Anglo translators / Third in a series / Keeping it rough around the edges
How do you make a anarchic Hebrew poem full of biblical allusions work in English? Linda Zisquit seems to have it figured out.
Translating works of creative prose from Hebrew into English can be difficult, but when it comes to making poems sing in another language, the challenge is manifold.
Translating early Israel's enfant terrible Yona Wallach, Jewish pluralist pioneer Rivka Miriam and even the Biblical Book of Ruth have established Jerusalem's Linda Zisquit as a go-to interpreter when the works of Israel's premier poets need to be rendered into English.
An abiding love for poetry characterized Zisquit's early years in Buffalo, New York, where she was streamed into high school enrichment classes that introduced her to Beat Movement and Black Mountain poet Robert Creeley. Zisquit admits that she began translating verse even before she had a strong command of Hebrew. That's because she didn't seek out the work; rather, she says, "they chose me."
Zisquit spent a brief bout in Israel in the early 1970s with her husband, Donald Zisquit, whom she had met in graduate school at Harvard University.
But the vulnerability she felt upon the birth of their first child, when she couldn't fully communicate her wishes in Hebrew to the delivering doctor, led her to return to the United States.
After five years in the U.S., in 1978, Donald paved their way back to Israel with a pilot trip, delivering letters of introduction for Zisquit, who had been writing poetry, to some of the country's most respected sonneteers.
Upon the day of their re-arrival at a Jerusalem-area Absorption Center, Zisquit received an invitation from one of those art scenesters to a house party where she was initiated and warmly welcomed by local literary figures. At that soiree, the editors of an American journal dedicated to Israeli writers asked her if she would translate two of Yona Wallach's poems.
"I was totally intimidated by their request, because my Hebrew was so elementary. I was about to start studying at an ulpan," said Zisquit. "But I was compelled somehow to do it, and over the next year as I learned Hebrew, I translated those two poems."
Donald, who was already fluent in Hebrew, helped her work her way up to speed. "The translation took on part of my daily life," she said. "It was a challenge, it was a way of learning."
To improve her mastery of Hebrew, Zisquit assigned herself additional poems, eventually churning out two books worth, definitive collections of wild child Wallach, whose works scandalized the still-young nation. Although they lived their lives very differently, Zisquit says she was inspired by Wallach's ideological irreverence.
"I found myself very moved by it, very challenged by [Wallach's poetry], because she not only freed what they called 'the Israeli psyche', and broke a lot of taboos around religion - social taboos - but also the language," she said. "Linguistically, she was very experimental, almost transgendered. She cross-dressed in her poetry: sometimes male, sometimes female, sometimes both, you don't know who's speaking."
Though Wallach's lexical anarchy makes for great poetry, it complicates the mission of the translator, who must convey the chaos faithfully, yet clearly.
"Just as one breaks rules when one is writing poetry - it's all about rule breaking - often translators try to smooth out the bumps in translation," said Zisquit. "Whereas, what I learned with Wallach - because so much of her poetry is experimental, and it's jarring and jolting, and it forces us to think - to smooth it out would remove what makes it so distinctive."
Michael Kramer, a professor of English and creative writing at Bar-Ilan University, admires Zisquit for her ability to transmute lyrics across languages.
"The ultimate difficulty with translating Hebrew into English is the near-impossibility of rendering of the nuances of allusion. Hebrew bears with it so much allusion to the Bible and to the classical texts and prayer. It's just an extraordinary challenge to render that successfully," he said.
Whether translating Wallach or Miriam or any other songstress, the embedded multi-layered meanings of Hebrew can't be perfectly converted into any other tongue, says Kramer. So the intelligent alternative is to transpose it to another verbal register, he says. "What she ends up creating are very, very elegant English poems that echo and reflect the Hebrew more than trying too hard to render it," said Kramer. "She doesn't ignore the meaning to get the spirit."
If her translated output over the last three decades hasn't been exactly voluminous, it's because she has been busy straddling several careers paths simultaneously. Zisquit has had collections of her own poetry in English published, and has also taught writing, poetry and translation to students at Bar-Ilan and Ivy League exchange students from the U.S.
Zisquit and her husband raised their brood of five children in Jerusalem's Anglo-heavy German Colony for the last 30 years, becoming featured mainstays, and in the last few years, their home has also doubled as a permanent art gallery to the public, where Zisquit showcases the paintings of up-and-coming Israeli artists.
Now a grandmother of nine, Zisquit says she spends her days focusing on her own poetry, which deals with human relationships: "Loss, longing, betrayal of some kind that we're trying to work through, mistakes that I've made."
Though her calendar is full, Zisquit admits that she is always open to being swept up by an especially tempting translation offer.
"I guess if something comes up that really stimulates me and provokes me in some way I would take it on," she said.