BU Today


Student spotlight: a poem translation by Micah Shapiro

Jerusalem: a meditation on commonalities and differences





Throughout August, BU Today will publish pieces of student scholarship and creative work. The following poem translation by Micah Shapiro (CAS ’09) is from the inaugural issue of PUSTEBLUME, a journal devoted to translations. The accompanying introductory essay is by Zachary Bos,  coordinator of student publications and editor of PUSTEBLUME, which is available at http://bu.edu/pusteblume and at the Department of Modern Foreign Languages and Literatures.


Modern Hebrew and Yehuda Amichai
(introductory essay by Zachary Bos, editor of PUSTEBLUME)

With the formation of the State of Israel in the nineteenth century, Hebrew was reinvigorated after a long period of decline and displacement. Alongside their goal of a strong national identity, the architects of the new Israel wanted to revitalize the use of Hebrew as a historical language that would convey the cultural and spiritual heritage of the Jews. Since the vocabulary of biblical Hebrew reflected a drastically different era, its extant vocabulary was somewhat limited. For this reason, many new words were coined, or borrowed from other languages, in order to supply meaningful forms for contemporary concepts: technology, industry, science, theory. This expansion, plus the wealth of loanwords brought in from macaronic, diasporic languages like Ladino and Yiddish, mean that although modern Hebrew is a direct descendant of its biblical predecessor, it has changed with time and for the times.

Israeli poet Yeduha Amichai is a good example of this blending of old and new in Hebrew. Although his poetry is modern and accessible, he frequently mines the history of Jewish culture for symbolism that will register with Jewish readers. Robert Alter, writing in Modern Hebrew Literature No.13 (1994), gives an example:
In a love poem (“In the Middle of This Century”) he speaks of “the linsey-woolsey of our being together.” This literal rendering sounds silly, but the Hebrew reader will identify in the term sha’atnez the biblically prohibited interweave of linen and wool and grasp it as a beautifully succinct image of an an impossible union of disparate elements, and one that may be taboo.

Three thousand years of accumulated culture gives a poet a lot of material to work with. However, the depth of this tradition, that allows for such deep resonance, is a chasm of distinctively Jewish meaning that the translator has to scramble out of in order to carry over nuance and significance into other languages. The translator is further challenged by unique linguistic aspects of Hebrew: e.g., the verb “to be” has no present tense form; the written language may or may not indicate the proper vocalization of vowels, which must then be inferred from context and convention; the complex rules for syllabic stress are not easily determined either from meter or from spoken form. Nonetheless, and thankfully so, it can be done and is done. Amichai is one of the most-widely translated poets writing in Hebrew, his work appearing in dozens of foreign languages. Mexican poet Octavio Paz (translated eslewhere in this issue) was frank in his praise: “Once one has read his poems, one can never forget them – there can be so much life and truth in sixteen lines.” 

Translator’s Note
by Micah Shapiro

The poetry of Yehuda Amichai is deeply preoccupied by humanitarian themes.  Many of his poems address relationships between people, and the problems that arise when societies focus too much attention on ideologies which strain those relations.  “Jerusalem” deals with this theme in a very literal sense.  It conveys Amichai’s disappointment (amongst other feelings) that the two sides in conflict cannot reach a consensus, even on the simplest levels of life.  Amichai thinks that as long as we fail to recognize the humanity of our so-called enemies – that they hang their laundry out to dry, just as we do – unhappiness will always persist.

by Yehuda Amichai
translated by Micah Shapiro

Upon a roof in the Old City,
Laundry is illuminated in the last light of the day –
A white sheet of some female enemy,
An adversary’s towel,
With which he wipes the sweat of his brow.

And in the skies of the Old City – 
A kite.
And at the string’s other end  –
A boy,
Whom I could not see –
Because of the wall.

We have raised many flags.
They have raised many flags.
That we will think that they are happy – 
That they will think that we are happy.