. A Dutch publisher had secured translation rights to Gorman’s first collection of poems, and Marieke Lucas Rijneveld, an acclaimed young author, winner of the 2020 International Booker Prize (the youngest recipient), was selected by Gorman herself from a list of translators that the publishers compiled. But objections were immediately raised upon the announcement of the translator, who identifies as nonbinary, is an advocate for gender equality, and is also white. Journalists and activists took to social media, claiming that Rijneveld is ill-fitted for the task because they are white, and that due to the nature of Gorman’s work as a spoken-word black artist, and the fact that minority translators are underrepresented, the Dutch publisher is better off choosing someone else, someone more like Gorman. Rijneveld themselves withdrew from the project shortly afterward, responding to the controversy with a poem published in the Guardian.[2]

The Gorman debate, along with the heated discussion it spurred, is fascinating not only because it relates to identity politics, the American political climate, America’s difficult history of race, and the manner in which it translates (or doesn't translate) to a global audience. But this debate also reveals an underlying bias toward familiarity between translator and author that exists regardless of issues concerning identity politics. Specifically, the unique interplay of alterity by which an author’s words are transplanted and refashioned in another language seems to be more comfortably undertaken when such familiarity is in place. It is as if in order to overcome the chasm between languages and navigate the perilous movement between them, familiarity between the translator and the author surpasses camaraderie to smooth the journey.

Cynthia Ozick (in the quotation above) describes the process of translation as complete devotion, a transformation that involves a mystical effacement of self. What I have termed the “underlying bias of familiarity” surfaces in Ozick’s account as transgression, a shedding of the self and complete absorption in the other. But an awareness of the ethical and/or political dimension of translation has mainly been concerned with the reverse process, whereby translation overtakes or usurps the identity of the original—which Ozick herself so masterfully expresses in the novellas Envy: Or Yiddish in America (1979) and Usurpation (1974). Other critics and translators employ more temperate language but still point at some form of unity, describing translation as the “most intimate form of reading” (Gayatri Spivak) or casting it as “an act of love” (Emily Apter). These are not idealizations of the process; rather, they constitute the recognition of a starting point for comfort and lack of mistrust, which is particularly important when overt conflict exists between the cultures whose languages the translator negotiates.

In a recent, beautifully crafted meditation on translation titled Sippur she matḥil be-gabbot shel ‘Aravi (A story that begins with an Arab’s eyebrows), Yehouda Shenhav-Shaharabani reflects on translating the novels of Elias Khoury from Arabic to Hebrew, offering a glimpse into the translator’s mindset. He poignantly illustrates the overpowering urge to translate a work of art and the relationship between an “original” and its translation, all while articulating the particular political and ethical complexities involved in translating contemporary Arabic works into Hebrew. Shenhav-Shaharabani, who directs Maktoob, a joint Palestinian-Jewish translation collective, underscores translation as a collaborative venture, its nature as political, and the forms of cross-cultural literary dialogue it enacts.[3]

Interestingly, even in an account as nuanced as Shenhav-Shaharabani’s, which both considers well-trodden theoretical articulations of the violence of translation and offers a more radical vision of the translation as an autonomous work and a “mutually reflexive” relationship between the original and the translation, familiarity between translator and author manifests in a tale of physical verisimilitude. 

The work takes its title from an amusing anecdote in which Shenhav-Shaharabani describes his translation process and his attempts to track down a quotation from Gabriel García Márquez that appears in Arabic translation in Khoury’s novel. The passage refers to “Arab eyebrows” but, as Shenhav-Shaharabani soon discovers, differs from the Hebrew, English, and French translations as well as the Spanish original, which employs “Arab eyelashes” or “eyelids.” Shenhav-Shaharabani questions Khoury about his use of García Márquez’s passage:


“Is it possible that you [Khoury] were wrong and wrote eyebrows instead of eyelashes?”

“Márquez was wrong.”

“ . . . ?”

“He [Márquez] doesn’t know Arabs. There are no Arab eyelashes. It’s eyebrows. Arab eyebrows.”

“ . . . ?”

“Go to the bathroom, look in the mirror and see what Arab eyebrows look like,” he [Khoury] answered and ended the discussion: “Halas.”[4]


Shenhav-Shaharabani uses this exchange as a springboard for a sophisticated theoretical move, illustrating a form of the “third space” of translation and the creative, collaborative intertextual negotiation of an original, as the author schools the translator on the importance of artistic freedom. Nonetheless, it is striking how the emphasis is placed on a fundamental physical likeness between translator and author. This essential physical proximity between the author and translator, who simply needs to look in the mirror in order to grasp his “Arab eyebrows,” indicates a doubling that overcomes both their physical distance and overwrites political or linguistic concerns. It also provides a framework (uncoincidentally the title of the entire work) for the trust placed in the translator’s authority. In this case, the bias of familiarity manifests physically, as translator and author become not only doubles but partners in (mis)translation, sharing an element that frames their vision and transcends their culturally specific vantage points.

            The distance between Shenhav-Shaharabani, the translator, and Khoury, the author, is thus overcome in a single feat of bodily familiarity, not entirely unlike the manner in which Hatuka’s poem urges the young man to see his enemy as his friend, or even his double, on the other side of the gunsight. The bias of familiarity and its powerful, multifaceted manifestations are a timely reminder of the visibility of the translator and how often and quickly things turn personal in the process of translation, when perilous distances between languages and cultures are negotiated and navigated.





[3] See Chana Morgenstern, “What Is Anticolonial Translation? The Form and Content of Binational Resistance in Maktoob,” Journal of Levantine Studies 9, no. 2 (2020): 37–60; Huda Abu Much, “Translation as a Double-Edged Sword: Copyright, Dialogue, and Normalization under Colonial Conditions,” Dibur 8 (Spring 2020): 55–67.

[4] Yehouda Shenhav-Shaharabani, Sippur she matḥil be-gabbot shel ‘Aravi: Tirgum be-dialog ‘im Elias Khoury [A story that begins with an Arab’s eyebrows: Translation in dialogue with Elias Khoury] (Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan University Press, 2020), 11.