- Hovering at a Low Altitude: The Collected Poetry of Dahlia Ravikovitch
In Hovering at a Low Altitude, Israeli poet Dahlia Ravikovitch (1936–2005) is superbly translated in language that is both precise and graceful, and annotated with scholarly care by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld1. As a translator and teacher of translation, I often despair of the possibility of transmitting poetry from Hebrew, with its wealth of double meanings inside a small word stock, its relatively flexible word order and its tendency to repetition, into English, which simply has a much larger and more explicit word stock, a more rigid word order, and which does not welcome repetition.
Bloch and Kronfeld's work on Ravikovitch shows that the source language does not have to be lost in translation. Ravikovitch in their mouths speaks in the tone, the voice of the original, a rare feat.
No great leaps of cultural imagination are required in order to understand these lines spoken by a betrayed woman who alludes to Greek myth. The image of a woman nearly consumed by difficult circumstances and her own passions, while learned and sober enough to cite literary texts, is as typical of Ravikovitch as it is of Sylvia Plath2: [End Page 135]
A Dress of Fire
You know, she said, they made you a dress of fire.Remember how Jason's wife burned in her dress?[…]I'm not wearing a dress at all, can't you see what's burning is me.
Ravikovitch's wider context is the historically-culturally-politically fraught state of Israel, the thousands of years of Jewish history which preceded it, and the Israeli-Arab-Palestinian wars, at which she stared straight on. She was in possession of a rare moral clarity expressed with seemingly childlike insistence, and with children often in her sights. Again, one does not need to be an Israeli or a Hebrew speaker to understand these lines, written during the first Lebanon war (1982):
You Can't Kill a Baby Twice
[…]Our own soldiers lit up the place with searchlightstill it was bright as day."Back to the camp, marsch!" the soldier commandedthe shrieking women of Sabra and Shatila.After all, he had his orders.And the kids were already laid out in the fetid waters,their mouths gaping,at peace.No one will harm them now.You can't kill a baby twice.[…]
On her home territory, in poetic/literary terms, Ravikovitch was a dynamic force. She expanded the canon of Israeli/Hebrew poetry by her entry into it, wielding literary power by using and breaking the mold in relation to subjects and forms; wielding social power by dramatizing the position of women as private individuals and public citizens; and, yes, marking her place and poetry's in the wider political conversation.
What is Ravikovitch's language like in the original? This seemed impossible for me, a non-native speaker, to describe, so I asked an Israeli poet to make an attempt. Ravikovitch's Hebrew and her poetry are self-sufficient "magical verbal structures; you can't move one word out of place. In Ravikovitch's mouth, Hebrew was as serene as could be, completely lacking even the smallest bit of fakery," according to Agi Mishol.
What happens to such unity and honesty in translation? All translation is (re)writing and (re)construction, and therefore performs another kind of magic. We know we are reading a translation and that translations have to be different from originals, because languages are differently structured and cultures are different. Yet most translators try to make ourselves invisible. We "domesticate"—adapt originals to our target language and culture— in order to bring the text toward the reader. "I couldn't tell it was a translation" is considered a compliment, and it is. But, for writers who do not write in a language parallel to that of ours, or in a parallel style, we lose the special qualities of their language, and in some sense lose the poetry. In the...