- A Poet-Translator Writes a Reader's Report:What Chana Bloch Taught Me
I first encountered Chana Bloch in the late 1970s. My teacher, the Yiddish poet Malka Heifetz Tussman, mentioned Chana to me at her Henry Street dining room table one Friday afternoon when I had come up from Stanford for my weekly session on Yiddish poetry with her. "Do you know her? A little older than you, with blond curly hair? At the poetry reading last week, she read a poem by Yankev Glatshteyn." I'm inventing what Malka said that afternoon. I may have written it down in my notes, which are probably still somewhere in the drawers of my attic office in Philadelphia. While I may not remember her exact words, I do remember Malka's tone—at once appreciative, ironic, and curious. I must have also known about Chana from my dissertation advisor, the translator, scholar, and poet John Felstiner, who knew Chana from the Bay Area poetry scene and who very much admired A Dress of Fire, Chana's translations of Dahlia Ravikovitch. I recall that John invited Chana down to Stanford to read from her translations and poems, and I think that I met her then. Right around that time, too, I read Chana's translations, published under her maiden name, Faerstein, of three Holocaust poems by Glatshteyn ("Come Now, Let's," "Wagons," and "Smoke") and of sixteen stanzas from "Spiritual Soil" by Avrom Sutzkever, in Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg's A Treasury of Yiddish Poetry,1 a collection that was central to my own beginnings as a translator and scholar of Yiddish poetry.
Yiddish was important to Chana as a starting place for her poetry, and translation became central to her work as a poet. In a much later interview with Dianne Bilyak for the Poetry Society of America, Chana explained that, from the beginning, Yiddish, translation, and poetry were interwoven for her: [End Page 33]
I was drawn to translation because I am a poet. As a young writer, in a workshop with Robert Lowell, I submitted, along with my own poems, some translations of the Yiddish poet Abraham Sutzkever. Lowell told me, "You can learn to write from your own translations." His suggestion proved to be the most helpful advice I ever received about writing. A translator needs to know at least one language very well: her own. You might say that translation is a form of apprenticeship—not to a master craftsman, but to the genius of the language itself. When you translate you are constantly choosing among alternatives in order to convey meaning, register, image, mood, music; each time you choose, you are strengthening muscles that you need in shaping your own work. It's a strenuous but efficient way of teaching yourself to write.2
In that same interview, Chana went on to explain that, in addition to teaching her the craft of writing poetry, translating poems also gave her the means by which to acknowledge and perpetuate "the creativity" of Jewish languages and culture, in both Yiddish, which she had learned as a child, and Hebrew, which she studied in college and graduate school. Translation was, she said, "a way … more meaningful by far than the 'nostalgia yiddishkayt' that often passes for 'Jewish identity.' Once I was involved in this work, I felt a responsibility to help save what might otherwise be lost, and to contribute something of substance to American-Jewish culture. … I would not have written as I do without the example of the Yiddish and Hebrew writers. They confirmed my belief that the questions are always larger than the answers."3
If only I'd had the chance to hear Chana's reflections on Jewish languages and translation in the early 1980s, I would have recognized in her a kindred poet and translator walking ahead of me on the pathway toward translating Yiddish poetry in America. At that time, I was teaching in the Boston area, where Lowell cast a long, posthumous shadow and where Lowell's admirers did not acknowledge Yiddish poetry as generously as Lowell had in his response to the young Chana's translations. Soon after...