- On Translating Keter Malkhut
The Andalusian Hebrew poets of the eleventh and twelfth centuries were formidably accomplished. Talmud scholars and dayyanim, biblical exegetes and grammarians, Neoplatonic philosophers, physicians, and astronomers, they epitomized the broad, curricular ideals of their unique Judeo-Arabic culture. The wide-ranging learning and life experience of these so-called courtier-rabbis informs their vast corpus of Hebrew poetry, sacred and secular. When they pour out their devotions, they blend traditional Jewish piety with philosophical meditations on the human soul, or descriptions of the universe drawn from Greco-Arabic cosmology. When they contemplate the fleeting pleasures and evanescence of human life, they mine [End Page 349] biblical wisdom literature alongside Arabic gnomic poetry. And when they celebrate erotic love or the joys of imbibing, they voice worldly themes and motifs inspired by their Arabic courtly models in the language and imagery of Scripture, playfully subverting the original sense of the sacred text.
Transposing these splendid creations into English is a di3cult, exacting task. To most contemporary readers, the poems are products of an unfamiliar and distant cultural milieu. Andalusian aesthetic ideals demanded a formal prosody and classical diction that are no longer in vogue. The verse is virtuosic, written in pure biblical Hebrew. It is replete with biblical allusions whose artfully modified resonances would have been recognized and appreciated by medievals raised on Scripture, but are often lost on modern audiences. At the same time, it adapts and naturalizes Arabic quantitative meters, rhyme schemes, and rhetorical devices, furnishing complex sound patterns, tightly knit and carefully balanced lines, and intricate wordplays that are virtually impossible to reproduce in English.
Like the talmudic query Keitsad merakedim lifnei hakallah-How does one praise the bride when dancing before her?-translation poses a dilemma. Does one adhere cautiously to the original, or does one embellish judiciously? (The School of Shammai held that one should not enhance the truth, while the School of Hillel insisted that every bride deserves to be called beautiful and graceful.)1 Should one translate into clear prose, to preserve the meaning as faithfully as possible? Or does one craft a verse rendition whose stylistic refinement parallels the effect of the original, but takes liberties with the wording? Each translator grapples with the often incompatible demands of fidelity: to the form, sense, tone, register, texture, and impact of the poem. And, aware that complete fidelity is unattainable, each makes certain sacrifices and takes certain liberties.
The publication of David Slavitt's A Crown for the King affords an opportunity to reflect on a recent spate of translations. Characterized by a broad range of approaches and philosophies, these renderings may nevertheless be divided into prose and verse. The former group includes Leon Weinberger's Twilight of a Golden Age, which presents a generous selection of Abraham Ibn Ezra's sacred and secular poetry. Despite their stanzaic layout, Weinberger's English versions are direct, matter-of-fact translations that forgo not only rhyme and meter, but even less rigorously formal features such as rhythm, syntactic inversions, or internal and near-rhymes.2 [End Page 350] By contrast, T. Carmi's recently reissued Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse displays a keen sensitivity to language. A poet in his own right, Carmi favors clear and unadorned prose translations that hew closely to the original without becoming slavishly literal. His stated goal-admirably met-is "to render the poems idiomatically and to capture something of their tone and movement, without betraying' their literal level."3 Yet, in dispensing with formal niceties, even Carmi's fine English versions cannot suggest the carefully crafted shape, texture, or cadences of the Hebrew. His continuous prose lines are accurate and unaffected but give no inkling of the symmetrical, self-contained, end-rhymed stichs so beloved of the poets.
Among those who opt for verse translation, there is also a rich variety of approaches. At one end of the spectrum, Raphael Loewe notes that, like Christians who spoke European vernaculars but wrote poetry in Latin, the Andalusian Hebrew poets conversed...