Nizar Qabbani: "Less Beautiful" (From Arabic)

Completely revised this translation as a result of my encounter with Stephen Frug's take on my original attempt

Less Beautiful
By Nizar Qabbani
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
Click here to hear me recite the Arabic

Whenever I see you, I despair of my verse.
I only despair of my poems
When I am with you.
Beautiful you much
So that when I think about what awe you strike... I gasp for breath.
As my language gasps
And my lexicon gasps
For breath.
Deliver me from these problematics!
Be less beautiful
So I can recover my poetics.
Be a typical woman
Of kohl, perfume, pregnancy and childbirth.
Be a woman
Like any other,
And reconcile me with my language
And my tongue.

The Original:

اقل جمالا
نزار قباني

كلّما رأيتُكِ... أيأس من قصائدي
إنني لا أيأسُ من قصائدي
إلّا حين أكون معكِ...
جميلة انت... إلى درجة أنني
حينُ أفكِّر بِرَوعتِك...ألهَثُ...
تَلهثُ لغتي...
وتَلهَثُ مفرداتي...
خلِّصيني من هذا الإشكال
كوني اقلَّ جَمالاً...
حتّا أستردَّ شاعريتي
كوني امرأةً عادية
تَتَكحَّل وتتعطَّر...وتحبل...وتَلِد
امرأة مثلَ كلِّ النساء
حتى أتصالحَ مع لغتي
ومع فمي.

Yehuda Amichai: Death of My Father (From Hebrew)

Death of My Father
By Yehuda Amichai
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
Click to hear me read the Hebrew aloud

My father of a sudden from all places
Departed for his strange and distant spaces. 

He had gone to call upon his God
So He might come to our aid with staff and rod.  

And God took up the burden, coming soon
Hanging His jacket up on the hook of moon,

Though nevermore will God let our father go
Who left to fetch Him for us here below. 

The Original:

מוֹת אָבִי
יהודה עמיחי

אָבִי פִּתְאֹם, מִכָּל הַחֲדָרים
יָצָא לְמֶרְחַקָּיו הַמּוּזָרִים. 

הָלוֹךְ הָלַךְ לִקְרֹא לֵאלֹהָיו,
שֶׁהוּא יָבוֹא לַעֲזֹר לָנוּ עַכְשָיו. 

וֵאלֹהִים כְּבָר בָּא, כְּמוֹ טוֹרֵחַ,
תָּלָה אֶת מְעִילוֹ עַל וַו-יָרֵחַ.

אַךְ אֶת אָבִינוּ, שֶׁיָּצָא לְהוֹבִילוֹ,
יַחֲזִיק הָאֱלֹהִים לָעַד אֶצְלוֹ. 

Haim Lensky: Near the Mill (From Hebrew)

Another by the Russian Hebrew poet Haim Lensky. Many of his poems, like this one, give the impression of being "Russian poems in Hebrew" just as Preil's give the impression of being American poems in Hebrew. Even when writing — as here — about Jewish concerns, his mental universe and linguistic aesthetic seem to be Russian through and through.

Then again, what is Russian, really? That question ultimately has no better answer than that of what is really American.

Cossacks, with their habits of raiding Jewish quarters, were much feared by Russian Jews.

Near the Mill
By Haim Lensky
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

Glitter of metal, clatter of hoofs on the hill. 
The Ataman1 to his Cossacks2 said
"The miller's a kike!"3 They leapt ahead.
Black were the boots that entered the mill. 
The boots that left dripped red. 

Glitter of metal, clatter of hoofs on the hill. 
A Red Army lad said "what's the harm 
In checking up on my dad." For a lark 
He jumped and hastened into mill. 
The day when he left was dark. 

Glitter of metal, clatter of hoofs on the hill. 
The soldier returned to his camp and flag. 
The fall wind scattered the flour of the mill, 
The flour from his coat, his hair that will 
Never again be black. 


1- Ataman — A term for a leader of cossack groups, and the official term for generals of cossack armies in the Russian Empire. The word, which is left unvocalized in the Hebrew text I have, could be interpreted either as "Hetman" or as "The Ataman" though the later makes a bit more sense.

2- Cossacks — the original actually says "haydamaks." I've chosen a term that would be more familiar in English.

3- "Kike" here translates a Russian loanword žid in the Hebrew text. Žid is not easily translated into English. The best way to describe it is that Russian žid is to "Jew" as American English nigger is to "Black." English doesn't have quite the anti-Semitic repertoire that Eastern European languages do. Many anti-semitic slurs simply have no translation that quite conveys to the English speaker the level of disrespect and hate implicit in them. This word has not been pejorative at all times in all places however (as demonstrated by e.g. the Ukrainian Jewish surname Zhydenko.) In medieval Russian it was a quite neutral term, as Polish żyd is to this day. (In Polish, benevolence and malevolence can only be shown in the plural. The benevolent plural is the native Polish plural żydzi. The malevolent plural is the Russian loan żydy.)

The Original:

מִסָּבִיב לָרֵחַיִם
חיים לנסקי

הֹלֶם טֶרֶף-סוּס וְנִצְנוּץ כְּלֵי-זַיִן...
נְאוּם האטמן אֶל כַּת הַיְדַּמָּקָיו:
”הַטּוֹחֵן הוּא זִ׳יד.“ קָפְצוּ מִן הָאֻכָּף...
שְׁחוֹרֵי מַגָּף פָּרצוּ אֶל הָרֵחַיִם
יָצְאוּ סְמוּקֵי מַגָּף–

הֹלֶם טֶרֶף-סוּס וְנִצְנוּץ כְּלֵי-זַיִן...
בָּא סַיָּר צָעִיר מִן הַחַיִל הָאָדֹם: 
”אֶל אָבִי אָסוּר, אֶפְקְדֵהוּ לְשָׁלוֹם.“–
פָּזִיז וְקַל קָפַץ אֶל הָרֵחַיִם,
יָצָא–קָדַר לוֹ יוֹם– 

הֹלֶם טֶרֶף-סוּס וְנִצְנוּץ כְּלֵי-זַיִן...
שָׁב סַיָּר צָעִיר אֶל מַחֲנֵהוּ, אֶל דִּגְלוֹ. 
רוּחַ-סְתָו חָבְטָה הַקֶּמַח מִמְּעִילוֹ,
חָבְטָה מִכּוֹבָעוֹ, אַךְ הַצְּדָעַיִם
לֹא עוֹד יַשְׁחִירוּ, לֹא!–

Gabriel Preil: Celebration Beyond Things (From Hebrew)

Back to Gabriel Preil, the most famous Hebrew poet of America, who has the distinction of being the only Hebrew poet ever to write an entire series of poems about the state of Maine.

A Celebration Beyond Things
Gabriel Preil
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

A celebration beyond things, 
A play on worded things beyond the light, the heavy,
beyond bread, table, car.
This mist, for example, or that sun. 
(And it is not important if the New York mist
is much different from that of Oregon, or 
for that matter, if Oregon's sky
has reservations about Maine's.) 
The thing of it is
I'm almost ready to swear 
The variations in the skies can drive
The clouds themselves crazy,
Or me, in any case,
Attentive as I am to the gamut of shades
Seduced by the weathers of
Poems and loves.

Even the rain-sluiced stone

Now celebrates something.

The Original:

חַג שֶׁמֵּעֵבֶר הַדְּבָרִים
גבריאל פּרייל

חַג שֶׁמֵּעֵבֶר הַדְּבָרִים
מִשְׂחַק דְבָרִים שֶׁמֵּעֵבֶר לַקַּל, לַכָּבֵד
מֵעֵבֶר לַלֶּחֶם, לַשֻּׁלְחָן, לַמְּכוֹנִית
הָעֲרָפֶל הַזֶּה,לְמָשָׁל, הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ הַזֹּאת
(וְלֹא חָשׁוּב אִם הָעֲרָפֶל הַנְּיוּ-יוֹרְקִי
שׁוֹנֶה בְּהַרְבֵּה מִזֶּה שֶׁבְּאוֹרֶגוֹן, עֵת
כְּמוֹ לְפִי תוֹר, אוֹרֶגוֹן מִסְתַּיֶּגֶת מִשְּׁמֵי מֵין). 
הָעִקָּר שֶׁאֲנִי כִּמְעַט-מוּכָן לְהִשָּׁבַע
שֶׁסּוּגֵי רְקִיעִים יְכוֹלִים לְשַׁגֵּעַ
גַּם אֶת עַצְמָם, בְּכָל-אֹפֶל אוֹתִי
הַקַּשּׁוּב לְמַעַבְרֵי הַגּוֹנִים,
מְפֻתֶּה מִזְגֵי-אֲוִיר שֶׁל
שִׁירִים וַאֲהָבוֹת. 

אֲפִלּוּ הָאֶבֶן הַגְּשׁוּמָה
חוֹגֶגֶת עַכְשָׁיו מָה. 

Hillel Bavli: Seagulls in My Heart (From Hebrew)

Born in Lithuania, Hillel Bavli came to the United States in 1912 and attended Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, where he earned a doctorate in Hebrew literature. He joined the faculty of the Seminary in 1920. In 1954, he was awarded the Lamed Prize in Hebrew literature for his translation of Shakespeare’s “Antony and Cleopatra.” He died in 1961 at the age of 69 after a period of illness. 

Seagulls in My Heart
By Hillel Bavli
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

Seagulls in my heart
Peck me, squawk and draw me toward the shore. 
The creaking shrieking ships,
The sloshing waves,
Wayward breezes breathing of sulfur and salt,
Bustling sailors, cussing poets. 
No yoke of yore, no daily decrees. 
Blurring mists of the ages of ages,
The bonds of place and time dissolve.
I'm drawn away.
Seagulls in my heart.

The Original:

שחפים בלבבי
הלל בבלי

שְׁחָפִים בִּלְבָבִי
מְנַקְּרִים בִּי, צוֹרְחִים, מוֹשְׁכִים לִשְׂפַת הַיָּם.
סְפִינוֹת חוֹרְקוֹת־שׁוֹרְקוֹת,
גַּלִּים מְשַׁכְשְׁכִים,
רוּחוֹת־הֶפְקֵר נוֹשְׁמִים רֵיחוֹת גָּפְרִית וּמֶלַח
וְסַפָּנִים הוֹמִים, פַּיְטָנֵי־גִּדּוּפִים.
אֵין עֹל־עָבָר, אֵין גְּזֵרַת־יוֹם.
אֵדֵי־עוֹלָם מִטַּשְׁטְשִׁים,
מִתְמַסְמְסִים חַבְלֵי מָקוֹם וּזְמָן.
אֲנִי נֶחֱלָץ.
שְׁחָפִים בִּלְבָבִי.

Ḥaim Lensky: A St. Petersburg White Night (From Hebrew)

Too often it is assumed that modern Hebrew literature is the same thing as Israeli literature. But just as many Israelis write in other languages, such as Arabic and Russian, so too have many Hebrew poets lived outside of Israel. Haim Lensky is one of many Hebrew poets who wrote on Russian soil in the early 20th century. He eventually starved to death in a labor camp for the crime of writing in Hebrew. Here translated is a sonnet about a St. Petersburg white night. 

The Day Descended 
By Ḥaim Lenski
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

The day descended the cold steps of stone
To bathe in the Neva, but hardly found
Itself half in before it plunged and drowned.
The furrowing funeral of waves began. 

Complete silence descended in half-darkness 
Again. Then, rounded, gilded and agleam
St. Isaac's dome sank into the blue stream
As if a diving bell dropped by a harness.

The Admiralty like a golden ball
Feels its way through the water- spires and all.
A gurgle. Then the river runs in twilight.  

Then up with the cadaver that they haul
Out, with blue frozen lips and face of white.
They know him, and they call him the white night. 

The Original:

הַיּוֹם יָרַד בְּמַדְרְגוֹת-הָאֶבֶן
אֶל תְּכוֹל מֵימֵי הַיְאוֹר לִפְחֹץ וּבְטֶרֶם
כִּלָּה לִטְבֹּל צָלַל פִּי תְהוֹם. וְתֶלֶם
גַּלִּים עָבַר בְּתַהֲלוּכַת-אֵבֶל. 

יָרְדָה דְמָמָה שְׁלֵמָה וַחֲצִי אֹפֶל,
וַעֲגֻלָּה, מוּפֶזֶת וּמַזְהֶרֶת, 
שָׁקְעָה כִּפַּת אִיסַאֲקִי תּוֹךְ הַזֶּרֶם
כְּפַעֲמוֹן אָמוֹדַאי מְשֻׁלְשַׁל-חֶבֶל. 

וּכְמוֹ כַּדּוּר-זָהָב מְגַשֵּׁשׁ בַּמַּיִם
חֹד גַּג הָאַדְמִירַלְיָה. בַּעְבּוּעַ.
שׁוֹטֵף הַיְאוֹר בְּזֹהַר בֵּין-עַרְבָּיִם. 

הֹעֲלָה הַמֵּת, הִנֵּהוּ הַטָּבוּעַ;
אָרֹךְ, לְבֶן-פָּנִים וּכְחֹל-שׂפָתַיִם. 
׳הַלַּיְלָה הַלָּבָן׳ – כֹּה יִקְרָאוּהוּ. 

Todros Abulafia: Love's Labor Pangs (From Hebrew)

This little poem poem is a subversion of the morning blessing ברוך אתה יי אלהינו מלך העולם שלא עשני אשה Blessed art Thou Lord our God, King of the Universe, that hast not made me a woman. It is not the only such subversion in medieval Hebrew letters. Qalonymos ben Qalonymos has another, much longer one, in which he too expresses the wish to have been born a woman.

Love's Labor Pangs
Todros Abulafia (13th cent.)
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

On an Arab girl whom I'd love to have as a lover, whom I saw with other women kissing one another. 

I've known love's labor pangs, but brought forth naught. 
I'm in the snares of her, an Arab fawn.
My soul so longs for kisses from her mouth
That I long to turn myself into a female
For it is women that she'll woo and kiss
But I am lost. For I was born a male. 

The Original:

באהבה חלתי
טודרוס אבולעפיה
طدروس ابو العافية

על בת ערב ערבה לי אהבתה, ובתוך עלמות ראיתי אותה, משיקות אשה על אחותה.

בָּאַהֲבָה חַלְתִּי וְלֹא יָלַדְתִּי,
וּבְפַח צְבִיָּה בַּת עֲרָב נִלְכַּדְתִּי.
לִנְשֹׁק בְּפִיהָ אִוְּתָה נַפְשִׁי עֲדֵי
לִהְיוֹת נְקֵבָה בַעֲדָהּ חָמַדְתִּי —
כִּי הַנְּקֵבוֹת הִיא מְנַשֶּׁקֶת, וּבִשְׁ־
בִיל שֶׁאֲנִי זָכָר, אֲנִי הִפְסַדְתִּי!

José Martí: Two Countries (From Spanish)

Two Countries
By José Martí
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
Click to hear me recite the original Spanish

I have two countries: Cuba and the night. 
Or are they one? No sooner does the sun 
withdraw its majesty than, dressed in long  
veils with a carnation in her hand, 
Cuba appears to me a silent widow.  
I know what that bloodstained carnation is 
atremble in her hand. My breast is empty. 
Sundered it is, and empty where the heart 
once was. The hour is already come 
to begin dying. Night is a good time 
to say goodbye. Light is impediment 
as is the human word. The universe  
speaks better than man.  
          Like a flag that calls
to battle on the field, the candle's flame 
flutters ablaze in red. I open windows 
feeling such tightness. Crushing the carnation's 
petals in silence, like a cloud befogging 
the heavens, widow Cuba passes by. 

Random notes on the Spanish:

Un clavel en la mano — echoes the phrase un clavo en la mano "a nail in the hand" and has a slightly ghastly feel to it.  The terms clavel and clavo are in fact related (see here.)

La llama roja / de la vela flamea — a masterful bit of wordplay. vela means three things: "wakefulness," "candle" and "sail." Flamear means both "flare, blaze (of a candle)" and "flutter (of a sail)." Note also that vela is one gender and one vowel away from the velos (veils) in which Cuba is garbed.

The words Cuba, muda, viuda, nube are sonically linked by having the deep /u/ vowel followed by a fricative.

The Original:

Dos Patrias

Dos patrias tengo yo: Cuba y la noche. 
¿O son una las dos? No bien retira 
su majestad el sol, con largos velos 
y un clavel en la mano, silenciosa 
Cuba cual viuda triste me aparece. 
¡Yo sé cuál es ese clavel sangriento 
que en la mano le tiembla! Está vacío 
mi pecho, destrozado está y vacío 
en donde estaba el corazón. Ya es hora 
de empezar a morir. La noche es buena 
para decir adiós. La luz estorba 
y la palabra humana. El universo 
habla mejor que el hombre. 
             Cual bandera
que invita a batallar, la llama roja 
de la vela flamea. Las ventanas 
abro, ya estrecho en mí. Muda, rompiendo 
las hojas del clavel, como una nube 
que enturbia el cielo, Cuba, viuda, pasa... 

Werich & Voskovec: Hey Royal Highness (From Czech)

A song from between the two World Wars, from Werich and Voskovec's Balada z hadrů (Rag Ballad) a theatrical work drawing on the life, times and work of François Villon, but inspired as much as anything by the Great Depression. My translation is free, as is my wont when working with song lyrics. I have deemphasized the medievalism. I have included modernity-specific terms. I have, in fact, turned the song into something a bit different than what it was in Czech.

Leslie Jameson, the donor who requested this, asked that I translate one poem from a language I don't know well. Granted, Czech is quite easy for me to understand in its written form. So here it is.

Hey, Royal Highness
By Jan Werich and Jiří Voskovec
Requested by Leslie Jameson
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
(YouTube link to a cover version of this song)

So here's a topic for you, researchers and scholars
Of the academy: does it say in your books
Why it is just the poor they put in prison-collars,
When rich homes have a wealth of free white collar crooks?

If His Highness knew poor folks' pain, he'd deign
Just once to honestly explain.

Hey, Royal Highness, quit your lounging,
Don rags, come down into our slum,
Learn how we live by drudging, scrounging,
The filth you see will set you howling,
And you won't sleep till Kingdom Come.

And all you sirs of moneyed breeding
Come see us in our neighborhoods.
See what we pay for life you're leading
How misery turns men to thieving
And wolves burst hungry from the woods

You think we're nothing since we're poorer.
You don't yet fear the working class.
But one day you'll be ripped with horror
When this shout shakes your windows' glass:

Hey, fat cats, pigs and portly weasels,
You've had enough. Now pay the bill. 
Yes sirs, you brought about the evil
Misery that makes wolves of people,
And that makes you our juicy kill.

The Original:

Hej Pane Králi
Jan Werich

Bereme na potaz učené bakaláře.
Et item doktory, et item rektory.
Proč jenom chudák trhan patří do žaláře?
Vždyť mezi boháči jsou také potvory!

Kdyby nás chudáky lépe znal pán král,
snad by nám odpověď dal.

Hej, pane králi, nebuď líný,
vem hadry a jdi mezi lid,
poznáš, co je živořit z dřiny,
uvidíš za den tolik špíny,
do smrti nebudeš mít klid.

A vůbec velkomožní páni,
přijďte se na nás podívat,
vy páni, kteří jste tím vinni,
že bída z lidí lotri činí,
že vlky z lesů žene hlad.

Myslete si, že jsme jen lůza,
že se nás nemusíte bát.
Jednou však popadne Vás hrůza,
až pod okny vám budeme řvát.

Hej, křečkové a bařtipáni,
je čas, budeme účtovat,
pánové, sami jste tím vinni,
že bída z lidí vlky činí,
že nás proti vám žene hlad.

Yehuda Amichai: "The lips of dead men..." (From Hebrew)

"The lips of dead men..."
By Yehuda Amichai
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

The lips of dead men whispered thoughtlessly
A single word of silence in the earth.
Already every flower, every tree
Has wildly overdone its springtime birth.

Bandages are torn off, again undressed
The earth does not want healing. It wants pain.
Spring is not peace at all. Spring is not rest
At all. Spring is enemy terrain. 

We went with other lovers on patrol
To see if we could reach our goal.
We were sent to the End of Rainbow Land, 

Though we already knew: the dead return;
Though we already knew: the storm is borne
Out of a young girl's open hand.

The Original:

שפתי מתים
יהודה עמיחי

שִׂפְתֵי מֵתִים אָמְרוּ מִלָּה בְּלַחַשׁ
בָּאֲדָמָה, שִׂיחָה לְפִי תֻּמָּם,
וּכְבָר הָאִילָנוֹת, בְּלִי כָּל יַחַס,
הִגְזִימוּ נוֹרָאָה בִּפְרִיחָתָם.

הַתַּחְבּוֹשׁוֹת שׁוּב נִקְרָעוֹת בְּכֹחַ,
הָאֳדָמָה אֵינָהּ רוֹצָה מַרְפֵּא, רוֹצָה כְּאֵב.
וְהָאָבִיב אֵינֶנּוּ שֶׁקֶט, לֹא מָנוֹחַ,
וְהָאָבִיב הוּא אֶרֶץ הָאוֹיֵב.

נִשְׁלַחְנוּ עִם זוּגוֹת הָאוֹהֲבִים, 
פַּטְרוֹל אֶל אֶרֶץ-עֵבֶר-קֶשֶׁת,
לִרְאוֹת הַאִם אֶפְשָׁר לָגֶשֶׁת.

וּכְבָר יָדַעְנוּ, הַמֵּתִים שָׁבִים,
וּכְבָר יָדַעְנוּ, גַּם הַסְּעָרָה
יוֹצֵאת עַכְשָׁו מֵחֹפֶן נַעֲרָה. 

Rilke: From a Stormy Night (From German)

This translation was done when I was 16 or so. I'm posting it as is.

From a Stormy Night
By Rainer Maria Rilke
Translated by A.Z. Foreman


Roused by the risen storm, the night
expands and begins its climb
from otherwise lying compressed in a tight
and tiny crevice of time.
No bar of stars can end it in space,
It doesn't begin in the grove
Nor in the features of my face
Nor in the way you move.
The lanterns stammer and blindly ask:
"Are we faking light?
Has the one real thing for millennia been
The night?"


In such nights you can come across a few
Future ones on the sidewalks- pale and peaked
Visages that do not acknowledge you
And mutely let you pass,
Though if they were to speak,
You’d be long forgotten
As you stood there,
And long rotten.
Yet they keep the silence of deadmen
Though they are the ones to come.
The future hasn’t been yet.
They can only plunge their faces in time’s
Suboceanic light and cannot hope
To see, but endure it a while
To discern in submersion: a speeding file
Of fish and a ripple of rope.


In such nights comes an opening of jails,
And through the nightmares of the guards, one after
The other, with sneered laughter,

Men walk who scorn the warden’s force.
They seek their sleep in you, to hide their tracks,
The years of sentence loaded on their backs,


In such nights opera houses fall ablaze
And like a basilisk the monstrous space
With its upholding pillars, tiers and rows,
Begins to chew on those
Pent in its den.
Women and men
Struggle and choke,
Piled on each other in the lobby’s smoke
Till stone implodes on them. Nobody knows
Who took the heaviest of cascading blows;
When someone has already shredded
His heart, his ears still ring with noises headed
For it.


In such nights, as in ages long gone by,
The hearts within the shut sarcophagi
Of bygone princes start to beat anew:
Their reinvigorated pulses hit
So hard at every coffin’s sturdy lid
As to compel the golden capsules through
Dusk and disintegrating damask cloth.
The church and spires sway blackly back and forth.
Doors shake and slap. The belfry feels each bell
Claw for a hold and hang like birds at bay.
Columns are clenched by struts and can’t give way:
As if the whole disturbed foundation lay
Upon a blind sea-turtle’s shifting shell.

In such nights those who have no cure
Know that: We were...
And they go think among the ill
A simple thought of good will,
Resuming where it broke off.
But of their sons the youngest may
Have to walk the loneliest way;
For these nights are
As though he’s never had a thought before:
He’s long lain in a leaden shroud,
But all his sight will soon uncloud,
And thoughts of celebration crowd his


In such nights every city is alike,
Each full of flags
Caught by the bestial storm in wind that drags
It off as if by hair to be thrown
To some far off land of unknown
Hills and rills and dikes.
There in each yard the same pond lies,
By each pond the same house of stone,
In each house the same lantern’s flame,
All people look the same
As their hands cover their eyes.


In such nights the minds of the dying clear,
As their hands probe through their growing hair
Whose roots shoot up from the ailing skull
In these days tired and dull,
As if to keep the sphere
Of death below.
That gesture runs through the house as though
All things were a mirror there;
And as they gently ply their hair,
Their moved hands exhaust
What strength they’d gathered from year to year,
Now lost.


In such nights my dear sister grows some more
Who was before me, and before me died.
Many such nights since then have passed me by:
She will be beautiful. Soon someone’s sure
To marry her.

The Original:

Aus einer Sturmnacht


Die Nacht, vom wachsenden Sturme bewegt,
wie wird sie auf einmal weit -,
als bliebe sie sonst zusammengelegt
in die kleinlichen Falten der Zeit.
Wo die Sterne ihr wehren, dort endet sie nicht
und beginnt nicht mitten im Wald
und nicht an meinem Angesicht
und nicht mit deiner Gestalt.
Die Lampen stammeln und wissen nicht:
lügen wir Licht?
Ist die Nacht die einzige Wirklichkeit
seit Jahrtausenden...


In solchen Nächten kannst du in den Gassen
Zukünftigen begegnen, schmalen blassen
Gesichtern, die dich nicht erkennen
und dich schweigend vorüberlassen.
Aber wenn sie zu reden begännen,
wärst du ein Langevergangener
wie du da stehst,
Doch sie bleiben im Schweigen wie Tote,
obwohl sie die Kommenden sind.
Zukunft beginnt noch nicht.
Sie halten nur ihr Gesicht in die Zeit
und können, wie unter Wasser, nicht schauen;
und ertragen sie's doch eine Weile,
sehn sie wie unter den Wellen: die Eile
von Fischen und das Tauchen von Tauen.


In solchen Nächten gehn die Gefängnisse auf.
Und durch die bösen Träume der Wächter
gehn mit leisem Gelächter
die Verächter ihrer Gewalt.
Wald! Sie kommen zu dir, um in dir zu schlafen,
mit ihren langen Strafen behangen.


In solchen Nächten ist auf einmal Feuer
in einer Oper.       Wie ein Ungeheuer
beginnt der Riesenraum mit seinen Rängen
Tausende, die sich in ihm drängen,
zu kauen.
Männer und Frauen
stauen sich in den Gängen,
und wie sich alle aneinander hängen,
bricht das Gemäuer, und es reißt sie mit.
Und niemand weiß mehr wer ganz unten litt;
während ihm einer schon das Herz zertritt,
sind seine Ohren noch ganz voll von Klängen,
die dazu hingehn...


In solchen Nächten, wie vor vielen Tagen,
fangen die Herzen in den Sarkophagen
vergangner Fürsten wieder an zu gehn;
und so gewaltig drängt ihr Wiederschlagen
gegen die Kapseln, welche widerstehn,
dass sie die goldnen Schalen weitertragen
durch Dunkel und Damaste, die zerfallen.
Schwarz schwankt der Dom mit allen seinen Hallen.
Die Glocken, die sich in die Türme krallen,
hängen wie Vögel, bebend stehn die Türen,
und an den Trägern zittert jedes Glied:
als trügen seinen gründenden Granit
blinde Schildkröten, die sich rühren.


In solchen Nächten wissen die Unheilbaren:
wir waren...
Und sie denken unter den Kranken
einen einfachen guten Gedanken
weiter, dort, wo er abbrach.
Doch von den Söhnen, die sie gelassen,
geht der Jüngste vielleicht in den einsamsten Gassen;
denn gerade diese Nächte
sind ihm als ob er zum ersten Mal dächte:
lange lag es über ihm bleiern,
aber jetzt wird sich alles entschleiern -,
und: dass er das feiern wird,
                        fühlt er...


In solchen Nächten sind alle die Städte gleich,
alle beflaggt.
Und an den Fahnen vom Sturm gepackt
und wie an Haaren hinausgerissen
in irgend ein Land mit ungewissen
Umrissen und Flüssen.
In allen Gärten ist dann ein Teich,
an jedem Teiche dasselbe Haus,
in jedem Hause dasselbe Licht;
und alle Menschen sehn ähnlich aus
und halten die Hände vorm Gesicht.


In solchen Nächten werden die Sterbenden klar,
greifen sich leise ins wachsende Haar,
dessen Halme aus ihres Schädels Schwäche
in diesen langen Tagen treiben,
als wollten sie über der Oberfläche
des Todes bleiben.
Ihre Gebärde geht durch das Haus
als wenn überall Spiegel hingen;
und sie geben - mit diesem Graben
in ihren Haaren - Kräfte aus,
die sie in Jahren gesammelt haben,
                        welche vergingen.


In solchen Nachten wächst mein Schwesterlein,
das vor mir war und vor mir starb, ganz klein.
Viel solche Nächte waren schon seither:
Sie muss schon schön sein. Bald wird irgendwer
                        sie frein.

Yonatan Ratosh: Dirge (From Hebrew)

Yonatan Ratosh was born in 1908 in Warsaw, and emigrated to Palestine in 1921. In 1939 he founded the Canaanite movement, which rejected both Judaism and Zionism in favor of a new "Canaanite" identity which was, as Yatosh believed, more organic to the Fertile Crescent, and which sought to liberate all who lived the region from the stranglehold of Abrahamic monotheism. The Canaanite movement cultivated an archaic Biblical (or, theoretically, pre-Biblical) diction modeled to some degree on the language of Ugaritic epic (c.f. in this poem the Ugariticizing terms קרש מלך אב שנים and נרת אלים השמש in this poem. Both of which are identical to phrases found in Anat's lamentation for Baˁl in the Ugaritic Baal cycle.)

This dirge was written for the poet's father, and is envisioned as a hymn for the pall-bearers. It describes how the dead father is carried westward beyond the sea to the dwelling of El, the head of the Canaanite pantheon.

The title of this poem in Hebrew is Et Nišmat, literally "The Soul of." (The form with et is in the accusative, and cannot normally stand alone in Hebrew anymore than the accusative form Requiem can stand alone in Latin.) It comes from the beautiful prayer El Mole Raḥamim "God Full of Mercy." That prayer is recited by a cantor at Jewish funerals, and is also traditionally recited during the walk up to a person's grave. Line 7 begins Et Nišmat "The Soul Of" followed by a place where one is to utter the actual name of the deceased. This poem is an alternative to that prayer, a polytheistic (neo-)Canaanite dirge.

I felt it appropriate to make the recording for this poem using an archaizing pronunciation of Hebrew. In addition to the pharyngeal fricatives, I distinguish כ from ק in all cases, and realize the historical geminates as such.

I could make many notes about the resonant vocabulary here used. Two examples will have to suffice, since I haven't my usual commentary energy at the moment.
The first words of this poem are a direct quote from Psalm 85:14 tsédeq lep̱anav yehalleḵ veyasem leḏéreḵ peˁamav "Righteousness shall go before him, and shall set the way of his steps." Here, however, Justice/righteousness is personified.
The word עולם ˁolam means not only "world" but also "eternity" or "all that one lives through." In the phrase leˁolamo "to his eternity" it means something more like "to his repose." (בית עולם "house of the world/eternity" is a term for "graveyard.")

By Yonatan Ratosh
Requested by Victor Leibowitz
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
Click to hear me recite the original Hebrew

Righteousness shall go before him
Making clear his way
Righteousness the shield-bearer before him in the darkness
Righteousness shall walk before him.

Now to the God of the Sea Winds
Now to the God of the West Spirits
In the heart of the twin abysses
In the heart of heaven and earth
To the God whose wing makes evening gloam,
Whose beard is the grey of seething foam.

Up with the lamp of the Gods you've come
Now you course
Down with the lamp of the Gods, the sun
To its source. 

Unto the end of all mighty waters
The fountainhead of all the world's earth
Of every road ascending to the heavens
Of every road descending to Sheol.

Unto the God of the Sea Winds
Unto the God of the West Spirits
In the timbered hall, the father of time
In whose hand is the soul of all flesh 
At whose feet bow all living things.

This man has known
Affliction and its rod.
This man has ceased his labors 
Bound for home. 

Righteousness shall go before him

Making clear his way
Righteousness the shield-bearer before him in the darkness
Righteousness shall walk before him.

Into the heart of the twin abysses
Into the heart of heaven and earth
To the timbered hall of the father of years,
Whose hand gave the crown of Baal
Whose hand gave the might of Anat
Whose hand gave the wisdom of Kothar
Whose hand gave the good of Astarte
At his right hand — the horn of Baal
At his left hand — the weight of Mot.

Almighty-pinioned El
Who shade the corners of the world
Who deal justice in your depths,
Justice in heaven and earth, 
Bless him who returns to his kin.

Bless the soul o
Your servant
Gone forever
To his repose. 

Righteousness shall go before him
Making clear his way
Righteousness the shield-bearer before him in the darkness
Righteousness shall walk before him.

The Original:

יונתן רטוש
את נשמת
צֶדֶק לְפָנָיו יְהַלֵּךְ
יְפַלֵּס אָרְחוֹ מִישׁוֹר
צֶדֶק בַּמָּגֵן לְפָנָיו בָּאַשְׁמַנִּים
צֶדֶק לְפָנָיו יְהַלֵּךְ
אֶל אֱלֹהֵי רוּחוֹת יָם
קֶרֶב אֲפִיק תְּהֹמוֹתַיִם
אֲשֶר בִּכְנָפוֹ מַעֲרִיב עֲרָבִים
שֵׂיבַת זְקָנוֹ עוֹלָה קָצֶף
עִם נֵרַת אֵלִים עָלִיתָ
גַּם תָּבוֹא
עִם נֵרַת אֵלִים הַשָּׁמֶשׁ
אֶל סוֹף כָּל מַיִם רַּבִּים
אֶל רֹאשׁ עַפְרוֹת כָּל אָרֶץ
רֹאשׁ כָּל דֶּרֶךְ הוֹלֶכֶת שָׁמַיִם
רֹאשׁ כָּל דֶּרֶךְ יוֹרֶדֶת שְׁאוֹל
אֶל אֱלֹהֵי רוּחוֹת יָם
קֶרֶשׁ מֶלֶךְ אַב שָׁנִים
אֲשֶׁר בְּיָדוֹ נֶפֶשׁ כָּל בָּשָׂר
לִפְעָמָיו יִשְׁתַּחוּ כָּל חָי
זֶה הַגֶּבֶר
רָאָה עֹנִי וְשִׁבטוֹ
זֶה הָאִיש חָדַל מִמַּעַשׂ
לְבֵיתוֹ – –
צֶדֶק לְפָנָיו יְהַלֵּךְ
יְפַלֵּס אָרְחוֹ מִישׁוֹר
צֶדֶק בַּמָּגֵן לְפָנָיו בָּאַשְׁמַנִּים
צֶדֶק לְפָנָיו יְהַלֵּךְ
קֶרֶב אֲפִיק תְּהֹמוֹתַיִם
קֶרֶשׁ מֶלֶךְ אַב שָׁנִים
אֲשֶׁר מִיָּדוֹ נֵזֶר בַּעַל
אֲשֶׁר מִיָּדוֹ עֹז עֲנָת
אֲשֶׁר מִיָּדוֹ חָכְמַת כּוֹשָׁר
אֲשֶׁר מִיָּדוֹ טוּב אֲשֵרָת
אֲשֶׁר מִימִינוֹ קֶרֶן בַּעַל
אֲשֶׁר מִשְֹּמֹאלוֹ כֶּבֶד מוֹת
אֵל אַדִּיר אֲבָרוֹת
מֵצֵל כַּנְפֵי עוֹלָם
הָעוֹשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט בִּתְהוֹמָיו
בָּרֵך אֶת הַבָּא אֶל עַמָּיו
אֶת נִשְׁמַת
לעוֹלָמוֹ –
צֶדֶק לְפָנָיו יְהַלֵּךְ
יְפַלֵּס אָרְחוֹ מִישׁוֹר
צֶדֶק בַּמָּגֵן לְפָנָיו בָּאַשְׁמַנִּים
צֶדֶק לְפָנָיו יְהַלֵּךְ

Abraham Sutzkever: Execution (From Yiddish)

From A Day In The Hands of the Stormtroopers

By Abraham Sutzkever
Translated by A.Z. Foreman
Click to hear me recite the original Yiddish

As I must, as they order, I'm digging a hole.
I search in the dirt for what might console. 

A dig and a cut. A small worm is shaking
Away below me. My heart is breaking. 

My spade cuts him through. Then miraculously
One severed worm is two. Then three.

Another cut: they are four. Can it be
That all these lives were created by me? 

The sun comes through the dark of my mood
A conviction sets my arm firm: 

If a worm does not succumb to the spade, 
Are you any less than a worm? 

- May 22, 1942

The Original:

אַבֿרהם סוצקעווער

גראָב איך אַ גרוב ווי מען דאַרף, ווי מען הייסט!
זוך איך בעתֿ-מעשׂה אין דר'ערד אויך אַ טרייסט.

אַ גראָב און אַ שניט, און אַ ווערעמל קליין
נעמט צאַפּלען פֿון אונטן – דאָס האַרץ קען צעגיין.

צעשנײַדט אים מײַן רידל, און וואונדער דערבײַ:
צעשניטערהייט ווערן צוויי, ווערן דרײַ:

און ווײַטער אַ שניט, ווערן דרײַ, ווערן פֿיר:
און אַלע די לעבנס באַשאַפֿן דורך מיר?

קומט ווידער די זון אין מײַן טונקל געמיט
און אַ גלויבן נעמט שטאַרקן מײַן אָרעם:

אויב אַ ווערעמל גיט זיך ניט אונטער דעם שניט,
ביסטו ווינציקער דען פֿון אַ וואָרעם?

Abraham Schwartz: Among the Sick (From Hebrew)

Abraham Samuel Schwartz (1876-1957) spent the majority of his life as a medical doctor with a busy practice in the Jewish neighborhoods of Brooklyn, until retiring at the age of 77. He was the elder brother of Israel Jacob Schwartz, the Yiddish modernist poet and translator (author, incidentally, of קענטאָקי Kentucky, a Yiddish epic about the adaptation of Lithuanian Jews to life in rural America. You can download it in Yiddish here.)

He was born outside Vilnius, in Lithuania. His father was a learned Hebrew scholar, and Schwartz himself quickly excelled in Talmudic studies. He broke with tradition when he discovered secular literature, first in Yiddish and Hebrew, then in Russian. He arrived in New York at the age of 24 (followed by his brother four years later) with the hope of making his living with literary work, but soon found this impossible. He obtained a medical degree, and thereafter began his practice. He continued to write poetry during spare moments of respite from tending the ill.

His style, however, was out of step with the dominant trends of Hebrew verse outside the US. The fact that, like most American Hebrew poets of the period, he never abandoned his Ashkenazi Hebrew dialect in verse, was a major strike against him. The fact that he stood quite apart from dominant trends of Hebrew modernism also sealed the fate of his reception.

Schwartz's work, rejected by publishers never saw the light of day in his lifetime. Two years after his death, it took the combined sympathies and effort of Zalman Shazar and Simon Halkin to see a single (and thus far the only) volume of his work to publication in Israel.

Aspects of sound-play relying on Ashkenazic Hebrew can be found in the poem translated here. For example, חולים sick and חולם dreaming may sound somewhat similar in Israeli Hebrew but they are more so in Ashkenazic, and in some registers and dialects of Ashkenazic they are identical. Schwartz himself may have pronounced both identically.

Among the Sick
By Abraham Samuel Schwartz
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

I walk among the sick as I have ever done: in pain
Lies Susie silent, thin and delicate.
And her emaciated face exudes her childhood grace
And charm. But her white blood cells seal her fate. 

It gladdens me to see a wakeful smile on Leah's lips. 
She's been asleep in fever all week long.  
Although her heart disease is chronic, and there is no cure,
If she takes better care, she might live long.

I'm satisfied with seventy-year-old Spiegel. He has stopped
Vomiting blood. His appetite is back. 
His stomach growths have turned out to be non-malignant ulcers
Which medicine can easily combat.  

I pause with Schur, a young man with deep eyes. He dreams of light,
For all the blood occlusion in his heart.
He asks "Doc, isn't it my time already to get up"
I lie "A little while and then you'll start."

Sometimes I stop and suddenly hear a repressed thought
That taunts me in my heart and whispers: "this
Whole world of yours is hanging by a hair above
The screaming depths of an abyss. 

You're like a man who plays the seer with fate of hidden worlds,
Hovering between great hope and dread.
You weigh with a physician's balance: will he live or die? 
You're day-full, tired of lives being swept off to the dead. 

You're pleased that with your mighty effort you can paste together
Some scattered shards of the frail human urn,
So that it can contain a few more stolen drops of life
Before fate's mysteries shatter it in turn? 

What of the pain in your own heart, what of your tear for that
Dreamer of light when light departs his eye,
And for the charming girl who soon will be the food of worms,
If all of humankind were soon to die?"

The Original:

בֵּין חוֹלִים

בֵּין חוֹלִים בְּהִתְהַלְּכִי כִּתְמוֹל שִׁלְשׁוֹם: כּוֹאֵב
עַל סוּזִי הַשַּׁתְקָנִית הָעֲדִינָה,
שֶׁמִּתּוֹךְ רְזוֹן פָּנֶיהָ חֵן יַלְדוּתִי רוֹעֵף,
אַךְ לֹבֶן־דָּמָהּ חָתַם אֶת גְּזַר־דִּינָהּ;

שָׂמֵחַ מְאֹד בְּבַת הַצְּחוֹק עַל שִׂפְתֵי לֵאָה
שֶׁנִּרְדְּמָה מֵחֹם שָׁבוּעַ תָּמִים,
וְאִם מַחֲלַת לִבָּהּ מַחֲלַת־תָּמִיד וְאֵין גֵּהָה,
אִם רַק תִּזָּהֵר אוּלַי תַּאֲרִיךְ יָמִים;

שְׂבַע רָצוֹן, כִּי כְבָר חָדַל שְׁפִּיגְל בֶּן הַשִּׁבְעִים
מֵהָקִיא דָם וְתַאֲבוֹן־אֹכֶל שָׁב לוֹ,
כִּי אֵין כָּל גִּדּוּל בִּישׁ בַּקֵּבָה לוֹ, רַק כִּיבִים,
שֶׁלְּהַגְלִידָם כֹּחַ רוֹפֵא רַב לוֹ;

מִתְעַכֵּב אֵצֶל שְׁנוּר, הַבָּחוּר עֲמֹק הָעַיִן,
חַחוֹלֵם אוֹר, אַךְ נִרְפַּשׁ דַּם לְבָבוֹ,
הַשּׁוֹאֵל: ״דַּק׳, הֲלָקוּם לִי לֹא בָּא עֲדַיִן
הַתּוֹר?״ אֲנִי מְשַׁקֵּר: ״עוֹד מְעַט וְיָבוֹא!״ — 

יֵשׁ פִּתְאֹם אֲשֶׁר אֶעֱמֹד אֶשְׁמַע הִרְהוּר כָּלוּא,
הַלּוֹחֵשׁ לִי בַּלֵּב וְכֻלּוֹ לוֹעֵג:
״בְּחוּט הַשַּׂעֲרָה כָּל הָעוֹלָם כֻּלּוֹ תָּלוּי
עַל עֶבְרֵי תְּהוֹם אֲבַדּוֹן שׁוֹאֵג —

וְאַתָּה פֹּה כִּמְנַחֵשׁ גּוֹרַל שַׁ״י עוֹלָמוֹת,
בֵּין פַּחַד וּבֵין תִּקְוָה רַבָּה מְרַחֵף,
בְּמֹאזְנֵי רוֹפְאִים תִּשְׁקֹל: הַיְחִי אוֹ יָמוּת
שְׂבַע יָמִים, עֲיֵף חַיִּים שֶׁנִּסְתַּחֵף.

וְתִשְׂמַח מְאֹד אִם חַרְסֵי־אָדָם הָעֲזוּבִים
תְּאַחֶה בְּרֹב עָמָל עוֹד לְכֶלִי,
הַטּוֹב לְהָכִיל מִסְפַּר נִטְפֵי חַיִּים גְּנוּבִים
בְּטֶרֶם יְנַפְּצֵהוּ גוֹרָל פֶּלִאי,

 וּמַה לְּמַכְאוֹב לִבְּךָ פְּנִימָה, מַה לַּדִּמְעָה
עַל חוֹלֵם אוֹר שֶׁעוֹד מְעַט וְנָדָם,
עַל יַלְדַּת חֵן שֶׁעוֹד מְעַט תֹּאכְלֶנָּה רִמָּה,
אִם עוֹד מְעַט וְאָבַד כָּל הָאָדָם?

Annabelle Farmelant: The Circus (From Hebrew)

The Circus
By Annabelle Farmelant
Translated by A.Z. Foreman

I have grown tame cat claws.
When the wheel revolves for my next incarnation
I will return
As a lion.
I will re-turn time to circa the Roman circus
And they will set me loose in the ring. 
All beasts walk on two feet
And I will dig my claws into the flesh of all
The numbhearts, and the numskulls
And puke my shame in their faces. 
A typical shame I swallowed in secret.
The snow has long melted
The snowdrop long died out
But I can never blacken even the name
Of shame
So typical, so pure and bright. 
You the numbhearts and numskulls
With hearts once ocean-vast
Shrank back into the muck of stupidity,
Minds brilliant
As adamant gemstones
Switched to bogus rhinestones
That used to be the cornerstone
Of Empire. 
Now shout not: "Ave, long live Caesar!" 
His stoney pity
Shall never be moved. 
Shout not: "Ave, long live Caesar!"
All the Caesars are long dead. 
When the next revolution cycles
The wheel will run faster, and the corner
Stone will spin
Together with Empire
You'll be a tail, a chariot
Dragged on and on
While the buffoon in jest arises
To the throne.

The Original:

חנה פרמילנט

גִּדַּלְתִּי לִי צִפָּרְנַיִם חֲתוּלִיּוֹת. 
בַּגִּלְגּוּל הַשֵּׁנִי אֶתְגַּלְגַּל
וְאַהָפֵךְ לְלָבִיא. 
אֶתְגַּלְגֵּל אֲּחוֹרַנִּית לַקִּרְקָס הָרוֹמִי.
וְיַשְׁלִיכוּ לִי לַזִּירָה
כָּל הַחַיּוֹת עַלשְׁתַּיִם הוֹלְכוֹת
וְאֶנְעַץ צִפָּרְנִי בִּבְשַׂר כָּל
קְטַנֵּי הַמֹּחַ וּקְטַנֵּי הלֵּב
וְאָקִיא בִּפְנֵיהֶם אֶת עֶלְבּוֹנִי. 
הָעֶלְבּוֹן הַסְּתָמִי שֶׁחֶרֶשׁ בָּלַעְתִּי
הַשֶּׁלֶג זֶ כְּבָר נָמֵס,
וְהַשִּׁלְגִּית גָּוְעָה
וְלֹא יָכֹלְתִּי לְהַשְׁחיר עֶלְבּוֹן
הַסְּתָמִי הַצָּחוֹר. 
קְטַנֵּי מֹחַ, וּקְטַנֵּי לֵב
לְבָבוֹת רְחָבִים כְּיָם
כִּוַּצְתֶּם בִּיוֵן אִוַּלְתְּכֶם
וּמֹחוֹת מַבְרִיקִים
הֶחְלַפְתֶּם בְּאֶבֶן מְזֻיֶּפֶת
שֶׁשִּׁמְּשָׁה אֶבֶן רֹאשָׁה
עַתָּה לֹא תִּצְעֲקוּ ”יְחִי הַקֵּיסָר“
כִּי רַחֲמָיו הַמְאֻבָּנים
מֵעוֹלָם לֹא נִכְםְרוּ
לֹא תִּצְעֲקוּ  ”יְחִי הַקֵּיסָר“
כִּי כָּל הַקֵּיסָרִים מֵתוּ. 
וּבַגִּלְגּוּל הַשֵּׁנִי הַגַּלְגַּל
יִסְתּוֹבֵב מַהֵר, וְאֶבֶן
הָרֹאשָׁה תִּסְתַּחְרֵר
יַחַד עִם הָאִימְפֶּרְיֶה
תִּהְיֶה לְזָנָב, גְּרָרָה
וְהַמּוּקְיוֹן בִּצְחוֹק יַעֲלֶה
עַל כֵּס הַכָּבוֹד. 
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