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  • Translation on the Margins: Hebrew-German-Yiddish Multilingualism in Avraham Ben Yitzhak and Yoel Hoffmann
  • Maya Barzilai (bio)

One of the activities that took place on the margins of European modernism and constituted those margins as such was translation. Translation as a whole can be viewed as a marginal pursuit in a number of senses: for one, the work of the translator, as Laurence Venuti has claimed for the cases of American and British cultures, often tends to be marginal and “invisible,” aimed at producing a “fluent” and readable text that does not call attention to itself;1 translation has also been looked upon as marginal to original literary production in a particular language, a mere means to the end of enhancing the target language and its literature. In On the Margins of Modernism, Chana Kronfeld reminds us, however, that “theories of modernism that are modeled on belated, decentered, or linguistically minor practices may provide some insight into the processes that have become automatized or rendered imperceptible in the canonical center.”2 Translation that takes place between the center and periphery, between majority and minority languages, is just such a minor practice; studying it can provide numerous insights into the processes of literary creation and literary canonization.

Post-colonial translation studies has focused critical attention on translation as a practice that “shapes, and takes shape, within asymmetrical relations of power that operate under colonialism.”3 As regards the specific context of Jewish-Christian relations, Naomi Seidman has argued, that translation is “a negotiation of an unavoidably asymmetrical double-situatedness,” for Jews cannot be merely described as minority subjects of Christian Europe but also as those who possess a certain “cultural capital in the form of Hebrew and Jewish-exegetical knowledge.”4 Translation, for Seidman, is also a form of border crossing and “transformation” that often “unsettles the distinction between Jewish and non-Jewish languages,” rather than functioning solely as “a significant technology of colonial domination.”5 In the case of Hebrew and Yiddish writing on European soil, Kronfeld has shown that while Jewish authors used and critiqued mainstream European modernisms, they did so in languages that could not be understood by the majority and that denied them “entry into the modernist canon.” Such acts of “modernist oppositionality” [End Page 109] were mediated through translation as a mode of transformation that firmly linked Hebrew and Yiddish to the languages of general European modernism and allowed for productive border-crossings between Jewish and non-Jewish cultures.6

A case in point is the early-twentieth-century poet Avraham Ben Yitzhak (né Avraham Sonne, 1883–1950), who is known for publishing a scant dozen intricately crafted modernist Hebrew poems, the last of which appeared in print in 1930. A native Yiddish and German speaker, Ben Yitzhak innovatively used Hebrew to create a thoroughly modernist poetry that draws heavily on biblical syntax and idiom. The poet’s archive reveals that throughout his career, he translated his own writing between German and Hebrew, initially composing poems through a process of translation into Hebrew but, in later years, varying the direction of translation.7 Ben Yitzhak also wrote notes to himself in both Hebrew and German, mixing the languages on the same page, sometimes even in mid-sentence.8 These hidden, marginalized translations are, I claim, what enabled him to transform Hebrew into an “instrument for minimalist, pared down expression” and thus to develop the poetic language for which he is remembered and studied today.9 The newness of the poet’s Hebrew idiom put it on equal footing with contemporary German impressionism and expressionism; in the words of the Hebrew writer Leah Goldberg, “[Ben Yitzhak] was the first Hebrew poet whose watch-hands showed not only the specific Jewish time, but the hour it was for world literature.”10 In order to create such modern-sounding Hebrew lyric, Ben Yitzhak not only drew on and transformed the language of Jewish prayer and biblical Psalm, but he also constantly wrote in other languages and translated himself and others between German and Hebrew. Furthermore, during his supposed “silent period,” beginning in the 1920s, when he almost entirely ceased publishing his work, Ben Yitzhak continued privately to write...


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pp. 109-128
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