Prose from Poetry Magazine

Translators' Note: "The Second Trying" by Dahlia Ravikovitch

Dahlia Ravikovitch's astonishing mastery of Hebrew in her first book of poems, The Love of an Orange, published in 1959 when she was just twenty-three, created a literary sensation, immediately establishing her as one of the leading poetic voices of her generation, alongside her elders Yehuda Amichai and Natan Zach. Hebrew is a language with roots in antiquity; it was revived as a vernacular only about a hundred years ago, and modern Hebrew preserves, even in everyday speech, the resonance of all its historical strata. While these early poems expressed an utterly contemporary sensibility, it was their rare diction and archaic cadences, distilled from the most ancient layers of biblical Hebrew, that made readers marvel.

The title poem of this first book, a fable about the passion of an orange for the man who devours it, riffs on Prokofiev's surrealist comic opera, The Love for Three Oranges—where oranges (maidens in disguise) are objects of desire—while weaving together allusions to the Garden of Eden story, Jotham's anti-monarchic parable of the talking trees, the rebukes of Job's so-called friends, and the Book of Proverb's scorn for fools and folly. In translating this intricately-wrought poem, we worked to render the poet's densely allusive style while retaining her ironic modernist tone.

Ravikovitch often uses rare words and expressions to summon up an entire universe of discourse. Barot, in line twenty-six (from the root b.r.h., associated with eating), appears only once in the Bible, in a horrific scene where famine reduces women to eating their own children during the siege of Jerusalem (Lam. 4:10). The grisly suggestion of cannibalism conveyed by this word amplifies the tension between eros and thanatos that is the poem's main theme; hence we chose "flesh" rather than the more neutral "food."

Like other ancient languages, Hebrew tends to be tighter than English since it does much of its semantic work with prefixes and suffixes rather than discrete words. This poem takes concision to an extreme: most of the lines are composed of only two or three words. Our first challenge was to keep the lines terse in English while retaining their archaic flavor. Gender posed another challenge. All inanimate objects are either masculine or feminine in Hebrew.

"Orange" (tapu'ach zahav, literally "golden apple"), neuter in English, is masculine in Hebrew; "the man who ate it" (okhlehu) is literally "his eater." We chose "its" instead of "his" because the tangle of masculine pronouns, less confusing in Hebrew, would be unwieldy in English, and would limit the poem to a homoerotic reading, clearly not the only possibility (viz. the Prokofiev allusion).

Hebrew rhymes easily since grammatical rhyme automatically results from suffixes marking gender, number, or person. Even at its most avant-garde, Hebrew poetry loves rhyme. Rather than impose an Anglo-American aesthetic, which associates modernism with free verse, we pressed our English to suggest Ravikovitch's elaborate rhyming. In line twenty-nine we chose the internal rhyme "invaded," which rhymes with "ate it" and "flayed it," to translate the biblical ba be- (came into), which can have sexual or even military connotations. Through this rhyme we hoped to convey the force of the reversal at the end of the poem, in which the submissive orange, as it were, has the last bite.

"The Second Trying" (1964) also ends in a surprising turn: just as the devouring male lover in "The Love of an Orange" is consumed from within, so is the voracious female lover in this poem left unsatisfied. From the outset, the speaker unabashedly declares her desire to take possession of the man: "If I could only get hold of the whole of you." Her extravagant fantasies build through long irregular stanzas to a breathless climax in line twenty-seven. The final austere couplet takes a philosophical turn, inverting the aphoristic teaching of the sage Hillel ("If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And being for my own self, what am I?") to question the relation of self to other, and concludes with a sober assertion of existential loneliness.

In our experience, collaboration has proven to be an inestimable benefit to the translation process. One of us is a native speaker of Hebrew; the other, of English. As we debated every possible meaning of the Hebrew and every choice of diction or rhythm in English, we were keenly aware of the way in which translation is not just a matter of language but also a negotiation between cultures.—CB & CK

Originally Published: April 1st, 2009

Chana Bloch was the author of four books of poems: The Secrets of the Tribe, The Past Keeps Changing, Mrs. Dumpty, and Blood Honey. She is co-translator of the biblical Song of Songs as well as contemporary Israeli poetry—most recently The Selected Poetry of Yehuda Amichai and his Open Closed Open,...

Appeared in Poetry Magazine This Appears In