Review of Strange Cocktail: Translation and the Making of Modern Hebrew Poetry by Adriana X. Jacobs

Shoshana Olidort

Adri­ana X. Jacobs, Strange Cock­tail: Trans­la­tion and the Mak­ing of Mod­ern Hebrew Poet­ry. (Michi­gan Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2018). 344 pp. $80.00, hardcover.

Early on in Adriana X. Jacob’s Strange Cocktail: Translation and the Making of Modern Hebrew Poetry, we encounter the Hebrew poet Hayim Nahman Bialik addressing the Hovevei sfat ‘ever, (Lovers of Hebrew Language) society in Moscow, in 1917. In that speech, Bialik offers what, according to Jacobs, “appears to be, at first glance, a scathing repudiation of translation”:

There are ‘original’ Jews who are bound to the foundation of the national spirit, and there are ‘translated’ Jews who live their lives not in their language but in foreign tongues. . . . He who uses a foreign language, who knows Judaism only in translation—that person is like someone who kisses his mother through a handkerchief. . . . He who has stood on this Mountain Sinai, who forged a covenant of first love with his national language and to it bound the dreams of his youth and his ideals—this person will no longer forsake his people. (40)

Coming from a man who actively supported the translation of major texts, Jewish and not, into Hebrew (both through his own translations and via the Hebrew publishing house Moriah, which he cofounded in Odessa in 1901), this attitude may seem surprising. And yet, as Jacobs explains, Bialik’s conflicting perspectives on translation are actually two sides of the same coin. That is, Bialik’s support of translation into Hebrew and his resistance to translation from Hebrew both derive from his fierce commitment to what were, for him, the twinned aims of the Zionist project: namely, a “Jewish cultural ingathering” in the land of Israel and “the reconstruction of a Jewish canon that would form the basis of modern Hebrew national culture” (40). While for Bialik the former required a fundamental rejection of the diaspora and the languages of exile, the latter, as he well understood, could only be achieved through translation.

Entering into this fray of a literary culture that depends upon translation even as it insists on monolingualism, Jacobs (who, in addition to being a scholar of modern Hebrew literature, is also an accomplished translator and poet) offers a rethinking of the modern Hebrew canon as fundamentally shaped by what she calls a “translational poetics.” That is, rather than simply reaffirming the centrality of translation to the formation of the canon, Jacobs’ book contends that the “implicit and explicit translation practices of modern Hebrew poets” are “synonymous with Hebrew writing itself” (6). For Jacobs, “translational poetics” is a broad category—encompassing bilingual and multilingual writing, the negotiation of complex relations between homeland and diaspora, and self-fashioning across languages. It also reflects her expansive thinking about translation as not limited to interpretation but rather as an encounter between languages, one that blurs the boundaries between original and translation while opening up new ways for thinking in and about language.

Jacobs is hardly the first to explore Hebrew multilingualism and her book is in conversation with a rich and growing body of work that considers the multilingual underpinnings of modern Hebrew literature. 1 1 To name just a few recent works in this field: Naomi Brenner’s Lingering Bilingualism: Modern Hebrew and Yiddish Literatures in Contact (2016) sheds light on the ongoing interpenetration of Hebrew and Yiddish; Liora Halperin’s Babel in Zion: Jews, Nationalism, and Language Diversity in Palestine, 1920–1948 (2015) points to the diversity of languages that proliferated in British mandate Palestine and helped to critically shape a nascent modern Hebrew language; and Allison Schachter’s Diasporic Modernisms: Hebrew and Yiddish Literature in the Twentieth Century (2011) considers the transnational, bilingual production of modernist Jewish literature. Also of note are a number of articles that appeared in a 2014 special issue of the Journal of Jewish Identities: The Berkeley School of Jewish Literature, dedicated to Chana Kronfeld, whose work on translation and its relationship to the canon looms large in Jacobs’ project. Reading this book, I kept thinking back to Kronfeld’s On the Margins of Modernism: Decentering Literary Dynamics (1996), which in many ways sets the stage for Jacobs’s reimagining of the Hebrew canon through the lens of translation. In her own work, Kronfeld has argued for rethinking canonicity—in modernism broadly conceived, and in Jewish literature in Hebrew and Yiddish in particular—from the vantage point of the periphery. Along with multilingualism and translation, Kronfeld’s work grapples with questions of influence and relationality, themes that also surface in Michael Gluzman’s The Politics of Canonicity: Lines of Resistance in Modern Hebrew Poetry (2002), which focuses on works produced by marginalized writers to ask what exclusion from the canon tells us about canon formation itself.

Jacobs relies not only on the Berkeley School but on the now classical models of the so-called Tel Aviv school. Informing Jacobs’ translation-centered reading of Hebrew literature is Benjamin Harshav’s notion of the “polyphony of Jewish culture,” and of the centrality of multilingualism to the modern Jewish experience. Jacobs draws on the polysystem theory of literature developed by Itamar Even-Zohar, who argues for “translated literature not only as an integral system within any literary polysystem, but as a most active system within it.” In this way, Strange Cocktail joins a robust conversation in Hebrew literary studies while offering an important intervention.

Jacobs takes the title for her book from one of her subjects, the poet Esther Raab, who once “characterized her poetry and its literary influences as a kokteil ketsat meshune, a somewhat strange cocktail.” True to its title, this book is itself a delightfully strange cocktail, bringing together an eclectic mix of poets—including Raab, Leah Goldberg, Avoth Yeshurun (Yehiel Perlmutter), and Harold Schimmel—to explore how their various translational practices informed their own poetry, and, by extension, helped to shape the modern Hebrew canon, or at least offer an “alternative to canonical order” (7). It is perhaps not surprising that three of the four poets surveyed in this work are also discussed at some length in both Kronfeld’s and Gluzman’s books. But it is Raab who draws the most sustained attention across all three of these scholarly works, and it is Jacobs’ chapter on Raab, an earlier version of which was published as an article in 2006, that is the beating heart of the project.

Born in Palestine in 1894 to Hungarian immigrants, Raab published only a single, slim volume of poems during her lifetime, Kimshonim (Thistles), which appeared in 1930. As the first Sabra poet(ess) in a literary milieu dominated by male immigrants, Raab has long been subjected to nativist readings, something that, as Jacobs notes, “the poet herself promoted” (9). Against this prevailing perception, Jacobs uncovers the multilingual influences that shaped Raab’s poetry, focusing in particular on her sojourns in Cairo and Paris, and on her unpublished translations of poems by Charles Baudelaire. For Raab, writes Jacobs, translation offered “a solution to the ‘artistic problem’ of developing a native poetry in an emerging national literary culture that privileged the immigrant status of its poets” (86). Reading Raab’s translations of Baudelaire, Jacobs observes an affinity for the “dynamic, active, personified landscapes” (84) that are so ubiquitous in Raab’s own Hebrew poems.

Ever attentive to questions of influence, Jacobs wonders whether these affinities are indication that, in her translations of Baudelaire, Raab is “imposing her own poetic preferences” on the French poet, or whether her exposure to Baudelaire left an imprint on Raab’s poems (84). The answer, for Jacobs, is somewhere in between, where “in between” is itself the locus of translation as a “movement between languages, cultures, histories,” that also articulates the “in-betweenness within linguistic, geographic and cultural texts and contexts” (16); translation, like the “in between,” is never static or neutral but is, rather, “a zone of transformative, transgressive and transhistoric relation and movement” (17). Here, as elsewhere in this project, Jacobs seems to be in conversation with Emily Apter, specifically her 2005 Translation Zone: A New Comparative Literature that, true to its title, proposes reinventing the academic discipline of Comparative Literature via translation. And while Jacobs doesn’t explicitly address the question of “world literature,” her book nevertheless offers a compelling counter-argument to Apter’s more recent Against World Literature: On the Politics of Untranslatability, which garnered significant pushback for its reification of the “untranslatable,” and its largely Euro-centric approach. Indeed, it is not too much of a stretch to suggest that what Jacobs proposes in Strange Cocktail is translation-centered Hebrew literature as a kind of world literature.

Nowhere is the transgressive potential of translation more clearly manifest than in Jacobs’ readings of Yeshurun, who, like Raab, is experiencing something of a revival amongst scholars of Hebrew and Yiddish literature. Born in 1904, Yeshurun, who immigrated to Palestine in 1925, “consistently grafted foreign words into the Hebrew text of his poems,” drawing the ire of critics who saw in his work the “deformation of the language and forms of Hebrew poetry” (136-137). Most of Yeshurun’s family perished in the Holocaust, and in its aftermath he sought to recover what he called the “missing element” in his Hebrew: that is, his native Yiddish or what he referred to elsewhere as the “word of his mother.” A particularly evocative example is the poetry cycle Shloshim ‘amud shel Avot Yeshrun, which, as Jacobs explains, “attempts to reconstruct an epistolary exchange between the poet and his family, particularly his mother Rikl” (146). In these poems, Yeshurun renders excerpts from his mother’s Yiddish letters into Hebrew, in order to restore the “missing element.” Jacobs calls this a “prosthetic translation,” because it cannot make whole what has been shattered, but can only acknowledge “what is already broken, maimed and scarred in the original” (143). For Yeshurun, Zionism’s erasure of Yiddish would remain “a persistent ‘hole in the soul’ of his Hebrew,” a hole that could never be fully repaired, but only temporarily alleviated by the prosthetic translation which, “like a prosthetic limb. . . can be removed, replaced, and changed” but cannot “ameliorate the phantom pain that the absent element leaves behind” (145).

Both Goldberg, who was born in Konigsburg (now Kaliningrad, Russia) in 1911 and settled in Tel Aviv in 1935, and Schimmel, who was born in the U.S. in 1935 and immigrated to Israel in 1962, are more clearly aligned with the role of the poet-translator than either Raab or Yeshurun. The only one of the four poets surveyed in this work who is widely regarded as “canonical,” Goldberg contributed to the building of a Hebrew literary culture through her original work and through her translations of major works of European literature, including Tolstoy’s War and Peace. But Jacobs’ carefully nuanced readings reveal translational practices at work in Goldberg’s own poems, and in the way she navigated a fraught relationship with the diaspora, whose negation was a central objective of the Zionist enterprise in which, as a leading cultural figure, she was deeply enmeshed.

Lesser known, by far, is Schimmel, who is the only living poet of the four surveyed in this work. Among English-speakers, Schimmel is most familiar thanks to his translations from Hebrew of, among others, Raab and Yeshurun (as well as Yehuda Amichai), whose work “laid the foundation for his own writing in Hebrew, but also unsettled his project of self-Hebraization” (10). Including Schimmel in this project allows Jacobs to expand the constellation of languages at play by surfacing Anglo-American influences on Hebrew poetry, while also extending the book’s temporal scope. As an American-Israeli Jew who writes in both English and Hebrew, and translates from Hebrew into English (and in whose Hebrew poems Jacobs detects unmarked translations of American poetry), Schimmel also serves as a compelling rejoinder to Bialik’s notion of the “original” versus the “translated” Jew.

As compelling as these models are for thinking through Hebrew and the politics of translation, what I find missing from Jacobs’s account is a more comprehensive consideration of the ubiquity of multilingualism and translational practices across the long duration of Jewish history. Though she offers an overview of the history of Hebrew poetry and translation beginning with the Haskalah, there is potential here for a wider purview, including a broader scholarly conversation. While Jacobs points briefly to Gideon Toury’s essay “Translation and Reflection on Translation: A Skeletal History for the Uninitiated” (2002), her discussion would have benefited from a deeper engagement with this work, as well as Robert Singerman’s “Between Western Culture and Jewish Tradition” (1988), and Naomi Seidman’s Faithful Rendering: Jewish-Christian Differences and the Politics of Translation (2006), all of which explore the role of translation in shaping Jewish culture from antiquity to the present.

In a similar vein, Jacobs’ work could raise interesting questions about the politics of translation for Yiddish studies. In particular, her notion of modern Hebrew poetry as fundamentally translational recalls Jeffrey Shandler’s contention about Yiddish as a language “founded in translation” (Adventures in Yiddishland: Postvernacular Language and Culture, 2008). By challenging prevailing perceptions of Hebrew as the “original” language of Jewish culture, Jacobs also invites us to reconsider the role of languages like Yiddish, often consigned to the periphery precisely because they are regarded as translational and thus derivative. To be clear, Jacobs is not suggesting a role reversal here, but rather suggesting that language in general, and poetry in particular, is inextricably tied to translation.

In a recent Facebook post, Jacobs weighed in on an article published in Haaretz, in which an Israeli novelist was baselessly accused of plagiarizing an unpublished Hebrew translation of a French novel. While she criticizes the newspaper for what she calls a “hit job,” Jacobs is both intrigued and troubled by what the allegations reveal about prevailing attitudes toward translation in Israel. On the one hand, the notion “of a translation serving as inspiration for a new work of literature,” while hardly novel, is an affirmation of the power of translation. And yet, the unfounded accusation, writes Jacobs, “makes explicit . . . a deep distrust of translation and how it infiltrates ‘original’ literature.” Nowhere is this distrust more evident than in attempts to render translators, and the work of translation, invisible. An image accompanying the Haaretz article featured a portrait of the accused Israeli author superimposed on a photograph of the French novelist, a move Jacobs finds grotesque for the way it suggests an attempt by the Israeli author to “cover up” her influences, as if influence were something one ought to be ashamed of and try to hide. But even more troublesome is the fact that the Hebrew translator does not appear at all in the image. Jacobs’ book, and her notion of the translation-centered reading, offers an eloquent corrective to this pervasive problem.

Olidort, Shoshana. “Review of Strange Cocktail: Translation and the Making of Modern Hebrew Poetry by Adriana X. Jacobs.” In geveb, May 2021:
Olidort, Shoshana. “Review of Strange Cocktail: Translation and the Making of Modern Hebrew Poetry by Adriana X. Jacobs.” In geveb (May 2021): Accessed Jun 25, 2024.


Shoshana Olidort

Shoshana Olidort is Web Editor of the Poetry Foundation and is completing a PhD in Comparative Literature at Stanford University.