On First Looking Into Chapman’s Hebrew

The great Hebrew poet Haim Nahman Bialik is famously quoted as having said that reading a poem in translation is like a kissing a woman through a veil. For this reason, I did not read Bialik in translation, nor any other Hebrew poet for that matter. In fact, when I first came to Israel and started reading in Hebrew, I began with poetry. This made sense to me: Poems are short, so I could have a complete aesthetic experience in the reasonable space of fifteen minutes. Moreover, in a poem every word matters – since there are so few words, each one is enormously dense, packed with more units of meaning per square syllable than in prose. And so I did not mind looking up any word I did not know, because each additional word was weighty and laden in the context of the poem I was reading.

Since I refused to read Hebrew poetry in English, my first experience of reading poetry in translation actually involved reading English poetry in Hebrew. This began due to a rather ironic turn of events. I was at one of the book fairs sponsored by National Hebrew Book Week a few months ago when I noticed a new book by Jorge Luis Borges. In Hebrew it was called M’lechet Hashir; the title in English was The Craft of Verse. Given my love of poetry, this was definitely a book I wanted to read. But in Hebrew? Then again, I reasoned, the original was surely written in Spanish, so if I read it in English, I’d be reading in translation anyway. And how would I ever find such a book in Israel in English anyway? Steimatzky’s carries the bestsellers like Tom Clancy and Khaled Hosseini, but they would certainly not have Borges on poetry. So taking my chances, I bought the book in Hebrew, and delved in.

I refer to this as an ironic turn of events because I later learned that Borges actually originally delivered these lectures in English, as part of a series of lectures given at Harvard University in 1967-8. The tapes were discovered less than ten years ago – at that point they were transcribed and published by Harvard University Press. The Hebrew translation, which we sold through our literary agency, was published this summer by Babel (the name of the house is another irony); this is the copy that I purchased at the book fair.

In these lectures, Borges discusses metaphor, epic poetry, the origins of verse, poetic meaning, and his own poetic creed, as well as the philosophy of translation. He draws on a wealth of examples from literature in modern and medieval English, Spanish, French, Italian, German, Greek, Latin, Arabic, Hebrew, and Chinese. But it was the English poems that most excited me as I read these lectures in Hebrew translation. For the first time I discovered Keats, Byron, and Poe in Hebrew! For me this was utterly astonishing and mesmerizing, as if – well –

Rather than try to invoke my own metaphors, I will quote from one of the first poems that Borges quotes in this book, “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” by John Keats. Keats wrote this sonnet when he read Homer in a new translation, finding it familiar and at once infused with something entirely new. When he read Chapman’s translation, he felt “like some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken; / Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes / He star’d at the Pacific–and all his men / Look’d at each other with a wild surmise– / Silent, upon a peak in Darien.” I too, in discovering Keats for the first time in Hebrew–both familiar and at once infused with something entirely new–felt like an astronomer who has just discovered a new planet, or like an explorer who has stumbled upon the Pacific Ocean. I knew by heart the poems that Borges was quoting, but all of a sudden, I was discovering them all over again!

As I read on in the Hebrew translation of Borges’ lectures, I came upon many familiar English poems in Hebrew. Each time, I could hear the English pulsing underneath the surface, beating in my brain without any conscious effort on my part. The line that most struck me was from Frost, “And miles to go before I sleep.” In Hebrew this became, “u-MIlin laLEchet b’TERem i-SHAN.” I capitalize the stressed syllables to show how the Hebrew keeps the exact rhythm of the English, where the dactyls capture the heaving and falling of heavy footsteps in the snow. I was dazzled by this, as if the snow had suddenly begun to fall all around me on that hot June Jerusalem afternoon. Because only snow in the summer in Jerusalem would have been as strange and wondrous as Frost in Hebrew, I daresay.

Since first looking into Borges’ Craft of Verse, I have read many other poets in Hebrew. My two most recent acquisitions are Gerard Manley Hopkins HaLev, Lev Harim Lo (“O the mind, mind has mountains”) and Mark Strand’s Ha’Sha’a HaMeucheret (The Late Hour). I particularly enjoyed reading Hopkins in Hebrew because the poet was a Jesuit priest who frequently invoked lines and phrases from the Bible. I was astonished to see that the word m’rachef was not used for “brood” in the line, “Because the Holy Ghost over the bent / World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.” This seems to me so obviously a reference to Deuteronomy 32:11: “Like an eagle who rouses his nestlings, broods [y’rachef] over his hatchings.” Apparently the translator did not agree. These, and other issues, preoccupy and fascinate me when I read favorite poems in Hebrew.

It may be, as Bialik said, that in reading Keats and Frost and Hopkins in Hebrew, I am kissing a woman through a veil. But I have kissed that woman many times by now – I know her lips and her eyes and the contours of her face so intimately after long hours holed up with my Norton anthologies. Now this woman comes out to me at once familiar and utterly new, walking behind veils of shimmering silk that are ever changing from purple, to red, to blue. Now they are opaque and now, for one moment, they are blessedly transparent, and I gaze like a watcher of the skies.

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