Life of Poet­ry: The Sto­ry of Avra­ham Hal­fi, image from the 2014 movie

I’ve been asked to write an essay about the dif­fi­cul­ties of trans­lat­ing poet­ry but must con­fess it is not always dif­fi­cult. You can take dif­fer­ent approach­es to line breaks and rhyme, but I think it’s fair to say that if you find rhyming chal­leng­ing you prob­a­bly should not trans­late poet­ry. Where then, lies the dif­fi­cul­ty? Well, tone, per­haps. In some poets the tone appears very sim­ple at first glance but when you start to trans­late them you realise that you do not real­ly know for sure what they’re say­ing after all – the tone of the line is, on close exam­i­na­tion, so elu­sive. Or there may just be one word that resists you because of cul­tur­al dif­fer­ences between the two lan­guages, or per­haps because the con­text of that one word in that time and place makes it impos­si­ble to bring over. This last is not a dif­fi­cul­ty unique to poets. The var­i­ous trans­la­tor lists I fol­low are awash with trans­la­tors tear­ing out their hair about ren­der­ing some col­lo­qui­al expres­sion in a nov­el or play.

Many such dif­fi­cul­ties fea­ture in the work of Avra­ham Chal­fi, who was born in Lodz, Poland, arrived in Pales­tine to work in con­struc­tion and farm­ing in 1924, joined the Ohel the­atre troupe when it formed in 1925, and became a life mem­ber of the Cameri munic­i­pal the­atre in 1953. Chal­fi was known prin­ci­pal­ly as an actor but also con­nect­ed in the Tel Aviv lit­er­ary scene as a man about town, author of over nine col­lec­tions of poet­ry and, arguably most impor­tant­ly, as the poet­ic uncle” of the famous singer, Arik Ein­stein; he set Chalfi’s work to pop songs and sang it so com­pelling­ly that it entered the cul­tur­al lan­guage and was sub­se­quent­ly cov­ered by a host of oth­ers musi­cal groups. There are as many cov­er ver­sions of Chalfi’s Your Brow is Bound with Dark­est Ore” since Einstein’s sin­gle of 1977 as there are of Leonard Cohen’s Hal­lelu­jah.” So when I am trans­lat­ing Chal­fi I am approach­ing a very direct, impas­sioned form of speech, along with lit­er­ary lines and lan­guage steeped in Jew­ish mys­ti­cism. The obvi­ous mean­ing is not nec­es­sar­i­ly the only mean­ing, as in the poem below:

When Some­body Dreams of a Bird

A bird danced in my dream

Like any bird

That dances in a man’s dream.

When some­body dreams of a bird

That dances –

sing, my bird, miracles’ –

I would have want­ed to ask her

From the beloved Bia­lik in To the Bird”.

I remem­bered walk­ing after him

As he passed in the street

Laden with moun­tains of knowledge.

Boy, have you got

A match?

He asked me once after midnight.

And after mid­night it was the leg­end of the match that trembled.

When some­body dreams of a bird.

On the face of it this is a very sim­ple poem. I hap­pened to trans­late a col­lec­tion of Hay­im Nah­man Bia­lik poems twen­ty years ago, so I was attract­ed by this scene of Chal­fi encoun­ter­ing Bia­lik, con­sid­ered the first major Hebrew poet of the mod­ern era, a one-man revival of mod­ern Hebrew writ­ing in Tel Aviv. I loved the descrip­tion of Bialik’s knowl­edge writ­ten on his face per­haps because Bialik’s major con­tri­bu­tion out­side of his own poet­ry was edit­ing and pub­lish­ing a new anno­tat­ed com­pi­la­tion of the Tal­mu­dic leg­ends, his one vol­ume Book of the Leg­end mak­ing the sto­ries pre­vi­ous­ly acces­si­ble only through con­sid­er­able labour in a dead lan­guage avail­able and acces­si­ble in one book with very help­ful notes that sold by the mil­lions to a young Israeli audi­ence who would have nev­er opened a Tal­mud. That knowl­edge and the fame that came with it was, as Chal­fi notes, a bur­den that weighed him down like moun­tains. But then there are prob­lems you don’t imme­di­ate­ly spot.

To the Bird” is one of Bialik’s first famous poems and one I did not choose to trans­late because I found its metre too insis­tent. Many non-Israeli read­ers might not be famil­iar with the poem, so Chalfi’s casu­al allu­sion to the bird, and then the famous bird poem, might get lost. That line he quotes from Bia­lik is one I had to trans­late — on the gad — a line tak­en out of con­text. Imag­ine being asked to trans­late — To be or not to be’ — not as a phrase in a line which is part of the most famous speech in Eng­lish dra­ma, but just like that — on its own. What can you do with such a phrase?

Then there was the sec­ond half of the poem which was much more con­crete and, to be hon­est, the real rea­son I want­ed to trans­late it in the first place. But there was one thing: the word Bia­lik uses to address Chal­fi is in Hebrew bachur’ — which is a lad, boy­chik, junge­man, what­ev­er you like but has no an easy Eng­lish equiv­a­lent that works in the twen­ti­eth or twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry. So how should the great man address the (pre­sum­ably younger) man but not teenag­er, because (pre­sum­ably) the teenag­er would not be roam­ing the street at mid­night? I opt­ed for Boy’ because there was seem­ing­ly no oth­er option. But that one word was the only stick­ing point in the poem. There was the leg­end in the sub­se­quent lines, anoth­er allu­sion to anoth­er famous Bia­lik poem, To the Leg­end’ which address­es those very sto­ries of the Tal­mud allud­ed to in his moun­tains of knowl­edge, but I hoped those lines would work in their sur­face mean­ing, with­out a reader’s hav­ing to know the allusion.

Imag­ine being asked to trans­late — To be or not to be’ — not as a phrase in a line which is part of the most famous speech in Eng­lish dra­ma, but just like that — on its own.

Then there are com­pli­ca­tions of recep­tion. Chalfi’s cul­tur­al foot­print in Israeli life is con­sid­er­ably big­ger than his sta­tus as a poet would sug­gest — it is as if Leonard Cohen’s poems had not been sung by him­self but rather by Frank Sina­tra. My prob­lem became, in oth­er poems which were indeed set to music, that it did not seem appro­pri­ate to trans­late the poem from the page, but rather, by lis­ten­ing to the song in var­i­ous oth­er ver­sions, to cap­ture the spir­it of the musi­cal set­ting as well as the lyric. To cap­ture the fris­son of the voice that breathed into the lyric, not just the line itself. It’s a fool’s errand, but I have been asked to trans­late Broad­way lyrics before and it’s an entire­ly dif­fer­ent lev­el of dif­fi­cul­ty from trans­lat­ing a mov­ing lit­tle poem that touched you. Some­times a boy is not just a boy but a man in a street, singing to the moon. And you have to write the moon into your trans­la­tion, even if it isn’t in the poem.

This piece is a part of the Berru Poet­ry Series, which sup­ports Jew­ish poet­ry and poets on PB Dai­ly. JBC also awards the Berru Poet­ry Award in mem­o­ry of Ruth and Bernie Wein­flash as a part of the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Awards. Click here to see the 2019 win­ner of the prize. If you’re inter­est­ed in par­tic­i­pat­ing in the series, please check out the guide­lines here.

Atar Hadari’s Songs from Bia­lik: Select­ed Poems of H. N. Bia­lik (Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Press) was a final­ist for the Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary Trans­la­tors’ Asso­ci­a­tion Award and his Pen Trans­lates award win­ning Lives of the Dead: Col­lect­ed Poems of Hanoch Levin appeared from Arc Pub­li­ca­tions. He received rab­binic ordi­na­tion from Rab­bi Daniel Lan­des and a PhD in The­ol­o­gy from Liv­er­pool Hope Uni­ver­si­ty for his study on Jew­ish com­men­ta­tors in William Tyndale’s trans­la­tion of Deuteron­o­my and its revi­sions into the King James Bible.