Friday, February 15, 2008

Power & Translation: Lisa Katz at AWP

[Poet and translator Lisa Katz teaches literary translation at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She was just announced the winner of the 2008 Mississippi Review Poetry Prize. The following is the text of her presentation at 'The Power and Politics of Translation,' a panel discussion at the recent AWP (2/2/08 in NYC) with Natasha Sajé (Chair), Forrest Gander, Lisa Katz, Khaled Mattawa, James Kates, and Nick Benson.]

A Plea

Delete me please,
delete me absolutely
from da list,

no more Iz-ra-el, no more
Jewish blood, no
more history,

just no-ting,
quiet, peace,

delete me, just delete,
I beg you, please.

The poem above was written in English but in the Hebrew alphabet, so in truth I have transliterated rather than translated it. Its creator Admiel Kosman was born in Israel in 1957 to an observant Orthodox Jewish family; he was sent to Orthodox schools, then served in the army, studied at the Bezalel art college, and received a PhD in Talmud, the interpretation of Jewish law, ethics, customs, and history. About five years ago, he moved permanently to Berlin, where he is professor of religious studies at Potsdam University and heads the first Reform rabbinical college in Germany to resume operations after the Holocaust. He has published seven books of poetry and has recently begun writing some of his poems in Hebrew letters – but in English, providing a jolting experience for Israeli readers. You’ve probably never heard of him. Why?

Andre Lefevere has identified 3 controlling factors that powerfully determine what gets translated and published [Translation, Rewriting and the Manipulation of Literary Fame 1992 Routledge]:

1. Professionals inside the literary system: critics, reviewers, teachers, translators – this last category includes us on this panel.
2. Patronage outside the literary system: powerful individuals (like Oprah), media outlets including publishers, institutions such as universities. (I am not sure how these are outside the system but this depends on how you define the literary network)
3. The dominant poetics – Favored literary categories and devices, or genres (what’s fashionable now? creative non-fiction, blurred borders between fiction and non-fiction, borders that were in truth always blurred – poetry is never too fashionable but there is some power, that is, some funding for the translation of poetry so it may be considered a favored area just now.)

-& the current concept of the role of literature, which to me is unfortunately quite weak if not ineffective but in times of trouble seems able to record at least our personal-social consciences.

With regard to Israeli poet Admiel Kosman: 1. I would seem to have power as a translator who chose to translate his work and send it out for publication – he’s been published in the Mississippi Review online, in an anthology called Men’s Lives and is included in the upcoming anthology in English of Israeli protest poetry, With an Iron Pen. But perhaps the opposite is true: translating his work empowers me; here I am talking in a public forum, and I’ve given papers on his work at conferences, even at MLA. 2. Still – I haven’t found a patron to make his work public. I haven’t found a publisher. If there is a publisher out there interested in a witty and political poet who uses Jewish religious texts to make his effects, please contact me. And now we’ve arrived at Lefevere’s third factor, that of dominant poetics, which in Kosman’s case is a help and a hindrance. 3. The helpful part is that translated poetry attracts interest in the terror-threatened English-speaking world, which rightly feels it should learn about the Other; protest literature is powerful right now, or lit which conveys other cultures esp those of the Middle East. But the down side is that the dominant poetics in translation is not ever likely to include poems that depend on intertextuality of a revisionary type. Even in Israel, in terms of dominant poetics, Kosman is well-known but marginal, because he uses Jewish sources to confound received thought about Israel & the Jewish religion. Even in Israel, Kosman’s broad, humanist concept of Judaism defeats the assumptions of readers who expect piety from what they believe to be religious poetry.

I’d like to remind us that power figures in another, more metaphorical way in translation. In our work, there is a kind of power struggle going on between the original text and the translated text.

Antoine Berman in "Translation and the trials of the foreign" [tr Venuti in Translation Studies Reader Routledge 2000] decries what he calls the "textual deformation that operates in every translation and prevents it from being 'a trial [or experience] of the foreign' " That is, according to Berman, translations present a hard time for both original and translation. They create:

1. a trial for the foreign culture which experiences the strangeness of the foreign text and word AND

2. a trial for the foreign text which is uprooted from its original language context.

This is not the time to examine his language but I’ll just say that Berman uses very aggressive imagery to describe translation, which maybe you thought was a peaceful act you committed in front of your computer.

Please understand what you can, and accept what you can’t, in the following poems, one about the rise of fundamentalism, and the other a response to terror, both using imagery from Jewish sources:

Admiel Kosman

Lament for the Ninth of Av

For cantor and congregants:
To be sung softly after reading the Book of Lamentations

Hardly any room for the body, my daughter.
The soul has seized nearly everything by force.
Hardly any room left for the body, though
it’s true, my daughter, words were etched in stone,
but violently.

Hardly any room for the body. Nearly everything’s been written.
And all is turned to plunder inside the temple.
The body, torn and split, crumbles from the weight of the soul
trampling and destroying, spreading fear all around. Hardly any room
left for the body. Crushed, my daughter, broken, my daughter. Totally destroyed.
And prey for the soul.

Hardly any room for the body, my daughter, in exile
or when it leaves its place to wander, like a deportee
coming and going on the face of the earth, inching along, in motion.
Didn’t we know exactly, everything was written
my daughter. In those days there was no king,
and there won’t be room for the body.
The soul will control everything.

Southern angels, northern ones, angels of rage and guilt,
will shroud the blood with gold...the ark curtain...a robe....
shroud the ark, sure to arrive, in the horrors of war.
And the heart will know its mistake,
terribly aware:
everything was etched in stone, but violently.

Translated from the Hebrew by Lisa Katz

Admiel Kosman

When the terrorists murder me at my window

When the terrorists murder me at my window for nationalist reasons, I’ll understand what I didn’t from the statesmen’s words, when I lived, breathed and walked among you, a simple man, an ordinary guy. When they murder me for reasons of flags, bunting, wreathes of flowers and stage pillars, the nationalists right and left will riot, my head suddenly jerked toward the center – the voice of murder will pass by like a declaration, a call to everyone in the eternal city, calling out loudly like a rooster, its mouth facing oblivion: Behold, I am scattered, my organs plastered on the ground. Can you find me? My unity? Ha, the terrorists are here at my place, at my window, and after all I’m only one ordinary person, just dust, a poor citizen, a regular guy – it’s you who hold the knives, bayonets, pliers, tools to wrench and uproot, those you aim from the right to pierce a hole inside me, and from the left to uproot my world, the same Law, still learned by heart – Knife Wisdom. And then suddenly it will come to me, oh, like thunder, a glimmer of understanding – just for a moment, before they cut me up in their rage into millions of slices, like Abraham’s ram (caught alone, near a tree, in Isaac’s story). And behold – when the work is done, at that blessed hour, they will remove one small piece of me, a pinch, a sample, a strip or chunk, right after the murder business, it will be possible, perhaps, in the service of good taste, just one crumb and that’s it, the size of an olive,[1] to turn me into a sign of blood, of eternal blood, of blood forever, my blood eternally staining the doorways and the doorframes, all the entrances to the fortresses, above the castle turrets, all the walls of the kingdom. From now on I will be a candle, an eternal flame, an eternal candle shining my light forever, in the eternal great hall, the eternal great hall of the world’s splendor and praise, and like a small shrine of bones I’ll be hefted now, like the heavy weight of remembrance, before each entrance, door or gate. And before each entrance, door or gate, now you will feast, after the murder business, you gang of leaders, with good appetite and at your ease. Oh, my leaders! My dear leaders, meeting now for a meal, with all the tribe, close friends, a few invited guests, and a thin sprinkling of family.

Translated from the Hebrew by Lisa Katz

[1] The least amount of food for which a blessing must be said, according to Jewish law.


Nowwecometoseven said...

I guess I'm wondering with the other participants are doing exactly and if they're going to speak to! The above is exceedingly finding complex and I haven't had time to digest it yet.

Nowwecometoseven said...

Hi Forest, can you try to computer put two ours in the right place between the oand the-