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Loathe as I am to admit it now that I do know, I have to say that I'd never heard of Hayim Nahman Bialik until Mr. Hadari contacted us.  Nor, I suspect, have many of you.  This is an injustice, one that Mr. Hadari's translations can hopefully help to right.

Hayim (or Chaim) Nahman Bialik is considered the national poet of Israel, even though he died before the state was founded.  He is also considered one of the greatest Hebrew poets ever.  In fact, one of his achievements was to restore Hebrew as the language of Jewish poetry, rather than the Yiddish that had become more common.  Bialik was born in Radi, Russia, and was raised there and in Zhitomir, by a scholarly father and, upon his father's death, by a stern and scholarly grandfather.  Upon reaching adulthood he lived off and on in Odessa which, unlike other Russian cities which forbade them, had a sizable population of Jews (including fellow writers like Isaac Babel, Ze'ev Jabotinsky, and Ahad Ha'am, a Zionist who was one of Bialik's mentors).  Bialik worked in business, as a teacher, as an editor, and finally as a publisher.  He traveled in Europe and to what was then Palestine.  After the Communist Revolution in Russia, when he came under suspicion for his writings, Bialik moved first to Germany and then to Tel Aviv where he was buried after dying in Vienna following an operation in 1934.  Over the course of his career he translated Jewish folk tales, wrote Zionist essays and wrote his own poems (though not many after 1916).  It was these last that made his name.  And it was one specific poem that made him a central figure in the history of Zionism.

Living in Czarist Russia, he witnessed at first hand the brutal treatment of the Jewish people.  In particular, he visited the city of Kishinev (modern day Chisinau, Moldova) after the 1903 pogrom in which 50 Jews were murdered.  Fueled by anger both at what had been done and at the inadequacy of Jewish response, he wrote his greatest poem, the one with which Mr. Hadari begins the collection : City of the Killings (1903).   I wish I could find the whole thing on-line because it's unbelievably powerful, but here's how it begins :


and by its final stanzas Bialik demands :

    To the graveyard, beggars!  Dig for the bones of your fathers
    and of your sainted brothers and fill with them your bundles
    and hoist them on your shoulders and take to the road, fated
    to merchandize them at all the trade fairs;
    and you will seek a stand at the crossroads where all can see,
    and lay them out in sunshine on the backs of your filthy rags
    and with a parched voice sing a beggar's song over their bodies
    and call for the mercy of nations and pray for the kindness of goyim,
    and where you've stretched your hand you'll stretch it further,
    and where you've begged you will not stop the begging.

    And now what have you left here, son of man, rise and flee to the desert
    and take with you there the cup of sorrows, and tear your soul in ten pieces
    and your heart give for food to a helpless fury
    and your great tear spill there on the heads of the boulders
    and your great bitter scream send forth--
                                                                    to be lost in the storm.

If it's perhaps the case that this one poem stands head and shoulders above the rest, it is also true that at his best Bialik writes in just such a barely controlled rage--earthy, profane, direct, impassioned, accusatory, even apocalyptic.  Even at a hundred years remove, it's easy to see why this poem should have had such an effect on world Jewry.  It does not merely recount a tragedy; it challenges Jews to respond to the crime that was perpetrated against them, and at the time must have struck like a lightning bolt.

Another that's especially good is : After My Death (1904) :

    After my death mourn me this way:
    "There was a man--and see: he is no more;
    before his time this man died
    and his life's song in mid-bar stopped;
    and oh, it is sad! One more song he had
    and now the song is gone for good,
    gone for good!

    And it is very sad!--a harp too he had
    a living being and murmurous
    and the poet in his words in it
    all of his heart's secret revealed,
    and all the strings his hand gave breath
    but one secret his heart kept hid,
    round and round his fingers played,
    and one string stayed mute,
    mute to this day!

    And it is sad, very sad!
    All of her days this string moved,
    mute she moved, mute she shook,
    for her song, her beloved redeemer
    she yearned, thirsted, grieved and longed
    as a heart pines for its intended:
    and though he hesitated each day she waited
    and in a secret moan begged for him to come,
    and he hesitated and never came,
    never came!

    And great, great is the pain!
    There was a man--and see: he is no more,
    and his life's song in mid-bar stopped,
    one more song he had to go,
    and now the song is gone for good,
    gone for good!

Personally, I found the quality of the pieces to be uneven, but I like those two, and several others, very much.  From his own comments in the Translator's Note and from Dan Miron's Introduction, it sounds like Mr. Hadari has focussed more on capturing the spirit and the rhythms of the poems, than trying to artificially preserve exact rhymes and wordings :

    If a poem is mostly words--and fancy words at that--there's precious little there.  What I look for is attack, as Derek Walcott would put it--
    it's not enough to know what the word means, though that helps; one needs to also get a sense of the spin on the word--so that if I take liberties
    with the translation, to take the necessary liberty of translation that results in the flight of the new poem, I must have a sense of the bias
    of the material; as may be the case in the treatment by the novelist of historical material, or indeed the treatment by a historian of that same
    material--he uses historical material but it's the bias of his treatment that's interesting, just like the historian's choice of facts determining the
    portrait; so with the poem, if the feeling charging the words is absent, if the feeling in fact doesn't overwhelm the language, like a current
    making the touch of the actual line dangerous, there's no poem to prepare--no song that can be rephrased in English; the translator is, finally
    a harmonizer with the lead vocal; in the prime moments he is reproducing the singer, in the same key, with variations, in another language.
    That is the problem, to find the same rhythms, near the same sense, and with the right emotional current.  If there's no current, how can you
    possibly begin to raise your voice?  Let alone if the words resist comprehension, and the rhythm stutters.

Not knowing the originals, nor any Hebrew, I've no idea how successful he's been in this task, but I do know that Mr. Hadari's translations tap into a rich emotional current and get you to raise your voice.  Whether or not it's precisely Bialik's spirit, they're certainly spirited.  Mr. Hadari's done a great service by making the poetry of Bialik accessible to the wider audience the great poet deserves.

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (A)

  

Websites:

See also:

Poetry
Book-related and General Links:
    -PLAY EXCERPT : Night Music (Atar Hadari)
    -Hayyim Nahman Bialik (1873-1934) - name also transliterated Chayim Nachman Bialik (kirjasto)
    -PORTRAIT : on Israeli Ten pound note
    -POEM : A Twig Alighted
    -POEM : Upon the Slaughter
    -POEM : Should You Wish to Know the Source
    -POEM : Aharei Moti
    -POEM : Neither Daylight nor the Darkness (The Old Acacia Tree) (Jewish Heritage Online Magazine)
    -POEM : One, Two (Jewish Heritage Online Magazine)
    -EXCERPTS : Three pieces on childhood excerpted from the works of Chaim Nachman  Bialik
    -Hayim Nahman Bialik (Jewish Virtual Library)
    -Biography: Hayim Nahman Bialik (JTS Torah)
    -Bialik, Haim Nahman (1873 -1934) (The Zionist Exposition)
    -ESSAY : The True Face of the "National Poet," Chaim Nachman Bialik (S. Yisraeli, Information & Insight)
    -ESSAY : Chaim Nachman Bialik (Yeshina University Commentator)
    -Three famous Jews from Odessa:  Ch. N. Bialik, V. Jabotinsky,  I. Babel (Museum of the Jewish People)
    -ESSAY : EGGED (Words Tell Their Tales)
    -ESSAY : Blighted Passover Days and Blood Libels (David Rosenthal, January 2000, Jewish Frontier)
    -ESSAY : Trauma and Abstract Monotheism: Jewish Exile and Recovery in the Sixth Century B.C.E. (David Aberbach, Spring 2001, Judaism)
    -REVIEW : of The Book of Legends: Sefer Ha-Aggadah. Legends from the Talmud and Midrash By Hayim Nahman Bialik and Yehoshua Hana Ravnitzky (James A. Sanders, Theology Today)
    -REVIEW : of The Book of Legends (First Things)
    -REVIEW : of The Book of Legends (Rabbi Daniel Judson, Temple Beth David)
    -REVIEW : of  THE MODERN JEWISH CANON : A Journey Through Language and Culture.  By Ruth R. Wisse (Esther Schor, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of A PEOPLE APART : The Jews in Europe, 1789-1939.  By David Vital (James E. Young, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of The Modern Jewish Canon (Hillel Halkin, Commentary)
    -REVIEW : of The Israeli-American Connection: Its Roots in the Yishuv, 1914-1945. By Michael Brown (Journal of American History)

JABOTINSKY :
    -ESSAY : The Legend of Ze'ev Jabotinsky 1880-1940 (Jewish Post of NY)
    -SPEECH : Did Ze'ev Jabotinsky Forecast the Coming of the Holocaust? : The following is a translation from Yiddish of Jabotinsky's touching and sad speech in Tisha B'ev, Oct. 24, 1938, Warsaw, Poland.

Comments:

It is always interesting to compare translations! I also translated "After my Death" and you may look it up: http://www.phy6.org/outreach/poems/bialik2.htm

Another translation of a poem by Bialik--one of my favorites--is of "The People are but Grass" at http://www.phy6.org/outreach/poems/bialik1.htm

I hope you too enjoy it!

- David P. Stern

- Feb-08-2003, 20:30

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