On Literary Translation

Adriana X. Jacobs


Last week, Lawrence Rosenwald advocated teaching with literal translation. Adriana X. Jacobs responds and lays out her commitment to literary translation.

My first year of teaching Hebrew literature in translation to undergraduates, I assigned Yona Wallach’s poem “‘Ivrit,” which I taught in Linda Zisquit’s English translation “Hebrew.” 1 1 Yona Wallach, “Hebrew,” in Let the Words: Selected Poems, trans. Linda Zisquit (Riverdale-on-Hudson, NY: Sheep Meadow Press, 2006): 112-14. Wallach’s poem offers a ludic and critical riff on Hebrew’s gendered grammar, which marks every noun as masculine or feminine. “Hebrew is a sex maniac,” Wallach writes. Or rather, this is how Zisquit translates her “‘Ivrit hi seksmaniakit.” At first glance, this seems to be a straightforward, literal translation of the line, except that even here, Hebrew’s “gender-consciousness,” in Zisquit’s words, isn’t reproducible in the English translation. 2 2 Linda Zisquit, “Translation and Innovation: Translating Yona Wallach and Rivka Miriam,” Bridges, vol. 14, no. 2 (Autumn, 2009): 73. “Hebrew” itself is a feminine noun, which means that the noun “sex maniac,” which is functioning here as an adjective, must have the corresponding feminine ending. Zisquit doesn’t add footnotes to her translations; she wants us to experience them without the distraction of an external, didactic voice. But when I pointed out this difference to my students, one of them raised their hand and asked why we were bothering at all with the translation since “it wasn’t the same poem.”

These words have stayed with me over the years; I have encountered them again and again in different guises. On the one hand, the student may not have ever known that there were differences between the original and translation had I not addressed them. On the other, the very fact of its status as translation already positioned Zisquit’s version as “not original,” and therefore irrelevant, as far as this student was concerned. Keeping the original text out of view problematically presents translation as a “mirror” of the original, and therefore renders invisible the work of the translator. But bringing the original into view risks giving primacy to the original text and measuring the success or failure of the translation against its “fidelity” and “proximity” to the original. That this came up with regard to poetry in the first place is not incidental. In my experience, students are more comfortable reading stories and novels in translation than translated poems, where, in their estimation (and they are not alone), there is far less room for error.

This is not the place to challenge that perception, but I place it here as a way of prefacing my response to Lawrence Rosenwald’s fine essay “On the Pedagogic Uses of Literal Translation,” where the issues he raises concern the teaching of translated poetry in particular. 3 3 Lawrence Rosenwald, “On the Pedagogic Uses of Literal Translation,” In geveb Drawing from his years of teaching Yiddish literature in translation, he highlights the role of fidelity in teaching in translation, and specifically how it shapes and complicates the relation between reader and translator. The question isn’t just whether or not a translation can or should be faithful to its original, but whether or not it is possible to teach translations in good faith. Given the semantic range of a word, which can be extensive, can we trust the translation to deliver what is in the original? Measuring a translation against an original strikes Rosenwald as unfair to the translator who is not able to defend their choices. On the other hand, treating translations as original texts is deceptive and risks erasing the original author and text from the discussion. Rosenwald has turned to literal translation as a way of mitigating some of these concerns. By using his own literal translations, he makes his role as translator visible in the classroom and holds himself accountable to his choices. In my own teaching in translation, I have used a wide range of translations, including those that would fall under the category of “literal.” But over the years, in both my teaching and writing, I have become increasingly committed to what is called “literary translation.” Indeed, at the heart of my commitment to “the pedagogic uses of literary translation” is a more radical view of translation: All translation is literary.

Translation is creative. The process of taking a text from a language to another is a process of undoing and remaking. It’s true that an original text gives you material to work with. And it’s true that whatever comes out of the process of translation is forever connected to its original. But originals are also connected to something that preceded them, and that something also came from something. Translations are not final destinations. Something will come after them. As a mode of travel, translation is also not straightforward. In various science fiction narratives, characters regularly zip between spaceships and galaxies, their atoms and sinews recombining perfectly between home and faraway. Literal translation imagines a seamless crossing over—this word matching that word. But sometimes, travellers, like translations, reach the other side having been turned inside out, taken apart, or fused with insect DNA. Sure, some texts outwardly appear whole and undamaged, but how can we be sure that no mutation or glitch has taken place?

The word literal reaches English from French, which takes it from the Latin littera, letter, and dates back to the fourteenth century where it meant “taking words,” and specifically the words of Scripture, “in their natural meaning” distinct from mystical and allegorical meaning. 4 4 “Literal,” Online Etymology Dictionary, In biblical hermeneutics, literal interpretation focuses on grammar and historical context, but it is also connected to the Christian doctrine of verbal inspiration, the belief that every word of Scripture (Hebrew Bible, Septuagint, New Testament) was divinely inspired. Transposed to contemporary translation studies, these understandings of literality continue to echo in the perception of literal translation as objective, faithful, and authoritative. For Rosenwald, the literal translations he provides allow students who have no access to the original Yiddish text an opportunity to participate in a dialogic reading of these poems without relying solely on his “intellectual authority.” But in other contexts, the proximity to the original that literal translation promises can have the effect of erasing entirely the work of translation—and with it its own acts of interpretation—by allowing the “original” author/text to have the final say. Take, for example, Ted Hughes’s remarks on translation in his introduction to Yehuda Amichai’s 1977 collection Amen:

The translations were made by the poet himself. All I did was correct the more intrusive oddities and errors of grammar and usage, and in some places shift about the phrasing and line endings. What I wanted to preserve above all was the tone and cadence of Amichai’s own voice speaking in English… So as translations these are extremely literal. But they are also more, they are Yehuda Amichai’s own English poems. 5 5 Ted Hughes, “Introduction,” in Yehuda Amichai, *Amen*, trans. Yehuda Amichai and Ted Hughes (New York: Harper & Row, 1977): 15

Daniel Weissbort, who co-founded Modern Poetry in Translation with Hughes, characterized Hughes’s approach as “creative non-intervention,” an approach that ensures that the resulting translation is as close to the original text as possible, “like walking side by side.” 6 6 Daniel Weissbort, “Ted Hughes and Truth,” Irish Pages, vol. 3, no. 1 (Spring/Summer 2005): 181. What lends these literal translations their authority—or authenticity, as Weissbort put it—is that they were done by Amichai himself and therefore readers could trust that Amichai had provided the English version closest to his own Hebrew works without the “intervention” of a translator. What I find striking about Hughes’s and Weissbort’s statements is how they both concede nevertheless that literality has its limits: Weissbort in characterizing Hughes’s involvement as “creative,” and Hughes himself in admitting to his editorial interference. Anyone who has translated poetry knows the implications of “shifting” about words and line breaks, or the difference in how a line reads when you introduce a comma or take one out. These actions are hardly minor; rather, it is precisely through such activity that the poem in translation takes shape. These are not merely aesthetic concerns; there are also political ramifications to the perceived authority/authenticity of the literal translation. The case of Dareen Tatour, a Palestinian poet on trial on charges of incitement, has hinged in no small part on a “literal” Hebrew translation of her offending Arabic poem. 7 7 Liron Mor, “Resistance into Incitement: Translation, Legislation, ‘Early Detection,’ and the Palestinian Poet’s Intention,” Arab Studies Journal, vol. 27, no. 1 (Spring 2019): 122

The problems of the literal approach do not discount it entirely as a way of teaching translation and teaching in translation. On the contrary, literal translation presents a meaningful opportunity to learn something about translation and its possibilities. As a high school student of Latin, most of my homework assignments consisted of exercises in translation. This is how I read the Aeneid and Cicero’s speeches, going word by word and writing down every reasonable English translation. We were explicitly not allowed to include more than one option per word; doing so was seen as trying to hedge our bets. This meant going through and making sometimes very tough choices about what had to go and what could stay, though it was maddening not to get any credit for the words one had to leave out. The translations were “literal” in the sense that every Latin word found a corresponding English match, but the enduring lesson of this exercise was that every translation was just one possibility out of many.

Anne Carson’s 2010 collection Nox features one of the texts I translated in those years, the poem Catullus 101. Written by the Roman poet, Gaius Valerius Catullus, it opens with the words multas per gentes et multa per aequora vectus, “through many lands and waters.” In the lines that follow, the speaker/poet relates his journey to reach the ashes of his dead brother. Carson, who is mourning the death of her own brother, undertakes the translation of Catullus 101 as a work of elegy. But rather than provide a single translation of the poem, Carson walks us through the translation word by word, offering every possible English permutation of every single Latin word. Carson’s lexicon recalls the translation “crib,” a longstanding tool of Classics pedagogy, a translation guide for those with little to some knowledge of Latin and/or Greek as well as a resource from which one can fashion a more literary translation (still practiced today). By taking readers through the exercise of literal translation, Carson’s Nox gives readers the tools to create their own version of Catullus 101 should they choose to do so.

The book itself is an archive of the process of translation, preserving the various options that translators sift through as they prepare their “final” translation. But if this is the case, then Carson is also calling attention to the limitations of the crib by including more personal materials—family photographs, letters, and postcards—that shape her translation praxis. By making the translator visible and present, she signals that translation is more than a linguistic process, but rather one that is charged through with the life of the translator—her experiences, memories, feelings. At the end of Nox, Carson concludes with a translation of Catullus 101 but leaves it slightly illegible, blurred, and worn, as if the translation itself had traveled through many lands and waters. And in so doing, Carson is also illustrating that this is the course traveled by original texts as well, from a tomb in the Anatolian peninsula to a classroom in Alexandria, VA.

Teaching literature in translation is a commitment to teaching the role that translation has played in the history of literary texts. It means acknowledging that such courses would not be possible without the work of translators, that the lives of translators and their cultural, political, linguistic circumstances have shaped their work in translation in meaningful ways. Often, in the history of translation, we find that authors themselves are drawn to translation, a subject that I have explored with respect to poetry translation. In my book Strange Cocktail: Translation and the Making of Modern Hebrew Poetry (2018), my chapter on the Hebrew poet Avot Yeshurun examines how a poet who is not a translator in the conventional sense (Yeshurun did not translate other writers) is nonetheless invested in translation as a mode of writing. In Yeshurun’s case, translations between Yiddish and Hebrew occur, explicitly and implicitly, throughout his oeuvre. Yeshurun had lost most of his family in the Holocaust, and translating lines from their Yiddish letters into Hebrew becomes a way to keep their memory alive. Though broken and fragmented, their Yiddish survives in translation and in the process, Yeshurun succeeds in unsettling Hebrew’s monolingual authority.

Over the years, many of my students have encountered Yeshurun for the first time in Harold Schimmel’s English translations. For the American-born Schimmel, translating Hebrew poets into English was part of a years-long process of shifting from English to Hebrew in his own work, and he was particularly drawn to poets, like Yeshurun, who pushed the Hebrew language out of its comfort zones, as he would later do in his own Hebrew writing. He emigrated to Israel in the early 1960s and became part of a group of Anglophone poets living in Israel who played a major role in bringing Israeli Hebrew poetry to a wider international audience via translation. But his translations of Yeshurun also interest me because they are an example of what Johannes Göransson calls the “transgressive circulation” of translation. In Göransson’s words, “[translation] questions the very idea of a nationally coherent literature, opening up multiplicity within the supposed linguistic boundaries of the national literature. The foreign exists within and across these boundaries.” 8 8 Johannes Göransson, Transgressive Circulation: Essays on Translation (xx: Noemi Press, 2018): 12. By carrying the deliberate distortions of Yeshurun’s Hebrew into his American English, Schimmel’s translations ask English-language readers to experience English as a foreign text, to wrestle with the discomfort such texts produce. Too often, reviews of translation assume that “awkwardness” in a translation implies a problem with the translation itself, instead of asking if what we are experiencing as readers are the growing pains of “our language” extending towards new linguistic and literary possibilities.

By way of concluding these reflections on literary translation, I turn to the poet Irena Klepfisz, a native Yiddish speaker who was born in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1941 and emigrated to the United States in 1949. Klepfisz settled in New York City and became a poet in English, but her poems open up a space where a translational encounter between English and Yiddish materializes. Poems like “Di rayze aheym/The journey home” and “Etlekhe verter oyf mame-loshn/ A few words in the mother tongue” interweave lines in Yiddish and English, the latter translating the former. In many cases, these English translations are literal, but there are key exceptions, like the Yiddish lezbianke, which becomes “the one with/ a roommate though we never used/ the word.” My guess is that Klepfisz anticipates that English readers will recognize the English “lesbian” in the Yiddish lezbianke, but holding back the literal translation calls attention to the relation between language and power and what we are allowed to write, to translate. In the second stanza of “Fradel Shtok,” Klepfisz perceives the limits of literality:

Think of it: heym and home the meaning
the same of course exactly
but the shift in vowel was the ocean
in which I drowned.

Note how the second line makes the case for literal translation a bit too emphatically—“the same of course exactly”—only to pivot (“but”) in the third line and note a “shift in vowel.” Of course, “home” is perfectly fine translation for heym, and vice versa, but this shift disrupts the proximity and precision of the literal translation. Instead, Klepfisz introduces here “the ocean,” a gap that won’t close entirely between Yiddish and English. But what does it mean to drown in this space? Maybe translation is a risky endeavour, fraught with missteps and casualties. Or maybe drowning means something else here. I go back to that moment when my student asked me why we bother with the translation. What I would tell that student now: we bother with the translation because it can pull us, if we let it, into a space where a kind of thinking about language is made possible, in a way that, for me, has only been possible in translation.

Jacobs, Adriana X. “On Literary Translation.” In geveb, November 2019:
Jacobs, Adriana X. “On Literary Translation.” In geveb (November 2019): Accessed Dec 05, 2019.


Adriana X. Jacobs

Adriana X. Jacobs is Associate Professor of Modern Hebrew Literature at the University of Oxford and author of Strange Cocktail: Translation and the Making of Modern Hebrew Poetry (University of Michigan, 2018).